Humans have consumed substances with consciousness-altering properties for millennia. Traditional societies used them in healing rituals, initiation ceremonies and to make contact with the gods and the dead, among other practices. Today they are known as psychedelics, and include the naturally occurring compounds psilocybin (found in ‘magic mushrooms’), DMT and mescaline; the hallucinogenic tea Ayahuasca, used by indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin; and the hallucinogenic shrub iboga, found in West Africa.
Synthetic hallucinogenic compounds, most famously LSD, emerged in the 20th century. The synthetic ‘party drugs’ MDMA (also known as ecstasy) and ketamine (used in medicine as an anesthetic) are not technically classified as psychedelics, but they also produce consciousness-altering effects and are often considered under the same broad umbrella as the classic psychedelics.
In the industrialized West, psychedelic substances, especially LSD and magic mushrooms, burst on to the scene in the 1950s and ’60s with intense research interest in their therapeutic potential. However, an establishment backlash began in the late-1960s as the drugs became associated with the counterculture movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. Fermenting the eventual clampdown, the psychedelics-researcher-turned-evangelist Timothy Leary exhorted American youth to ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’. Tales spread of ‘bad trips’ and associated suicides, and the field of psychedelic research fell silent for decades.
If you have underlying mental health concerns or are experiencing depression, anxiety, or any medical issues, talk to a psychedelic-friendly therapist or doctor before taking substances, advises Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).
Even if you are fully fit and healthy, experts unanimously say that it’s a bad idea to take a psychedelic drug on your own, especially if it’s your first time. Ben Sessa is a psychiatrist, based in the United Kingdom, who has been researching the therapeutic effects of psychedelics for more than 15 years. He rejects the framing of the question in terms of whether it is possible to have a safe trip. ‘It’s like: “Is a knife safe or dangerous?”, it’s a ridiculous question. It’s about risk/benefit analysis.’ But he, like others, warns against journeying solo.