Every era has the drugs that define it. The Victorians embraced opium for relaxation and cocaine-infused wine for pep. Post-Second World War businessmen had Martini lunches, their disaffected housewives had Valium; both indulged in amphetamine-laced pills. Today, Adderall provides the same focus and confidence of yesterday’s stimulants, while opioid pharmaceuticals fill our bathroom cabinets.

There are countless reasons people take drugs. To wake up. To fall asleep. To concentrate. To dissociate. To numb pain. To enhance pleasure. But the need that psychedelics meet is hard to pinpoint. Is it to commune with others? Connect with a higher power? Delve deep inside? All of the above?

Whatever the reason, LSD has become inextricably connected to the zeitgeist of the sixties as the first psychedelic to attain popularity in western civilization. Devotees felt it allowed them to understand the world in a completely new way. It didn’t just make you feel good, it made everything glow with significance. As LSD’s inventor Albert Hofman put it: “I felt that I saw the world as it really was.”

If we were to look for a drug that defined our culture today, it may very well be N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. First synthesized by chemist Richard Manske in 1931, its psychoactive effects were discovered in 1956 by psychiatrist Stephen Szára who identified DMT as the active ingredient in snuffs used in South American religious ceremonies. Yet, even as LSD skimmed the mainstream in the psychedelic sixties, DMT was only used recreationally by the most adventurous drug enthusiasts.

Of those who had tried it, 24 percent reported it was the most recent new drug they had tried — far higher than other psychedelics and twice the number who’d tried LSD for the first time.

“DMT is a bit of the ‘new kid on the block’ right now, despite having been around for so long,” says psychiatrist Professor Adam Winstock of University College London, founder of the Global Drug Survey, which annually captures trends in recreational drug use based on anonymous information from over 100,000 people worldwide.

In 2014, Prof Winstock published the first study ever on DMT use, finding that almost 9 percent of survey respondents had used DMT, and 5 percent had used it in the past year. Of those who had tried it, 24 percent reported it was the most recent new drug they had tried — far higher than other psychedelics and twice the number who’d tried LSD for the first time.

“It offers something different than other psychedelics,” says Prof Winstock. “It has a totally different effect profile compared to LSD or mushrooms. It has a quick onset, short action, and is super intense and very weird — often in a good way.”

Fans report visions of angels, visits from long-lost loved ones, romps with aliens, adventures with elves or simply feelings of inner peace, complete ego loss, and oneness with the universe. If LSD opens the doors of perception, DMT blows them off their hinges. And while an LSD trip lasts six to eight hours, the journey into DMT space lasts just fifteen intense minutes.

DMT is also the active component in ayahuasca, the now fashionable traditional Amazonian brew that combines a DMT-containing plant (usually chacruna, or Psychotria viridis) with the vine Banisteriopsis caapi. The latter is crucial because it contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors — chemicals which prevent DMT being broken down naturally by the body’s enzymes and so allow DMT to take effect for several hours.

It’s estimated that every weekend at least 100 ayahuasca ritual gatherings take place in Manhattan alone. And though smoking DMT raw might seem insurmountably intimidating, 92 percent of respondents in the Global Drug Survey who had tried DMT had done just that — largely thanks to the rise in vape pens.

“I did a book signing at a Shpongle gig recently, and there was a stronger smell of DMT coming from the dance floor than marijuana,” laughs Dr. Rick Strassman, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, who made DMT famous with his book The Spirit Molecule in 2000 and a documentary of the same title a decade later.

“On the street, it’s still a bit of a niche drug — but it’s definitely being used a little more casually than one would wish. Probably twice a year, I get an email from a parent with a subject line that reads, ‘My Son and Your Book’, and I shudder — because inevitably the email describes a kid who smoked more and more of it, convinced they had broken the code to reality.”

DMT was around in the sixties but just wasn’t popular, says Erik Davis, author, journalist and host of the podcast Expanding Mind. You’ll find reports of the Merry Pranksters taking DMT in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), so it was available to those in the know. “Leary tried it, Kesey tried it, the Grateful Dead tried it — but most people just didn’t like it,” says Davis. Legendary drug enthusiast Hunter S. Thompson went so far as to despise it, declaring “One whiff of that shit would turn you into something out of a goddamn medical encyclopedia!”

In the seventies, DMT use was rare, but it became known as the “businessman’s coffee break” because it allowed suits to escape to another world for fifteen minutes and return to their desks with a clear head. Its reputation began to shift in the eighties when famed psychonaut Terence McKenna started evangelizing about it, pronouncing: “Can you die from taking DMT? Only if you can die of astonishment!”

“There is something ‘techy’ about the experience for many people: virtual realities, information density, interdimensional wormholes.”

Research into psychedelics and humans was stopped when LSD possession was made illegal in the U.S. in October 1968. By the time Strassman began studying DMT in 1990, he was the first scientist in 32 years allowed to research the psychological effects of psychedelics — and though it’s often said that other people’s drug experiences can be boring, Strassman’s records of adventures with wise aliens, machine elves, and benevolent spirits have proved enticing for many.

His work introduced a much wider audience to DMT, and his experiments with healthy human subjects laid to rest fears the drug could cause permanent insanity. The books PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (1991) and TiHKAL: The Continuation (1999) by legendary chemist Alexander Shulgin (the man who gave us MDMA) taught more people about the drug’s effects — as well as how to make it.

“DMT became a symbol of not just psychedelic possibility but also sci-fi possibilities,” says Davis. “There is something ‘techy’ about the experience for many people: virtual realities, information density, interdimensional wormholes. Today, the material is far more available, and now stock brokers and corporate heads of HR are taking it.”

DMT is certainly having its moment in the sun. While jazz musicians in the fifties were known to say “ain’t got no funk if you ain’t got no junk”, today Flying Lotus — grand-nephew of jazz pianist Alice Coltrane who was married to John Coltrane — implores audiences to chant “Deeee Emmmm TEEEEE!!!!” in accompaniment to a track simply titled “DMT Song.”

PhD candidate Christopher Timmermann of Imperial College in London thinks the popularity of DMT says something powerful about the times in which we live. “Because DMT gives you the full sense of emerging into an alternate reality, it is in a way resonant with the ‘spirit of the age’ — the need to escape our current situation,” he says.

In August of 2018, his study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology documented what DMT trips share in common with “near death experiences”. After injecting people with DMT and examining their brains with MRI scanners, his subjects consistently reported experiences as being “realer than real”, described “oceanic feelings” and “feelings of peace.” Most curiously, several described “entity experiences” where they felt connected to a sentient being like an angel, or an alien.

“DMT is not addictive in the traditional sense — but people can fall in love with that vision of an alternate reality,” he says. “They seem more tangible than everyday reality, which can feel more uncertain than ever right now. I honestly think the drug’s rise might have to do with a crisis of meaning.”

While mushrooms and acid are often embraced as a collective activity best enjoyed with other wide-eyed friends, DMT is a solitary adventure. It transports you into a world that belongs to you alone.

Retired pharmacologist Professor David Nichols — who in 1993 established the Heffter Research Institute to explore how psilocybin could help treat anxiety, addiction, and depression — agrees. “There is a truth in that people are bereft of spiritual connection and ritual right now — humans have a basic need to feel that their life has some meaning,” he says. And in a world where the church has less and less influence, a chemical that fills that vacuum has enormous appeal.

DMT has also intrigued its devotees because it is the only endogenous psychedelic — one produced by the human body itself in a tiny, solitary organ above the roof of the mouth called the pineal gland. This organ has long fascinated scientists and philosophers. Ancient Egyptians called it “the eye of Horus,” while Descartes termed it “the seat of the soul.” It has been speculated that DMT is the chemical released in the last moments of life that can produce otherworldly experiences.

Nichols says there is no evidence for this. His recent paper explained that the main function of the pineal gland is, perhaps disappointingly, to regulate our sleep and wake cycles by producing 30 micrograms of melatonin each day. It is physiologically impossible for this organ, weighing just 0.2 grams, to produce DMT in the quantities required to produce the visions inhaled when raw chemicals are smoked with a crack pipe.

It is, Nichols believes, an irrelevant waste product naturally produced by the body’s daily chemical assembly lines. “If DMT wasn’t a psychedelic in high quantities, nobody would care about it. In the body, it probably is just an innocuous by-product.”

All drugs defined as “psychedelic” — psilocybin, LSD, 2C-B, peyote — are united by euphoria, insights, and distortions to space and time. But while mushrooms and acid are often embraced as a collective activity best enjoyed with other wide-eyed friends, DMT is a solitary adventure. It transports you into a world that belongs to you alone.

When LSD use soared in the sixties, it was an era where people were coming together to challenge authority and the Vietnam War. LSD struck a chord perhaps because it enhances the extent one feels in tune with others.

So what of DMT? It’s tempting to speculate that in a world where we spend most of our waking moments in what anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs” (data entry, telemarketing, “leadership professionals”, and the like), a drug that creates a better and more truthful version of the world could be more alluring than ever. It’s also tempting to wonder if a generation of twentysomethings glued to their phones might be more inclined toward a drug that offers a solitary experience.

The world is a mess. The polar ice caps are melting and California is on fire, yet the wheels of consumer-driven capitalism keep turning. Coral reefs and rainforests are dying, and the richest people on earth talk about relocating to Mars. And Donald Trump is President.

Perhaps the question isn’t why would young people want to escape from the terrifying surrealism of our current situation — but why wouldn’t they.