'Better Than a Damn'

From the Bottle

When Aldous Huxley published his essay "The Doors of Perception" in 1954, he did much to publicize a very strange drug. "Mescaline," he writes, "admits one to an other-world of light, color, and increased awareness. In some cases there may be extra-sensory perceptions. Other persons discover a world of visionary beauty. To others again is revealed the glory, the infinite value and meaningfulness of naked existence. . . ."

Mescaline is an alkaloid produced by the peyote cactus which is native to the Rio Grande regions of Mexico and Texas. As peyote, this curious compound has been used for many years; indeed, the Aztecs worshipped this plant as the chief of three great deities. More recently, the ingestion of peyote for its drug effect has spread among Indians of Mexico and the United States. There is a Christian sect (The Native American Church) based on sacramental use of peyote wafers, and there is also an impressive black market that ships quantities of the cactus to American students, beatniks, and artists.

Pure mescaline is synthesized today by several chemical companies, which supply it to qualified investigators at prices of about four dollars a dose. Huxley's intriguing essay is a subjective description of the symptoms that followed his taking 400 milligrams of mescaline, the usual amount. What mescaline does to the human mind is difficult to describe; its effects vary strikingly from person to person and from time to time in the same individual. The most significant fact is that a very large proportion of these experiences are pleasant throughout, many of them ecstatically so.

Mescaline is a substance that causes hallucinations. These are predominently in the form of brilliantly colored, fantastic visions seen when the eyes are closed and ranging from simple geometric patterns to other-worldly landscapes in vivid hues and three dimensions. People who have had these visions emphasize the impossibility of describing them and the complete rapture that attends them.

Mescaline is not another variety of "dope." It is absolutely non-habit-forming, causes no adverse physiological effects, and does not harm the body even when taken regularly over long periods of time. How it works is not fully known, but in some way it seems related to the biochemical mechanisms of schizophrenia and tranquilizers. It produces relatively few physical symptoms, wears off in eight to twelve hours, and leaves no after-effects. In short, there is no reason for a normal, healty individual, if so inclined, not to take mescaline with impunity on occasion.


Predictably, Huxley compares mescaline to soma, the universal antidote to everyday existence in Brave New World,--a drug with "all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol, none of the drawbacks." Like soma, mescaline is an hallucinogen and a euphoriant that is not harmful and provides a reasonably safe, extremely interesting escape from the world. But the effects of mescaline are far too capricious, much too susceptible to subtle psychological influences, and certainly too time-consuming to rank with those of Huxley's ideal drug. And with the majority that finds heaven in mescaline here is inevitably a small minority that finds only hell.

It is Huxley's assertion that man needs frequent escape from his environment and that some of this must be chemically induced. The stupendous consumption of alcohol in the world today may support this contention; certainly the interest aroused by mescaline among non-researchers is indication that it, too, has strong appeal.

The issue may be raised sooner than one might expect. Since mescaline became available, several other drugs with similar properties have been isolated, and some of these have very many of the qualities of Huxley's soma. The most astounding one is psilocybin, a compound isolated quite recently from a certain genus of Mexican mushrooms and now also synthesized. Psilocybin affects the mind much more selectively than mescaline, specifially stimulating those psychic effects that have been termed "broadened consciousness." It never impairs the higher mental functions, often it greatly enhances them. Visions and physical symptoms do occur but seem less intense than with mescaline. The duration of the experience is about four hours.

Investigators of psilocybin at Harvard's Center for Research In Personality are unbounded in their enthusiasm for this new drug, reporting that it frequently increases powers of creative thinking in both artistic and scientific areas. A number of authors (Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and others) studied in the Harvard project found that their work benefited enormously from the influence of psilocybin, and preliminary investigations have indicated that the "mushroom experience" may be of value in the rehabilitation of prisoners. The directors of the Center envision the use of psilocybin in a "mushroom seminar" for graduate students in theology, behavioral science, and philosophy, the course would be based on taking the drug once a month and spending the intervening sessions applying the insights gained to problems in the respective fields.

If psilocybin is still not soma, the ideal drug is probably on the way. Ethical and philosophical questions raised by the availability of such a compound are staggering in complexity, yet they will have to be faced. The work going on now in Cambridge may force us to find answers to them in the very near future.