Psychedelic drugs have been used for millennia and had a variety of purposes. Psychedelics alter the user’s perception of reality by affecting the serotonin receptors in the brain. Psychedelics have a dramatic focusing effect, and tremendously increase perception. Despite years of extensive research scientists still do not understand precisely how psychedelics work. Yet the medicinal and therapeutic properties of these substances continue to fascinate medical professionals and psychologists alike. To understand this fascination you need knowledge of the history of psychedelic drugs, including what psychedelics are, and their usage from ancient times until today.
What are Psychedelics?
The word psychedelic comes from the Greek words psyche, meaning “soul” or “mind”, and delein, meaning “to manifest.” The word was originally created in the 1950s by psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond. He believed psychedelics could access the human soul and unlock latent potential in the human mind. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, psychedelics are an informal classification of drugs including certain natural and synthesized hallucinogens, all dissociatives (which are similar to hallucinogens, but have more potent effects related to disconnection from reality), and cannabinoids. Some of these include:
- Ketamine, and
Psychedelics in ancient times
Archaeological evidence has shown the use of naturally occurring psychedelic substances as early as 3500 B.C. Ancient people used substances primarily for religious ceremonies and for treatment of pain and mental disorders. Many ancient cultures around the world would use these substances but the predominant usage appears to have been in Central and South America, and what is now the southwestern United States. The psychedelics used include:
- Peyote, San Pedro, and Peruvian Torch, a collection of cacti that contains the hallucinogen mescaline and are either infused into water or alcohol (known as Mescal), or dried and smoked;
- Morning Glory, a flowering vine that was used as a laxative, and smoked or chewed in specific ceremonies;
- Psilocybin, a type of mushroom native to Central and South America that was ingested to treat pain, participate in religious ceremonies, or prepare for battle;
- Cannabis, which is most commonly obtained from marijuana, and which contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a very mild psychedelic;
- Ayahuasca, a collection of plants from the Amazon rain forest that are brewed into a tea and contain the most potent psychedelic, DMT; and
- Salvia, a dissociative whose leaves are chewed, smoked, or infused into a liquid.
The types and uses of psychedelics remained relatively unchanged until the early 20th century. At this point psychiatric medicine saw a surge in popularity, and psychedelics took on a new significance.
Psychedelics from the 1900s through the 1950s
In 1938, a chemist named Albert Hoffman, while working in a pharmaceutical factory, created d-lysergic acid diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD. After being the first test subject for his creation in the mid-1940s, Hoffman published his methodology and the mind-altering effects of LSD in scientific journals. Psychiatrists began testing its effectiveness in treating psychological disorders and chemical dependence. Some of the disorders that were successfully treated with LSD included:
- opium addiction,
- manic-depression, and
- multiple-personality disorder.
During this time, Doctors tested the natural psychedelics listed above in psychiatric treatment to varying success. Other synthetic psychedelics were created and tested for a variety of purposes. These included:
- Phencyclidine, which is more commonly known as PCP and was used as a surgical anesthetic in the 1950s;
- Dextromethorphan, also known as DMX, which is a cough suppressant and expectorant;
- Ketamine, which was originally used as an antidepressant, and is still used as a sedative in people or (more often) animals; and
- Methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA), a mild dissociative which was developed in the early 1900s and is currently used to treat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but was originally intended to be (though never marketed as) a diet pill.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, psychedelics continued to gain in popularity and use by medical professionals across a broad range of disciplines. Then, everything changed.
Psychedelics in the 1960s and 1970s
Psychedelic research reached its peak in the 1960s. The works of people like Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (also known as Ram Dass), and Alan Watts are widely quoted, even today. Their popularity led to a near celebrity status, and their advancements in altered states of consciousness are vast. However, at that particular time in history there was another movement.
The “hippie” counterculture also emerged in the 1960s as an anti-government and anti-authority act of rebellion. The hippie counterculture also began the widespread recreational use of psychedelics, mainly LSD. State and federal authorities, in an effort to stop the spread of anti-government sentiment and the use of psychedelics took drastic action.
They declared LSD an illegal substance, and banned from research, in 1967. Then, in 1970, the Controlled Substances Act was passed by Congress. This effectively made all psychedelics illegal, and stopped research and treatment with these drugs. This remained the case until the 1990s, when Congress deregulated the bans on psychedelics for the specific purpose of medical research.
The laws banning psychedelics did not stop their use. This created a new criminal culture that revolved around their production, sale, and use. This criminal culture exists today. Recreational psychedelic use has become very dangerous. The creation of designer “party” drugs as part of the rave music culture of the 1990s and 2000s largely contributed to the danger. These drugs are unregulated, unresearched and often adulterated with any number of potentially harmful substances. They rapidly became a leading cause of psychosis and death among adolescents and young adults. Some of these designer drugs include:
- Ecstasy (also known as “E”, “X”, and XTC), which includes all of the dissociative MDxx drugs such as MDMA, MDA, MDE, and MDX;
- Methoxetamine, which is a ketamine derived dissociative also known as MXE;
- 2C-B, which is a synthetic mescaline; and
- 2C-I, which is a dissociative unrelated to 2C-B, derived from the chemical makeup of psilocybin, and commonly referred to as “smiles”.
More and more of these designer drugs are being created all of the time. This does not mean all psychedelics are bad. According to the California Institute of Integral Studies, there is new research suggesting psychedelics are more effective than any other known means of treating PTSD, depression, and mood disorders. The history of psychedelic drugs is a long one. By studying psychedelics throughout history, patterns of creation and use are seen. These patterns help people to understand the drug use of today.