From plant species easily found in garden centers to novel research chemicals, let's delve into the colorful world of legal psychedelics.
Up until the past couple of years, negative and fearful sentiments toward drugs would have been unsurprising. Many of us grew up hearing “Just say no” or taking part in the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program as students. But a cultural shift is taking place, and curiosity about the potential therapeutic, spiritual, and recreational value of psychedelics is steadfastly growing.
Though Oregon will be decriminalizing all drugs, and other states are considering following suit, some of the most common psychedelics — LSD, DMT, Psilocybin, and MDMA — are still illegal in most parts of the world. Yes, there are a few countries in Europe like Spain, Portugal, and Czechia where possession of all kinds of drugs is decriminalized for personal use, but a few substances have managed to fly under the radar of even some of the world’s harshest drug laws.
Salvia divinorum, AKA diviner’s sage, or simply salvia, is a perennial shrub-like herb native to Oaxaca, Mexico. The plant has large green leaves that can grow up to 30 cm long, and occasionally blossoms with pretty white and light violet flowers.
Salvia’s principal psychoactive component, salvinorin A, is the most potent naturally occurring psychedelic compound discovered to date, producing psychedelic effects at doses as low as 200 micrograms — just one-fifth of a milligram!
Salvia’s psychopharmacology is rather unique. Unlike classical psychedelics which produce their characteristic effects by binding to 5-HT2A serotonin receptors, salvia is a highly selective kappa-opioid receptor agonist. But don’t let the word “opioid” throw you off. The effects of salvinorin A are very different from those produced by opioids like morphine, heroin, and oxycodone — very different.
The Mazatec — an indigenous Indian people of the Sierra Mazateca in Oaxaca — ritually chew Salvia divinorum leaves or drink a mind-altering tea or infusion for healing and divination in traditional hour-long religious ceremonies. Salvia is used by the Mazatec to treat ailments like alcoholism, diarrhea, and rheumatism, as well as a mysterious illness known as “panzón de arrego” which is characterized by a swollen stomach and is purportedly unique to the Mazatec people.
Outside of indigenous contexts, salvia is most often smoked recreationally to produce psychedelic effects that typically last less than 10 minutes and are dose- and context-dependent. In sufficient doses, effects can be extremely intense, often overlapping with those produced by classical psychedelics, though salvinorin A is also associated with a unique suite of subjective effects.
Commonly reported subjective effects of smoked salvia include:
Maria Sabina, the curandera (native healer) made famous by the Wassons’ early expeditions to Oaxaca in search of magic mushrooms, reported sometimes using Salvia divinorum with her patients if mushrooms were not available. Interestingly, the “priestess of mushrooms” noted that salvia was not as powerful as Psilocybe mexicana, a psychedelic mushroom revered as sacred in Oaxaca.
Some explanation is needed regarding the strength of salvia leaves. Many early reports describe salvia as not very potent, compared to mushrooms. This is because salvia's concentration of salvinorin A is relatively small compared to the concentration of psilocybin in magic mushrooms. As mentioned earlier, however, weight for weight, salvinorin A is the most potent psychedelic in the natural world.
To spare prospective users the trouble of ingesting dozens of leaves, tinctures and highly concentrated salvia extracts are often accessible online and in head shops in some countries, though whole leaves and plants are available for purchase, too. Users are urged to practice caution and carefully measure doses should they opt to purchase salvia extracts as they are often significantly more potent than the dried leaves.
At the time of writing, salvia is a legal psychedelic in most countries, though Italy and Australia, for example, have placed it on their strictest levels of substance control. In the United States, salvia is not controlled at the federal level, but some states have made it illegal. You should always consult federal and local laws when it comes to the use of psychoactive substances to avoid criminal penalties.
Another psychedelic resource known to the Mazatec and other indigenous Mesoamerican peoples in Mexico, including the Mixtec and Zapotec, is morning glory (Ipomoea violacea) seeds. Yes, the pea-sized seeds of that charming, ubiquitous climbing plant with beautifully shaped blooms can occasion astonishing states of consciousness.
Morning glory seeds contain the psychedelic compound lysergic acid amide (LSA), also known as ergine, an ergot alkaloid in the same chemical class (lysergamides) as LSD. A particularly psychoactive species of morning glory, Rivea corymbosa (Ololiuhqui), has been used in shamanic rituals by indigenous peoples of South and Central America for centuries.
At moderate-strong doses (250-400 seeds) morning glory seeds can induce sedating and euphoric dream-like states and mild to moderate psychedelic effects akin to its cousin, LSD. In contrast to LSD, however, ingesting morning glory seeds is typically less intense, the come-up can be quite nauseating, and its vasoconstrictive properties can cause an uncomfortably heavy “body load.”
To counteract or mitigate the nauseating effects of eating the seeds, recreational users often employ different methods to extract the LSA. Consuming the seeds with ginger tea or chewing them for 15-30 minutes to facilitate absorption through the buccal mucosa in the lining of the cheeks can also help to soften nauseating effects.
If you wish to experiment with morning glory seeds, you must take extreme care to ensure that the seeds are untreated. Commercial suppliers often treat the seeds with toxic fungicides and pesticides that can result in serious health complications.
In the 16th century, Spanish naturalist and physician Francisco Hernandez documented the first known Western account of the ritual use of morning glory seeds. Hernandez reported the use of 100-150 Ololiuhqui seeds among Aztec and Mayan shamans to achieve fantastical visions of Gods and demonic figures and treat inflammation and a wide variety of other ailments.
Regulation of morning glory seeds is limited. They are not controlled in the United States, UK, or Australia, and can be purchased legally from nurseries, garden stores, and other retail settings. Though, they may be illegal in Italy and a handful of other places. As usual, those interested in experimenting with morning glory seeds should always ensure that they are legal in their region.
The psychoactive component of morning glory seeds, on the other hand, LSA, is more widely controlled in most countries. Extracting and possessing LSA in its isolated form is illegal in the USA and Australia, for example.
The Amanita muscaria mushroom, AKA fly agaric, is one of the most iconic and unmistakably recognizable psychoactive mushrooms in the world. Featuring heavily in psychedelic folklore, fairy tales, and video games, A. muscaria is often portrayed as possessing somewhat of a promiscuous and playful quality.
Bearing an enchanting cherry-red cap speckled with white spots, one could easily assume A. muscaria to be physiologically harmless. People may even mistake the mushroom as nourishing, especially considering its widespread prevalence in popular culture, religious significance in indigenous cultures, and deep roots in ancient mythology.
However, this is far from the truth — A. muscaria is very poisonous, particularly when consumed raw. At high doses, one of the mushroom’s active constituents can cause severe sickness that may include sweating, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and convulsions. It is certainly not the type of mushroom foragers or psychonauts should gleefully take home and ravenously sink their teeth into.
Though consuming the mushroom raw poses significant health risks and is almost certain to produce unpleasant effects, parboiling active doses of the mushroom in plenty of water weakens its toxicity and can induce positive psychedelic-like experiences.
The fly agaric is sometimes confused with psilocybin-containing mushrooms as "magic mushrooms." In contrast to the classical serotonergic psychedelics, however, the main psychedelic compound in A. muscaria — muscimol — is, like alcohol and benzodiazepines, a GABAA agonist, which is the brain’s principal inhibitory neurotransmitter.
A. muscaria also contains the psychoactive chemical compound and known neurotoxin ibotenic acid, some of which, when consumed, is likely metabolized into muscimol. On its own, ibotenic acid is a potent agonist of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors and group I (mGluR1 and mGluR5) and II (mGluR2 and mGluR3) metabotropic glutamate receptors.
Due to its entirely different mechanism of action, A. muscaria produces a very different subjective experience from classical psychedelics — one that is typically characterized by a distinct kind of dissociated, drowsy delirium. The effects of this mushroom have been compared to those produced by poisonous anticholinergic plants such as belladonna and datura.
In a comparison between psychedelic mushroom use in the Americas and Europe, botanist Harri Nyberg declared that fly agaric mushrooms have been used in conjunction with rhythmic drumming by shamans in West Siberia to achieve trance states, and by various ethnic minorities in East Siberia for religious and recreational purposes.
In most countries, including the US, the UK, and Ireland, A. muscaria is not controlled. Thailand, Australia, Romania, and the Netherlands are a few notable exceptions. Though A. muscaria mushrooms are not controlled under federal law in the USA and are a legal psychedelic in most states, the state of Louisiana has made them illegal.
Again, psychonauts are strongly advised to double-check local laws before pursuing psychedelic substances.
The mind-altering substances mentioned above are but a small selection of compounds that are not as restrictively controlled as more well-known classical psychedelics. There are also dozens, if not hundreds, or even thousands, of designer chemicals, synthesized to produce effects similar to popular psychedelics, but modified in such a way as to evade the law.
Take, for example, 1P-LSD. Chemists add a propionyl group to LSD, creating a new molecule that is technically not illegal in many places. However, users report that it is very similar to LSD. In fact, 1P-LSD acts as a prodrug for LSD, meaning that the human body metabolizes it into LSD once consumed.
Such designer drugs cannot always evade the law, however. Some countries, like the USA and the UK, have introduced analogue laws which may render certain new substances illegal based either on similarity in chemical structure to illegal psychoactive substances.
Certain mescaline-containing cacti, such as San Pedro, are also generally legal psychedelics, at least until they are prepared for human consumption.
Dextromethorphan (DXM), a widely-used cough suppressant in over-the-counter cold and cough medicines and atypical psychedelic that acts on NMDA and serotonin receptors, is also a legal psychedelic that can be purchased in many countries without a prescription. Great care must be taken when experimenting with DXM due to possible contraindicated drug interactions and medical conditions and the risk of developing serotonin syndrome.
In short, the list of legal psychedelics is surprisingly quite long if one is willing to conduct research to learn about them. Though there is a lot of hype right now surrounding more well-known psychedelics, we could see scientists investigating the potential therapeutic applications of lesser-known novel psychoactive substances in the near future.
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