What Are Psychedelics? A Primer for the Curious

The third in a series of articles designed for those who are psychedelically curious and interested in understanding what psychedelics involve and what these substances can do for people. From the author of Triumph Over Trauma.

During the 1950s to early 1960s, the use of LSD in psychiatry was discussed at six international conferences, in more than 1,000 scientific papers and several books. It was a wonder drug.

We have been kept in the dark for most (or all) of our lives.. we've been fed a multitude of lies and half-truths from the War on Drugs publicity machine. Thus, it's not surprising that many of us have not heard much positive about psychedelics until the last five years.

But the crack in the lies is growing wide and people are now beginning to hear positive things about healing and transformation from the intentional use of psychedelic medicines. (And yes, we are calling them medicines because they truly have some amazing properties.)

If you are among those of us who are just on the fringes, still concerned about DARE and Just Say No, but curious about why so many people are talking about psychedelics, this article is for you. It discusses the INTENTIONAL use of these drugs for healing, not for recreational use. Also, it's important to note that these medicines are not magic healing but tools to healing; people have to do the work, but the psychedelics do clearly show people a path to healing.

This article includes a brief history of the psychedelic movement and short descriptions of the major psychedelic medicines, and concludes with some of the amazing healing from the intentional use of psychedelics.

Brief History of the Psychedelic Movement

In the United States, we are in the second and most widespread psychedelic movement ever known -- but while we are seeing astounding healing and research results, these substances are still illegal at the Federal level.

Maybe it's a coincidence, but perhaps it's the reason, we are also in the midst of the largest mental health crisis ever experienced. Numerous factors have led us to this point -- social isolation, social media, health crises (including the pandemic) -- to a tipping point.

Unlike the first psychedelic revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which was driven primarily by recreational use (especially with magic mushrooms and LSD), this current renaissance is being driven by scientific research into how these medicines affect the brain and how they may be amazing tools for healing a variety of ailments, including depression, anxiety and panic attacks, control disorders (such as OCD and eating disorders), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction.

Cities, states, and even the Federal Government are contemplating revising how we view our "drug policy" -- deciding whether these psychedelics, all plant medicines, or even all drugs should be decriminalized or legalized -- or whether we keep the status quo. It's an ever-changing, but interesting landscape.

Currently, hundreds of studies have been conducted with psychedelics in this "modern" era, adding to the vast knowledge that was lost from the prohibition of these drugs for decades. And guess what? The research debunks all the lies and mistruths from the last 50+ years... these drugs DO have medicinal and healing purposes (ACTUAL HEALING), and will not fry your brain or make you jump off the roof or damage your DNA.

Descriptions of Major Psychedelic Medicines

Here's a short description of the seven major psychedelic medicines; these medicines have similar properties, but are also vastly different. You'll want to investigate the medicine(s) that most speaks to you.

Listing these psychedelics in the order access/use.

Psilocybin/Magic Mushrooms: More formally known as psilocybin to get away from the recreational use stigma of "magic mushrooms," fungi with psychoactive properties have been used for as many as 10,000 years -- maybe even longer.

The great awakening for magic mushrooms started in the 1950s when an American businessman and his wife traveled to Mexico to study mushrooms, had some truly magical and healing experiences, and wrote cover stories for Life Magazine and a major Sunday supplement.

Since the 1950s, psilocybin has been used extensively in clinical research, with more than 40,000 patients receiving this medicine without serious adverse events.

LSD: Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman first created LSD in 1938 from a chemical (lysergic acid) derived from ergot, a fungus that infects grain. However, he did not discover the drug's hallucinogenic effect until five years later when he accidentally ingested a small amount of LSD and saw "extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors."

LSD-assisted psychotherapy was used in the 1950s and early 1960s by psychiatrists, with very positive results for thousands of patients -- and accepted as mainstream therapy tool. During this same period, six international conferences, more than 1,000 scientific papers, and several books were written about the use of LSD in psychiatry.

By the mid-1960s, Dr. Timothy Leary began evangelizing about the benefits of LSD and other psychedelics, encouraging celebrities and other to join in... later becoming famous for his classic catchphrase of "turn on, tune in, drop out."

MDMA: First developed by scientists at Merck in 1912 when they were looking for a parent compound to synthesize medications that control bleeding.

MDMA, like LSD, was used by some psychiatrists in therapy during the late 1970s and early 1980s -- despite that the drug had never undergone any clinical trials nor been approved for human use by the FDA. Psychiatrists found that MDMA was a useful tool in helping patients open up for talk therapy.

Also like LSD, MDMA became extremely popular on the streets with the party crowd. MDMA was nicknamed Molly and Ecstasy -- and got the attention of the government, and in 1985, the DEA declared an emergency ban on MDMA.

Amazingly, in the early 1990s, Rick Doblin and his non-profit, Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), were able to attain FDA approval for MDMA clinical trials. Furthermore, the FDA granted Breakthrough Therapy designation to MDMA. MAPS is now in third phase trials, examining the use of MDMA in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Ketamine: A more recent discovery, ketamine dates back to 1962 when it was first synthesized by American scientist Calvin Stevens at the Parke Davis Laboratories; it's a medication primarily used for induction and maintenance of anesthesia.

It was originally developed as a replacement for PCP. It induces dissociative anesthesia, a trance-like state providing pain relief, sedation, and amnesia -- and is considered a hallucinogen -- but not a classic psychedelic (such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT). As a dissociative, ketamine can make people feel disconnected from their physical bodies.

The FDA approved ketamine as an anesthetic agent in 1970, and it has been used safely in adults, children, pets, and livestock for more than 50 years.

Happily, researchers also discovered that ketamine works on glutamate receptors and has antidepressant effects. In some patients with depression who have never responded to anything else, ketamine can lead to a rapid response; it can reduce depressive symptoms within hours.

Unlike any other psychedelic listed here, people can legally receive ketamine treatments in many states.

Ayahuasca/DMT: A plant-medicine brew known as the "vine of the soul" is prepared from the combination of the Ayahuasca vine and the leaves of the Chacruna shrub that grows naturally in the Amazon in South America.

This DMT-infused "tea" has been used for healing and community for thousands of years, though traditionally, only the shaman (or healers) drank the tea.

Interestingly, also in the 1950s, "beat" author and well-known drug user and heroin addict William S. Burroughs went on a journey in 1952 through South America on a quest to find his "final fix." In The Yage Letters, he recounts his experiences through letters to fellow beat author Allen Ginsberg.

While Ayahuasca can be found in underground centers in the United States and in limited religious c enters, most people still travel to Peru (or Mexico or Costa Rica), where it is legal.

Mescaline: This psychedelic medicine is found in just a handful of cacti and its use can be traced back 6,000 years, to prehistoric peoples participating in ceremonies in the Rio Grande area of Texas. It also has a long history of use by Indigenous peoples in Central and South America.

Mescaline became a "thing" when Aldous Huxley took the medicine for the first time in the 1950s and wrote a series of essays that was then published in book form with the title The Doors of Perception.

In 1918, the federal government attempted to ban peyote as a narcotic. To protect themselves, the Indigenous tribes in Oklahoma incorporated the Native American Church, to give their sacrament legal status under the First Amendment's freedom of worship.

There is much controversy with mescaline from the peyote cactus, as the peyote is endangered and has a very slow growing cycle. Many people support the Indigenous right to this plant, attempting to protect it from poachers. Non-Indigenous can easily obtain mescaline from the San Pedro cactus, or even synthesized versions of the medicine.

Ibogaine: A naturally-occurring psychoactive substance with dissociative properties found in the roots of certain shrubs native to the rain forest of central and west Africa. Ibogaine is used by Indigenous peoples in low doses to combat fatigue, hunger, and thirst, and in higher doses, as a sacrament in religious rituals.

In 1962, Howard Lotsof became the first person to discover the medical benefits of Ibogaine for the treatment of opiate addiction. Later in the 1960s, Ibogaine was synthesized. In 1969, Claudio Narjano was granted a French patent for the use of Ibogaine in psychotherapy.

As with all the other medicines mentioned in this section, Ibogaine was placed on the list of banned Schedule I drugs in 1967.

Ironically, in the 1980s and 1990s, Ibogaine was proven to show positive effects in promoting long-term abstinence from addictive substances -- reducing the addiction/dependence to psychostimulants and opiates, including morphine, cocaine, and alcohol.

Potential Healing from the Intentional Use of Psychedelics

In terms of the medical conditions being studied with psychedelic therapies, here's the list (from most studies to least):

  • Depression

  • Treatment-resistant Depression

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • Suicidality

  • Addiction

  • Bipolar Disorder

  • Anxiety

  • Alcohol Use Disorder

  • Pain

  • Palliative Care/Cancer

  • Headache Disorders (Cluster, Migraine)

  • Eating Disorders

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

  • Postpartum Depression

  • Opioid Use Disorders

  • Fibromyalgia

  • Autism

  • Smoking (Addiction)

  • Traumatic Brain Injury

Final Thoughts on Psychedelic Medicines

Remember that you are in control of your health, your healing. You need to do the research and find the modality that will work for you.

These psychedelic medicines show strong promise for a growing number of conditions/issues, but they are NOT for everyone -- especially those with certain physical and mental health concerns. Do your research.

Ready to Buy the Book?

While you may not find a copy at your local bookstore, you can definitely find yours online:

Additional Psychedelics & Psychedelic Medicine Resources

Dr. Randall Hansen is an advocate, educator, mentor, ethicist, and thought-leader... helping the world heal from past trauma. He is founder and CEO of EmpoweringSites.com, a network of empowering and transformative Websites, including EmpoweringAdvice.com.

He is the author of the groundbreaking Triumph Over Trauma: Psychedelic Medicines are Helping People Heal Their Trauma, Change Their Lives, and Grow Their Spirituality and the well-received HEAL! Wholeistic Practices to Help Clear Your Trauma, Heal Yourself, and Live Your Best Life.

Dr. Hansen's focus and advocacy center around true healing ... healing that results in being able to live an authentic life filled with peace, joy, love. Learn more by visiting his personal Website, RandallSHansen.com. You can also check out Dr. Randall Hansen on LinkedIn.