Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

22 June 1994

Notes From a Psychedelic Revival Meeting

Psychonauts or psychonuts? Considering the subject matter, last April's "Gathering of Minds: A Southern California Psychedelic Conference" was a curiously sober affair, with not even a whiff of weed perfuming the heavy Orange County air. The few actual trippers in attendance were betrayed only by varying degrees of conspiratorial ricti and uncool overenthusiasm for the subject at hand. Coffee and Diet Snapple appeared to be the stimulants of choice.

Indeed, caution and circumspection have long since replaced the cocky bravado of the '60s, when Baba Ram Dass (then known as Richard Alpert) and Timothy Leary kept a chart on the wall of their Harvard office, playing psychic stock brokers plotting the ascending enlightenment curve of American culture. "Of course," Ram Dass added during his presentation, "this did involve dumping LSD into the water supply." So while shamanism, alchemy, mycology, psychedelic research, LSD-inspired environmentalism, and death were being discussed openly within conference host Chapman University Memorial Hall, the real news was discussed in hushed tones elsewhere.

Ram Dass actually recounted the event's only full-on trip story. Equally disappointing and intriguing, the dearth of first-person reportage from hyperspace was especially disappointing because, more than dreams and much like science fiction, trips so often transcend the limits of both personal and collective unconsciousness, serving as cultural parables for confusing times. In his crisp white shirt and topsiders, Ram Dass radiates well-nourished enlightenment. In fact, he sells it for a living. Speaking here, he connected psychedelics with Zen ethics, entwining compassion, acceptance and death with a well-practiced casual eloquence.

"Last summer," recounted a Ram Dass who suddenly sounding much like Spalding Gray, "I took a sacrament I think the literature refers to as 'toad slime' [[pause for laughter]]. In this particular experience--it's a nine-minute, uh, moment; I've taken it several times--I turned into a very large, black woman. I was surrounded by beings who were children--all suffering, hungry, frightened, sick. I found myself opening my arms to draw them all into myself. At the same time I was both gagging on it all and in absolute ecstasy, the ecstasy of just being part of the total dance of life, not looking away from anything."

While Ram Dass claims to still trip every couple of years ("partly to keep my membership in the club"), he now finds the activity less important than, he said, working with blind Nepalese, native Guatemalan highlanders, or PWAs. His confident Zen-activism recalled a time when private transcendence automatically seemed to promise public enlightenment.

Later, 74-year-old Timothy Leary hosted a groggy closing advertisement for technology and chaos. Sharing the stage with his friend Eileen Getty, a handsome, laryngitic PWA who operates an AIDS hospice in Los Angeles, the acid patriarch joked, jived, and toyed with the thin line dividing absurdity from nonsense as the DJ/VJ crew called Retinalogics provided distracting visuals and wearying beats. Leary's appearance clearly marked the end of an era. He bragged of getting high with his son at a recent Pink Floyd show, then pointed out his tiny pink great-granddaughter in the audience. He was giddy and he was gone. "I've discovered the greatest drug of all," he declared. "Senility!"

Getty rambled aimlessly about how important it was to get in touch with the dying, her message lost in electronic chaos. "Wait, wait, wait!" cried Getty. "He' senile and I've got AIDS dementia. So you guys are fucked! Nothing we say stands for anything! It's all misinformation."

I guess somebody has to put the con in this conference.

Step right up. Getty's rant was an unfortunate conclusion to a day that held much promise amid much jocular grave dancing (the convention convened mere hours after Henry Kissinger and Rosemary Woods laid their "gallant friend" Richard Nixon to rest a few short miles away, in Yorba Linda). The1,500 psychedelicos who descended upon the staid town of Orange --a "self-selected research team," as event organizer Ron Piper characterized them--represented both old and new ways of thinking about psychedelics. Co-sponsored by conservative Chapman University's sociology department and Psychedelic Illuminations magazine, the conference reflected nearly all the symptoms of what cultural avatars recognize as a full-fledged, multifaceted, generation-transcending revival of enthusiasm for chemical conciousness expansion.

You know the drug scene's in a strange state of flux when your local marijuana dealer suddenly begins offering waxy, orange DMT--the most potent hallucinatory mind-meld around--at $10 the smokable dose. Or when acquaintances start touting the botanical dada of Salvia divinorum , whose smoked leaves (one leaf--it's extremely active) have the capacity to transform you, in a subjective yet oh-so-convincing fashion, completely obliterating your identity in such a way that you suddenly and unquestionably become , for example, a piece of furniture in a '50s science-fiction film or an unwitting passenger of a giant's foot. Or what to make of strange designer-drug combos such as the combination of ketamine and 2CB, an analgesic/phenethylamine cocktail capable, according to the San Francisco demiceleb who snorted it, of drop-kicking your disembodied Buddha nature into a zone where you not only meet the masters of the universe, but want to give them big, gooey hugs. And echoes of the mythical late '60s continue to reverberate not only in Deadheads but also in the ravers and the British Zippies, new-age millenialists who crane their necks in search of the wave that will carry them into ecstasy-driven technotopia, keeping the faith that chemically altered neurology will save the planet at 200 b.p.m.

Ram Dass's and Leary's tired raps aside--that guru shtick is definitely yesterday's news--problems merely hinted at in the '60s, from environmental issues to personal politics, are today exacerbated. In a world increasingly bereft of spiritual form and substance, psychedelics still provide the most immediate, profound, and undeniable interface between user and universe. Who controls the reality studio? asked William Burroughs nearly thirty years ago. Attention being the new gold standard of the information economy, psychedelics remains one of the few ways in which psychic territory can be recaptured from television (the most addictive drug of all) and an imminent flood of digital distraction. The politics of pleasure shouldn't be minimalized, either: Why simply look at the Sistine Chapel when you can be the Sistine Chapel, or Finnegans Wake , or Koyaanasquatsi?

Ethnobotanists today realize that psychotropic plant species extend further than had been suspected, as though nature truly wanted the human species to get in touch with its floral neighbors. As plant species die off at a furious rate, the issue is no longer what they are trying to tell us, but whether we will get the message in time. Plant-based consciousness expansion has a history extending thousands of years into the past, yet only since the second decade of this century has there been a concerted effort--a far-reaching, evidently unsuccessful experiment in prohibition-- to condemn and prohibit these drugs while valorizing so many others. Worse, the dirty dozen Reagan-Bush years padlocked nearly all legitimate research into psychedelic materials, robbing us of our heritage in blatant disregard for what might be called the civil rights of consciousness.

Only recently have doors been opened into which a labcoated leg might be inserted. The suits still deny scientists the opportunity to employ psychedelics to explore fundamental philosophical questions as the mind-brain connection, to employ MDMA and other phenethylamines as therapeutic tools, or use LSD, mescaline, or psilocybin in treating alcoholics and other drug addicts. Fortunately, one wing of the psychedelic revival prefers to plod along within the system and its attendant evils, such as time-consuming fund raising, protocol development, and FDA approvals. The short yet significant list of current national research includes Charles S. Grob's MDMA studies at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, Rick Strassman's DMT work at the University of New Mexico, and Juan Sanchez-Ramos and Deborah Mash's ibogaine project at the University of Miami. Not to mention the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) study of how effectively water pipes filter marijuana smoke (conclusion: significantly, dude). "Gathering of Minds" also saw the first public presentation by the Heffter Institute, an independent coalition that includes Grob and Dennis McKenna as well as an attorney, psychiatrist, and other respected researchers. The work's there to do; they only ask the permission and money to do it.

More shamanically inclined psychedelic scholars also look to the south, since Americans are undoubtedly among the world's most spiritually provincial peoples. In Brazil, for example, an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 members of Santo Deimi and the Uniao de Vegetal, Brazil-based syncretic relgions, alongside some 70 other smaller groups, currently use ayahuasca tea (brewed from Banisteria caapa , the "vine of the soul") as an intensely visionary religious sacrament. As psychedelic cognoscenti are increasingly aware, ayahuasca (so brown yet so vomitous) is the real thing, providing powerful evidence of the spiritual realms within us all. Up and down the Amazon, an estimated 400,000 people drink the tea at least occasionally in mestizo healing practices. According to Dr. Charles Grob at the UCLA Medical School, who studied the UDV extensively last year with Dennis McKenna, the group provides a especially strong model for how substance-abuse problems could be handled. (A New York jeweler who spent a decade with the UDV urges me to emphasize that the organization comes down strongly against frivolous use of Hoasca, as they call it; he informs me, however, that indigenous aficionados in the jungle frequently belly up to the ayahuasca bar for a colorfully weird evening of "Indian cinema.")

Strange, somehow, that we probably know more about the use of psychedelics in South America than we do about their use right here, that native Amazonians should be more familiar with the universe of the soul than we sophisticates. Yet any doctor or government agency with nose to street will tell you that the use of LSD and MDMA, our old friends acid and ecstasy, is increasing among Deadheads, ravers, hip-hoppers, and other youth cults. In a shrewd marketing strategy, lower LSD dosages (down around 60 micrograms from the 250 and up dispensed during the summer o' love) have provided a safer entryway for tyro psychonauts, resulting in wider use and fewer freakouts. As the recent upswing in heroin OD's proves, however, what you don't know will kill you. A dozen years of cynical, Washington-based no-saying has led directly to the sort of confusion that can only harm those most at risk: curious kids. Yet a new generation of psychedelicized scholars has been working outside the spotlight, if not on the sly. Dozens of other countries--including Colombia, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Holland--have relaxed laws pertaining to personal amounts of previously illegal substances, but only recently have arguments for decriminalization begun to appear in quarters as right-leaning as Parade magazine and "Dear Abby."

Monkey data. If "Gathering of Minds" did less than "drive a stake through the heart of Republican Conservativille," as the boundlessly enthusiastic Piper hoped, it wasn't for lack of assemblying the right brains and faces. Ram Dass and Leary may have been the obvious draws, but the real stars were maverick scholars like Dennis McKenna, Jonathan Ott, and Jim DeKorne. Tattered elf Peter Stafford, of Psychedelics Encyclopedia fame, could be found beaming and selling his wares on the Memorial Hall steps, and attending as observers rather than participants were Alexander and Ann Shulgin, whose brave and informative book PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (PIHKAL --"Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved"--refers to the chemical family that counts mescaline and MDMA among its members) has drawn more than one psychonaut out of the closet since its 1991 publication.

Significantly, similar convocations now occur on nearly an annual basis. Last summer's celebration of the "50th Anniversary of the Discovery of LSD" in Santa Cruz followed 1992's "Bridge Conference" in San Francisco. These events find youngish psychedelic researchers sharing the stage with burn-outs, Boo-Hoos, and other movement elders. In fact, if it weren't for the several tie-dye concessions, the hokey "LSD Flight Simulaters" on sale, and several tables full of bright-eyed kids soliciting signatures for the California Hemp Initiative on the blandly manicured Chapman campus, you might have mistaken "Gathering of the Minds" for, I don't know, an Andreas Vollenweider concert or something equally banal. And you would have been deceived, because here were explorers of inner space no less brave (or foolhardy) than the Polos, Columbuses, or Glenns of yesteryear.

No one believes more strongly in the power of psychedelics to alter the course of humanity than Terence McKenna (Voice , May 5, 1992), who was present in spirit if not in the flesh. If the psychedelic revival's figureheads can be categorized loosely as either shamanist scholars (Ott, DeKorne), hard scientists (Dennis McKenna, Alexander Shulgin), or hedonists (Leary, Stafford), Terence McKenna is the most seductively articulate of the former. "I believe that rational exploration of the enigma of the Other is possible," he wrote in The Archaic Revival , "and that the shamanic approach to the hallucinogenic plants, epecially those containing psilocybin and dimethyltryptamine (DMT), will be absolutely central to achieving that end." If nothing else, Terence kept the discussion of drugs open during the grimmer years of the "war on some drugs." Most researchers, however, discount Terence's faith in an alien intelligence's promise of a "transcendent object at the end of history" (specifically the year 2012) as the amusing rant of someone who may have smoked a little too much DMT. This hardly bothers Terence, whose psychedelic adventures have revealed metaphysical vistas unhindered by the strictures of material-realism and scientific methodology.

The opposing end of the shaman/science spectrum was represented at "Gathering of Minds" by Dennis McKenna, who pays his bills as pharmacognosist for Aveda (the Ben and Jerry's of cosmetics) and introduced himself at GOM as "Terence's smarter brother." Armed with precocious theories about the interface of shamanism and biochemistry, and provisioned with cannabis and Stropharia cubensis mushrooms, the brothers shared hallucinatory revelations during a 1971 expedition to the Upper Amazon (as recounted in their 1975 book The Invisible Landscape and Terence's more recent True Hallucinations ) that pushed balding, bearded Dennis into hard science and his lanky, ebullient elder brother into intellectual nomadicism and international cheerleading for DMT, pscilocybin, and ayahuasca.

No stranger to the mysteries of hyperspace, Dennis McKenna publishes articles with titles like "Monoamine oxidase inhibitors in South American hallucinogenic plants: Tryptamine and Beta-carboline constituents of ayahuasca " (Pharmacotheon, 546) in such organs as the Journal of Ethnopharmacology . Although Dennis embraces the scientific paradigm, the solution to the "drug problem" he tossed out during a panel titled "Mycology, Mysticism, Mushrooms, and Magic" possessed a certain trippy yet completely rational-materialist flair. "As opposed to making drugs legal across the board," suggested McKenna, "one possible solution on the legal level is to make a distinction between plants and drugs. Give people the right to grow hemp, coca, mushrooms, or whatever in their backyard. You just can't refine them down to powders that can be abused. Human have the right to form whatever symbiotic relationships to plants they wish to."

Sitting beside Dennis McKenna was Jonathan Ott, the pale, dark-eyed author of the impressive Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, Their Plants Sources and History as well as books on chocolate, ayahuasca, and other drugs. A stern-looking man who argues sternly for semantic accuracy in this area, Ott helped coin the term entheogen (literally "realizing the divine within") as a substitute for the negatively loaded "psychedelic." Ott feels that psyche-, er, entheogens are too valuable as spiritual tools to be either banned or abused. For if Catholicism, as Ott argues, is based on a "placebo sacrament," then the entheogenic experience offered by mushrooms or ayahuasca as employed in the shamanic context opens the doors of perception with a bang. "It's incumbent upon the proponents of other routes to religious ecstasy to demonstrate that those are valid or genuine," argued Ott. "Those seem to me to be the artificial ones. The entheogenic sacrament's the real thing. it's the real old-time religion, and I say give me that old time religion!" Ott, reasonably enough, doesn't think second-hand religious experience is enough, when the authentic magilla is so readily available in so many interesting forms used over thousands of years.

Outside Chapman University Memorial Hall, much discussion centered around the virtually un-Englishable qualities of DMT and 5-Meo-DMT. The latter substance is the active ingredient of Ram Dass's aforementioned "toad slime." Toad venom recently received its 15 column inches of fame in the pages of The New York Times magazine with a moral that could be summarized as: don't do it, it's scary stuff that transports you directly into a void where there's nothing to buy. Jim DeKorne, the author of Psychedelic Shamanism , on the other hand could be heard extolling the virtues of 5-Meo-DMT. "Do you hallucinate on it?" someone inquired. "No," replied DeKorne, who resembled a country preacher in black shirt, black pants, and bolo tie. "It's more like a 10-minute orgasm with electricity shooting out of your fingers."

Other reports from the front included a wealth of anecdotal information from someone I'll call Saul. The Los Angeles designer described for me the extraordinary and still legal effects of the Mexican plant Salvia divinorum (also known as Ska Pastora , or "leaves of Mary the Shepherdess"). "Instead of chewing up several leaves into a quid, the usual method, I simply smoked one. I immediately turned into a dresser drawer. I didn't just seem to be a drawer, I was a drawer. Specifically, I was a drawer on the black-and-white set of a 1950s science-fiction film populated with actors in period clothing. As I looked out upon the set, a woman walked toward me and attempted to pull me out. She couldn't. When a friend of mine smoked salvia divinorum , he appeared suddenly to stand on the foot of a giant. He was a little startled but not totally amazed until the giant started walking down the road as he held onto his leg."

Saul, who undergoes his adventures in chemistry with respect and rigor, believes the next step in psychedelia entails an emerging informal network of guides, New Age handholders who will assist beginners on their maiden voyages. He then regales me with several stories involving other substances outside my own experience. For instance, Saul apparently possesses a peculiar tolerance for large amounts of tryptamines (the active ingredient in DMT and magic mushrooms), an incapacity he works his way around by combining potent psychedelics in unusual combinations. No vanilla tripper he, Saul described the serious and apparently indescribable fun of combining DMT and toad venom into a magical blend known in his arcane circle as "the Mayan Twins."

Saul also recommends smoking Peganum harmala (or Syrian Rue) after ingesting psychedelic mushrooms to commune more closely with "a plant spirit." The idea of communing directly with nature frequently arises neopsychedelic circles, occasionally leading to oddly prurient condemnations of government meddling in what Dennis McKenna referred to as the "symbiotic relationships humans form with plants."

Fun couples. While an excellent case could be made for the theory that without psychedelics the environmental movement as we know it today would be nonexistent (remember your first trip and how it made you feel about nature), there is another way to make sense out of drugs: as pure chemical-materialist magic. Representing an earlier generation of psychonauts, Alexander ("Sasha") Shulgin, 69, and his wife Ann, 62, came out of the psychedelic closet in their self-published, 900-page book PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story . Sasha, while working for Dow Chemical, experienced his first taste chemical bliss in 1961 via 400 milligrams of mescaline. Since then he has devoted himself to exploring the stately chemical geometries of mind-activating substances in the privacy of his home laboratory, a mad-scientist's haven east of Berkeley. Spooked to learn that the FBI burned all of Wilhelm Reich's notebooks and papers upon his incarceration for (?) in 195(?), Sasha collected all his work on the phenethylamine psychedelics in the second half ofPIHKAL (the first is thinly veiled autobiography), making it a veritable chemical cookbook of recipes, commentary, and dosage reports on 179 synthetic drugs and analogs.

Coming out the closet, however, has been a mixed blessing. "We've almost not gotten away with it," says Ann in the couple's dining room overlooking Mt. Diablo a couple of days after the conference. Sasha's peculiar relationship with the DEA is a story unto itself. The authorization the self-described "manic libertarian psychedelic chemist" has been granted to analyze these substances (and to analyze something, you must first produce it) results from close friendships with members of the legal community, his reputation as an expert witness, and, not least of all, his association with San Francisco's bastion of Republican blue-blazerdom, the Bohemian Club. For the "stepfather of MDMA," as he has been called, being psychedelic has meant subtly sidestepping the forces of hallucinophobia with wit and intelligence.

The pseudonymous underground writers known as Gracie and Zarkov offer another model of informed psychedelic identity in a fairly hostile environment. Well-groomed and vaguely aristocratic, G&Z exuded the suave adventurousness of 19th-century European explorers when I joined them for breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria's Peacock Alley shortly after the conference. They described the benefits of do-it-yourself religion, strange rituals, radical esthetics, and the joys of good, clean Saturday-night psychedelic fun. "There's no reason not to have fun and be responsible," emphasizes Gracie before running off to a meet her fellow biotech financiers. Although their minds were not among those gathered in Orange, Gracie and Zarkov's self-published papers (written mainly in the repressive Reagan '80s and collected as the samizdat Notes From Underground ) are jaw-droppingly weird yet somehow remarkably well-adjusted examples of maverick scholarship. Serious fun and serious caution are equal parts of the practices described in such papers as "A High Dose 2CB Trip," "DMT--How and Why to Get Off," and "Gracie's 'Visible Language' Contact Experience.'"

G&Z offer a model for responsible hallucinating behind this credo: "We wish to discover the appropriate techniques and attitudes that can successfully be utilized in our post-modern, high-technology culture to re-integrate and re-discover our true human psyches hidden in the monkey wetware. We firmly believe that Shamanism without hallucinogens, in either a traditional or modern setting, is primarily theatre." Beware the guru trip, they advise; and utilize the buddy system whenever possible.

These are just a couple of models for creating psychedelic identities of our own. Psychedelicism transcends sex, race, class, and nationality--it is an identity without frontiers that unites hedonists with fundamentalists, natives with aristocrats, plant lovers with chemical fetishists. The message of psychedelics, repeated over and over in each and every dose, is one of ecstatic revel in infinite richness. What could be better? Or more threatening to the power structure? As Terence McKenna once put it: "If the words 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' don't include the right to experiment with your own consciousness, then the Declaration of Independence isn't worth the hemp it was written on."