Psychedelics can be divided into numerous groups. Here, we present the classical serotonergic psychedelics as well as some of the non-classical ones.
Psilocybin – Magic Mushrooms
Psilocybin, or 4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine, is a compound present in specific varieties of mushrooms.
In the body, it is converted into the psychoactive psilocin within twenty to forty minutes, causing a trip usually lasting around four to six hours.
To the untrained eye, psilocybin mushrooms can be confused with poisonous ones – making mistakes in mushroom identification potentially lethal. They are found in every continent except for Antarctica, and they are an ancient fungus that have lived on earth since prehistory.
Central and South American cultures have been using psilocybin for centuries in healing rituals. Nonetheless, the compound remained virtually unknown in the Western world until 1957, when banker and amateur mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson wrote an article for Life Magazine detailing his ceremony with Maria Sabina, the Mexican priestess of mushrooms.
Afterward, mushroom tourism boomed as droves of international youths flocked to Sabina’s village, Huautla de Jiménez. Soon enough, psilocybin mushrooms would join LSD as the counterculture’s favorite psychedelic substance. Sabina eventually regretted introducing Wasson to them as she often felt that these tourists often didn’t show the mushrooms and their ceremonial usage the needed respect.
Lysergic acid diethylamide – LSD/Acid
LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide, was first synthesized in 1938. The abbreviation comes from its German name LysergSäureDiethylamid. The abbreviation is thought to have inspired The Beatles’ famous song, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
A semi-synthetic psychedelic, LSD consists of both a synthetic and natural compound – diethylamide and lysergic acid, an acid that is derived from the fungus ergot, which grows on rye and other grains. Combined, these two compounds form an extremely potent substance, with some people experiencing its psychedelic effects after consuming as little as 20 micrograms.
LSD most commonly comes in the form of a see-through liquid that is then placed on a small piece of carton paper called a blotter. Depending on the dose, the subjective effects can be dramatic. While these are comparable to those induced by other psychedelics, the extremely long duration makes LSD stand out, with trips lasting between eight to twelve hours.
Dimethyltryptamine – DMT
DMT, or N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, is a powerful psychedelic compound.
It can be made synthetically, but it is primarily derived from the Latin American Psychotria viridis shrub, one of the two main ingredients used in the psychedelic ayahuasca brew.
By itself, DMT is inactive when swallowed. This is why it is either smoked or vaporized when consumed purely, or mixed with one or more plants when drunk, as is the case with ayahuasca. When smoked, the effects are both extremely fast-acting and short-lasting, kicking in almost immediately and usually lasting less than thirty minutes. Because of this, some people refer to it as “the businessman’s trip.”
While the duration may be short, it is extremely intense, and its potent mind-altering effects have given it the nickname the Spirit Molecule.
Another thing that makes DMT stand out from other psychedelics is that it occurs naturally in both plants and animals, including humans.
5-MeO-DMT – Bufo
5-MeO-DMT, or 5-Methoxy-N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, is an extremely powerful psychedelic compound.
The shared name with DMT – another psychedelic substance better known for its use in the psychedelic ayahuasca brew – indicates that the two compounds are structurally similar. And this is correct. Except that 5-MeO-DMT has a few extra elements, explaining the additional ‘5-MeO’.
However small it may seem, this molecular difference is large enough to produce an entirely distinct outcome.
5-MeO-DMT is sometimes also called ‘the world’s most powerful psychoactive substance’. It is thought to be about five times stronger than DMT. And whereas DMT produces a visual experience, 5-MeO-DMT tends to induce an intense experience resembling a transformational near-death experience.
Another thing that sets the two substances apart is where they are found. While DMT occurs naturally in plants and animals, including in humans, 5-MeO-DMT most commonly stems from the venom of the Bufo Alvarius, or the Sonoran Desert Toad.
Ayahuasca is a potent, bitter-tasting psychedelic brew. It was first created by indigenous and mestizo tribes of the Amazon basin, who have been using it for centuries as a ceremonial healing tool.
Ayahuasca is legal in most of northern South America, and although it was originally only found in the Amazon, today, ceremonies are present around the world. Famous people who have tried it include Will Smith, Sting, and Paul Simon – with the latter being so impacted by his experience that it inspired him to write the song, Spirit Voices.
The tea’s main ingredients are the DMT-containing Psychotria viridis shrub and the monoamine oxidase inhibiting (MAOI) Banisteriopsis caapi vine.
DMT is the main psychoactive component, but due to the body’s monoamine oxidase enzymes breaking it down, its effects remain inactive when drunk. This is where the MAOI-vine comes in, letting the DMT cross the blood brain barrier to produce its psychedelic effects. Because the DMT is gradually absorbed through your stomach, the effects come on more slowly and last several hours longer than other consumption methods.
Mescaline is a natural alkaloid used for thousands of years by indigenous Mexican groups. It is found in numerous North and South American cacti, most prominently the peyote and San Pedro cacti, but it can also be man-made through chemical synthesis.
While mescaline is similar to the neurotransmitter dopamine, it also selectively binds to and activates the serotonin 2A receptor. This explains why its effects resemble classical serotonergic psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, and DMT.
Until the invention of LSD in 1938, mescaline was psychedelic research’s main focus. Amazed by the reports of the beautiful visuals and profound philosophical insights, numerous scientists and philosophers tried their hand, including French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who walked away from his experience of seeing crabs around him all the time, even while sober.
2C-B, or 4-Bromo-2,5-dimethoxyphenethylamine, is a rather novel synthetic entactogen with psychedelic properties. Entactogens, of which MDMA is a well-known example, are psychoactive substances that increase feelings of empathy and social bonding.
It was first synthesized in 1974 by biochemist and psychopharmacologist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin. On a mission to uncover as many new psychedelics as possible, he and his wife, Ann Shulgin, developed and cataloged over 230 psychoactive substances.
Inspired by his first psychedelic experience with mescaline in the 1950s, Shulgin started tinkering with its chemical structure, producing numerous new compounds, including 2C-B and the whole other 2C-x family.
Originally created to aid psychotherapy, 2C-B was considered a suitable substance due to its entactogenic effects, relatively short duration, and mild and manageable nature. Due to its euphoric and visual effects, today, it is often used as a party drug.
MDMA, or 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, is a synthetic entactogen that greatly enhances feelings of empathy and bonding. Although not a classic psychedelic due to its amphetamine base and different mechanism of action, it can induce psychedelic-like states of consciousness.
German pharmaceuticals company Merck first created MDMA in 1912, but it would be years later until a human experienced its effects. After testing 120 milligrams on himself, chemist Shulgin was so amazed that he shared it with therapist Leo Zeff.
MDMA quickly became a popular adjunct to psychotherapy, but it also appeared with increasing frequency at raves under the name of ecstasy.
While the U.S. government declared MDMA a schedule 1 drug in 1986, the tide now seems to be turning as recent drug trials have demonstrated its value in treating PTSD. MDMA has been granted the designation of a breakthrough therapy drug, which indicates that it offers improvement over currently available tools.
Ibogaine, or ibogaine hydrochloride, is a natural psychedelic, present in several plants, such as the roots of the iboga tree. It can also be chemically synthesized.
In small doses, Ibogaine acts as a mild stimulant. Large doses, on the other hand, can put a person into an intense psychedelic state.
Ibogaine’s traditional use stems from the West African Bwititribe of Gabon, who have been using it for several centuries. Besides its spiritual significance for practitioners of the Bwiti tradition, Ibogaine is also used as a treatment for people dealing with substance abuse, particularly in South American countries such as Mexico and Guatemala. Nicknamed an ‘addiction disruptor’, it is especially revered for opiate addiction as it can greatly reduce withdrawal symptoms.
While Ibogaine therapy has been proposed for other mental health conditions, such as depression and PTSD, the potentially increased cardiac risks that the substance brings along has made many researchers reluctant to actively study it.
Ketamine, or ketamine hydrochloride, is a fast-acting anesthetic with powerful dissociative effects. Although it is not a classic psychedelic, it can induce psychedelic effects.
Today, ketamine is known in many contexts, but when it was first synthesized in 1963, it was mostly used by veterinarians as an anesthetic drug. Not much later, its use in humans proliferated during the Vietnam war to treat wounded American soldiers.
In medical circles, ketamine’s effects are commonly called “dissociative anesthesia” – a state in which you are still conscious, but not aware. This is often paired with a feeling of detachment from yourself and your surroundings. These effects can also be experienced in lower doses, which is why ketamine has not only made its way to the operating and therapy room but also to the rave and club scenes – where frequent use can lead to addiction and long-term health issues.