Magic Medicine (Book Review)

Originally published on Blossom Analysis

Magic Medicine by Cody Johnson is a great exploration of 23 (categories of) psychedelic plants and substances. It takes an observational perspective in which it’s open to theories and traditions, but sticks to the science and actual description of the drugs’ effects. Both for people who are new to psychedelics and the more experienced, the book offers new insights to all.

Quick Take

Magic Medicine is divided into four parts:

  • Classical Psychedelics (serotonin-related/oriented)
  • Empathogenic Psychedelics (amplify emotions)
  • Dissociative Psychedelics (detached from your body)
  • Unique Psychedelics (others)

Throughout the four parts, you’re introduced to 23 psychedelics or groups of psychedelics. You encounter the well-known ones like MDMA, LSD, psilocybin (truffles), but also meet less familiar compounds like Mad Honey, DXM, and MDA.

Each chapter describes the effects of the compound (group), it’s short history, discovery, and possible medical applications. The author is careful in being not too optimistic or wish-full, yet at the same time does do a good job of describing how (traditional) cultures use the substances in rituals.

Throughout the book, you get the distinct feeling that all the different psychedelics offer unique perspectives (lenses/doors) into our perception. It’s thus such a shame that most are banned in many countries and that many don’t get to experience these different perspectives.

Below are my personal new insights and interesting tidbits from the book. Here I skip over the more obvious or well-known facts, so please do consult Erowid or another site to learn more about a substance, or give the book a read.

Part 1 – Classical Psychedelics

Chapter 1 – 2C-B and the 2C Family

  • Invented by Alexander Shulgin and Michael Carter in 1975 (see Pihkal)
    • Discovered when tweaking/changing the DOB/Dox family (see chapter 5)
  • Used in therapy, possibly still underground, for it’s lucid and gentle effects
  • 2C-E is known to be even more intense
  • 2C-1 and 2C-C are lighter, possibly more tactile

Chapter 2 – 5-MeO-DMT

Chapter 3 – Ayahuasca

  • Made from plants that contain DMT (Chacruna, chaliponga), and a carrier (caapi – contains harmala alkaloids)
  • Used in traditional healing a lot, but not many rigorous scientific studies on it’s healing properties (e.g. how good is it at kicking addiction)

Chapter 4 – DMT

  • Changa is a new way of smoking DMT by adding MAOIs that potentiate (increase power/effect) DMT’s effects
    • The onset is slower than smoking it pure, and more manageable
  • Used by Timothy Leary and friends, but then by injecting it
  • Best documented by Dr. Rick Strassman (60 volunteers, 400 dosages) in DMT: The Spirit Molecule

Chapter 5 – DOM and the DOx Family

  • Duration of 24 hours (12 to 36)
  • Produces a body high, tactile positive experiences, hallucinations (3-5 milligrams)
  • Also used by Richard Alpert (Ram Dass)
  • DOI is also used in PET scans (by replacing the iodine with a radioactive isotope)
  • DOI appears to be effective in preventing asthma in mice

Chapter 6 – LSD

  • Pure LSD is a white crystalline powder with no odor (but usually dissolved in water and add to ‘tabs’)
  • It’s a derivative of ergot (parasitic fungus on rye grains)
  • The Grateful Dead shows were used as a distribution network for LSD
    • The original audio engineer and financier, Owsley Stanley, was even a producer of it
  • MAPS (known for MDMA research) also studied LSD and anxiety in patients with terminal illnesses (paper)

Chapter 7 – Morning Glory

  • Of the thousands of variations only some are psychoactive (e.g. Turbina corymbosa, Ipomea tricolor)
  • Morning glory seeds are also used to treat excessive bleeding in postpartum women
  • Albert Hofmann was the one who discovered that he psychoactive morning glory seeds contained ergot alkaloids (like LSD)
  • Effects are similar to, but lighter, than LSD

Chapter 8 – Peyote

Chapter 9 – Psilocybin Mushrooms

  • Used in the Harvard Psilocybin Project (Timothy LearyRam Dass), but also mentions the good research done by Rick Doblin (of MAPS fame)
    • The latter showed that recidivism of prisoners was unchanged
  • Psilocybin is now actively being studied and shows much promise (depression, anxiety, OCD, quitting smoking, etc)
    • Mostly attributed to ‘resetting the brain’ and being able to ‘confront/revisit experiences’

Chapter 10 – San Pedro

  • Contains mescaline like Peyote, less well-known than Ayahuasca
  • One of the traditional uses is to find lost items

Chapter 11 – Yopo and Vilca Beans

  • These are seeds of the Anadenanthera trees
  • Used mainly in South America
  • Mostly used as a snuff that is inhaled into the nostrils
  • Contains bufotenine, also DMT and 5-MeO-DMT
  • People with schizophrenia and autism have significant concentrations of natural bufotenine in their urine
    • It’s unclear if this has any causal effect or is a byproduct

Part 2 – Empathogenic Psychedelics

Chapter 12 – MDA

  • Gordon Alles discovered amphetamine in 1927, MDA in 1930 (the A stands for amphetamine)
    • The effects lie somewhere between MDMA and cocaine or amphetamine
  • Before 1970, it was widely used in psychotherapy (notably by Leo Zeff and Claudio Naranjo)

Chapter 13 – MDMA

  • Almost 7% of American adults (20+ million) have tried MDMA
  • If alcohol is a social lubricant, MDMA is a full tune-up of body and mind, generating a sense of physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being”
  • Frequent high doses (daily/weekly) is neurotoxic, moderate doses are not correlated with brain damage
    • Most deaths which are linked to MDMA are caused by other factors (too much water/overheating/co-drug use)

Part 3 – Dissociative Psychedelics

Chapter 14 – DXM

  • Dextromethorphan (DXM) is cough suppressant
    • The bad taste/syrup of cough suppressant is intentional, to prevent people from doing ‘too much’
  • Low dosage leads to euphoria, anesthesia, unusual bodily sensations
  • High dosage leads to profound out-of-body experiences

Chapter 15 – Ketamine

  • Now commonly used for anti-depressant effects in clinics
    • Also being studied for effects on alcoholism, opioid addiction, chronic pain
  • Stumbled upon” by Calving Stevens in 1962
    • Found as a derivative of PCP
  • “The synthesis of ketamine is quite complex, so the black market supply is most often diverted from legitimate sources”
  • Used by John C. Lilly (quite the mad scientist) who subsequently also invented the isolation tank (sensory-deprivation chamber)
  • Tried by 2.7 million Americans (close to 1%)

Chapter 16 – Nitrous Oxide

  • The smallest psychedelic, one oxygen atom attached to two nitrogens
  • Discovered (and then used by aristocrats) in 1772 by Sir Joseph Priestley
  • Tried by 16 million (5%) Americans
  • Dangerous is used irresponsible (gas masks – directly from container), safer if inhaled from a balloon
  • Used by William James (1842-1920) – father of psychology
  • Still being used for labor pain relief
  • Also being studied in combination with talk therapy for anti-depressant effects (pilot study)

Chapter 17 – Salvia

  • Salvia Divinorum is part of the mint family
  • Salvinorin A (the active ingredient) is the most potent psychoactive compound in all of nature
    • Half a milligram can do the trick
  • Usually made into a water diffusion, or chewed, but can also be smoked
  • Used as a back-up psychedelic by María Sabina (Mazatec healer)
  • Works by triggering the kappa opioid receptor (KOR)

Unique Psychedelics

Chapter 18 – Amanita Muscaria

  • Red mushroom with white spots (like in the Disney movies)
  • Used by traditional cultures in Siberia (specifically Kamchatka)
  • It can’t be cultivated but only grows next to birches or pines (other trees sometimes work too)
  • Fly agaric “produces stillness of mind, delusions often mistaken for reality, and a sense of detachment
  • Contains the active ingredient muscimol (and ibotenic acid which is converted into the former)
  • Can be extracted (read: drunk) from urine up to 5 times

Chapter 19 – Cannabis

  • The Cannabacae family (of which Cannabis is part) also contains hackberries and hops
  • The protein-rich seeds are now also being used for hemp sprouts, hemp milk, hemp oil (and hemp fiber)
  • In the medical context, there are positive effects on neuropathic pain, epilepsy, MS, and it’s anti-inflammatory
    • But, as the book notes, “Cannabis is not a miracle drug … most of its medical benefits remain anecdotal or speculative, and it does have real side effects.”

Chapter 20 – DiPT

  • Also discovered by Alexander Shulgin and Michael Carter, in 1980
  • Leads to auditory hallucinations, but usually not pleasant/enhancing
    • One early tester said “Piano sounds like a bar-room disaster”
  • But another also described being more aware of sounds in the time after experiencing the effects of DiPT

Chapter 21 – Fish and Sea Sponges

  • Some sea sponges contain 5-Bromo-DMT
  • The effects are psychedelics, but not per se pleasant
    • Usually, tightness in the chest is reported for instance
  • There might be many more aquatic animals that contain psychedelics, we are just not so familiar with most of them

Chapter 22 – Iboga

  • Traditionally found in Gabon, also being used in detox centers in Mexico, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Canada
  • Works both on serotonin and other receptors that lead to more dissociative effects
  • Used in small dosages as a stimulant
  • In higher dosages leads to the inability to stand, vomiting, photosensitivity
  • Lasts up to 20 hours, with after-effects for days
  • Howard Lotsof is responsible for promoting Iboga for its anti-addiction capability
    • He used it to kick a heroin addiction, as did 5 of 7 of his friends
    • But long-term results about the effectiveness of this type of treatment is still lacking

Chapter 23 – Mad Honey

  • Found in Nepal and Turkey
  • Happens when bees are in regions with azalea (a type of rhododendron)
  • One spoonful leads to mental high, sensations of movement, and spatial distortion
    • At higher doses, it leads to convulsions, hallucinations, vomiting, problems with breathing
  • Used multiple times in warfare (let the opposing party consume it)
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