By The Open Center

We are living in the midst of a renaissance of research into psychedelic (or entheogenic) substances.

Everything you need to know about the primary psychedelic drugs.

The Report on Psychedelics provides an overview of some of the most common psychedelic drugs in terms of their origination, effects, potential efficacy in treating conditions and research being conducted.

Entheogenic vs. Synthetic Drugs

Entheogenic plants are defined as those yielding one or more chemical substances that, when ingested by humans, produces a “nonordinary state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes.” Here the entheogenic plants surveyed include ayahuasca and psilocybin.

Synthetic psychedelic drugs, on the contrary, are those that are construed in a laboratory setting that achieve the same results as their entheogenic cousins. The synthetic psychedelic drugs covered here include ketamine, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA).


Ayahuasca, also known as ayaguasca and aioasca, is a traditional tea that has been in use for at least a millenia in various Amazonian cultures of South America. Despite its ancient roots, this psychedelic elixir is incorporated into religious and spiritual rituals to this day. The exact discovery and origin of the ritualistic use of the powerfully mind altering effects of ayahuasca are unknown. The core psychoactive chemical within this brew is N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT.

Ayahuasca tea is a bitter beverage that sometimes manifests as a black sludge known in Peruvian cultures as “La Purga.” It is brewed using two plants: The leaves from a shrub called chacruna (Psychotria viridis) and the stalks of the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi)–both of which, in proper doses, can convey hallucinogenic properties. Ayahuasca tea trips feature a bioavailability onset period of 20-60 minutes, with a duration of two to six hours.

It is chacruna that contains the molecule DMT that is sought for its hallucinogenic prowess. The vine ayahuasca, however, contains MAO inhibitors (which interfere with an enzyme in the body to prevent the breaking down of a chemical compound) without which the DMT would merely be metabolized (digested) in the liver and gastrointestinal tract (by MAOs). Without the ayahuasca vine’s properties, the DMT delivered by the chacruna shrub would never become active in the bloodstream to deliver its strong psychotropic efficacy, including hallucinations and enhanced emotions.

Like sometimes occurs during consumption of psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca evokes vomiting, a characteristic that has been woven into the traditional ceremonies of many Amazonian cultures.


Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic chemical that is produced by more than 100 species of mushrooms.10 It produces psychotropic effects, hallucinations and extreme perceptual distortions. Although occurring in many mushrooms, psilocybin is most commonly harvested from the species Psilocybe cubensis.

Prehistoric murals and rock paintings uncovered in Spain and Algeria indicate that human use of psilocybin mushrooms may predate recorded history. But, psilocybin mushrooms were popularized in western culture following the 1957 publication of an article in LIFE Magazine featuring American mushroom enthusiast R. Gordon Wasson. Wasson, who discovered a Mexican tribe that used psilocybin mushrooms, collected a sample and provided it to Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, the scientist responsible for the synthesis of LSD. Hoffman was able to isolate and synthesize the compound and began producing 2 mg capsules that he distributed to other researchers.

Some users of psilocybin mushrooms report spiritual experiences, with the contortion of a user’s perception of time being a common effect. This common effect of psilocybin is sometimes called “time stretch” and, in extreme cases, can result in only minutes being perceived as hours. Some users report extreme perceptions such as “time stood still.”

Psilocybin mushrooms are ingested orally, onset time ranges from 30 minutes to 2 hours and can last between 4 and 12 hours.11 Once inside the human body, psilocybin is metabolized to psilocin. It is psilocin, more precisely, that produces the psychedelic and hallucinogenic effects, a result of interactions with receptors in the brain.

Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD)

Lysergic acid diethylamide, more commonly called LSD and featuring the street names “acid” and “blotter” (among many others) is arguably the most popular psychedelic drug of the past fifty years. LSD has served as a mainstay and right of passage for teens, college students, and participants in a variety of subcultures. It is estimated that roughly 10% of Americans have tried LSD at least once in their life.

LSD was first derived from ergot, a fungus that develops on grains such as rye. First synthesized in the late 1930s, the powerful and mind altering psychedelic effects of this drug went unknown until several years later when a research chemist in Switzerland, Albert Hoffman, accidentally absorbed the potent drug through his skin during the course of his laboratory work.

The unusual and pronounced effects of the drug so enticed the researcher’s curiosity that he elected to self-experiment three days later. This first LSD trip, which has become immortalized within psychedelic culture as Bicycle Day, occurred, in large part, during Hoffman’s bicycle commute home from work on April 19, 1943.

During the 1950s and 1960s, LSD was sold as a pharmaceutical drug under the name Delysid.

LSD trips are typically characterized by mental and visual hallucinations. Bioavailability onset is 30-60 minutes, with a duration of up to 12 hours. LSD is ingested orally via capsule or tablet, a moderate dosage is produced at 1 to 3 micrograms/kg body weight.6

Medicinal efficacies of LSD currently or in the past under investigation include treatment of anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol dependence, cluster headaches, Alzheimer’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Potential negative side effects that occur in some users of this drug include anxiety, delusions and paranoia.

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, is a popular psychedelic drug that is commonly used within party and rave subcultures. Also known by the street names “ecstasy,” “molly,” and “the hug drug,” this particular synthetic chemical imparts feelings of sometimes intense empathy and joy combined with increased energy levels.

Anton Kollisch, a scientist at the German pharmaceutical company Merck, first synthesized MDMA in 1912 when attempting to develop a vasoconstrictor drug.

After gaining massive popularity on the underground, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 1985 declared an emergency ban on MDMA, giving it Schedule I status along with a long list of other psychedelic drugs, including LSD.

In 2016, it was estimated that 21 million people around the world between the ages of 15 and 64 used MDMA as a recreational drug. In the United States, about 7% of the population is believed to have experimented with MDMA.

MDMA features a bioavailability onset of 30 to 45 minutes (when consumed orally) and a duration of three to six hours. It is typically consumed orally in a pressed tablet form or nasally in a powdered format. Studies show doses range from 50mgs to 150mgs. Desired effects include arousal, sensual enhancement, feelings of euphoria, and emotional closeness to others.

Research indicates that MDMA may be helpful for those suffering PTSD to overcome the often debilitating condition. It is theorized that the joy and empathy experienced by MDMA users may be pivotal to their ability to face their fears and directly address the memories fueling their condition and triggering episodes. If traumatic memories can be addressed in the absence of overwhelming fear and paranoia, it is theorized that patients are then able to properly confront and deal with these painful memories, processing them and progressing beyond their disease. This style of treatment is often referred to as psychedelic assisted psychotherapy and involves a treatment protocol over a number of therapy sessions, some while dosed with MDMA, others while not.

Stay tuned for upcoming programs in psychedelics this Fall!

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