Psychedelic drugs: Magic or menace?
People are meeting in secret to consume such substances. We speak to users about their life-changing experiences
It’s possible psilocybin drugs could soon be part of a psychiatrist’s armoury. Photograph: iStock
Down an Irish country lane in a secluded private home, men and women form two lines. Then, under the Christian Cross of Caravaca, members of the Church of Santo Daime in Ireland, all dressed in loose white clothing, dance and sing devotional music from Portuguese hymnbooks.
The group lines up for its second dose of ayahuasca, a potent and noxiously bitter tea containing the molecule dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which causes strong and intense hallucinations that users claim can bring insight, euphoria and heightened awareness. Ayahuasca is the central sacrament in their religion, combining Christian imagery with animistic descriptions of the sky, Earth and universe.
For at least 500 years and probably much longer, this noxious-tasting brew made from a combination of plants, has been used as by indigenous peoples of South America. The daime is a relatively new ritual that emerged in the border region of Brazil, Peru and Bolivia just over 100 years ago.
Martha* – friendly and shy – sidles up to me. She says that na daoine beaga – poorly translated into English as “fairies” but, in Irish folklore, representing a parallel and powerful race of supernatural beings that live alongside humans – came to her as soon as she was born. They used to flood in through her window, a stream of eternal and infinite light filled with faces and love, she tells me, adding that they are present alongside us but we cannot always see them. She told her parents and the nuns at her school. The nuns beat her. Eventually, the light had to leave as it was bringing pain to her life, she says. As an adult, she discovered the daime, and now she says this drink from the Amazon has brought the Irish sí back to her.
The Church of Santo Daime in Ireland faces a precarious future. In 2017, its leader in Ireland, Marcus McCabe, appeared in Dublin District Court on a charge of importing DMT into the country. McCabe contended that the substance is central to his religion but this was rejected by the judge, but McCabe was spared a custodial sentence.
Awareness of psychedelic drugs has mushroomed over the last decade. Groups of Irish people meet in secret to consume ayahuasca – sometimes through the daime ritual and sometimes in other ritualistic ways – or other hallucinogens. Others have one-on-one sessions where they smoke “toad”, the psychoactive venom of a bufo toad species that lives in the American and Mexican Sonoran desert. And some are taking small doses on their own steam.
Ciara Sherlock is the founder of the Psychedelic Society of Ireland, which encourages safe and responsible psychedelic use, organises regular seminars and social gatherings and promotes understanding of the science behind the drugs.
“I first tried psychedelics during a six-month student exchange in Amsterdam, where psychedelic drugs including psilocybin truffles are legal,” she says. “The shop gave me dosage information and safety guidelines. The experience of having a few trips in my apartment made me realise there were so much more to everything than I thought.”
Sherlock later went with founders of the UK Psychedelic Society and a group of 16 friends to Amsterdam for their first psychedelic retreat. “We wanted to give people a transformative experience, and we used various techniques to do this. There were sitters who didn’t take the truffles and could be there to support anyone who needed it. Now we run two retreats per month and this has become my full-time job.”
People from all over Ireland, the UK, Europe and the US have travelled to the retreats. The oldest participant is 76 and the youngest is 19.
Sherlock is upfront about the potential dangers of psychedelics (see panel) and says that one of the society’s intentions is to reduce harm and risks for people who take them.
They vet everyone who applies to go on a retreat. “We have a rigorous screening process and we reject more people than we’d like to. We send people reading about what to expect and how to prepare. I’ve never been interested in working illegally in Ireland. I know of ceremonies where people aren’t screened and then charged a fortune. Then there’s no follow-up. I have friends who are very experienced [in using psychedelics] and who been appalled at how badly some of the ceremonies in Ireland are run.”
In 2005, a 33-year-old man jumped to his death in Dublin after ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms at a party. Until that point, head shops had been openly and legally selling them for a number of years. After this, the government moved swiftly to ban them. But practitioners here are adamant that these are safe substances if used responsibly and with a sitter to look after people.
They’re not a medicine that will “fix” people, but they are a tool, Sherlock claims, for accessing and understanding what is happening internally. “But it’s vital that people are supported in integrating their psychedelic trip back into their life. This means that if you feel connected to the forest around you, you would take action to mind the environment. If it’s that you felt a connection to your mam or your family, and your experience helped you understand the root of problems with them, you’d take action to value and improve those relationships.”
Sam* is in his 30s and from the west of Ireland. “I’d call myself spiritual, in that religion is about someone telling the way, whereas in spirituality, you find your own,” he says.
Sam has had multiple experiences of ingesting the hallucinogenic substance 5-MEO DMT through smoking the dried excretions of a bufo toad. These ceremonies are organised in Ireland and involve a one-on-one session, typically lasting between 15 and 20 minutes, guided by a shaman or experienced practitioner.
“It felt like someone had unzipped the world in front of me,” says Sam of his first trip. “I felt an enormous sense of unity with everything around me, a feeling of being part of the life force – call it love, or God, or whatever. After a few seconds, I felt as though the individual that is me was being pulled apart. I am told this is the ego death but it was frightening. That fear passed and I sat in awe of everything.”
The journalist Michael Pollan, whose book How to Change Your Mind explores these drugs, has tried multiple psychedelics, but was frightened by his experience of smoking a synthetic version of toad, calling it “a horrible experience . . . one of my worst”.
Sherlock says she has seen microdosing become popular with some psychedelic drug users in Ireland
Sam says that, because this drug dissolves the ego, it can be a terrifying experience for some people. And on his second experience, he felt he was dying. “I remember kneeling on the grass, staring at this small blue flower. I felt myself leaving this life but I made my peace with it. Then I lost all connection to my surroundings and felt profoundly lost. Acceptance shifted to terror.”
I spoke to three other people who have taken to “microdosing”, a practice famously associated with young professionals in Silicon Valley which involves taking tiny amounts of psilocybin, LSD or, less often, 5-MEO, during a normal day. It is illegal, but they all say it reduced anxiety, sharpens their focus, creativity and mood while being unnoticeable in their behaviour, even at work or at family events. They say it is easy to buy the substances online.
One has taken hallucinogens in groups and also microdosed on his own. “It involved taking amounts when needed,” he says. “I don’t want to take any quantities that cause euphoria or make me feel in awe of my surroundings. Actually, they have made me feel that I can do my job better than if I hadn’t any. These tiny quantities increased my emotional awareness and, on one occasion, lifted me out of a depressive slump.”
Another has taken large doses of LSD and microdoses regularly. “A microdose usually involves taking somewhere between an eighth and a tenth of a tab (about 10-20micrograms),” he says. “I’m not looking for visuals or a rush, just a tiny altered state. I’ve noticed myself being more sensitive and open, less judgemental. It lasts for a few hours. For me, it’s replaced drink – although the people I’m in the pub with might not know I’m on a small dose of acid.”
Sherlock says she has seen microdosing become popular with some psychedelic drug users in Ireland. It carries risks, however, including that it is illegal or that people may accidentally take too much and have a full-blown trip. Also, she warns: “Because there’s so much on the internet about how they’re a ‘cure’ for depression, vulnerable people will do what it takes to get access to them.”
Prompted by his own experience, Sam became one of a growing number of westerners to travel to Iquitos – a city in the Peruvian Amazon which is accessible only by plane or boat – to take part in a legal ayahuasca ceremony. “Ayahuasca tourists can turn up unprepared and having eaten foods that react badly with the liquid,” he says. “I lied about how much I’d been partying and the first experience was extremely challenging. At the second, I lay on a mattress in a darkened room, with a bucket beside me for purging. The space is structured for you to trip, or close your eyes and watch a movie in your head.”
Ayahuasca has been consumed by indigenous people for generations, but the tourist boom has led to issues, where criminals can exploit or sexually assault travellers. There have been at least five ayahuasca-related tourist deaths in Peru alone since 2015.
For Sherlock, however, the benefits are life-changing. “I was always mentally well, happy and upbeat. Last year, my best friend died suddenly. A part of me felt lost. I went to India on a trip we had been supposed to take together. I went to Varanasi, where they burn dead bodies on the banks of the Ganges. I spent five days watching people being cremated and crying a lot.
“Then, I flew to Goa, where we were supposed to go together. I took my biggest ever dose of mushrooms in a little house in the jungle and turned on a playlist. I felt myself physically dissolve. I became everything and, within everything, he was there. I cried and cried and cried for eternity, cried grief for me and him and everyone and every living being that has ever died. He held me and told me it was all okay. I realised that while bodies and things die, we remain part of the universe’s energy. I wasn’t better, and there was more work to do well over a month later, but I began to see colours again. I felt what it is to be alive where there is death and tragedy but also love and light.”
*Names have been changed
Psychedelics: the dangers and potential benefits
Psychedelic drugs were banned in most countries by the 1970s, and scientific research into them ground to a halt. Since 2006, however, researchers in the Psychedelic Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore have been investigating the use of psychedelics, particularly psilocybin. Elsewhere, researchers are exploring the effects of DMT, salvia, iboga and other psychoactive substances.
Studies in the US, Israel, Switzerland, UK and elsewhere suggest that psychedelics may be an effective treatment for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and addiction. They can also relieve anxiety felt by people facing a terminal diagnosis.
One UK study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, found that eight of 12 patients who participated in the trial were free of long-term depression after one week of psilocybin treatment. Three months later, only five were in full remission. However, critics of the study point out that people undergoing a psychedelic experience are extremely suggestible.
In 2016, a randomised and double-blind study at the same university found that psilocybin produced substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety with life-threatening cancer. The small number of participants in some of the studies, however, make false positives more likely.
Psychedelics can have serious downsides. In 2017, Dutch psychiatrists and addiction experts warned that people who are psychologically unstable or have serious mental health problems could react badly to them. In some cases, people can experience distressing flashbacks.
There’s ongoing concern among some clinicians that they could trigger or exacerbate existing mental illnesses, although other research suggests psychedelics do not present an elevated risk for mental illness.
Vulnerable users could lose control of their actions, undertake extremely risky behaviours – such as thinking they can fly or that cars can pass through them – and possibly die. Long-term use triggers tolerance which means users have to take higher doses to feel an effect.
Psychedelics become more dangerous when mixed with anti-depressant medications, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, alcohol or other recreational drugs. And people picking wild “magic” mushrooms can very easily confuse it with a similar-looking, highly poisonous and fatal fungus. Doctors warnthat not all patients will respond well to these drugs, while perhaps the biggest danger is that the publicity around them could prompt people with depression to self-medicate and potentially exacerbate their problem.
Meanwhile, researchers at Johns Hopkins have recommended rescheduling psilocybin from a class A drug, provided it clears stage three trials. It’s possible these drugs could soon be part of a psychiatrist’s armoury.