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2. DMT Usage

(a) Shamanic usage

The history of human involvement with DMT probably goes back many thousands of years since DMT usage is associated with South American shamanism. Stafford [108] mentions that the "Spanish friar Ramón Paul, who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to the New World, was the first to record native use of ... 'kohhobba' to communicate with the spirit world." (p.310) A series of distinguished ethnobotanists eventually established that the psychoactive ingredients of these native snuffs (known under various names, including cohoba, parica, yopo, and epaná) were obtained from plants such as Anadenanthera macrocarpa, formerly peregrina (Schultes [95] and Harner [48]). Chemists then showed that the active ingredients consisted of various tryptamine derivatives, especially DMT, 5-MeO-DMT and bufotenine (Holmstedt [55] and Fish [25]). "These and related indolealkylamines have been detected in members of at least five different plant families" (Nichols [81], p.120), including Acacia, Anandenanthera, Mimosa, Piptadenia and Virola.

Plant tryptamines are also used by Amazonian shamans in the form of ayahuasca, a dark liquid formed by boiling sections of a vine from the Banisteriopsis genus, usually B. caapi (Rivier [88]). This vine contains harmala alkaloids, mostly harmine with some harmaline, which are sufficient in themselves to induce a mild psychedelic state (but at the cost of nausea). Usually another plant is added to the brew "to make the visions more intense" (according to the native shamans). This additional plant is often Psychotria viridis, a plant which contains DMT and 5-MeO-DMT. Although the DMT content of ayahuasca is sometimes thought to derive solely from the additives, Stafford [108] reports that the leaves and stems of one species of Banisteriopsis, B. rusbyana, "have a large amount of N,N-DMT, 5-methoxy-N,N-DMT, 5-hydroxy-N,N-DMT [bufotenine] and N-beta-methyltetrahydro-beta-carboline."

DMT is not by itself orally active (in doses of up to 1 gram), since it is broken down by the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO). This breakdown may be prevented by the ingestion of an MAO-inhibitor, allowing the DMT to act within the brain without being metabolized by the homeostatic mechanisms normally present. Ayahuasca contains an MAO-inhibitor, namely, the beta-carbolines derived from the B. caapi vine. Thus a chemical from one plant makes possible the action of a chemical from another plant. Anthropologists are still trying to understand how the indigenous people of South America learned this trick.

Ayahuasca is frequently consumed at night by a group of people (Kensinger [60] and McKenna [69]), although there are large variations in its mode of usage among the Indian tribes of the Amazon. Currently the use of ayahuasca among Indians in the Amazon is declining due to the destruction of traditional tribal cultures. This lends an urgency to the preservation of the knowledge associated with its use, a knowledge which concerns not only the preparation and use of ayahuasca but also the manner in which the experiences of the practitioner are to be interpreted.

Since the 1950s a couple of ayahuasca-using churches, including Santo Daime, have arisen in Brazil. Members partake of a brew said by some to be weak and insufficient to produce visions, but presumably occasionally quite effective. Santo Daime, is expanding and now has a presence in Portugal, Spain and other European countries. Religious services involve the singing of Christian hymns in Portuguese, and it remains to be seen whether some adaptation to local conditions will be necessary to capture and retain the interest of the majority of Europeans.

(b) Professional and academic research

Stafford [108] and Ott [82a] mention that DMT was first synthesized in 1931 by the British chemist Richard Manske (who was also the first to synthesize harmaline, in 1927). Subsequently it was found that DMT occurred in nature, in the plant Anadenanthera peregrina (1955) and in the plant Mimosa hostilis (1959 though first isolated in 1946). (Ott [82a], pp.109-110) Later "Albert Hofmann synthesized a series of DMT analogues, but little attention was paid to this work until the mid-1960s." (Stafford [108])

In the 1950s and 60s some researchers experimented with tryptamine hallucinogens injected intramuscularly. The first to publish in English on this subject seems to have been the Hungarian investigator Stephen Szara, while working for the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health in Washington, D.C. (For some reason most of the earliest researchers appear to have been Hungarians; presumably they learnt about it from each other before their non-Hungarian colleagues heard about it.) Szara published on DMT as early as 1956, and produced a series of at least twelve papers on the pharmacology of the alkylated tryptamines during the next eleven years. Writing in 1961 he said:

I became interested in the possibility of hallucinogenic action of alkylated tryptamine derivatives in 1955, when I read about the chemical analysis of a snuff powder prepared by Haitian natives from Piptadenia peregrina seeds which they used in religious ceremonies to produce mystical states of mind which enabled them to communicate with their gods. . . . [C]hemical analysis . . . revealed the presence of bufotenin and a small amount of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT). (Szara [114])

Szara administered 75 mg of DMT hydrochloride intramuscularly to himself and experienced intense visions. He established "that intramuscular injection of 50 to 60 mg of DMT brought about intense visual displays . . . within five minutes. These reached peak effects within a quarter of an hour, diminishing and then disappearing totally within half an hour . . . Subjects became catatonic or lost consciousness when given doses larger than 125 mg" (Stafford [108], p.314).

During the early 1960s the psychiatrist Dr Oscar Janiger (founder of the Albert Hofmann Foundation in Santa Monica, California) administered DMT to many subjects. The data and conclusions from these studies remained as of 1991 unpublished. One time he administered to himself an excessive dose and described the result as "terrible - like being inside a gigantic pinball machine with lights going on and off everywhere." [58]

(c) Studies by independent researchers

In the 1950s William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg journeyed to South America in search of the ayahuasca experience. They wrote about this in The Yagé Letters [14]. Later Burroughs, like Janiger, injected an overdose (100 mg) of synthetic DMT and had a "horrible experience".

Timothy Leary heard of DMT from Allen Ginsburg and contacted Burroughs, who warned him of the perils of this substance. Undaunted, Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner began to experiment, and discovered that the DMT experience, although intense was manageable and very interesting. Leary published in 1966 in the Psychedelic Review an article discussing DMT and giving, with his usual enthusiasm, an extremely positive account of what he experienced following an intramuscular injection of 60 mg ([63]).

Jonathan Ott writes:

It would seem Leary's enthusiasm was justified - although DMT was never widely distributed either before or after its illegalization in the late sixties, it has always had its faithful adherents among entheogen users. (Ott [82a], p.164)
Peter Stafford writes:

This article by Leary and Metzner caused a wave of interest in DMT among many in the counterculture. About this time came the discovery that DMT evaporated onto oregano, parsley leaves or marijuana and then smoked could produce effects similar to those from injections, except that they occurred almost immediately and disappeared more rapidly. ([108], p.315.)
In fact smokable DMT is not the same as injectible DMT. Generally speaking the freebase compound is smokable (for example, DMT) whereas a salt (for example, DMT fumarate) is injectible, snortable and sometimes orally active (though not in the case of DMT salts).

There is a certain art to smoking DMT to produce a significant effect which is only acquired with practice. Some who have tried DMT once have not experienced its full effect; others have found it too much to handle. It is indeed not a drug for "party trippers", but only for those who "take drugs seriously". Smoking DMT has been compared by some novice tokers to parachuting at night into the midst of a tribe of frenzied New Guinea natives at the height of an elaborate war-dance.

Carlos Castañeda gives an account of his terrifying experience with something that don Juan gave him to smoke ([15], pp.151-157). Although Castañeda does not identify the substance, one cannot help but wonder whether it contained a psychedelic tryptamine (though of course Castañeda might have invented the whole thing).

Castañeda: But what does the smoke teach, then?
Don Juan: It shows you how to handle its power, and to learn that you must take it as many times as you can.
Castañeda: Your ally is very frightening, don Juan. It was unlike anything I ever experienced before. I thought I had lost my mind.

... Don Juan discarded my simile, saying that what I felt was its unimaginable power. And to handle that power, he said, one has to live a strong life. ... He said that smoke is so strong one can match it only with strength; otherwise one's life would be shattered to bits. ([15], pp.160-161.)

(d) Recent developments

Since the first version of this article was published (late 1992) others (in particular, Jonathan Ott) have published valuable contributions to DMT research. D. M. Turner has suggested that, in the words of his leprechaun informant, "DMT is a Water Spirit plant" ([125a], p.89), and that although "it may yield positive results to those who begin with, or only know of this method of use [smoking]", the DMT spirit is averse to fire, loves water, and if smoked in a dry environment (such as a desert) will give the smoker a particularly hard time (in the form of dread and terror).

Whether this is the case is, as D. M. Turner points out, a subject for further research. If, however, it turns out to be true, then another method of administering DMT which does not involve fire is needed.

Another notion which this leprechaun imparted to me is that in the Amazon region, where DMT has been used by the native for millennia, it is most frequently consumed in the Ayahuasca beverage. ... I've never heard of a native method of consumption which involves burning, or putting a flame to the DMT. Yet some of the native preparations would certainly have produced a strong effect if used in this manner. (Turner [125a], p.91)
So perhaps we should learn from the shamanic tradition - and in fact Western researchers, in particular Jonathan Ott (see [82b]), have been discovering how to enter the DMT state by taking it orally in combination with an MAO-inhibitor such as harmine, the principal MAO-inhibitor in ayahuasca.

Without special techniques it is not possible to have a fully orally-active DMT/harmine combination in one capsule, because before the DMT can do its work in the brain the harmine must work to deactivate the body's MAO enzymes. Thus the harmine must be taken at least an hour before the DMT (and preferably taken in parts over a period of an hour or two, so as to reduce any tendency to nausea).

Harmine may be obtained from several plant sources, including Syrian Rue (of which Gracie & Zarkov have written (see [44]). Seeds of Syrian Rue may be ground up and placed in capsules. Three or four grams of this material may be taken over a two-hour period (actually the amount needed is that which is just sufficient to produce mild nausea - which can be found by experiment), followed immediately by 30 mg. or so of DMT (or DET).

Another method of administering DMT which does not involve fire is injection, but since this requires the use of a needle it is not for everyone. Intramuscular injection is sufficient to produce extraordinary visual effects. Intravenous injection has an effect which in intensity is similar to smoking, and may be the form of injection required to experience contact with alien entities, but this form of administration requires technical skill and is not without risk to health so it should be performed only by someone with medical or nursing expertise.

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