In the current psychedelic renaissance, the original psychedelic is conspicuous by its absence. Amid all the buzz around LSD, psilocybin, DMT, ketamine and MDMA, and their potential for psychotherapy and mental well-being, mescaline rarely rates a mention. Yet the term ‘psychedelic’ was coined, in 1954, in response to Aldous Huxley’s first mescaline trip. At that time, it referred to only two substances, mescaline and LSD. Today, when dozens of new psychedelic compounds are being explored in more ways than ever before, why has mescaline disappeared from view?
‘Psychedelic’ emerged from a correspondence between Huxley and Humphry Osmond, the psychiatrist who supplied him with the mescaline he took at his home in the Hollywood Hills in May 1953. (Huxley thought the spelling should be ‘psychodelic’ and persisted with it, to little avail.) His essay on the experience, The Doors of Perception (1954), kickstarted the psychedelic era. The terms in vogue for these drugs at that time, such as ‘psychotomimetic’ and ‘hallucinogen’, had emerged from psychiatry and connected their effects to mental disorders. The mescaline experience, Huxley argued, was not a psychotic episode but a transcendent state, a communion with the ‘Mind-at-Large’.
Of the two original psychedelics, LSD was the newcomer: its mind-altering properties had first been discovered by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1943, and it was still a little-explored research chemical. Mescaline, by contrast, already had a long and storied history. It had first been isolated from its natural source, the peyote cactus, in 1897, after a series of scientists and literary figures such as Silas Weir Mitchell, William James and Havelock Ellis had described its hallucinatory effects in glowing detail.
It was first synthesized in the laboratory in 1919, and from 1920 mescaline sulphate was available as a pure drug from European pharmacy suppliers such as Merck. Psychologists and neurologists, particularly in Germany, conducted trials on dozens of subjects that generated hundreds of pages of reports of dazzling visions, bizarre sensations and cosmic revelations. Avant-garde painters worked under its influence, and it was administered under clinical supervision to philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Walter Benjamin. By the 1950s, with psychiatry’s biomedical turn, it was being widely used in schizophrenia research, the context in which Huxley encountered it.
Psychiatrists and pharmacologists agreed that mescaline and LSD intoxication were very similar: Albert Hofmann had noted immediately that LSD’s effects ‘largely matched the commonly held view of mescaline’. The most significant difference was the dose. LSD was massively more potent: a gram of mescaline was around three doses, but a gram of LSD was thousands . This made LSD more intriguing to the mind scientists, since it was obviously working with far greater precision on whatever brain mechanisms these drugs were activating. It was also, of course, much more economical. Even as The Doors of Perception was bringing mescaline to global attention, behind the scenes LSD was replacing it.
After 1962, when the Federal Drug Administration tightened its guidelines on psychedelic research, there were few plausible reasons for working with mescaline and LSD came to dominate what was by now a shrinking field. By the mid-sixties illicit LSD was hitting the streets, where its potency meant vastly greater profits than mescaline for equivalent risks. Mescaline retained a certain mystique, particularly for those who had been turned on to psychedelics by The Doors of Perception, and it was occasionally produced for the connoisseur market by underground chemists not motivated by financial gain. Both were prohibited for non-clinical use in 1965, after which LSD was cheap and ubiquitous, while mescaline became a substance of legend and rumor.
The most significant mescaline trip of the 1960s, with hindsight, was that taken by the chemist Alexander Shulgin, which he later wrote ‘unquestionably confirmed the entire direction of my life’. He was struck by how little work had been done on compounds with similar structures, and he began to synthesize new ones, including 3,4 methylenedioxymethampetamine, or MDMA, which entered the underground drug market as ‘ecstasy’. MDMA was, in many respects, mescaline tamed for the new chemical generation. Its duration was three or four hours as opposed to mescaline’s grueling ten or twelve; its psychedelic effects were less disorientating and challenging, and its physical effects more euphoric. Shulgin went on to synthesize dozens of similar compounds, many of which have found a niche in today’s teeming marketplace of novel psychoactives. Mescaline itself may have disappeared, but its stepchildren have become the beating heart of twenty-first century drug culture.
Pure mescaline today is a rare substance indeed. It is still supplied by pharmaceutical companies such as Merck and Sigma-Aldrich but is tightly controlled, its uses largely limited to forensic analysis and criminal toxicology. It can occasionally be found for sale on the markets of the dark web, along with every other designer psychedelic imaginable. It retains its legendary status in psychedelic culture thanks to The Doors of Perception and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Hunter S. Thompson portrayed it as the ne plus ultra of psychedelic craziness. It is the psychedelic that everyone has heard of but almost nobody has taken.
By contrast, use of the mescaline-containing cacti–the San Pedro of the Andes, and the peyote of the north Mexico and south Texas desert–is expanding. The Native American Church, which uses the peyote as its sacrament, is thriving, with over a quarter of a million members. San Pedro curanderos or shamans, who until recently were only to be found along the coasts of Peru and Ecuador, can now be encountered everywhere from California to Goa, Ibiza to Thailand. In the century since it was first synthesized, mescaline has gone from scientific and popular sensation to virtual extinction. The cacti, which were used for millennia before the drug was extracted from them, look set for the long haul.
Mike Jay has written extensively on scientific and medical history. His books on the history of drugs include High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture and The Atmosphere of Heaven.