An Urgent Plea to Users of Psychedelics: Let’s Consider a More Ethical Menu of Plants and Compounds

Extraction of Kambo frog poison near Iquitos, Peru. (Photo: Pawel Bienkowski / Alamy)

“Do as little as needed, not as much as possible.”
Henk Kraaijenhof 
Coach of Merlene Joyce “Queen of the Track” Ottey, who won 23 combined medals at the Olympic games and world championships.

This is a blog post I wish I didn’t need to write.

I have personally invested years and millions of dollars into non-profit psychedelic research around the world (one example in the UK, one in the US, and one in NZ) because A) I believe it has the potential to revolutionize the treatment of mental health and addiction, and the data are increasingly proving this to be true. B) I’m a case study. Psychedelics have saved my life several times over, including helping me to heal from childhood abuse.

So, it’s with a very heavy heart that I’ve come to accept several sad truths. 

Chief among them is this: Most natural sources of psychedelics simply cannot withstand skyrocketing global demand.

We need to revise our psychedelic “menu,” and that’s what this post is about. It aims to offer options that are eco-friendly instead of eco-destructive, and ethical instead of inadvertently abusive. If enough people make a few simple switches, I believe we can mitigate and possibly reverse the trend of ecological damage.

Many plant species are already endangered or near extinction. Given the slope of popularity growth, I’d wager that we extinguish at least a handful of critical species within the next 3-5 years without some intervention. There are also questions of animal abuse, and while some practices are ethically justifiable for small indigenous populations, they are irreparably catastrophic if expanded to even tens of thousands of people. It is inviting disaster to copy and paste from a tribe in the Amazon—as just one example—to NYC, LA, London, Sydney, or any other large city. Certain things simply do not scale.

So, let’s make some changes. It’s up to each of us and all of us.

Over the last decade, I’ve acquired enough familiarity with these medicines, and spent enough time (i.e., many hundreds of hours, if not thousands) with both scientists and indigenous practitioners to feel that I can speak with decent confidence to their therapeutic applications and interchangeability. I am by no means the world’s top expert, but I’ve done a lot of homework and legwork.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: These plants and compounds are federally illegal in many countries, and even possession can carry severe criminal penalties. None of this post constitutes medical advice or should be construed as a recommendation to use psychedelics. There are serious legal, psychological, and physical risks. Psychedelics are not for everyone—they can exacerbate certain emotional problems and there have been, in very rare cases, fatalities. This article is simply an attempt at harm-reduction through education, as I know many people will use psychedelics, regardless.

AND ONE MORE NOTE: Please don’t make the all-too-common mistake of assuming that “all-natural” means safer; the deadly poisons strychnine and hemlock are derived from plants, and some psychedelic plants (e.g., datura, brugmansia) and animals are well-respected among indigenous tribes for their ability to kill. Similarly, don’t assume that synthetic psychoactive agents are somehow less effective or therapeutic than natural products. Many of us—present company included—wouldn’t have survived childbirth or childhood without synthetics. There are places for both. 

Now, on to the list…

– Peyote. Instead of peyote, which is nearly extinct and can take decades to regrow, consider using huachuma/San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi), which is more easily regenerated, faster growing, and more widespread in distribution. In my opinion, unless you are a long-standing member of the Native American Church (NAC) or indigenous groups that have used peyote for generations, you shouldn’t consider peyote as an option. Leave the few remaining plants for the native populations who revere and need it most.

To more fully understand the plight of the indigenous who treat this as a sacrament, please read this piece from the LA Times: “Why are some Native Americans fighting efforts to decriminalize peyote?

Options like San Pedro largely avoid the ecological, ethical, and cultural challenges of peyote. Synthetic mescaline is also an outstanding substitute. It’s easy to forget that, in some respects, the psychedelic movement in the English-speaking world was catalyzed by The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, who eloquently wrote about his experience of beauty on synthetic mescaline.

Iboga/ibogaine. Unless you are an opiate addict, please consider other compounds and treatments. As is the case with peyote, wild-harvested and farmed iboga are both at the breaking point. For the chemically inclined, ibogaine can be extracted and semi-synthesized from the far less threatened Voacanga africana tree, as I learned in Hamilton Morris’ excellent episode on Iboga/Ibogaine in Season Three of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia.

Iboga/ibogaine is also one of the few psychedelics with real cardiac risk and associated fatalities, so you should always have a cardiac screening, a cardiac specialist, cardiac monitoring, and related meds on site. Iboga can be a life-saver, but I think of it as a last resort for those who are otherwise likely to die of overdose.

– 5-MeO-DMT (aka “Toad”). Request synthetic instead of animal-sourced. 5-MeO-DMT is commonly extracted from the venom glands of the Sonoran Desert toad, a species now under multiple threats. One solution is straightforward: synthetic 5-MeO-DMT, the chemistry of which is both affordable and scalable. Why put an at-risk species in the gristmill?

From the Wikipedia page for the Sonoran Desert toad (aka Colorado River toad)

In California, I. alvarius has been designated as “endangered” and possession of this toad is illegal. “It is unlawful to capture, collect, intentionally kill or injure, possess, purchase, propagate, sell, transport, import or export any native reptile or amphibian, or part thereof…”

In New Mexico, this toad is listed as “threatened” and taking I. alvarius is unlawful in that state.

For those who would like to more visually understand why toad-derived 5-MeO-DMT is a bad idea, I highly suggest watching A Brief History of 5-MeO-DMT by Hamilton Morris (@HamiltonMorris). For me, the most important part of this presentation begins at 12:45 (click here to begin at 12:45). For the main points I want to underscore, I suggest watching 60 seconds here, then watching another three minutes starting around 17:00.

There are many other ethical options for consciousness expansion besides toad-derived 5-MeO-DMT.

Moreover, for many people, I believe the 5-MeO-DMT experience of ~5-20 minutes provides less “workspace” for therapeutic exploration, and recall of insight, than other options like psilocybin (as found in psilocybe or “magic” mushrooms), LSD, etc.. Granted, there are counter-examples, but that’s my general perspective, as well as my personal experience.

A few additional factors to consider:

– ~20-30% of people who inhale “toad” appear to be “thrashers” and thrash about uncontrollably. For video footage of one such person, see the first two minutes of this. It is not rare.

– I’ve seen experienced psychonauts (e.g., 50+ ayahuasca experiences) get knocked loose by 5-MeO-DMT, and it’s taken them significant time, in some cases weeks, to return to some semblance of baseline. Even if you choose synthetic, know that you cannot predict which card you’re going to pull from the deck.

– From a seasoned guide: “The vast majority of experienced practitioners (not that I can speak for them all) would say 5-MeO is actually contra-indicated for people struggling with anxiety and trauma… In most cases, it is used more for spiritual growth and consciousness expansion, which is valuable but could be considered a luxury.”

Now, to be clear: there are very interesting and valuable applications of 5-MeO-DMT, perhaps for another post. That said, I consider it required in close to zero cases. In the rare cases where it is required, synthetic would still be the ethical choice.

Post-script addition — Below is a note from a draft proofreader and friend, who is also a facilitator in Peru with vast experience across compounds and hundreds of people:

“THANK YOU, I feel the same way and advise against the experience 90% of the time. Little lasting value for most, high-risk. Many close friends who are more experienced than I have become unhinged for weeks or months. If you think you can assert your opinion even more strongly without sounding like a preacher, please do.”

Kambo. Please don’t do it. I know this bullet will upset some friends and hit others in the wallet, but I find it impossible to endorse kambo, given the methods used to gather the secretions from the Giant leaf frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor), possible side-effects (including associated fatalities), and more attractive alternatives. If you think the frogs are released unharmed, as I’ve seen written repeatedly, imagine doing this to another animal like a dog or a cat. Many practitioners will put the frogs over or near an open flame, as these methods are explicitly intended to induce stress and prompt release of the skin secretions. 

Extraction of Kambo frog poison near Iquitos, Peru. (Photo: Pawel Bienkowski / Alamy)

If you have other options you can test, is this what “expanded consciousness” or “evolved consciousness” looks like?

The Giant leaf frog population is currently stable, but rapid increases in demand, if unabated, will no doubt change that. Once again, I don’t object to indigenous peoples using this frog sparingly for their own use. Such groups are small and, in some respects, have fewer options available to them for certain conditions. If you’re reading this, you have more ethical alternatives easily within reach. Frogs are also probably the most at-risk group of animals threatened by both climate change and chytrid fungi, yet another reason not to stress or harm them.

For the ailments I’ve seen anecdotally relieved by kambo—depression, alcohol abuse, auto-immune disorders, and others—most Westerners have access to other compounds and approaches that may well provide relief without involving animal abuse.

Consider legal ketamine—even a single dose—for acute depression and suicidal ideation, as well as chronic pain; read about psilocybin for depression and the impressive results coming out of Johns Hopkins; look at New York University’s compelling research related to psilocybin for alcohol use disorder (here, here, and here), and consider the following book for thoughts on ayahuasca and auto-immune disorders: The Fellowship of the River: A Medical Doctor’s Exploration into Traditional Amazonian Plant Medicine.

If you really want a purgative/emetic (i.e., something to make you vomit), there are dozens, hundreds, or thousands of plant options (e.g., yawar panga/Aritolochia didyma; use sparingly and under proper supervision), particularly those rich in saponins. But it need not have an exotic name. I’ve experienced purges with various types of ginger in the Upper Amazon. And, yes, it is remarkable how great you feel after stopping the continual vomiting, which can last for hours. Is it therapeutic or simply relief after-the-fact? And is it worthwhile? For most, I would suggest not.

In this list, kambo is also the most prone to what I might call “Instagram porn,” since the process literally leaves burn marks on the skin. It makes for a great story, and people will often do it for the arm photo, the likes, the comments, and the follows. I understand the appeal, but I’d also like people to consider the consequences of perpetuating this practice on social media. Good stories sometimes = bad karma.

To that point, and this might be the most actionable paragraph in this entire piece…

I encourage everyone to ask themselves an uncomfortable question, which I continually ask myself: If you couldn’t tell anyone about your experience or put it on Instagram or social, would you still do it? Are you really doing this for healing or expansion, or are you doing this for a story you can share later? If the latter, please consider hitting pause or stop so you can reconsider your plans. 

MY CONCLUSIONS FOR NOW

Overall:

The question shouldn’t be “Is this the most powerful experience I can have (no matter the environmental consequences)?” but rather “Is this an ethical tool that could really help me to improve?” There are many responsible options that will give you a solid “yes” to the latter. Even if the options I propose are 80% as effective or nuanced as the threatened all-natural options, they are more than effective and versatile enough for 99.999% of people. Perhaps that means three sessions instead of two, but… who cares? Sometimes, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. We all need to play the long game.

Beware of seeking the good story. Once again, good stories sometimes = bad karma.

On Plants:

Choose species that grow well, grow widely, and grow quickly. Simply eliminate from your consideration any slow-growing or rare species like peyote. Focus instead on readily available and easily cultivated species like psilocybe mushrooms, San Pedro cactus, ayahuasca, etc.. Peyote can take decades to grow; mushrooms can take weeks to grow. Filter your options first by environmental impact.

No single indigenous population uses all psychedelics under the sun, and we don’t need to, either. If you could only use psilocybe mushrooms for the rest of your life, you could continue to cultivate that relationship, develop deep skills, and unfurl profound layers of learning and meaning until your last dying breath. The depth is there, if you are dedicated. There is no need to stamp the psychedelic passport with every plant or animal, and there are many reasons not to.

If you believe in plant spirits, and you want to connect and learn from them, simply ensure the plants you choose aren’t threatened or endangered. That makes you a steward of these plants, which I wholeheartedly support. To choose threatened options makes you a willfully damaging consumer at best, and a destroyer of these plants at worst. There are many unthreatened plants that indigenous consider powerful, including those that North American and South American traditions regard as master plants and teacher plants (e.g., tobacco). Do your homework and you can find them. Here is one excellent book to start with. If you’re unwilling to do the homework, I implore you to find your recreation outside of natural psychedelics. It’s too easy to do damage otherwise.

On animals:

Don’t do it. Revisit the photo at the top of this post, as well as Hamilton’s video. There are simply too many ethical and ecological reasons why this should be off the menu, and there are plenty of other powerful options. If most indigenous traditions could survive and develop deep spiritual practices without psychedelic toads, frogs, etc., you can, too.

On synthetics:

There is an argument to be made that synthetics are sometimes both safer and more effective than all-natural compounds for many therapeutic purposes. Some advantages include: consistent potency, precise dosing, and (in many cases, like 5-MeO-DMT), scalability. The synthetic pantheon also offers an incredible spectrum of wonders. It’s sometimes said that two beings created psychedelics: God and Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin. Sasha co-wrote PiHKAL and TiHKAL, which are encyclopedias of chemical delights for every imaginable purpose, including synthesis steps and trip reports for nearly every compound. Sasha was a serious scientist deeply concerned with, and knowledgeable about, safety and effectiveness. Both of his books are treasures.

However, synthetics are not automatically environmentally friendly. Sources matter, just as they would for natural psychedelics. How not to do things: deforestation of trees in Cambodia for MDMA precursors, illegal dumping of solvents, acids, etc. by black-market chemists, etc.

Suffice to say, the above issues are byproducts of the “war on drugs” and an illicit drug trade, which I believe could be most remedied by responsible legalization, regulation, and taxation. This is one of the reasons for my strong support of Phase Three trials like this.

On hybrid approaches:

One of the weaknesses of synthetics isn’t that they’re synthetic; it’s that they’re often administered or taken without a meaningful container.

I believe much of the efficacy of natural compounds comes from the setting, steps, and bonding of ritualized administration. This is true for ayahuasca circles with singing and “doctoring,” the shared experience and suffering of various purges, and dozens more. Speaking from personal experience, this “medicine” of bonding and belonging has been just as powerful as the plants I’ve come to know and love.

What if we incorporated some of the best practices—the most meaning-imbued aspects—of the traditional with the reliability of synthetics?

If you think that’s heresy and that you can’t combine old practices with synthetic compounds, first think back to the ceremonies you’ve seen. It’s likely they’re highly syncretic already, blending elements from multiple influences. Sage smudging and mushrooms, for instance? Those are not classically combined in the same room. There are a million examples. It’s even true for “traditional” ayahuasca ceremonies in the jungles of South America, where you might find a combination of animism, Christianity, and shamanic tools like the nearly ubiquitous “Agua de Florida” (literally “Florida Water,” a unisex cologne first manufactured in… the US!). So why not experiment with new combinations that are environmentally and ethically calibrated for the time and ecological reality in which we live? The mixing and matching of psychedelics and format has been unfolding for millennia, and there is one right and fixed way to do things.   

LAST WORDS

In the pursuit of healing or expanded consciousness, I would like to suggest that we all take the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. 

Alas, causing no harm is nearly impossible, unless you grow your own plants. So let us consider a modern Psychonaut’s Oath: First, do the least harm possible.

In my mind, that is the only approach that isn’t hypocritical. If you’re contributing to (or condoning) unnecessary harm in order to facilitate your own spiritual journey, it is not highly evolved. It is mercenary.

If we truly care for Mother Nature, the best thing we can do is the least necessary, not the most possible. Perhaps we should seek the least exotic treatment that will do the job, not the most exotic treatment that nature can provide. There are plenty of great options.

I think there is still time to right the ship, but it requires us to take immediate action and spread the word. Once plants or animals are gone, they are gone. And remember: good stories sometimes = bad karma. Let’s ensure we’re doing things for the right reasons. There will always be powerful forces pulling us towards the wrong reasons, so it requires effort. I’m in there with you.

The future of these healing tools is literally in our hands.  Help them, and they can help us. Thank you for reading.

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AFTERWORD:

For those who would like to go further and support restoration and preservation, I am offering a challenge grant for the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), which works in partnership with indigenous cultures to protect ancestral rainforests, shamanic traditions, and tribal knowledge (botanical, linguistic, and otherwise).

I will match up to $50,000 USD in donations made to ACT before 5pm PT this Thursday, February 25, 2021. In other words, whatever you collectively donate by 5pm PT this Thursday, up to a maximum of $50K, I will then match and donate that same amount, up to another $50K of my own money. Even if you can only donate $5, every dollar matters and adds up! A few dollars can mean a lot when multiplied by a community of thousands or tens of thousands. This is also not all-or-nothing. If you all donate $20K, I’ll match $20K. $30K, $30K. I’d love to hit the maximum, if possible, and it would make a beautifully round $100K to ACT ($50K from you all, and $50K from me). 

Just click here (Amazon Conservation Team homepage, direct donation page) to learn more and consider donating.

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