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Indoctrinated by Plants

There is a growing body of research evidence suggesting plant psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy could be useful not only for the treatment of a variety of mental health conditions, but even for the improvement of wellbeing in healthy people.  These new scientific insights traverse ancient pathways and knowledge with the goal of improving lives. But will the latest psychedelic boom put plant populations at risk?

The medicalisation of psychedelics is a divisive topic. Many argue that legalising psychedelic medicine provides no real benefit to people who use psychedelics, as medicalisation creates prohibitive costs (from production to packaging to marketing to commercial sales) and bureaucracy for existing consumers.

Some people are hopeful that psychedelic medicine will provide a legal pathway for psychedelics that could in turn encourage changes to harmful, prohibitive drug policies. Others feel medicalisation will create an additional barrier to decriminalisation and/or other alternative drug policy models such as legal recreational markets.

Either way, this contentious research has generated an economic boom in psychedelic medicine, accompanied by significant research spending by pharmaceutical companies, training providers and other investors which in turn has influenced media and drawn public attention to the topic.

The minimum standard of evidence for bringing a new medicine to market is a phase three clinical trial, which assesses efficacy, effectiveness and safety of a drug. At the time of writing, there is only one such psychedelic trial that has been completed with promising results, a study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the United States. While there are an increasing number of psychedelic clinical trials, research for psychedelic medicine is in its infancy.

Australia is playing its own part in this re-emerging field of clinical psychedelic research. Alongside Psychedelic Research in Science & Medicine (PRISM), clinical psychologist Dr Margaret Ross has led Australia’s first ever psychedelic clinical trial at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne. There, Dr Ross is investigating psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of anxiety and depression in people experiencing terminal illness. PRISM also supports current Australian clinical trials of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for treatment resistant depression and MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD.

But what does the psychedelic boom mean for everyday people and their natural environment? Traditionally, most psychedelics have been foraged or cultivated, rather than purified or synthesised, but the future of psychedelic pharmacy is unlikely to grow on trees.

In contrast to other medicines, plant-based products have more complex interactions, unpredictable chemical profiles and are difficult to patent.

To reconnect the psychedelic boom to the psychedelic plants themselves, and the people who grow and use them, this essay explores three common, natural sources of psychedelics – mescaline cacti, psilocybin mushrooms and DMT acacia.

Mescaline cacti

Some cacti enthusiasts might not know it and others may not admit to it, but most of them have at least a little bit of mescaline somewhere in their gardens. The two most common mescaline cacti are San Pedro and Peyote. San Pedro grows quickly and is prolific in the wild, whereas Peyote grows very slowly with wild populations dwindling in numbers. Encouraging recreational consumers to choose San Pedro over Peyote can help conserve the latter.

As we visit cacti gardens throughout the western suburbs of Sydney, Liam explains which cacti people prefer to consume. They point out a short form TBM (Trichocereus bridgesii monstrosa), otherwise called the ‘penis plant’ (no offence intended – this is a common name – ‘Frauenglück’ in German). It can be found throughout the world and I am told by the owner that it is ‘good food’, meaning that he is able to have a deeper and longer psychedelic experience because of potent mescaline content.

I ask the owner of one garden why he started it. His answer: ‘to eat it all.’ He tells us he first ate a cactus back in 2014. After a few bad experiences he learned to choose the right plants, refined his brew technique and has grown his own ever since. His garden has hundreds and hundreds of varieties. All in neat rows, some up in garden beds. We see innumerable bright yellow, variegated pups, fresh cuttings callousing on drying racks and grafts healing, rubber bands firmly holding scions in place. The collection is almost entirely different species of San Pedro and Peyote. Some of these cacti came from mother plants over 100 years old, perhaps much older. Many of these plants have been used psychedelic traditions for generations.

Liam jokes that the cacti gardener is known for being the ‘tersch connoisseur.’ Trichocereus terescheckii (‘tersch’) are very thick, and by weight they contain less mescaline than typical San Pedro. ‘Only the connoisseur and Andean indigenous people can be bothered to eat it.’

The second garden we visit features a massive ayahuasca vine, which has strangled one tree to death and climbed five meters up another. We learn that this is the oldest ayahuasca vine in Australia. The owner tells us he spent some time with a shaman in Peru in the early 90s, that the shaman gifted him a cutting of the vine as well as cuttings from three San Pedros and two San Pedro seed pods. ‘These were the shaman’s favourite plants. People say bridgesii are the strongest San Pedro, but the peruvianus the shaman gave me is the strongest I’ve ever had.’ Trichocereus bridgesii, Trichocereus pachanoi and Trichocereus peruvianus are the three species most commonly identified as San Pedro.

Photo: Liam Engel

We wander amongst his huge garden, an acre crammed with huge, old blue columns of succulent mescaline. He tells us that the v-marks on the cactus shows their age. One ‘v’ is one season of growth, like the rings of a tree. We move on, through large greenhouses, before stopping to talk to the gardener’s mother. She is seated in front of a spikey large ball called a Ferocactus latinspinus. The woman whistles to a crowd of magpies while using huge tweezers to pull out weeds. She’s almost 90 years old, and spends most of her time caring for their giant family of cacti. I wonder if she knows she is carrying on a mescaline tradition that may have been passed down for thousands of years. I think of the 20th century Mexican shaman Maria Sabina and the systems of matriarchal care surrounding many psychedelic plants.

Psilocybin mushrooms

Psilocybin mushrooms are likely the most well-known natural source of psychedelics. ‘Like mosquitos, psilocybin mushrooms have been called ‘anthropophilic’ meaning they have a preference for human habitats. Where people go the mushrooms follow, or maybe it’s the other way around…’ Liam says, as we walk along a fire trail between a pine forest and a national park. ‘I see more of them where there have been people – like beside the path we’re walking on, rather than deep in the bush – and I’ve seen much bigger patches in commercial forests and woodchip garden beds than in the bush.’

Psilocybe subaeruginosa. Photo: Liam Engel

Liam is taking me to see native, wild psilocybin mushrooms, Psilocybe subaeruginosa, which Liam refers to as ‘subs’. The most internationally famous psilocybin mushroom, Psilocybe cubensis (‘cubes’), aren’t as well known in Australia as subs. Most wild Australian cubes grow in Queensland and Northern NSW.

I spot a large red and white mushroom. Liam tells me it’s magic but not psychedelic, containing muscimol and ibotenic acid, rather than psilocybin. ‘Those mushrooms have to be prepared properly and they work on your GABA receptors, like alcohol or valium, rather than on your serotonin receptors, like psychedelics.’

It is unlikely medicinal psilocybin would be derived from natural sources, but media around this issue has renewed public interest in psilocybin mushrooms. ‘In one way it’s great that more people are interested in these species, but in another, the demand creates new environmental pressures.’ Liam says. ‘At the same time, these mushrooms are illegal, which makes it hard to organise the Australian community around psilocybin mushroom conservation.’

DMT Acacia

DMT (or N, N-dimethyltryptamine) is so prolific in the Australian landscape that it makes an appearance on the national emblem in the form of a flowering wattle (Acacia pycnantha). Every Acacia species contains a different amount of DMT, and potency can vary depending on environment and time of harvest, among other factors.

Selecting a wattle for psychedelic purposes requires specialist knowledge. While choosing DMT wattle has become a lot easier than it was in the 90s, knowledge of the psychoactive properties of these trees has placed pressure on vulnerable species of Acacia.

Liam explains to me that, like encouraging people to choose San Pedro over Peyote, there are two common Acacia species that people can preference to protect other, rarer and more vulnerable acacia, such as Acacia phlebophylla. ‘If people insist on wild harvesting then its Acacia acuminata on the west coast, Acacia obtusifolia on the east, that’s what people should be choosing.’

Acacia cultriformis. Photo: Liam Engel

While wasps, fungus and fire that have been impinging on Acacia phlebophylla populations for some time, in the 1990s the public realised DMT could be extracted from the trees, adding additional pressure on the already small existing populations of the plant.

Wild harvesting of A. phlebophylla has slowed down since people have been made aware of other more common acacia species that also contain DMT. Yet, there is a recently popular Australian acacia that has become threatened by DMT harvesting. Liam won’t tell me the species name, for fear it will encourage further wild harvest. ‘Always preference DMT made from cultivated rather than wild acacia. If you must wild harvest, only collect fallen material and choose A. acuminata or A. obtusifolia.’

The line between people and their environments is imagined. We are certainly animals, and perhaps we are also plants. Indeed, this is what psychedelics so often show their consumers – we are all one. Money, medicine, drug policy and other ethnobotanical concerns have created a new focal point. We hope this new focus will emphasise greater care, strategic conservation and respect for all of us.

We are one

The lines that distinguish people from their environments and medicine from recreation are imagined. We are animals, we are mushrooms, we are plants. The monotheistic psychedelic message tells us that we are all one – but the current psychedelic boom seems to have lost itself. By highlighting three common psychedelic plants we hope to encourage people, community and medicine to grow together.

“The basic problem is to understand that there are no such things as things; that is to say separate things, separate events. That is only a way of talking. What do you mean by a thing? A thing is a noun. A noun isn’t a part of nature it’s a part of speech. There are no nouns in the physical world. There are no separate things in the physical world either.”

– Alan Watts