Just Say No

A natural drug with an unnatural effect: 5-MeO-DMT.

TThe small brown vial I'm looking at has a sinister appearance to it, bearing only a white typewritten label identifying the powder inside as 5-MeO-DMT -- 5-Methoxy-N,N-Dimethyltryptamine. It came via UPS from an American chemical company to three inner-space explorers I know; now, a couple days later at a house in Tempe, they're weighing out 15 milligram hits on an expensive, extremely accurate scale that looks like a hexagonal space capsule.

Damon, a 23-year-old with bleached blond hair, dark eyebrows and a taste for heroin -- among other substances -- is the first to snort a dose of the currently unscheduled research chemical. After unsuccessfully attempting to get high by smoking the ultra-small dosage (akin to a few grains of salt) in the sort of glass pipe more commonly used to smoke speed, Damon has decided to put it up his beak.

Ten minutes later his eyes are crossing slightly, not focusing, and he's begun to sweat, obviously uncomfortable. "Something's not right," he says, before heading to his room and sitting with his head in his hands on the edge of his bed. Andre and I follow, asking whether the problem is physical or mental, worried that someone will have to take an unfortunate detour to the hospital. "No, no, it's mental," he assures us. As Bobby, another one of those present, has just finished telling us about a recent heroin overdose he had, that's a relief, but the state Damon's in is no advertisement for this drug.

About 20 minutes later, now sitting in his living room, Damon makes a choking sound before projectile vomiting all over the room. Holding my feet off the ground to avoid the chunky liquid shrapnel, I try to hand him an empty Ben & Jerry's pint, and then an empty fountain soda cup, but he doesn't notice, and continues to stare into space after purging his digestive system. His verbal responses are confined to affirmative replies: "Yeah, yeah . . ." The others reassure him that it goes away, to which he hopefully -- and weakly -- queries, "It does? Good."

Damon's sweating profusely, so I throw a wet rag on his head and face, which he's too fucked up to remove. I get him a glass of water and ask if he can take it from me. He says he can, but his hands make no move to grab it.

About 45 minutes after ingestion, Damon begins to come back to earth. "Jesus Christ, that's fucking intense," he says. Damon and the others gathered to experiment with this quasi-legal research chemical are no neophytes when it comes to altered states of consciousness -- their combined catalogue of drug experiences could fill an encyclopedia. When all is said and done, they all tell me that 5-MeO-DMT is the craziest, most intense drug they've ever ingested.

5-MeO-DMT is one of the active ingredients in the venom of the fabled Sonoran Desert toad (Bufo alvarius), which spawned the toad licking myth. As the inventor of Ecstasy and hundreds of other psychoactive substances, Alexander Shulgin, once said, "Of course the licking myth is newspaper hype -- it is the venom that is active, and it is smoked."

The chemical, a psychoactive tryptamine structurally similar to psilocybin, is manufactured synthetically by chemical companies in the U.S., and is widely available on the Internet. A one-gram vial retails for $105 from one manufacturer -- enough for 50 to 100 hits, depending on the dosage.

5-MeO-DMT exists in a gray area legally -- it's an unscheduled drug, except in South Dakota, where it's a schedule 1 substance, which means it has no medical value. It is illegal in the U.K., where the government has cracked down on incoming shipments from the States. Considering the extremities to which Damon and his friends were propelled, I can't believe that the Drug Enforcement Agency hasn't pushed to criminalize it.

Theoretically, 5-MeO-DMT users or possessors could be prosecuted under the Federal Drug Analogue Act, which was passed in 1986 to prevent chemists from altering one molecule of a controlled substance in order to make it legal. Mike Capasso of the DEA's Phoenix office asserts that the Analogue Act would likely apply to 5-MeO-DMT, although he admits he's not familiar with the substance.

"We do investigate activity that occurs on the Internet," Capasso says. "And we will go after people that are manufacturing and also selling drugs that are quite similar to the actual controlled substance."

However, whether 5-MeO-DMT fits the profile required for prosecution under the Analogue Act is unclear. "I'm not a chemist per se, and I don't know the exact structure of the drugs," Capasso says. "But they're very similar -- so similar that the law allows us to target them as if they are scheduled."

The substantive difference with 5-MeO-DMT compared with chemicals one molecule off from controlled substances is that 5-MeO-DMT wasn't invented in a lab by a scientist looking to skirt the law. The chemical appears naturally, not only in the Sonoran Desert toad, but also in a variety of psychoactive South American plant derivatives, like Anadenanthera colubrina seeds and Virola sap. In the early 1950s, it was identified as one of the main psychoactive ingredients in the "cohoba" snuffs used in the northern Amazon basin.

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