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Exploring the Psychedelic Menu
How to choose the right substance, what to expect, why there is no "hierarchy of psychedelics" and which medicines we should avoid
There are quite a few new faces here (welcome!) so I thought it would be great to do a beginner-friendly introduction to the different psychedelics this week.
The psychedelic menu consists of both '“plant medicines” such as psilocybin (magic mushrooms), mescaline (cacti such as San Pedro and Peyote), and DMT-based brews such as Ayahuasca, as well as synthetic compounds such as LSD and MDMA. Then, of course, there are also synthetic versions of naturally occurring compounds such as DMT, 5-meO-DMT, psilocybin, ibogaine, etc.
With so much variety to choose from, how do you know which medicine is right for your needs? Today, you’ll gain a better understanding of how the different psychedelics compare, which ones may be the best fit based on your intentions, and which ones are better to avoid.
Natural vs. Synthetic Compounds
There’s been a long-standing debate around whether natural or synthetic psychedelics are superior — and if there is any difference at all.
To investigate this question, there are a few elements to consider: source, effect, potency, and sustainability & ethics.
Many advocate for plant medicines exclusively because the argument is that if it comes from earth, it’s meant to be here (and accessible to humans).
Let’s not forget, however, that even synthetics like LSD come from earth. LSD is derived from a fungus called ergot. All chemistry is derived from something that already existed in our natural environment. While I understand the argument that “natural is better”, it’s also more nuanced than things simply being natural or unnatural.
The more relevant question here would be: Do plant medicines have spirits? If they do, what role do these spirits play in the experience (and with that, what happens when we take them away?). I couldn’t possibly imagine a synthetic ayahuasca experience because the presence of the plant spirit is so dominant, but how do we know that the plant spirit isn’t able to extend beyond an individual physical plant (we’re talking about unity consciousness here, after all). What do you think?
Another big question is whether journeys with synthetics feel different than journeys with naturally-occurring plant medicine. The only fair comparison here is to compare apples to apples, i.e., psilocybin mushrooms to synthetic psilocybin, or Bufo toad venom to synthetic 5-meO-DMT. Personally, I’ve done none of these comparisons so I cannot speak myself, but people can’t seem to agree.
Opinions differ, but many cannot observe a noticeable difference. Many of the 5-meO-DMT retreats use synthetics even if they could use toad venom because they argue the journey is the same and that for ethical reasons, they prefer synthetics. Others argue that there’s a distinct difference between the two. But then again, no two psychedelic journeys are ever alike, so how would we know?
There’s a reason LSD became the driving force of the psychedelic revolution in the 60s, and that reason is potency. Mescaline had been around for quite some time, but it was only when Albert Hofmann synthesized LSD that psychedelic research exploded, for very practical reasons: Whereas a dose of mescaline is about half a gram, a dose of LSD is 50-150 micrograms (micro, not milligrams!). A tiny paper tab of LSD is dipped in water that contains a small amount of pure LSD, that’s how potent LSD is.
That’s not to say that psychedelics in nature aren’t potent, they certainly are. A cup of ayahuasca is (thankfully) only a small shot. Then again, if you want to embark on a 5-gram hero’s dose you have to eat a lot of mushrooms, consuming pure psilocybin would be the much more practical alternative. That’s all to say, it depends on the substance.
Sustainability and ethics
This is by far the most important consideration. Some plant medicines are endangered, and if we can replicate the compound in a lab, shouldn’t we do so in order to protect the environment?
This isn’t the case for all medicines, though. Psilocybin mushrooms are abundant, there are 180+ different species and they grow all over. The peyote cactus on the other hand is at risk of going extinct, and for that reason should not be consumed by anyone who is not part of the Native American community or church. Similarly, psychedelic tourism is beginning to strain places like Gabon in Africa, the motherland of the powerful plant iboga. Ayahuasca does not seem to be endangered.
So here’s a rule of thumb: as much as you can, for any endangered species such as peyote and iboga, opt for an alternative. Even if you’re set on having a “plant medicine” experience, educate yourself on the best options. For example, the San Pedro cactus contains the same chemical — mescaline — as Peyote and grows faster and much more abundantly across the country.
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An Overview of the Most Common Medicines
Experience: ingested via tinctures or tiny paper tabs, lasts 10-12 hours, visual hallucinations & spatial distortion common, all senses may be altered
This is for you, if: you’re ready to have your worldview turned upside down and question everything about reality including external power structures and internal beliefs
Experience: ingested via fresh or dried mushrooms or any preparation such as chocolate, honey, tea, or lemon tek, lasts 4-6 hours, experience similar to LSD although frequently less absurd and often more gentle
This is for you, if: you want a classic psychedelic experience, a change in perspective, you feel stuck and have questions you seek answers for, you’re struggling with self-acceptance or overall low mood or want to break a habit
Experience: lasts 3-6 hours, visual hallucinations uncommon as this is not a classical psychedelic but an “empathogen” which triggers openness, empathy, and feelings of euphoria
This is for you, if: you have memories or experiences that seem too scary to process on your own and you’d like to revisit them in a compassionate container to heal what is holding you back
Important: Make sure to have the company of a qualified therapist as processing the experience with someone is critical to unlock the therapeutic value of this medicine (aka, it requires more guidance than all others)
Experience: lasts 10-14 hours, visual hallucinations less common / more subtle, largely an emotion-based experience that induces openness and connectedness, often dubbed “nature’s MDMA” (but without the comedown)
This is for you, if: you have emotions you’d like to process because you haven’t been able to do so on your own, or if you’re struggling to access your emotional world and need something to “crack you open”
Important: Same as for MDMA here, make sure you have someone who can help you process whatever is coming up, this medicine specifically relies on exchange with others to leverage its full potential
Experience: lasts 2-6 hours (sometimes longer), visual hallucinations common but not a given, purging in various forms highly common (crying, yawning, laughing, shaking, vomiting, digestive movement), many report the encounter of a female presence (hence the name “mother ayahuasca”)
Research: proven effective to heal addiction, depression, and eating disorders. Limited amount of clinical research because due to lack of comparability (brew differs from shaman to shaman, and even from brew to brew), used indigenously for millennia for all kinds of ailments of the soul
This is for you, if: you’re ready to set yourself free by facing your very own worst nightmare, whether that’s trauma, your shadow, or collective suffering. Hard work that will pay off a thousandfold and help you break patterns.
Experience: psychoactive effects commonly last 4-6 hours, but the active window is 24-48 hours, very visionary, people commonly report traveling through different stages of their life and revisiting specific memories
Research: proven to help heal addiction, specifically (but not exclusively) opioid addiction, as ibogaine suppresses physical withdrawal symptoms for several days after the journey which for some is critical for recovery
This is for you, if: you’ve been struggling to overcome an addiction or any compulsions and you feel ready to revisit every aspect of your life to heal whichever trauma is driving your behavior, and if relief from physical withdrawal symptoms seem critical to your recovery
Important: this is the only psychedelic medicine that can be physically dangerous and cause heart issues if not administered and monitored correctly, that’s why a safe, medical setting is absolutely paramount
Experience: vaped or injected intravenously, lasts 5-30 minutes, will induce an altered state of consciousness that may be completely unrelated to familiar reality, foreign entity encounters are very common (yes, aliens)
Research: limited clinical evidence surrounding benefits because the experience is so unpredictable. Dr. Strassman’s book is a great resource to learn more, it’s fascinating (especially since our own body produces DMT)
This is for you, if: you’re not afraid of a potentially bizarre experience and are curious to investigate the reality of consciousness
Experience: toad venom (or a synthetic solution) that is most commonly vaped, lasts around 20 minutes, known to produce a direct experience of “source consciousness” in various shapes and forms
Research: shown to help with depression and anxiety, research is still limited (actual use cases may be much broader)
This is for you, if: you want to meet cosmic consciousness and are not afraid of losing any grip to reality as you know it
To sum it up, I’d like to reference the words of a community member: Ayahuasca feels like a disciplinary mother, San Pedro feels like a grounded loving grandfather, mushrooms feel fairy-like and playful.
I’d also add that DMT is perhaps the crazy weird aunt and 5-meO-DMT is pure source consciousness. As for LSD, it can be anything from the nerdy cousin who is really into geometry to the cool older brother or even the wise father.
Who do you feel like you could need most in your life right now?
The above is just a selection, of course there are many more psychedelic substances, but these are the most common ones.
When making a choice, there are two more points to consider:
There is no “hierarchy of psychedelics”. You do not need to graduate from mushrooms to be ready for Ayahuasca, I don’t believe in any of that. Where you begin depends entirely on the kind of experience you crave and what you feel called to work with. Each medicine is unique. MDMA and psilocybin are generally the most gentle, so great places to start for many people, but it doesn’t mean you have to start there.
There is no need to stamp the “psychedelic passport”, as Tim Ferris urged. We do not need to order everything off the menu. Make a choice, and develop a close relationship with those medicines rather than striving to try everything. This is especially relevant for the more exotic psychedelics and will help keep species extinction at bay.
That’s it, happy exploring!
Don’t forget, always do your research, make sure you have the right support, test your substances, and journey in a safe setting. Let me know if you have any questions.