“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 post can also be reached and shared via tim.blog/conservation.]
This is a blog post I wish I didn’t need to write.
I have personally invested years and millions of dollars into nonprofit 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, which the results of studies seem to thus far confirm, and (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 ever-increasing global demand. Many plant and animal species are already endangered or near extinction.
To have a hope of stemming the tide, 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.
Given the slope of popularity growth, if we don’t reconsider our sources, I’d wager that we extinguish at least a handful of critical species within the next 3–5 years. There are also questions of animal abuse, and while some practices are ethically justifiable for small indigenous populations, they are 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. It’s very easy to go from taking one tree to taking a forest or to go from grabbing one toad to extirpating an entire species.
So let’s make some changes.
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 (or lack thereof).
That said, I am by no means the world’s top expert. Even though drafts of this piece were proofread by biochemists, ethnobotanists, and guides/facilitators with hundreds of sessions with different compounds, this post will no doubt contain typos and mistakes. Those are mine alone, as I also made final edits after receiving revisions. I will aim to improve this post over time as I get feedback.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: These plants and compounds are 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 peoples for their ability to kill. Similarly, don’t assume that synthetic psychoactive agents are automatically less effective or therapeutic than natural products. Many of us—present company included—wouldn’t have survived childbirth or childhood without synthetics. There are pros and cons to both, places for both, and responsible and irresponsible ways to use 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 recommend watching A Brief History of 5-MeO-DMT by chemist and filmmaker Hamilton Morris, who has extensively studied the compound, its history, and its means of production. For me, the most important part of this presentation begins at 12:45 (click here to begin at 12:45). To get the gist in <5 minutes, I suggest watching 60 seconds here, then watching another three minutes starting around 17:00.
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.
– 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 counterexamples, but that’s my general perspective, as well as my personal experience.
– 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.”
– From Hamilton Morris via SMS on indigenous use: “There is absolutely no evidence of B. alvarius smoking before the publication of Ken Nelson’s pamphlet [in 1983], the evidence for any form of indigenous use of B. alvarius is highly speculative and I find none of it convincing. B. alvarius is the only species that has been found to contain 5-MeO-DMT. The smoking of B. alvarius venom among Seri people appears to be a modern practice that is almost universally attributed to outside influences.”
Now, to be clear: there are very interesting and valuable applications of 5-MeO-DMT, perhaps for another post. I know people who credit it for saving their lives. 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.
Postscript 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. Simply put, please don’t consider this.
Before we dive in, a quick note in response to comments on this post — I am well aware that kambo is *not* a psychedelic in any classical sense. Nonetheless, it is often incorrectly viewed that way, and it is frequently incorporated into the menu of people who do and administer psychedelics. There is a tremendous amount of overlap. Personally, I’ve never met a non-indigenous user or provider of kambo who isn’t also a user or provider of psychedelics (hence this post is “An Urgent Plea to Users of Psychedelics”). Furthermore, this post is more broadly about making ethical choices amongst psychoactives. For all of these reasons and more, I’m including it in this list.
I find it impossible to endorse kambo, given the most common 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 the below 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. Yes, there are a few tribes with less aggressive methods, but the below photo is not an outlier. You can easily find dozens of similar photos online.
If we have other options, is this really what we want “expanded consciousness” or “evolved consciousness” to involve?
The Giant leaf frog population is currently stable, and while rapid increases in demand could easily change that status, my first concern here is animal abuse. 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, autoimmune 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 autoimmune 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—use sparingly and under supervision), particularly those rich in saponins. But it need not sound exotic. 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 one of the more important paragraphs 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, consider hitting pause or stop so you can reconsider your plans.
Measure twice and cut once. And maybe, just maybe, consider keeping this part of your life private. In a world of vanishing privacy, keeping these experiences for you, your family, and your closest loved ones can foster a sense of sacredness that is increasingly rare.
MY CONCLUSIONS FOR NOW (PLUS ADDITIONAL NOTES)
These concluding notes, all a work in progress, are split into the following: Overall, On Plants, On Animals, On Synthetics, On Hybrid Approaches.
Rather than asking some version of “How can I have the most powerful/helpful experience possible [without regard for environmental consequences]?,” I suggest we all first ask ourselves, “Is this an ethical tool that could really help me to improve?”
There are many excellent options that will give you a solid “yes” to the latter.
Even if the alternatives I propose are somehow, say, 80% as effective as the threatened all-natural options (I don’t think they are less effective), they are still easily effective and versatile enough for 99.999% of people. This includes “oldies” like psilocybe mushrooms or LSD, which are are reliably powerful and—icing on the cake—have excellent safety data.
But excellent safety data doesn’t mean you should take anything lightly — even tried-and-true classics like LSD can knock you loose or untethered well beyond your session. In fact, in all my volunteering for the Zendo Project at various festivals, nearly 100% of the most completely disassembled cases I met in the crisis tents were there after high-dose LSD; not all were back-to-normal 24 or 48 hours later. It’s critical to have well-trained supervision and pre-scheduled post-care (e.g., a psychedelic-familiar therapist for integration) with any of these compounds. Put the safety nets in place beforehand, not when you’re in free-fall.
Now, perhaps not using toad-derived 5-MeO-DMT means three sessions of something else instead of two sessions, but… who cares? Perhaps not using kambo means taking a few weeks to find another modality. That’s fine if you’re playing the long game. Sometimes, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Invest in sustainability and you will be rewarded; I’m confident in this. Conversely, beware of the new thing, the cool discovery. It’s a hard temptation to resist, but remember: good stories sometimes = bad karma.
Start small, start conservative, and ask more questions than you think necessary. If you are seeking to know thy self, ensure you first know thine medicine.
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 (both vine and shrub), etc.. Peyote can take decades to grow; mushrooms can take weeks to grow. Filter your options by environmental impact first.
Next, you can filter by psychological and physical safety. Of the above-mentioned three, mushrooms and San Pedro are generally better tolerated than, and also more sustainable than, ayahuasca. There are many cases of people losing sight of shore after ayahuasca and needing to get put back together over weeks and months. One of my close and experienced friends ended up living in a tent for more than a year after severe “ontological shock” in South America. The below excerpt from a review study will give you the gist:
“The operations of the paleo-mammalian brain are also directly relevant to explaining what Gallimore and Luke (2016) note as a a powerful shock of the DMT [or DMT-containing ayahuasca] experience caused by an unshakeable feeling of authenticity that makes it impossible for the individual to deny the reality of the experience, nor dismiss it as an hallucination, in spite of its bizarre nature. For many, there is an absolute certainty regarding the reality of the DMT experience that clashes so powerfully with people’s most basic assumptions regarding reality that it produces a state of ‘ontological shock’ (Mack, 1999) regarding the ultimate nature of reality.”
What happens when alternate realities become hyperreal compared to your normal waking reality? It’s a special breed of profound confusion. Becoming unmoored with ayahuasca happens, and it can take a while to “process.”
I say this as a true believer in the therapeutic value of ayahuasca, and I say this as someone with a fair number of repetitions, but I also say this as someone who has been destabilized for extended periods after a few of them. If you spend enough nights with the “vine of the dead” (literally one translation of ayahuasca from the Quechuan roots), you will sooner or later get strapped to the front of the ice-breaker. It could be your first outing, or it could be two years in, but everyone eventually gets tumbled and humbled. I do not consider it low-risk.
So, treat ayahuasca as a big gun. It’s safer to start — and perhaps continue — with other things.
Next, let’s discuss collection mentality. 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 dying breath. The depth is there, if you commit to the exploration. There is no need to stamp the psychedelic passport with every plant or animal, and there are many reasons not to. Narrow and deep beats broad and shallow every time.
If you believe in plant spirits, and you want to connect with 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 populations 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 simply too easy to do damage otherwise, both to nature and yourself.
Please don’t consider animals. Revisit the photo at the top of this post as well as Hamilton’s video. There are too many ethical and ecological reasons why this should be off the menu, and there are plenty of other powerful options.
Sure, it’s tempting to say “But the XYZ tribe harvest by hand and do this ethically,” and there might be such cases, but 1) this doesn’t scale for high demand, which 2) results in people using unethical methods who claim to use ethical methods, and 3) if you’re not personally watching the process and taking it from the hand of the person who harvested, you’re taking someone else’s word for it (and if you’re buying services in the US, Europe, etc., many people’s words for it). For me, these are instant disqualifiers.
If the vast majority of indigenous traditions could survive and develop deep spiritual practices without psychedelic toads, frogs, etc., you can too.
In the psychedelic communities, it’s common to hear people embrace plants and animals as “medicine” and dismiss anything synthesized as “chemicals.” I think this is largely an artificial distinction, and there are both terrible and great options for different purposes within each group. For instance, I have not found any compound better for treatment-resistant PTSD than MDMA-assisted psychotherapy (even though I don’t technically consider MDMA a psychedelic), and research supports this.
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, SAFETY ALERT: Because these compounds are mostly illegal and unregulated, knowing your source and purity is paramount for safety. MDMA and MDA are often misrepresented or laced with other dangerous drugs, including things that don’t appear to make sense, such as fentanyl. Extremely high-risk drugs like 25i-NBOMe are often sold as LSD. I would strongly suggest that anyone venturing into psychedelics consider purchasing testing kits from DanceSafe, an outstanding 501(c)(3) public health organization.
It’s also worth noting that synthetics are not automatically environmentally friendly. Sources and process do matter, just as they would for natural psychedelics, and there are related environmental crises: deforestation in Cambodia by those seeking MDMA precursors; illegal dumping of solvents, acids, and so on by black-market chemists; and more.
The above issues are largely byproducts of the “war on drugs” and an unregulated illicit drug trade, which I believe is best addressed by responsible legalization, regulation, and taxation of these compounds. This is one of the many 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 setup and setting 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 shouldn’t combine old practices with the new, 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 ubiquitous “Agua de Florida.” Guess what the last is? It is 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 and blending of psychedelics and formats has been constant for millennia, and there is no one right or fixed way to do things. What is “right” can and does change over time.
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 materials. 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 still think there is time to right the ship, but it requires us to start taking action now. Once plants or animals are gone, they are gone. This is time-sensitive.
So, to try and sum it up, here are the steps I’d advise for the vast majority of people entering this space:
1) First, filter your choices for minimal ecological impact. If there were a 100-fold or 1,000-fold increase in demand over the next 3-5 years for what you’ve chosen (very possible), could it still be ethically sourced? What might the unintended consequences be?
2) Filter for safety, both physical and psychological.
3) Work with a well-trained professional. Do they do a medical screening? Do they ask about medications? If not, I’d pass. I understand that will exclude most indigenous experiences, and I remain confident in this recommendation for novices and many intermediates. How have they handled redline cases where people have freaked out or had really bad responses? If they say it’s never happened, I’d pass. They are likely too inexperienced or being dishonest. Do they call themselves a “shaman”? That’s a pass for me. I’ll spend time with ayahuasqueros, curanderas, Roadmen, etc., but I’m very skeptical of “shamans,” and the best practitioners I know are equally skeptical. It is simply not a word I hear used by the best to describe themselves.
4) Ensure you have found, tested, and booked a therapist the days after your experience, someone prepared to help you integrate and put yourself back together, if needed. I encourage people to have a therapist in addition to a facilitator. This therapist should be someone willing to get calls at odd times. Why two? I dislike single points of failure. Even the best facilitators have emergencies and can be unavailable or need to fly out unexpectedly; this happens, and I’ve seen it happen.
5) If a synthetic, ensure you test it.
6) Start small. Take much less than you think you can handle. You can always take more, but you can’t unhit the golf ball once you smash it.
Sounds like a lot of work, right? It is. I think you should take this as seriously as choosing a neurosurgeon for a serious operation. That might seem ridiculous, but do 100 or 200 sessions and you’ll see a wide spectrum of things that can go partially or fully sideways. It’ll make most people real believers in pre-flight checklists.
Now, back to choosing a more ethical menu of plants and compounds…
There will always be powerful forces pulling us towards the wrong reasons, so it requires effort to ensure we’re doing things for the right reasons. I’m in there with you. These things require constant self-inquiry, ego-checks, and uncomfortable reminders.
The future of these healing tools is literally in our hands. It’s up to each of us to do our part, and together, we can do a lot of good.
Thank you for reading.
For those who would like to go further and support preservation, I am offering a $50,000 challenge grant to the nonprofit Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), which works in partnership with indigenous groups to protect ancestral rainforests, shamanic traditions, and tribal knowledge (botanical, linguistic, and otherwise). They have partnered with over 55 South American tribes to map and improve management of over 80 million acres of ancestral rainforests.
I will match up to $50,000 USD in donations made to ACT before 5 p.m. PT this Thursday, February 25, 2021. In other words, whatever you collectively donate by 5 p.m. PT this Thursday, up to a maximum of $50K, I will then match and donate. 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).
Once the deadline has passed, I will work with the President of ACT, Mark Plotkin, to add up all donations to ACT between publication of this blog post and the deadline. That will be the number (up to a max of $50K) that I double by matching.
Just click here (Amazon Conservation Team homepage, direct donation page) to learn more and consider donating.