The internet has enabled Terence McKenna’s lectures – and, in turn, his fascinating descriptions of the DMT experience – to circulate among the curious and experimental. But while the DMT Preacher has played a highly influential role in raising people’s awareness and interest in this strange substance, other factors have been at play in the rising popularity of ‘elf spice’, as it is sometimes colloquially referred to online. One book, in particular, should be credited with this effect, and that is Dr Rick Strassman’s DMT: The Spirit Molecule (2001).
Strange, Alien Encounters
This book details Strassman’s research with DMT between 1990 and 1995 at the General Clinical Research Center of the University of New Mexico Hospital. Strassman was the first person to legally administer a psychedelic to people in the US in 20 years. By the mid-70s, the legal exploration of the therapeutic value of psychedelics was put to a stop. Under the Controlled Substances Act – signed into law by then-President Richard Nixon in 1970 – DMT was classified as a Schedule I drug. And it still is today. Using the current definition of a Schedule I drug, this means that DMT “has a high potential for abuse” and “there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or substance under medical supervision.”
The prohibited status of DMT made it extremely arduous for Strassman to be able to carry out his research. In the book, Strassman charts the Kafkaesque and labyrinthine process of jumping over regulatory hurdles. He had to gain approval from both the Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC) and the Research Center’s Scientific Advisory Committee at the University of New Mexico. But whilst negotiating with these university committees, Strassman also had to grapple with two US federal agencies that constituted the final, regulatory barriers. And this proved very challenging indeed. These agencies were the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Strassman told the committees that the study would not begin until both the FDA and DEA gave permission to administer DMT.
The DEA would decide whether Strassman would be allowed to possess DMT and if so, would be granted a Schedule I permit. Meanwhile, the FDA was to decide whether it was safe to administer the drug to humans, with the license taking the form of an Investigational New Drug (IND) permit. Strassman had to carefully and meticulously write up his study proposal, as well as obtain the drug, which also proved difficult. Eventually, after a series of meetings, letters and phone calls, Strassman gained approval from the FDA and DEA. Two years after Strassman submitted his proposal to the HREC in 1988, they concluded it was safe to proceed with the study. Strassman obtained full approval for the DMT research in late 1990 and soon began the experiments with human volunteers. And the experiences that participants reported turned out to be very bizarre, in a way that Strassman did not anticipate.
And it is these reports, of weird and wonderful realms, that give DMT an enticing edge over the other psychedelics. Strassman’s groundbreaking research helped to bring this earth-shattering experience to the public’s attention. But he wasn’t the only person who helped elevate DMT’s popularity. Awareness of the substance also seeped into people’s consciousness through many different mediums.
The visionary artist Alex Grey is often credited with given uncannily accurate depictions of the DMT experience. The colour schemes, nets and lattices, patterns, symbols, and faces connected to the surrounding environment, are all reminiscent of DMT. One of Grey’s paintings, Transfiguration (1993), is directly influenced by DMT. Following a dream in which Grey had been painting this potential creation, envisioning a human undergoing a profound transformation. But later that week, he smoked DMT for the very first time. As he recounts in Transfigurations (2001):
As I inhaled the immediately active and extremely potent psychedelic, I experienced the transfigured subject of my painting firsthand. In my vision my feet were the foundation of the material world. As I inhaled, the material density of my body seemed to dissolve and I “popped” into the bright world of living geometry and infinite spirit. I noticed strange jewel-like chakra centers within my glowing wire-frame spirit body and spectral colors that were absent from my dream painting. I was in my future painting and was being given an experience of the state so I could better re-create it.
Another of Grey’s paintings, Net of Being (2002-2006) – also used as the artwork for progressive rock band Tool’s album 10,000 Days (2006) – is inspired by Grey’s experience with ayahuasca in Brazil. Other ayahuasca-inspired artwork hadn’t quite revealed a space like the one that Grey encountered during his experience in Brazil. But containing DMT as the psychoactive ingredient, it should be no surprise that there will be parallels between the oral and smoked experience. In any case, the painting – featuring multifaceted, godly heads arranged in columns; connected in a cosmic infinite net – captures quite closely what the DMT space is like for many people. The same applies to the kind of entity depicted in paintings such as BardoBeing (2002), where personally, I think Grey nails the patterns, colours and vibe of DMT.
DMT’s influence can also be seen in the paintings of Adam Scott Miller, in pieces such as ‘Rhizomorphic Resonance’ (very similar to Grey’s ‘Net of Being’), ‘The Witness’, ‘Wisdom’s Dare’, and ‘Parabolic Vehicle of Conception’. Visionary artist Xavi paints the DMT realm in a work titled ‘Podular Manifestation’. Some alien entity is depicted, cross-legged in a mudra pose, and manifesting out of the organic, hi-tech environment. Randal Roberts recreates the moment of breaking through hyperspace in his piece ‘Divine Messenger of Truth’ (the acronym of which is DMT). Another close representation is ‘DMT’, created by Cobalt358 and shared on DeviantArt, an online social community for artists. And artist Jonathan Solter emulates hyperspace in works such as ‘I’ve Been There’, ‘Green Cubed’ and ‘The Space Between’. Here are some examples of my own artwork influenced by DMT. They are very crude representations of the DMT experience and entities (as all representations are), but for me personally, they do capture, to some extent, the idiosyncratic ‘DMT vibe’.
Other visionary artists have been bringing the DMT experience to life using computers to generate, manipulate or process their artwork. This enables them to better recreate many aspects of the DMT experience, especially its intricate, complex and fractal nature. Digital artist Luke Brown recreates the DMT entities in pieces such as ‘Namaste’, ‘Alpha Centauri’, ‘Jesterrestrial’, ‘Apotheosis’ and ‘Baphomet’. SalviaDroid, whose digital art originally focused on salvia’s influence (hence his name), soon drew on the DMT experience for inspiration. This is reflected in pieces such as ‘The D33MST3R’ (‘deemster’ being a nickname for DMT), ‘Inner Divinity’, ‘The God Source’, ‘Death by Astonishment’ and ‘Padawan’. Symbolika reproduces the patterns, colours and entities of DMT in works such as ‘DMT HD’, ‘Chango’ and ‘Trinfinity’. Digital artist INCEDIGRIS has created pieces which many DMT users remark as being eerily accurate; these include ‘MINIME’, ‘DNA DINER’ and ‘BUDDHAMID’.
While Grey was communicating the DMT experience through his art, other artists used the experience as inspiration for their musical endeavours. Psychedelic music project Shpongle, made up of Simon Posford and Raja Ram, have a track called “Divine Moments of Truth” (DMT), which features on their debut album Are You Shpongled (1998). Their second album Tales of the Inexpressible (2001) features the track “A New Way to Say Hooray”, inspired by McKenna’s lecture ‘Sacred Plants as Guides: New Dimensions of the Soul’. In this lecture, McKenna describes the entity contact during the DMT experience, saying “The gnomes have learned a new way to say hooray”. McKenna himself drew inspiration from Pink Floyd’s song “The Gnome”, which features the lyrics, “Another way for gnomes to say hoooooooooray”. McKenna refers to the “cheer” that the entities give you as you enter their space. The influence of DMT pervades Shpongle’s music. You get a sense of it from the glitchy and hallucinogenic sounds and distorted alien voices.
In a 2012 MAPS bulletin, author David Jay Brown interviewed Simon Posford, discussing the connection between psychedelics and Shpongle’s music. When asked how psychedelics affected his musical creativity, Posford said, “…massively, and on a profound level.” Brown praises Shpongle, saying “it really comes close to capturing the multidimensional state of consciousness that one is in during a psychedelic experience.” Posford’s musical ingenuity and intense focus on his music allow him to turn “tambourines…into liquid drops of nectar”, and convert “vocals…to voices of the cosmos.” Shpongle’s music also features springy and squeezing sounds, Brazilian music, Eastern ethnic instruments and chanting. Everything is highly textured and multi-layered, and this too helps to recreate the feeling of being in hyperspace. Shpongle’s use of cultural styles from around the world and fun, crazy and euphoric soundscapes combine to create something very DMT-like in nature.
When it comes to DMT, Posford says it is “by far the most profound of all the psychedelics” that he has tried. He talks about meeting these entities:
…without bodies or physical features, more like a collection of intelligent energy continually shapeshifting that communicated with me through a variety of mediums, not all of them language, sometimes color, sound, or a form of telepathy that I cannot describe with mere words. One of the things they said to me was, ‘Oh, we’re so glad to see you! You made it! You’re here.’
Then they started examining me in a very frivolous, excited, joyful, and playful kind of way. When I say examining me I don’t mean physically or medically, which would be horrible. Rather, it was like all of the information in my brain was accessible to them. The hard drive was open, so to speak, and they were rebooting me. They were feeding me information, nourishing me…
Posford also mentions how he gained musical inspiration from this experience, similar to the way in which Grey found inspiration for his painting Transfiguration. Posford continues:
I could see the music we had been working on leaving my head as a flowing liquid mercurial stream of holographic colored symbols, and these ‘machine elves’ as Terence McKenna calls them, appeared to be getting off on it. They were dancing, laughing and enjoying it. There was a little flute riff in there, that we could all see, it was red and blue and melting like one of Dali’s clocks. These creatures suddenly turned serious and told me, ‘You have to go back and find this particular flute riff. It is the divine riff, and this is the one that you have to use’.
Posford went back to the recordings and found one of Raja Ram’s flute riffs and it resonated with Posford. But it wasn’t quite right. So he asked Raja Ram to replay the melody. Posford says that “we got as close as we could get” with recapturing that DMT flute riff. It was then featured in the track “Behind Closed Eyelids”, which is on the album Are You Shpongled?
DMT has also been referenced by many other bands and artists. On Tool’s 10,000 Days, the track “Rosetta Stoned” mentions “Yogi DMT”. Producer Flying Lotus (aka FlyLo) has recounted an experience smoking DMT while listening to Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song”. After the third and final hit he said:
There was no pain, no fear. It felt natural, and beautiful, slipping away…
Leaving my body.
Feeling weightless, not connected to ‘me’, ‘my’ apartment, ‘my’ world. I felt like a free floating spirit.
Any worries or fears that I had about ANYTHING would quickly be replaced with overwhelming feelings of love and warmth. It felt like the universe hugged me and held me tight. Despite the chaos, there was nothing to fear, this is a place of loving energy.
On FlyLo’s album Until the Quiet Comes (2012), one of the tracks is called “DMT Song”, featuring musician Thundercat. Electronic musician XXYYXX also dedicated a track to this compound, simply called “DMT”. Meanwhile, there is a metal band called DMT, who might just be inspired by the elf spice as well. Country singer Sturgill Simpson’s second album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014) is noted for being nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Americana Album, being listed 18th on Rolling Stone’s ’50 Best Albums of 2014’, and also being named among ‘NPR’s Favorite Albums of 2014’. And the first track, and second single, on that album “Turtles All the Way Down” includes references to psychedelics, including DMT:
There’s a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there beyond this plane
Where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain
Tell me how you make illegal something that we all make in our brain
Some say you might go crazy but then again it might make you go sane …
Marijuana, LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT
They all changed the way I see
In this way, DMT has been making its way into mainstream culture and awareness. People are no longer asking “What is DMT?” but “Where can I get some?” More and more people are hearing about DMT, and its wild and mystifying reputation is piquing people’s curiosity. Mainstream interest in DMT has increased since the release of Gaspar Noe’s film Enter the Void (2009), which features a scene in which the protagonist Oscar smokes DMT. While the trip sequence may not present the viewer with a hint of what the DMT experience is actually like (it needs to be faster with more elves!) it still transmits the feeling that the DMT experience is something that causes a dissolution of reality, and an emergence into a psychedelic fireworks show. So here we have an award-winning movie, introducing the substance DMT to people for the first time.
Then in 2010, there was the release of the documentary DMT: The Spirit Molecule (based on Strassman’s book), which was later available on Netflix. This long-obscured drug was now being unveiled to the masses. Presented by UFC commentator and comedian Joe Rogan, the documentary features interviews with an array of psychedelic spokespeople, such as Strassman himself, Alex Grey, Charles Grob, Neal Goldsmith, Roland Griffiths, and Graham Hancock. This documentary really helped to communicate the intensity and mystery of this elusive experience to a much wider audience.
Then, Vice magazine published two articles: ‘Interviews with People Who Just Smoked DMT’ (2012) and ‘DMT: You Cannot Imagine a Stranger Drug or a Stranger Experience’ (2014). The former, as you can tell, involved giving people DMT and then interviewing them about their experiences. The latter, written by journalist Tao Lin, gives the reader a roughly chronological sequence of the DMT experience, based on a composite of McKenna’s talks. Mainstream media also picked up on the rise of DMT, with Huffington Post publishing an article entitled ‘If You Haven’t Heard of DMT, You Might Soon’.
The Global Drug Survey – the biggest drug survey in the world – noted the influence of entertainment and media on rates of the use of DMT. One of the researchers on its team, Adam Winstock, said:
Mainstream interest since the release of the cult film “Enter the Void” in 2009 and the 2010 documentary “DMT: The Spirit Molecule”, followed by a recent article in the influential youth magazine Vice featuring young people who had just smoked DMT will have raised awareness.
Winstock also had a paper published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology titled Dimethyltryptamine (DMT): Prevalence, user characteristics and abuse liability in a large global sample (2013). It uses data found from the Global Drug Survey, concluding that DMT:
…had a larger proportion of new users compared with the other substances (24%), suggesting its popularity may increase.
It should be noted that the Global Drug Survey is not a random sample. It has a selection bias, in the sense that those who regularly use drugs, or have an active interest in drugs, are more likely to fill out the survey than those who don’t. So it cannot provide accurate data on the prevalence of the use of a certain drug. However, some key trends can still be identified. For example, in the 2012 Global Drug Survey, researchers highlighted that users have a relatively low urge to use more of the drug. Indeed, in his email exchange with Terence McKenna, Grateful Dead drummer Robert Hunter underscores that DMT’s “abuse potential is rock bottom”. DMT has not been found to be physically or psychologically addictive. Even though the experiences can be positive, euphoric and pleasurable beyond the user’s wildest dreams, it still does not tempt them with regular use. Part of this has to do with the sheer intensity of the experience. Hunter agrees with McKenna about the difficulty of finding the “raw courage” to use DMT again. Elsewhere in a lecture, McKenna remarked:
I think that DMT is as intense as any drug should ever get; I don’t ever want to be more loaded than that. I don’t think you can be more loaded than that and come back.
DMT’s unique intensity factor means that after one experience, it may be a while before the individual has any urge to experiment again. Or they might find the experience just too intense for their taste and never seek it out again. The experience also has a kind of abuse-correcting mechanism, whereby, if the user has been using DMT too much or too casually, she will get ‘told’ that she is not meant to be there. Many negative experiences with DMT seem to centre around the fact that the user was disrespecting the power of the substance. In the DMT lexicon, this is known as a ‘hyper slap’, in which the user will find themselves being punished by the entities in some way. This is an example of when ‘set’ can make a huge difference to the quality of the experience. The attitude you bring to the experience – i.e. humility and respect or impulsivity and hedonism – can influence whether you enter a kind of heaven or hell.
More Evidence of DMT’s Rising Popularity
Other research bears out this trend in DMT’s increasing popularity. For example, the US government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that the number of people in the US who have used DMT in some form has been up almost every year since 2006. 688,000 people had used DMT in 2006, and in 2012 this increased to 1,475,000. What this means is that there are a lot of people out there who are in search, who feel drawn to, the possibility of a deep, mystical experience. As mentioned before, DMT has an advantage over the other psychedelics because the duration of the trip is so short – you could have a mystical experience and be more or less sober after 10 minutes.
Salvia also has a short duration, but unlike DMT, many people find it to be a much more uncomfortable experience, and not as loving or comforting in the way that the DMT experience is. (It should be noted, however, that salvia is technically a dissociative rather than a psychedelic. It is also legal to buy in head shops, so many people who experiment with it might not have had previous experiences with powerful, altered states of consciousness, or might casually use it in unfavourable settings or circumstances.) Salvia is sometimes referred to as the ‘evil twin’ of DMT. In any case, what attracts many people to DMT, especially those who already use psychedelics or are spiritually inclined, is that it tempts you with the very real possibility of a mystical experience. And all you need is 10 minutes of your time. Who can’t spare 10 minutes?
With more and more people using DMT, online communities were formed, with users describing their experiences, asking questions, offering interpretations, and sharing in the mystery. DMT-Nexus is a website set up to provide information about DMT. Reddit also has a ‘subreddit’ (an area of interest) dedicated to DMT. Other drugs forums, such as Erowid, Bluelight and Shroomery have also become useful resources for reading DMT trip reports.
It is because of the internet that DMT has become so much more widely available. If you don’t know anyone who has it, you can just read up on an extraction method, buy the root bark online, and with some basic ‘kitchen chemistry’, you can end up with your own supply. And if that doesn’t appeal to you (since it takes time and does involve using sodium hydroxide, which is strongly irritating and corrosive), using the ‘dark web’ is another way to obtain DMT. The dark web is a subset of the ‘deep web’, that part of the web (99% of the internet – hence why it’s called ‘deep’) that isn’t accessible by search engines. The dark web is a smaller subset of the deep web, and like the deep web requires special software, such as the Tor browser, to access it. Tor allows users to anonymously surf the net. However, it isn’t perfect. Fundamentally, Tor allows private and secure communication, but de-anonymisation is possible under certain circumstances.
By using the Tor browser, darknet markets can be accessed. These function primarily as online black markets where drugs – as well as weapons, counterfeit currency, forged documents and stolen credit card details – can be purchased. Payments are made using cryptocurrency, a digital currency based on cryptography, which secures the transaction. Bitcoin is the original cryptocurrency and is the most valuable on the market. Silk Road was the first modern darknet market. It was described as the Amazon or eBay of drugs, using an eBay-like vendor feedback system. Silk Road was shut down by the FBI in October 2013. Ross Ulbricht, who created and ran Silk Road, was arrested and later sentenced to life in prison without parole. Then Silk Road 2.0 emerged, but this was shut down by the FBI and Europol on 6 November 2014.
However, if you cut one head off of the hydra, many new ones will appear. And this is exactly what happened with darknet markets. Many other, similar marketplaces cropped up following Silk Road’s demise. And DMT is there to purchase. Anyone who’s interested in experimenting with DMT, by just putting in a small amount of effort in learning how to access and use darknet markets, can do so. Moreover, it is not just freebase DMT that’s available, but also ‘changa’ – a DMT-infused smoking blend. Online resources, such as DMT-Nexus, provide a step-by-step process for making it. Sometimes called ‘smokeable ayahuasca’, changa is made up of the leaves of B. caapi (which contains MAOIs), infused with DMT. But other herbs can be used in the mixture for their different properties, including passionflower (also an MAOI), mullein, mugwort, mint and blue lotus.
The MAOI-containing plants are said to lengthen the experience, as well as make it more ayahuasca-like (since the brew, unlike freebase, contains MAOIs). Changa is also believed to offer a more grounded experience than freebase, with the onset being smoother, making it a much more user-friendly experience. It is also much easier to smoke, unlike freebase, which can easily be burnt and wasted. While an experience with changa can be every bit as powerful and profound as freebase, it is considered to be more approachable. It is less of a slap in the face and blast off-type experience, and more like being whisked off to hyperspace and gently guided through. Many users report less speed, confusion, chaos and turbulence compared to freebase.
All of these changes have been working together to make DMT a more accessible and popular substance of choice. But its rising popularity has also generated a plethora of misconceptions and speculations. In this respect, the DMT experience is something that can be simultaneously demystified and mystified.