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DMT: The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman, M.D.

as seen in Trip #6

DMT: The Spirit Molecule
Rick Strassman, M.D.
Park Street Press, 2001

Rick Strassman is a good storyteller. The prologue to his new book is engaging right from the start, as we encounter Philip and Nils, Strassman’s first two volunteers, who volunteer as human guinea pigs in order to find the appropriate dose of intravenous DMT to utilize for a long-term study Strassman is about to conduct into the biomedical effects of DMT in humans. You can feel the tension and the anticipation as these doses are administered, and you enjoy watching Strassman make decisions, learn from mistakes, and develop his technique.

Indeed, it seems clear that Strassman’s first hand accounts of his research will be the primary draw that brings readers to his book. The story goes back to the history of psychedelic research, illuminating the fact that for twenty or thirty years in this country – before Timothy Leary crashed the party and ruined the reputation of these drugs – psychedelic research was the place to be in psychiatry for quite some time. Then, suddenly, the party came crashing to an end, and you could hardly say the word “psychedelic” in a professional therapeutic context without risking being ostracized by colleagues and thrown in the slammer by the government.

In that context, Strassman’s seven year odyssey to embark upon an ambitious DMT study is remarkable not simply for the results of the research, but for the fact that it happened at all. It takes a two-year, labyrinthine effort to get approval for the study. A nearly bewildering succession of individuals and agencies are involved – Ms. R, Dr. C, Ms. M, Dr. H, etc. – in order to secure permission both at the university level at UNM, and at the federal level via the DEA and the FDA. It’s easy to understand Strassman’s frustration as he manages at long last to get the necessary permits and secure a couple of grants, only to run up against a wall trying to find someone to actually supply him with DMT in the first place.

Then we dive into the studies themselves. The story unfolds easily, as we follow a typical volunteer’s admission into the study, on into specific categories of experience that Strassman identifies as “personal, transpersonal, and invisible.” At the personal level, Strassman indicates that the DMT experiences enabled volunteers to work through a range of issues. One volunteer describes it as “roto-rooter for the nervous system. It clears some things free. It was purely energetic.” This peak energy, coupled with Strassman’s interaction with the volunteers as they are coming down, provides fuel for confronting and reconsidering personal issues. I hadn’t anticipated this kind of value from an IV DMT experience; certainly my smoked experiences would not have led me to believe that this was possible. As Stan says initially: “It’s not as useful as LSD or psilocybin. It’s much too fast. You can’t really work with it. You’re totally out of control. It wasn’t a spiritual experience. There was very little emotional flavor to it at all.” But as he moves into the tolerance study, where subjects are given four successive high doses of DMT in order to gauge a possible diminishing of effects, he does in fact come to the conclusion that the experience is useful in addressing specific anxiety in his life.

The transpersonal level is represented in chapters on contact with entities, which present a look at the phenomenon popularized by Terence McKenna’s discussion of self-transforming machine elves. These entities take on a wide range of forms and visages, from clowns in a vast multidimensional circus, to weird alligator aliens with a penchant for interspecies rape. [Strassman notes he could find no other research reports of entities contacted on other psychedelics; Jansen’s book is filled with anecdotes of contact, and in the underground, folks like me have experienced contact with entities on such substances as 5-MeO-DMT and high doses of psilocybin mushrooms.] Strassman asks the same question that Jansen did: because these experiences feel so convincingly real, might we not entertain the notion that they are real, that these are actual aliens in nearby dimensions, communicating with us for reasons we don’t yet understand? He reluctantly draws parallels between the DMT “contact” reports he has accumulated, and alien abduction literature/experiences. There is a uniformity to the manner of their accounts that draws Strassman’s attention. Strassman speculates that excessive amounts of DMT in the brain are in some way potentially responsible for alien abduction experiences… but that sidesteps any attempt at answering the question, “Are these aliens real?” Certainly anything is possible in this crazy universe. As Strassman says, echoing Jansen: “It is best that we reject no ideas until we actually disprove them.” (By the same token, it is just as likely that “drugs make me FEEL like there are aliens in my brain” is the likely answer – certainly Occam could agree with that perspective.)

Eventually the focus is on mystical states, the invisible level, as being the most sought after type of experience among his volunteers. Enlightenment effects include: “timelessness; ineffability; coexistence of opposites; contact and merging with a supremely powerful, wise, and loving presence, sometimes experienced as a white light; the certainty that consciousness continues after death of the body; and a first-hand knowledge of the basic ‘facts’ of creation and consciousness.” Although this all seems dandy on the surface, Strassman goes on to ask the question: “Because DMT can elicit mystical experiences, are the experiences necessarily beneficial?” The answer seems to be not particularly, and in fact, in his chapter “If So, So What?” we’re given mixed reports of long term “gains” from the experiences – sometimes yes, sometimes no. But these were not treatment studies, and so expectation of gain isn’t entirely useful.

My primary problem with the book – and this is obviously a debate Strassman intended to spark – is with the notion that there is a “spirit molecule” in the first place, never mind the argument about whether DMT is the best choice for that molecule. In an early chapter, he reminds us of the notions that set, setting, and drug are the essential components of the psychedelic experience. Why then are we focused on “the spirit molecule”? Isn’t it safe to say, using Strassman’s own affirmation of set/setting/drug, that if you’re hunting for a box in which to place psychedelic spirituality, you can’t just pin it on a drug without also bringing set and setting to bear? There’s a kind of reductionism in that concept that overlooks the complexity of the mystical experience. DMT only becomes spiritual a) when it interacts with a wide range of other molecules in the brain, and b) when that brain is in a setting that allows a spiritual experience to unfold without interruption. However, Strassman’s argument is still an interesting and engaging one, even if malcontents like me would argue that 5-MeO-DMT is more spiritual than DMT. I imagine a wide range of possible “spirit molecules” depending upon the individuals involved.

To close the book, Strassman describes a theoretical psychedelic research institute that seems to echo the desires of many a member of this movement/community. In a recent issue of The Entheogen Review, an author called InfiniteAyes describes a similar institute in an article entitled, “Moving Into The Sacred World of DMT.” InfiniteAyes offers a very strong criticism of Strassman’s work:

“To hear of doctors dancing on government’s strings for carrots of money, power and prestige, while cringing from whips of criticism and disenfranchisement, during the very act of turning someone on and polluting their trip with this nonsense, strikes me as the height of unconsciousness.”

This is absurd; the volunteers each and every one knew what they were getting into, and although it’s clear in retrospect that Strassman’s setting was less than ideal, it’s also clear that a wide range of individuals who might never have experienced DMT got a chance to work with “the spirit molecule” because of this research, and many specifically felt safe during these experiences because they were in a hospital setting, where basic physiological needs could be tended to. In the meantime, what InfiniteAyes offers as an alternative is a superior tone that situates DMT in “its proper landscape,” which is to say, apparently, in InfiniteAyes’ bedroom, the classic candles/incense/world music “temple,” where DMT is a sacrament and the pursuit of “essential inner perfection and Godliness” can be undertaken free of nasty blood pressure cuffs. I have an enormous amount of respect for the pursuit of psychedelic spirituality, but InfiniteAyes’ screed feels a bit too close to what I would describe as entheogenic fundamentalism for my taste, and the criticism of Strassman rings hollow. Strassman entered his five year journey with a few preconceived notions, but also an open mind as to what might come, and the results wound up surprising him. Who knows what may come from future research in this direction? One thing is clear: Strassman’s research was an important step, one that will potentially illuminate the path for future researchers and volunteers alike, and this book is a great contribution to the ongoing dialogue surrounding psychedelics. It’s also a damn good read.

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