Dr. Rick Strassman's "DMT: The Spirit Molecule"
by Charles Carreon
I just finished reading "DMT: The Spirit Molecule," by Rick Strassman, M.D. who practices psychiatry in Taos, New Mexico and is a Clinical Associate Professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. Dr. Strassman managed to finagle permits to administer DMT, "an extremely short-acting and powerful psychedelic," at the UNM School of Medicine. Beginning in 1990, and continuing for five years, he administered 400 doses of DMT to 60 human volunteers.
Dr. Strassman has great intellectual credentials, including degrees from Stanford and Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. He interned in general psychiatry at U.C. Davis Medical Center where he received the Sandoz Award for outstanding graduate resident in 1981. He has also been a Zen Buddhist for over 20 years and is deeply interested in the liberating spiritual potential of psychedelic drugs. Dr. Strassman's avowed purpose for his DMT work was to find ways to do good things for people with psychedelic drugs, but he was compelled to follow strict bio-medical protocols that ultimately hamstrung his research efforts and made him question whether there was any point in continuing. He left the project after his wife contracted cancer, and the promised additional support for his psychedelic research from other medical professionals failed to materialize. Dr. Strassman makes it clear that a great way to screw up a promising scientific career is to become interested in psychedelic research. He recounts a telling conversation with an anonymous "Dr. K," at the San Diego V.A. Hospital. Dr. Strassman was on his fellowship, and was having a "rambling and wide-ranging" conversation with Dr. K., when he ventured one of his pet theories:
"Do you think," I offered, "that the pineal [gland] might produce psychedelic compounds? It seems to have the right ingredients. Maybe it somehow mediates spontaneous psychedelic types of states -- psychosis for example." Dr. K. stopped in his tracks and turned on his heels. His brow furrowed and he peered at me intently through his glasses. A palpable menace glinted from his eyes. "Ooops," I thought. "Let me tell you this, Rick," he said slowly and firmly. "The pineal has nothing to do with psychedelic drugs."
Dr. Strassman learned his lesson, and did not speak the words "pineal and psychedelic in the same breath to anyone" for the remainder of the year.
Of course, we expect scientists to be uptight, because they have grants to protect, wives to support, kids to feed, and politicians to please. However, Strassman never expected to discover that his fellow Zen Buddhists were even more uptight than Dr. K., who just didn't want anyone screwing up his reputation in the pineal gland business.
Strassman's experiments utilized intravenous injections of DMT at dosage levels calculated at .05 mg./kg. of body weight for a low dose, and .4 mg./kg. for a high dose. The onset of psychedelic effect after injection is immediate with doses of .2 mg./kg. and above. What Strassman discovered in his experiments upended his hypothetical applecart. He expected people to have mystical and near-death type experiences. He did not expect for many of his experimental subjects to declare with certainty that they had met other beings during their experience, whom they described as "clowns" or "elves," who took an intensive interest and delight in the experimental subject's appearance in their dimension. These beings reside behind the brilliantly colored curtains of psychedelic light that immediately invade the visual sense field within seconds after administration of the drug. Ultimately, Dr. Strassman seemed to give up on his efforts to interpret these beings as projections of psychological features, as one subject after another refused to accept that characterization, insisting that the beings were real, the place where they met the beings was real, and they did not reflect mere inner experiences in a Freudian or Jungian sense.
Dr. Strassman was also surprised when one person after another recounted experiences strangely reminiscent of alien abduction stories when receiving a high dose of DMT. Admittedly, Dr. Strassman was administering the DMT in a large hospital, where medical hardware was everywhere present, and bio-medical protocols required that he take blood draws, blood pressure readings, and even EEGs and MRIs of people tripping their brains out. Nevertheless, lots of people recorded experiences that involved detailed visualizations of large numbers of intelligent beings, often reptilian or automaton-like, tending huge machines in vast illuminated complexes, and performing examinations of the experimental subject. They often bonded with one of the strange beings and were regarded indifferently by the rest.
This reminded me of my friend Ernesto's DMT experience that he recently recounted. Depositing the DMT powder on a bed of dried pscyhotria viridis, which has a small amount of naturally occurring DMT in it, and putting another layer of psychotria viridis on top of the dust (to prevent it from bursting into flame) he applied a butane lighter flame and consumed the entire bowl in one breath. The effects were as fast as promised, and as he exhaled the white smoke, complex colored patterns appeared in the smoke-swirls. His entire psychosomatic system began to vibrate, from the inside out and from the outside in, and the only thing he could hear was a mantra, a single word repeated endlessly. This mantra seemed to protect him from disorganizing energy, keeping him collected around his center. He felt a bit of anxiety that the experience might get out of control, but it did not. With eyes open or closed, he saw colored patterns of an extremely complex geometric structure that gradually began to resemble reptilian structures such as scales and bones. After around five minutes, Ernesto got up from his seat and laid down under a blanket. There, for around the next 1-1/2 hours, he continued to experience a reptilian presence. This reptilian presence was somewhat disturbing to Ernesto, because of the conditioning we have against reptiles, but the reptile presence spoke to him gently, encouraging him to appreciate the reptilian history in his body, and its great strength and resilience. The reptilian spirit told him that it was a source of his strength, that he needed in order to succeed as a living being. Ernesto accepted this understanding, and gradually dealt with the tension between conditioned repulsion and wholesome self-acceptance. He saw images of primitive spears, the extensions of reptilian talons and claws. In days following, Ernesto's strength and resolve in the course of ordinary life seemed strengthened and smoothly directed. A few nights later, he advised, he had brief DMT-like colored visions in his dreams. He stated that the experience had not been anywhere near as frightening as common stories had caused him to expect, and if given the opportunity, he would try another DMT voyage.
According to his grant proposal, Dr. Strassman was not supposed to be giving therapy, but leading people through the inner world always requires the intuitive skills of a healer. He never knew when one of his experimental subjects would experience a terrifying upheaval. One poor fellow, a happy raver-type with charming looks and a light-hearted attitude, who had consumed lots of MDMA (ecstasy) in recreational settings, suffered a nightmare ordeal on a high-dose trip. The drug kicked in, his feet convulsed in a kicking motion, and he remained rigid for ten minutes. Then he opened his eyes, sat up, and declared that he had just been raped anally by two crocodiles who sat on his chest and immobilized him so completely that he was unable to sit up or reach out for a comforting hand. As he put it, when the experience began he thought it was a dream but "then realized it was really happening." Of course, with the time distortion effect added in, this was a monolithic exercise in agony. Interestingly, this subject considered the experience fundamentally beneficial, in that it increased his appreciation for ordinary life. He cut down on his ecstasy-taking in trivial social interactions, moved in with his girlfriend, and assumed a quiet lifestyle.
Whether covered with contrived nonchalance, or with a veneer of spiritual sophistication, the soft underbelly of the human psyche is quickly exposed by this substance. A woman who prepared for her session by flipping through the New Yorker had an extremely miserable trip on a very low dose and accepted no further injections. A modern-day shaman named Carlos kept trying to explain away his high anxiety before each administration of the drug, which induced violent shaking notwithstanding his profession that his first dose was nothing much. Eventually he had a full death experience that he considered fully valid spiritually, but wished he had been with friends out in the mountains when it took place. But some of the most enthusiastic were unable to continue. In certain cases, DMT high-doses induce huge spikes in blood pressure, in one case so severe Dr. Strassman was ready to call the cardiac team, and diagnosed the slight headache that the subject felt after the trip as the result of extreme vaso-dilation in the large blood vessels that enter the base of the skull. But the experimenter was pleased with the experience, and notwithstanding his disability, wished to take further trips. Though he was not permitted by Strassman, the subject remained grateful and considered it a very important experience that confirmed the rightness of his spiritual direction.
Under the guise of trying to determine whether DMT administration develops a tolerance in the user, Dr. Strassman developed a protocol of four high-dose injections approximately one hour apart. These doses were .3 mg./kg., not the highest dose but plenty psychedelic. Dr. Strassman said that everyone who was given the opportunity persevered through all four doses, a moderately exhausting experience.
First, the answer to the tolerance question -- DMT does not build up a tolerance, and each successive dose was just as powerful as the first. What changed was the character of the experience, which seems to profit from familiarity. The first high dose trip is the shocker, when people don't know what they are going to see and aren't sure they like seeing it. The second and third trips grow increasingly familiar. And by the fourth trip, many people felt cleaned out, healed and freed of persistent anxiety. One young woman in her early twenties who professed a lesbian orientation and was highly attractive to people of both sexes, had a persistent pain in her belly. She had been raped repeatedly by her step-father at sixteen. During her four sessions, she met the beings on the other side, whom she called the elves, and discharged the pain in her midsection, which she connected with the rapes. She valued the experience very highly and felt that she would now enjoy her life a great deal more.
In addition to the powerful psychedelic effects, which caused people to blurt out things like, "Here we go!" and "They were on me quick," DMT releases large amounts of vasopressin, prolactin, growth hormone, and corticotropin, all of which may have psychological effects. During the drug effect, pupil diameter doubled within two minutes, and body temperature would rise. Dr. Strassman's theory that the pineal gland may produce DMT seems unsupported by the information in the book, but it is an intriguing theory, an explanation for why this organ, centrally located in the brain, contains so many of the precursor substances that create DMT.
Reasons for joining the experiment were the expected -- people wanted new experiences, wanted to understand the nature of their own existence and God, and wanted to deepen their understanding of life. Interestingly, many of them found a bit of what they were looking for, or at least thought they had. Dr. Strassman himself became increasingly uncertain as he looked for concrete changes in behavior, beyond expostulations of enthusiasm. From my point of view, Dr. Strassman may have been looking too hard in the wrong places. When it comes to judging how we are doing, it's hard to say that anyone knows better than we ourselves.
After years of doing the work, Dr. Strassman indeed was getting tired. One can imagine the stress of responding to the heightened mental states and emotional reactions of sensitive people questing for self knowledge. Then his wife got cancer and they moved to Canada to be closer to her relatives. Dr. Strassman started commuting to Albuquerque from Canada every couple of months, jamming in as many psychedelic sessions as possible. The fatigue took a further toll.
As I mentioned, Dr. Strassman is a long-time practicing Zen Buddhist, and like many Buddhists, had talked with other Buddhists about how LSD had led them into the search for enlightenment. He had a number of friends, long-time students in an unnamed Zen Buddhist organization that we could possibly identify by connecting the dots: the group is based in the midwest, the teacher died recently, the head of the organization is now a woman, and the organization chooses its leaders by election. It is a large group. Also, they are a bunch of assholes.
How do we know they are assholes? Because they dumped shit all over poor Dr. Strassman when he needed it the least. He had shared his thoughts about his work, and his hopes and aspirations to connect the spiritual path with psychedelic methods, disclosing deep thoughts to a person he thought was his spiritual counselor. Within the DMT sessions themselves, he incorporated attitudes of modeling equanimity and projecting compassion, Buddhist attitudes that helped subjects to benefit from the experience. Additionally, he selected for the experiment numbers of persons who had experience with psychedelic drugs and meditation, believing that they were best adapted to deal with the jarring effects of the experience. For all this respect and the place of honor that Dr. Strassman accorded Buddhism in his life and work, he was rewarded with the most arrogant, presumptuous declaration of insult that I have heard delivered from a Buddhist source in recent years. His former Buddhist pals derided his work with DMT as "not right livelihood," and denounced his plan to administer psychedelics to the terminally ill as an "appallingly dangerous" effort to "play God." With the full confidence of having reached enlightenment themselves, they decreed: "An attempt to induce enlightenment experiences by chemical means can never, will never, succeed. What it will do is badly confuse people and result in serious consequences for you."
This pronouncement certainly confused Dr. Strassman, who until then had been receiving encouragement from his old stoner pals who had put on Buddhist robes. He realized that there was a succession struggle going on within the Zen group, because the old abbot was dying, and "senior monks were lobbying for elected posts," each vying for the position of "most zealous defender of the teaching."
Then Dr. Strassman really stuck his foot in it. He published an article in Tricycle, Fall 1996, calling for "a discussion of integrating psychedelics into Buddhist practice." As Dr. Strassman put it, the "article sealed my fate ... my lifelong affiliation with the order would implicate it as contributing to these new ideas." In order to distance the Zen group from Dr. Strassman's vile heresy, his erstwhile friend, a nun who had been elected new chief poobah, "sent copies of the Tricycle article to members of my new meditation group as well as to other groups and the monastery [including] scribbled comments" Dr. Strassman had made during their private conversations. She also "wrote to the local congregation telling them not to enter my house because there might be psychedelic drugs kept in it." (This reminds me of James Thurber's mother-in-law's fear that electricity might leak out of the sockets and electrocute you. It also reminds me of Timothy Leary's statement that LSD is a substance well-known to cause insanity in those who have not taken it.) This betrayal by his old spiritual comrades was apparently the last nail in the DMT experiment's coffin. Says Dr. Strassman, "Although I could see beyond the hypocrisy that motivated much of the monastery's repudiation of my work, it took its toll." Shortly thereafter, he wrote closing summaries on all of his projects, packed up his drugs and mailed them to a secure facility near Washington, D.C., where "the supplies of DMT, psilocybin, and LSD remain ... to this day." Probably right next to the Ark of the Covenant, left there by Indiana Jones.
To read Dr. Strassman's account of the screwing he got at the hands of the robed bitches, check out Chapter 20 of his book, entitled "Stepping on Holy Toes."