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An interview with Alexander Shulgin

as seen in Trip #4

In this mini-interview, Trip asked Alexander Shulgin, co-author of the astounding psychedelic compendiums PIHKAL and TIHKAL, his thoughts on DMT as a therapeutic substance, the popularization of ayahuasca use in the west, and what role these substances play in his spirituality, among other questions. Shulgin offers a thought-provoking look at the DMT experience, both experientially and culturally.

Trip: Let's start with a rather broad question. What sort of role does DMT play in the entheogenic pantheon, so to speak? How does it "fit" along side such notables as LSD, MDMA, mescaline, etc.?

AS: There is no question but that N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is one of the cornerstones of the psychedelic drug world. Not only is it one of the most widely distributed alkaloids in the plant world, but it is the structural nucleus, the parent chemical skeleton, of most of the natural and synthetic psychoactive indoles. The parallel to mescaline is a good one, in that mescaline provides the parent chemical skeleton for all of the phenethylamines. These two prototypes have been the inspiration for a great deal of creative synthesis.

Trip: Do you have a sense that DMT has specific uses as a psychological tool, or does it seem to you to be more of a powerhouse anomaly? Certainly few experiences compare to it, but do you see productivity there along with the intense novelty of the experience?

AS: In my own experience, I have found DMT to be one of the most intense and rapidly acting drugs. Probably powerhouse anomaly is closer to the mark. Part of that is certainly due to the route of administration (by smoking) and the only competitor is the equally rapid and considerably more potent 5-MeO-DMT. But I have found the actual content of the experience a bit too overwhelming. There is the rapid entry into a space that seems to allow, at least to me, no dialogue. There may be intense colors and shapes alternating with periods of darkness which somehow seem to be much the same. There is none of the questions and answers that I hold to be the true value of the psychedelic experience. If that is what you meant by "productivity" I sense that that is missing. And with a familiarity that is there after the first few experiences, the novelty too is lost.

Trip: How useful do you feel DMT might possibly be in a therapeutic setting?

AS: I do not see DMT playing a role in therapy. The value of the psychedelic drugs in this context is in part from the communication that the patient establishes, first with his therapist and then with himself. But either interaction requires a dialogue, and none is possible when you are flat on your back being overwhelmed with imagery alternating with a lack of any input whatsoever. DMT seems to be better suited to one playing a solo role, taking an individual trip, but this is not the usual path of psychotherapy.

Trip: When you began researching the tryptamine class in earnest, did you observe any specific overall emotional changes or shifts, as opposed to when phenethylamines were more prominent in your ongoing work? Or does that kind of question not even really apply?

AS: There is a phrase that is commonly heard between people who are involved with the identification of mushrooms. There are the lumpers and the splitters. Some (the lumpers) try to combine Genera, minimize the number of categories of classification, and search for broad generalities that will bring order out of individuality. Others (the splitters) emphasize variability and differences, and often end up with almost as many pigeon holes as there are things to be pigeon-holed. In the psychedelic area I guess I started as a lumper. There were two major neurotransmitters involved in the mechanism of action of these materials: there was dopamine, which was a phenethylamine, and there was serotonin, which was a tryptamine. And almost all the known active chemicals were either phenethylamines or tryptamines. How simple. Two pigeon holes and everything can be accounted for. But the more I observed the many styles and flavors of action, the less happy I was with that simple classification. Both neurotransmitters can be involved with the action of almost any of these drugs, so those labels immediately came off. And every material had its own claim to some actions that might be shared with other materials, but not in all people. The vocabulary of descriptions continually grew. I eventually yielded to the reality that every drug is an individual, and efforts to generalize have been fruitless. The popular concept of "structure-activity relationships" depends on the explanation of potency as a function of structure and the extrapolation of observation in the areas of prediction. But the reduction of the field of so many properties down to a single one - how potent is the drug - is unfair. Potency is but one variable for classification, and in truth there are many others.

Trip: Does DMT tend to be a "favorite" among the tryptamines you've studied, or are there other tryptamines that people tend to find more interesting?

AS: I cannot say that it is a favorite of mine. Over the years I have made some effort to avoid choosing favorites, because I wished to keep my experimental field rather clear, the better to pick up suggestions of new activities in new compounds. There is always a lingering fear that repeated exposure would risk some form of tolerance, thus softening the sensitivity of observation.

Trip: Part of my curiosity about the value of DMT relates to setting; it seems impossible for most Westerners to recreate the shamanic/religious setting of traditional ayahuasca use, for example. So what could be an ideal set/setting for, say, ayahuasca use in an American city?

AS: This is a very complex question! I don't believe that the concept of ayahuasca has any meaning in an American city. Ayahuasca is popularly taken as a drink that is a mixture of harmala alkaloids and indole alkaloids. But that is the ultimate pigeon hole and it is completely inadequate. Rather than a drink, it is a concept which cannot be so simply stated and an accurate definition of ayahuasca must call on many variables. Let's evaluate the original ayahuasca scene in South America.

Who is creating it? What plants or plant parts have been chosen? How have they been prepared? How were they brought together and maybe cooked and maybe boiled down to a consumable potent? Perhaps quickly, and perhaps slowly. Every ayahuasca cook has a different recipe. Why is it being made? Is it for a religious experience? Possibly for a healing experience? Is it for establishing patterns of behavior and group unity or is it for allowing self exploration and individual spiritual transformation? Every occasion has a different structure. Where is it to be used? In the darkness around a central fire on the banks of a river, or in a church? Shall it be in song or in silence?

And on and on. How can this all be translated to a house in Beverly Hills? In the absence of Psychotria viridis (the Amazonian DMT source) perhaps we can use some Phalaris grass or maybe the bark of an Acacia tree for the needed DMT, or maybe no DMT at all but something else like mushrooms or San Pedro extracts. In the absence of Banasteriopsis caapi (the Amazonian harmala source) maybe some Syrian Rue seeds, or maybe even some clinical antidepressant that works by being a valid monoamineoxidase inhibitor. No reason to boil them together -- just take a couple of capsules and turn up the volume on the music tape. This North American experience just might be a spiritual journey, or a mind altering revelation, or a body purging horror, but it is in no way an ayahuasca experience. It is a totally different set (the event that is expected) and a different setting (where the event takes place) and so it is a totally different experience.

Trip: This is the sort of contradiction I'm poking at: we've only really got this one term, "ayahuasca," and its variants ("mimosahuasca," etc.), as a kind of umbrella term for an orally active DMT experience. You knew what I meant to some degree when I used the term, but yes, the cultural overtones of the term are for the most part totally unavailable to many people, unless they've actually had this experience "in the field" so to speak. So we have this massive experience, a fundamental component of these shamanic traditions, suddenly being cut loose and popularized to a degree as a sort of "renegade technology"; it's as though we were handed a very complex and powerful tool, but the instruction manual that goes along with it never got translated.

AS: You are absolutely correct. The "instruction manual" for the ayahuasca experience is the native structure that defines its use. And this is in continuous transition in Brazil. What used to be a search for answers with a shaman in a jungle environment has become a religious and community interaction with the UDV and Santo Daime groups. All things change as they become assimilated into new cultures and more changes will, without doubt, take place as the ayahuasca name becomes associated with mixtures of other drugs in our own culture here.

Trip: This sort of cycles back to my question on therapeutic use; you mentioned that the experience of smoked DMT happens so fast that it's hard to process, so what about a version of the DMT experience that unfolds over several hours? Would that provide any possible therapeutic uses?

AS: Without doubt. When the oral route can be used for DMT, as in the examples where its rapid metabolism is inhibited by a second material, then it bids fair to be effective as a therapeutic tool as would many other psychedelics. The onset is slower and the duration is longer. Again, it is not the identity of the drug that suggests its potential use in these areas, but rather the set that is in mind when it is used. If you seek escape via some experience, you may indeed be entertained. And if you present troubling questions, you may get answers.

Trip: You mention at one point in TIHKAL that you were curious about alphamethyltryptamine's possible use as an MAOI for a 'huasca combination. I found that idea very intriguing - have you heard any reports on this since TIHKAL was published?

AS: No I haven't. There are some complexities that are intrinsic to the idea of the huasca combination being the combining of an intrinsically active component that is destroyed as soon as it gets into the body with an intrinsically inactive component that does nothing but inhibit this destruction. Many of the orally active psychedelic drugs are indeed metabolized by deamination, but this process may be a minor one or a slow one. Nonetheless, the use of monoamineoxidase inhibitors may further inhibit it and thus decrease the amount of the drug needed (increasing the effective potency). Also, many of the MAOI candidates in this combination have some central activity in their own rights, and so there may be a synergism seen with the mixture. Both may contribute something to the final effects. Even more subtle is the realization that all plants are in fact mixtures of many things, and there may be drug/drug interactions that make the experience from the use of a plant very different from the observed activities of these components when consumed in isolation.

There are those who insist that plants are the ultimate teachers and any and all psychedelic experiences should be explored only from plant use. That is the way, after all, that our original shamans used them and they knew best. But, plants are complex, and may contain compounds that are not friendly. And they are variable in composition from month to month, even from hour to hour, so how can one walk the same path twice? There are even continuous disagreements among botanists as to whether two similar plants collected in different places should have the same name. Others insist that an isolated compound, or a synthetic compound, circumvents these complications. True, there can be consistency and reproducibility, but mixtures and interactions of both components and effects are not able to be explored.

There is no right answer!

Trip: On a broader note, are there parallels to be drawn in your mind between the kind of psychedelic therapy that is described in TIHKAL or in Myron Stolaroff's The Secret Chief, and the ages of shamanic use of psychoactive substances?

AS: Each of these uses is its own style of medical practice. The active materials, be they mind-altering plants or chemicals, are the vehicles responsible for healing. In the shamanic school, the drug may be taken by the healer. In the Western psychotherapy school, it may be taken by the one needing healing. But in either case, its function is the same: the drug is used as an instructive tool for analysis and insight.

Trip: Are you familiar with the work of the Council on Spiritual Practices? Do you have any thoughts on their work? I'm particularly interested in how their notion of "spiritual guide" seems to have resonance with the notion of "shaman" without having any particular religious overtones of its own.

AS: I am quite familiar with the CSP and would like to support it in any way I can. There is much talk of the use of psychedelic drugs as the means of understanding the body or the mind, but these views seem to always suggest that the drugs do things. More delicate are their roles as catalysts that allow things to be realized, things that may already be in the person's reality but not recognized or appreciated. Here can be the gracious realization that there is something of the divine in each of us. This is the spiritual side of our psyches, always present but now revealed in some remarkable way. This is the concept behind the alternate name that has been used, entheogens. And this realization need not require a drug -- it can come from any of a number of processes as varied as meditation or falling in love. But the opening of that part of the inner person is of ultimate importance, and the CSP is committed to exploring this process.

Trip: Do you personally have any identification with the term "spiritual" as it relates to these substances?

AS: To me personally, the term "spiritual" has evolved over the years into the word "wonderment." I am continuously surprised and amazed in the discovery of what is clearly present there in the human mind but simply not available. My exploration of psychedelic drugs, not just the known ones such as DMT and mescaline, but newly created ones as well, is motivated by the excitement of discovery. New drugs may serve as models for new tools for research, or for new medicines to treat our illnesses. But to me the reward is the finding of them, not the use of them.

In that sense, perhaps the profound joy I feel in this search is indeed a form of spirituality.

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