Harry* was 22 when he tried acid for the first time. It was New Year’s Eve, and instead of going to a party, he and his girlfriend decided to stay home and enjoy the mind-altering effects of a trip. Knowing little about LSD, they each dropped half a tab, then
“And I had the 10 worst hours of my entire life,” he says. “It was like a 10-hour panic attack.” Harry would know — he already suffered from debilitating panic attacks. He swore off touching anything psychedelic again.
Except then last year, at 37, married with two kids and running a business from his home on the North Shore, he started to hear about the potential mental health benefits of taking psychedelics — the same family of compounds that had sent him to the depths of hell were now being talked about on his favourite podcasts as helping people overcome a raft of mental health issues, from depression and anxiety to trauma and abuse.
Getting high was low on Harry’s list of priorities but so was forking out more money on therapy, which he says was helping, albeit frustratingly slowly, as was his new meditation habit. Sceptical of stories in which psilocybin users spoke of untethering their mental shackles in a single, hallucinogenic trip, he nonetheless sought out magic mushrooms to see if he could “accelerate” his progress. After the kids had gone to bed one night, Harry ingested a macro dose of 2-3 grams of dried mushrooms (about 15-20 actual shrooms), then lay on the bed with an eye mask and headphones playing relaxing music.
“The intention was to release some of the anxiety but I was doing something that made me incredibly anxious,” he laughs. “I was anxious about becoming more anxious, which is slightly ironic.”
Harry is among a growing number of Kiwis who experiment with psychedelics, despite their illegal status (although ketamine and ibogaine clinics do operate throughout New Zealand, treating treatment-resistant depressed patients and addicts respectively). Although it’s impossible to know how many people micro or macro-dose in New Zealand, Facebook group Kiwicybin, a harm reduction page that helps psilocybin users identify magic mushrooms has amassed 10,600 followers since launching last year.
It’s not hard to see why the surge in interest — inspiration has gone mainstream. Whether it’s Chelsea Handler having an epiphany while taking ayahuasca in the jungle for her TV series Chelsea Does…, American journalist Michael Pollan charting the frontiers of scientific research into psychedelics for his book-turned-Netflix-series How to Change Your Mind, or Joe Rogan discussing his otherworldly DMT sessions on the world’s most popular podcast, tripping is no longer something the hippy kids of the 70s did for fun at music festivals, but touted as a promisingly salve for our increasingly troubled minds and souls.
Overseas, the notion of Liane Moriarty’s fictional Nine Perfect Strangers is entirely real, with psychedelic retreats now offered as a luxury travel experience. Corporate executives in British Columbia (where psychedelics are likely to soon be decriminalised), can join The Journeymen Collective, a NZD 26,000 shaman-led experience whereby guests take magic mushrooms in a five-star setting to “elevate life and business in full connectedness”.
Or visit MycoMeditations, a seaside resort in Jamaica where magic mushrooms are offered alongside massages and manicures. In Ibiza, celebrity Canadian-British shoe designer Patrick Cox has pivoted from outerwear to the inner domain, guiding people who’ve ingested 5-MeO-DMT, the strongest psychedelic on the planet, extracted from the venom of Bufo Alvarius, a toad native to the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. (You can find toad practitioners here too if you know where to look).
At this immersive end of the psychedelic continuum, and definitely not something you’d take on your way to the kids’ school disco, is the ancient plant brew, ayahuasca. Traditionally consumed in a ceremonial setting in the Amazon over multiple days, it can lead to transcendent and mystical states, grand visions, both ecstatic and terrifying, along with potentially life-changing insights (or as one participant Viva spoke to put it, “eight hours of emotional chaos”. But you don’t need to schlep all the way to Peru or Brazil to try it. A number of underground facilitators travel throughout New Zealand, administering the plant medicine and guiding those who undergo its often intense dissociative effects.
“The people that reach out to me these days are the people that, five years ago, I never would’ve thought I’d see,” says facilitator Lucas, over a Zoom call. “Your Takapuna, Remuera housewives. There’s much more awareness.”
Lucas is a lithe 31-year-old British expat who runs an Auckland-based yoga, meditation and breathwork centre that also provides opportunities for psychedelic healing, although it can take a little homework to get a booking. Like almost everyone else in this story, he agreed to speak to Viva anonymously — despite growing acceptance of psychedelics being used in a therapeutic setting, there’s still a stigma and a fear of getting in trouble.
As psychedelic tourism explodes worldwide, Lucas is the first to acknowledge the grey area of integrity – you wouldn’t want just anyone poking around in the contents of your subconscious while you’re vulnerable to the effects of ayahuasca.
“It’s very powerful work,” he says. “But without naming any names, there are several [reputable] working shamans in New Zealand.”
The former personal trainer says he’s studied plant medicines with medicine men from several cultures around the world. Along the way, he’s learnt to help others prepare for high-dose psychotropic experiences, to manoeuvre “realms beyond this plane”, and to guide those dealing with the medicines’ often unsettling psychological effects.
“The way I work is very different to say, someone in the US where they’re now doing guided psilocybin ceremonies with a guy in a lab coat, sat with pen and paper,” he says. “I can feel the person’s energy and connect with and feel what they’re going through. There’s a big screening process beforehand as well, so I know what their intentions are, and then I know how to navigate the space.”
He’d never call himself a shaman, he adds. That honour is bestowed only on those enlightened beings who can manifest a feather from the spirit realm. Lucas estimates he’s facilitated hundreds of plant medicine sessions in New Zealand, from ayahuasca ceremonies conducted in a group, drinking a brew made by shamans in the jungles of Brazil – and working alongside someone he does refer to as a legitimate shaman – to one-on-one psilocybin sessions in people’s homes.
“One of the big things ayahuasca is beneficial for is addiction, and for acknowledging and facing trauma,” says Lucas. “Addiction is deeply rooted in trauma but unless you’re aware of what that trauma is, you’re never going to fix the addiction.”
He tells the story of an alcoholic who, during an ayahuasca trip, had a vision of himself as a three-year-old, beckoning him inside his childhood home. There he saw himself being molested by a family member. It wasn’t until his subconsious revealed this to him – a long-buried truth he later verified — that he was able to resolve the trauma and let go of his addiction.
“You can get to that through hypnosis and other types of therapy,” Lucas explains, “but having that realisation happen within a transcendental experience is one of the most powerful things you’ll ever experience. That’s what creates huge change.”
The idea that psychedelics could loosen our most ingrained habits holds weight. A study of mice brains at Yale in 2021 found that compounds such as psilocybin increase the density of the brain’s dendritic spines, aiding in the transmission of information between neurons, the numbers of which are known to be reduced by chronic stress and depression. And a study of 93 men and women with alcohol dependence found that those given two doses of psilocybin and psychotherapy reduced heavy drinking by 83 per cent within an eight-month period.
Elsewhere, psychedelic research is going gangbusters, reigniting the interest that was shut down by the ‘war on drugs’ in the 60s. Studies are ongoing at London’s Imperial College, John Hopkin’s University, Harvard, the University of California, MAPS, (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in California), and the UK’s Clerkenwell Health, which is establishing Europe’s first commercial centre for clinical trials of psilocybin for terminally ill cancer patients.
“There is incredibly promising research about the positive treatment of anxiety and depression,” says Sarah Helm, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation.
In New Zealand, the University of Auckland has spearheaded several ground-breaking psychedelic studies, including a two-year clinical trial led by Dr Rachel Sumner at the School of Pharmacy in 2016, that found ketamine, (when safely administered in a treatment setting), increases connectivity in the brain, and exhibits antidepressant qualities. Last year Dr Lisa Reynolds looked into LSD microdosing for cancer patients in palliative care.
This year, a world-first clinical trial led by leading neuro-psycho-pharmacologist Dr Sureth Muthukumaraswamy and PhD student Robin Murphy investigated the effect of LSD on the brain and cognitive function, including testing the theory that microdosing LSD puts people into “hyper-associative” creative states.
University of Auckland’s School of Pharmacy PhD student Estelle Miller is the latest Kiwi scientist eager to probe the mysteries of psychedelics, namely in an effort to reduce harm among local microdosers, those who take about five to 10 percent of a standard hallucinogenic dose.
While microdosers won’t see rainbows shoot out of people’s mouths as they talk, they could find their creativity, focus, productivity and mood improve, as did the Silicon Valley biohackers who kick-started the trend. However, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of microdosing, with some studies illustrating the difficulty to quantify improvements due to the huge number of variables involved.
Estelle’s observational study will investigate what people are consuming and the effects they experience.
“A lot of people don’t actually know what’s in [psychedelic drugs] because they’re getting them from dealers who might not be genuine,” she explains. “Also when it comes to preparation methods with microdosing, there’s no guaranteed way it’s going to come out how you think because there’s no research on it.”
People also store them differently, and this can affect potency. Then there are reports of people discontinuing their anti-depressant medications and replacing them with microdosing, “and that could potentially be dangerous,” she notes.
It took Estelle a long time for her study to be given the go-ahead, as she had to submit ethics applications and obtain a drug license before she could even start recruiting for subjects “because no one wants to study them, and no one’s really looking at them because they’re so niche and illegal, and it’s just difficult”.
She hopes to recruit at least 50 subjects, and a further 50 participants as controls. The study will look at LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT and MDMA (ecstasy).
“Although MDMA is actually dangerous to be microdosing and I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s quite neurotoxic and for people taking it recreationally, the guidelines suggest you should only take it a few times a year.”
Mushrooms, on the other hand, appear not to be neurotoxic at all, she says. “The main risk is that they target serotonin 5-HT2B receptors, which, when activated could cause heart valve problems. We don’t know if this is a risk for microdosers yet but it’s another thing we’re looking at.”
Georgia,* a 30-year-old marine conservationist, turned to microdosing as a last resort. For the past 15 years, she’s battled eating and body issues, swinging through a turbulent cycle of restrictive eating, binge-eating, and bulimia.
“There were times where the vomiting was really awful and consistent, a few times a day,” she says. “I got a psychologist and was going down that road but was still finding that behaviour really hard to change.”
However, she says she’s experienced a marked improvement in her mental health since taking up microdosing psilocybin mushrooms six months ago. While for some, the practice has been shown to worsen anxiety or exacerbate symptoms, Georgia says it has helped her to shift long-stuck habits. Getting hold of the mushroom capsules is easy as she knows the growers, so she trusts she’s getting 0.1 of a gram, taking one capsule every three days for a couple of weeks, and then having a week off to avoid building up a tolerance. “I thought it’s worth giving it a go, especially if I know where it’s sourced and it’s a plant.”
While she continues to go to therapy, and therefore concedes she has no quantifiable way of proving the mushrooms are helping, she says microdosing gives her a mental strength, a sense of empowerment going into a session.
“I always take them in the morning,” she says. “You get a physical tingle like you’ve had a coffee and you’re not used to drinking coffee, an energetic buzz, then it just peters off. I’m a tiny bit more able to be present and notice things, like a beautiful scene. And if I’m having therapy that day it feels like everything I’m learning and trying to do is strengthened.”
Psychedelic facilitator Lucas agrees that psychedelics such as ayahuasca and magic mushrooms, natural plant medicines that have been used by several cultures for thousands of years, are the ultimate tools in neuroplasticity. Where repetitive or negative thought patterns are the plough, continually reinforcing a pathway in the mind, the psychedelic is the fresh carpet of snow that has the power to rewire your thinking, he says.
“It can help you break bad habits, heal relationships, and aside from its benefits in terms of trauma and addiction and self-betterment, you can connect to your spirit. You start to realise there’s more to this reality than we’re conditioned to believe. And that is extremely powerful, which is why mushrooms are so useful for end-of-life, people struggling with cancer or with their own mortality. The realisation comes that there is much more to life and this physical body we’re contained in.”
Although it’s tempting to frame psychedelics as a quick psychological fix, a lot of water needs to flow under the day-glo bridge yet. Recently, the largest psychedelic clinical trial of its kind was carried out by London-based listed company Compass Pathways. It found that a single-session psilocybin dose can significantly reduce symptoms of depression in treatment-resistant patients who were also provided psychological support.
The study of 233 patients was published in The New England Journal of Medicine in early November, the news reported worldwide. However, when the group was checked again after three months, “there was really no difference between the intervention and the control group,” says Professor Steve Kisely, a psychiatrist and public health physician based at The University of Queensland’s Faculty of Medicine. He agrees that while psychedelics show promise in the context of mental health, he is wary of the hype.
As part of a team of authors behind an article published in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, he conducted a systematic review of several US studies of psilocybin and MDMA, deducing that while they “may show promise,” the methods for studying them in the first place are highly problematic.
For starters, many studies are too small to gather meaningful data, he says, and most are given in conjunction with psychotherapy. Add to this the impossible task of ensuring randomised blind controls are indeed blind — you can trick people with a placebo, not so much with a psychedelic. While the benefits can look promising to start with, says Steve, the evidence that they have sustainable effects is lacking.
“I can understand that if you’re desperate you’ll try anything,” he says. “They certainly can help to change people’s perception of how they feel in the world; it can be a very spiritual experience. But that’s not to say it’s necessarily going to work in the longer term. And you have to be aware that there may be people who have some financial interest in pushing a particular agenda.”
Of course, not everyone taking psychedelics is in it to improve their mental health. Some, like Eric*, a financial services executive in his mid-40s, are simply curious psychonauts, keen to peek behind the spiritual curtain, hence his desire try ayahuasca, the “vine of the soul”. Before he got the chance, a friend introduced him to the brew’s active compound, DMT, which is found in plants and even in the human brain. By smoking it, users can bypass the hours-long commitment of taking ayahuasca, the purging that often ensues (from both ends), yet still reap its powerful effects, although the experts will tell you that’s a bit like bypassing the rollercoaster for a rocket ship. Not to mention it’s a Class A.
Eric’s friend had bought some acacia-derived DMT (N-Dimethyltryptamine) sourced from the dark web, and had tried it a few times before Eric felt comfortable following suit, breathing the smoke through a bong with tobacco, its burning scent reminiscent of mothballs.
“I felt it come on straight away after two big hits,” says Eric. “I was listening to headphones that had chords on them, the old ones that plug into your iPhone, and as it hit me, I pulled them off as the music was suddenly way too much, and threw them in front of me. The earbuds turned into snakes, twisted around each other and looked at me. Then I was in the vortex, down the psychedelic hydro-slide.”
His perception of the room fell away and he felt his consciousness shooting through various “rooms”, a sort of hyperspace he interpreted as the blueprint of reality, a mathematical soup alive with numbers and geometry and language.
“Then I arrived in a big, reddish room filled with beings. I was looking at all these things flying around that knew I was there but didn’t really care.”
Whereas that first trip felt exploratory, a sort of DMT initiation, his second was deeper and more personal, he says. “I’ve used the term, ‘surviving your own personal purgatory. You’ve got to face a bit of stuff, like you’re in an emotional hell-blender – it’s very difficult but you’re instantly forced to look at yourself. I felt like someone was over my left shoulder, a woman figure showing me and keeping me safe. And over the right, I could see the silhouette of my wife and unborn child.”
When he came back, his concerned (and indeed pregnant) wife, who’d been googling DMT experiences during Eric’s 10-minute trip, had stumbled across an article by ethnobotanist-turned psychedelic-pioneer Terence McKenna, in which he too described visiting a cathedral-like space, a realm the consciousness gains access to, usually after the ego undergoes a temporary death. Eric agrees it sounds like a figment of drug-addled imagination — or the brain’s way of making sense of the self as it’s being dismantled — but like so many DMT users have reported, he came away with the sense he’d been to a real place. After he’d had time to process the experience, he says he found himself less fearful of his own mortality, as though he’d “practised” his own death and discovered it wasn’t so bad.
Accessing the so-called mystical realm, feelings of one-ness with the universe, the experience of meeting God, of ego-dissolution – all of these are also common reports from macro-dosing psychedelic users. However you make sense of them, they’re an inherently introspective drug, says Eric.
“If you’re going to take a big dose of any psychedelic, it’s probably not the best idea to be at a party or a weird social situation with your kids. You’ve got to know you’re going to see inside yourself and get to some issues, which can be very healing. But I also think a lot of people want to go and see the magical kingdom. Is that responsible? It’s probably not as noble as saying, ‘I want to get to the core of my relationship with my parents.’”
Eric later participated in an ayahuasca ceremony in Auckland but says he didn’t get enough of a dose to splinter reality in quite the same way as his DMT trip had. Still, he gained some benefit, largely from the cleansing ritual in which he ate a vegan diet and abstained from alcohol, coffee, sugar (and anything else considered inflammatory and fun), for the preceding 10 days.
The $400 entry fee allowed him into a ceremony he says was treated with reverence, with several people in the room whose job was to ensure those partaking had the optimal set and setting. They chanted and sang South American folk songs, before the brew was presented and rape (a type of tobacco powder) was blown up their noses, a procedure as unpleasant as it sounds, that Eric says had the effect of clearing the mind.
Eric’s ayahuasca trip was fairly mild but he says several women in the group reported a more intense experience, possibly due to the same dose being taken, regardless of weight or gender. He also points out it’s not for everyone — taking psychedelics at high doses can be destabilising; and experts warn anyone with a history of schizophrenia or psychosis to stay well away.
For this reason, and the fact that most clinical trials are still in their infancy — bar a particularly mind-blowing series of DMT experiments carried out by Dr Rick Strassman in the 90s — their status as illegal substances is unlikely to change in New Zealand any time soon. Yet people like Harry, our macro-dosing mushroom taker, say if there were clinics offering psilocybin and therapy combined, he’d sign up in a heartbeat.
Likewise, mushroom microdoser Georgia is dismayed that psilocybin is a Class A drug.
“It’s the most natural thing and yet cigarettes and vapes and all those other things that are terrible for your mind and body aren’t. Also if it was legal, people could have all this [safety and educational] information readily available.”
Adds facilitator Lucas, “The funny thing is, mushrooms, San Pedro [cactus], all of these psychic plant medicines are a hundred times safer than alcohol. And look at how we treat alcohol in our society. It’s glamorised, right? That’s the irony. These plant medicines have been used for thousands of years. The big pharmaceutical companies have been around for two or three generations... It should be fully legal and open to everyone.”
PhD student Estelle says she’d love to see the law change to allow psychedelics to be used for therapeutic purposes as the implications are wide-reaching. For instance, microdosing has been proposed as a potential alternative to ritalin for those living with ADHD. Meanwhile, the Drug Foundation’s Sarah Helm agrees the law is outdated when it comes to psychedelics. Approximately 20 New Zealanders are convicted for LSD offences every year; a few are jailed.
“Not only do these substances carry therapeutic benefit, but they are also generally low-harm substances,” she says. “The research really flips the narrative about what are currently illicit substances on their head, in that perhaps these substances are more helpful than problematic.”
The foundation points would-be psychedelics users to The Level, an online resource with information on a wide range of illicit drugs, to help people mitigate risks, the most obvious being eating a poisonous mushroom. Sometimes what people think is acid may actually the much more dangerous NBOMe, a potent synthetic hallucinogenic that mimics LSD, but has caused death overseas. “We use the phrase, ‘If it’s bitter, it’s a spitter’, says Sarah, “because while LSD is tasteless, NBOMe has a bitter taste.”
The Level also warns that psilocybin mushrooms could have longer-term effects on the brain, leave people feeling depressed or anxious, or suffering from memory problems. Naturally, those who decide to take large doses of psychedelics outside of a clinical setting — or a ceremonial one — also forgo the pre-screening process and psychological support.
So where does that leave Harry, a man with a history of panic attacks, who went ahead and ate a plate full of shrooms all by himself?
“I’d read a lot of stuff around what sort of frame of mind you want to be in and during the experience, what can potentially come up and just accepting it and not trying to fight it,” he says. “And looking back on my earlier LSD experience, the reason it was so horrific was because I was fighting it.”
As the mushrooms took hold, he began to feel waves of anxiety ramping up, a dread he was locked in for an eternity.
“But then through what I’d learned and the meditation I’d been practising, I tried to accept and surrender and let go. And about an hour in, in a particularly anxious wave, suddenly it felt like I did let go. And I went from this place of anxiety to this place of tranquility. The experience suddenly transformed into real pleasure and enjoyment.”
At that moment Harry had a profound insight about fear, determining there was no difference between anxiety or any other emotion. “They’re tools of communication within your mind and they should just be accepted. It hit me like a tonne of bricks. There’s nothing to fear.”
He woke up the next day with a newfound calm, and as the week progressed, realised something had shifted. “It took me a while to realise that my level of anxiety that I’d obviously carried around all the time had bottomed out, and for the first time in my life I was anxiety-free.”
Even as his relationships and work-life continued to improve without the background agitation that had accompanied him for so long, the mushroom experience had one more surprise in store: whereas he’d usually finish the week with a few beers, his desire to drink had completely disappeared. Harry, a social drinker, says he felt amazed at this turn of events, as it wasn’t an intention he’d set before his trip.
“I think the big reason why I enjoyed alcohol was to quell my anxiety… and drinking was actually made me increasingly anxious.”
Ayahuasca: A powerful South American ‘tea’ derived from two plants in the Amazon jungle, one containing the psychoactive compound DMT, the other containing a momoamine oxidase inhibitor (which slows its metabolism). The brew is typically consumed in a shamanic spiritual ceremony, among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin, and more recently, throughout the Western world.
Psilocybin: A naturally occurring substance found in magic mushrooms, consumed for its hallocinogenic effects.
LSD: Lysergic acid diethylamide, a synthetic chemical made from a substance found in ergot (a type of fungus). It can lead to intensified thoughts, emotions, sensory perception and hallucinations. It’s commonly sold as ‘tabs’ or small squares of blotting paper soaked in liquid LSD.
Microdosing: The practice of consuming very low, sub-hallucinogenic doses of a psychedelic substance (usually psilocybin or LSD). Some microdosers report improvements in mood, cognition and creativity.
Mescaline: The active compound found in the San Pedro and peyote cacti that produces altered perception, comparable to psilocybin and LSD.
DMT: Chemically known as N, N-Dimethyltryptamine, this very strong psychedelic tryptamine drug occurs naturally in plants and animals. It is structurally similar to psilocybin and is known to produce short-acting and intense visual hallucinations.
MDMA: Also known as ecstasy. Though not a classic psychedelic in that it induces a sense of euphoria rather than a marked alteration of perception, it is increasingly being used in a treatment setting to help patients suffering from PTSD, and has gained recognition as a “talk therapy” for couples.
5-MeO-DMT: A tryptamine psychedelic found in a variety of plant species, and secreted by the glands of at least one toad species. Like its close relatives DMT and bufotenin, it has been used as an entheogen in South America.
* Names have been changed
Drug-checking clinics run by the NZ Drug Foundation, KnowYourStuffNZ and others can test your LSD. Find out more about drug-checking clinics at Thelevel.org.nz. You can also purchase reagent home tests at places like the Hempstore.co.nz or Cosmicnz.co.nz