What Kind of Drug Is It?
Dimethyltryptamine, most commonly known as DMT, is a fast-acting hallucinogen—a substance that brings on hallucinations, which alter the user's perception of reality. It is related to LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and psilocybin. (An entry for each of these drugs is available in this encyclopedia.) DMT causes a rapid rush of mind-altering states that end fairly quickly, usually within an hour. For this reason, DMT has been nicknamed the "businessman's special."
The compound can be found in many kinds of plants. It is even found in the poisonous venom of certain toads. (Venom is a liquid poison created by an animal for defense against predators or for killing smaller prey.) DMT is also created synthetically in laboratories.
Although the hallucinations brought on by DMT use are brief in duration, they are extremely powerful. Unlike LSD, which works over a period of hours, DMT alters the brain's chemistry in a matter of minutes. Ancient cultures brewed teas from plants containing DMT for use in religious ceremonies. More modern users often find themselves bewildered by the way the drug changes perceptions. Because people under the influence of DMT often lose contact with reality, they can behave in ways dangerous to themselves or others. For this and many other reasons, the compound is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance.
Official Drug Name: N,N-dimethyltryptamine (dy-meth-ull-TRIP-tuh-meen), Nigerine, desoxybufotenine (dess-OKS-ee-byoo-foh-tenn-inn), 3-(2-dimethylaminoethyl)-indole; 5-MeO-DMT; (related compounds) 5-MeO-DIPT, alpha-methyltryptamine (AMT)
Also Known As: 45-minute psychosis, businessman's special, DET, fantasia, foxy, foxy methoxy
Drug Classifications: Schedule I, hallucinogen
The use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, snuffs, and brews dates back thousands of years and has occurred all over the world. In his book Illegal Drugs: A Complete Guide to Their History, Chemistry, Use and Abuse, Paul M. Gahlinger discusses early reports of drug use. He explains that the naturalist hired by explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) for his second voyage (1493–1496) described a strange behavior of the Tairo Indians. The naturalist observed the native peoples using a snuff derived from seeds of the yopo tree (Anadenatherea peregrine).
The Mayan, Olmec, and Cherokee Indians all left behind archeological evidence that they worshiped toads and used toad venom in their religious ceremonies. Even in modern times, native cultures in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil prepare a brew from jungle plants that is variously called yagé, caapi, and ayahuasca ("vine of souls"). One of the active ingredients in this brew is DMT.
Chemists began to synthesize, or manufacture, DMT in the 1930s. By the 1950s, they understood the chemical composition of ayahuasca tea and bufotenine. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, hallucinogens were not illegal. Thus, some experimental chemists used themselves and their friends as subjects, taking various strengths of hallucinogenic compounds and recording their reactions. These scientists determined that DMT did not produce any mental effects if taken by mouth. (Ayahuasca tea, however, has an added ingredient that allows the body to metabolize, or break down, DMT.)
DMT, bufotenine, and other similar compounds are snorted or injected to produce hallucinations. DMT has never been as widely abused as LSD, but it is named in the U.S. Controlled Substances Act of 1970. At that time, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) was named a Schedule I hallucinogen, making its possession, distribution, and creation a crime.
What Is It Made Of?
synthetic dimethyltryptamine is a white or sometimes light brown crystalline solid, like a small, strong-smelling chunk of salt. Some people have compared its odor to mothballs. Others have said that it smells like plastic being burned. As its name suggests, its chemical composition is complicated. Once crystallized, it cannot be dissolved in water. Instead it must be dissolved either in an organic solvent like alcohol or in an acid.
DMT occurs widely in nature, in the leaves, seeds, and roots of certain plants, and in the milky venom of toads in the genus Bufo. Its synthetic, or laboratory-made form, mimics the chemical composition of its natural form.
DMT is unique in its hallucinogenic family in two ways. First, when snorted, injected, or smoked, it acts much more quickly than LSD or psilocybin. This is because fat cells in the human body absorb LSD and psilocybin and release them more slowly to the brain. DMT is not absorbed by fat cells. The entire dose races to the brain as soon as it is taken. Second, pure DMT loses its hallucinogenic qualities if eaten. It is destroyed by monoamine oxidase in the stomach. Monoamine oxidase is a naturally occurring enzyme that detoxifies amino
compounds in ingested foods. The tea preparations used in South America contain ingredients that inhibit monoamine oxidase action. That is why they can be consumed orally. Still, those who have tasted ayahuasca and other similar herbal brews find them quite foul on the tongue.
How Is It Taken?
In some religious rituals, participants drink brews concocted from plants containing DMT and other ingredients. recreational users smoke plant matter soaked in dissolved DMT, snort ground-up DMT crystals, or inject DMT that has been dissolved in a non-water solvent. Users experience nearly immediate—and sometimes very bizarre—mental effects, often including loss of touch with reality.
Even the most hard-core hallucinogen users have reported that DMT is strong, unpredictable, and can produce frightening effects. A report in the Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology detailed the case of a seventeen-year-old college student who nearly died of heart failure after taking DMT. The student had to be restrained at the hospital and was sent by helicopter to a regional poison center. His temperature at the time he was admitted to the hospital was 105°F.
Are There Any Medical Reasons for Taking This Substance?
Medical researchers have been granted limited opportunities to study the use of hallucinogens for treating anxiety in terminally ill patients, schizophrenia, and opiate addiction. Because DMT moves through the brain so quickly, it is not likely to be used for medical research. The substance's Schedule I classification reveals that the U.S. government sees it as having no value for the treatment of illness.
DMT has never been as popular among drug abusers as LSD and other hallucinogens. Its delivery system is more complicated. Its effects usually last less than an hour, although the abuser can experience longer periods of confusion afterward.
Chemists constantly tinker with the compound, however. In October of 2002, the DEA announced the seizure of two new compounds: 5-MeO-DIPT, known on the street as "foxy" or "foxy methoxy," and alpha-methyltryptamine (AMT). Both of these compounds are closely related to DMT, but they can be used in tablet form.
Tablets or the chemicals used to create the tablets have been found in Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia. Some of the drug seizures by law enforcement officials have occurred at all-night clubs or at raves, wild overnight dance parties that typically involve huge crowds of people, loud techno music, and illegal drug use.
People creating foxy or AMT may believe they are not breaking the law because these hallucinogens are not specifically covered by the Controlled Substances Act. However, it is against the law to manufacture or sell a "controlled substance analog." Anyone buying, selling, or using foxy and AMT may face the same penalties as someone buying, selling, or using DMT.
About the Toads…
The Bufo marinus toad is a native of the Americas and one of the toads that secretes DMT in its venom. When interest in hallucinogens was at its height in the 1960s and early 1970s, some people in Australia (where the toads had been imported) and America actually licked the toads in an effort to get high. What the toad-lickers quickly discovered was that Bufo marinus venom contains many ingredients besides DMT. People became violently ill with heart palpitations, drooling, and intense, long-lasting headaches.
Others tried drying and smoking the venom of Bufo alvarius, a desert toad found in California, Arizona, and parts of Mexico. To quote Paul M. Gahlinger in Illegal Drugs: "Smoking toad … proved to be too powerful an experience for most people. Besides the obvious difficulty of getting and handling the toad, the intoxication was too intense, with too many physical side effects, to achieve any real popularity." Nevertheless, the U.S. government added bufotenine, the hallucinogenic ingredient in toad venom, to the list of illegal drugs.
Effects on the Body
Dimethyltryptamine is called a "serotonin agonist." When the chemical enters the brain, it interferes with the normally occurring neurotransmitter called serotonin. Serotonin serves many functions in the brain, from regulating moods to assisting the brain in the way it processes information. According to David Porush in Omni magazine, serotonin plays a role in how people sense reality.
DMT has been shown to alter the way the brain perceives reality. Users experience visual hallucinations, both with eyes closed and open. They may feel detached from themselves or have an "out of body" experience. And because serotonin affects reasoning, DMT may cause an abuser to think that he or she is having a moment of religious ecstasy, of communion with the divine. Repeat users of hallucinogens have reported "seeing" fairies, elves, and angels. Some users have had the feeling of being in the presence of God. It is this aspect of the drug's behavior that has tied it to certain religious practices.
Foxy and AMT
Pure DMT is relatively rare on the illegal drug market. But a new generation of hallucinogens has been created that can be taken in tablet form. Two of these, "foxy" or "foxy methoxy" and AMT, mimic the actions of DMT. Tablets of foxy and AMT have been seized at raves and clubs in more than a half dozen states in the United States.
These two hallucinogens may at first appear to be legal because their specific chemical compounds are not listed as controlled substances. But since they act like DMT in the body, they are known as "controlled substance analogs," and they are indeed illegal. Anyone caught selling or making foxy and AMT faces prosecution under state and federal laws.
Some DMT abusers also experience intense fear, anxiety, and paranoia—the feeling that other people and ordinary, inanimate objects have become agents of evil. Human faces become like masks. Furniture can seem to have human characteristics. Once the drug has produced this kind of anxiety, no antidote exists to stop it.
The user must "ride out" the experience until the DMT exits the brain and the normal levels of serotonin return. In the case of DMT, the "trip" is of short duration, but users report that the drug alters one's sense of time. Minutes may seem like hours, and the user may have a difficult time communicating during those minutes.
Other side effects of DMT include dizziness, nausea, sweating, runny nose, and drooling. In certain extreme cases, users may experience a racing heartbeat, elevated body temperature, and convulsions. Heavy users risk brain damage and a condition called "serotonin syndrome" that can cause muscle tremors or rigidity, confusion, and changes in blood pressure.
People with mental illness who experiment with DMT run significantly greater risks of having "bad trips" or other lasting emotional side effects. As with other hallucinogens, DMT tends to magnify the levels of emotion in the brain. Thus, if depression or anxiety already exist, the drug will make these conditions worse. Depression is a mood disorder that causes people to have feelings of hopelessness, loss of pleasure, self-blame, and sometimes suicidal thoughts. Anxiety is a feeling of being extremely overwhelmed, restless, fearful, and worried.
Reactions with Other Drugs or Substances
DMT is extremely dangerous when combined with some drugs prescribed for depression. DMT also reacts badly with amphetamines, sedatives, antihistamines, and strong analgesics. (An entry on amphetamines is available in this encyclopedia.) It can increase or intensify the side effects of any of these substances. Mixing DMT with drugs from poisonous plants (strychnine or belladonna alkaloids, for example) can be fatal.
Use of hallucinogens has been documented in many ancient cultures. DMT use has been more common in the Americas because the toads and plants containing it are widespread in North and South America. Here is a look at some examples from the historical record, both long ago and recent.
- The skeletons of 10,000 toads were found in an ancient Cherokee Indian burial site in North America.
- During Christopher Columbus's second voyage to the New World (1493–1496), his naturalist, Friar Ramón Paul, wrote about the Tairo Indians of Haiti. As noted in Paul M. Gahlinger's book Illegal Drugs, the friar observed: "This powder they draw up through the nose and it intoxicates them to such an extent that when they are under its influence, they know not what they do."
- In 2000, members of the O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal religious sect claimed that the seizure of thirty gallons of hoasca tea by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) violated their right to freedom of religion. As reported by Scott Sandlin in the Albuquerque Journal, their case reached the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals late in 2004, where judges ruled in favor of the church. The tea is considered a sacrament, but its use will be closely monitored by church members and the DEA so that it does not invite abuse by outsiders.
On its own, DMT renders the user unable to judge ordinary situations. For instance, a person high on DMT runs a much greater risk of being involved in an automobile crash (either by driving or walking into traffic) or other injury. The combination of alcohol and DMT further increases the risk of accident or injury.
DMT use has been linked to hyperthermia, or an elevated body temperature. It is dangerous to use the drug in rave situations where a great number of people are crowded into a small space, dancing or milling about. The use of a strong, quick-acting hallucinogen like DMT might also lead to panic or paranoia in a dance club environment. Those who use the drug as part of religious rituals take extreme care to create the most soothing surrounding environment.
Treatment for Habitual Users
Over time the human body develops a tolerance to DMT. Users must take higher and higher doses to achieve the same effect. Although the drug is not habit-forming, it can encourage risk-taking behavior, including the use of other drugs. Long-term use can lead to brain damage.
Self-help groups such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) welcome anyone who wishes to quit using any kind of mind-altering substance, including hallucinogens. Most communities have at least one chapter of Narcotics Anonymous, an international organization that connects drug abusers with others who have experienced the same difficulties. NA meetings encourage drug abusers to share their stories, and they offer the support of group acceptance.
Abusers of hallucinogens should also seek the guidance of a licensed professional psychiatrist or psychologist who can help determine the root feelings that led to drug experimentation. Licensed doctors treating hallucinogen abusers may prescribe anti-anxiety medications or anti-psychotic drugs if the abuser has a history of mental problems related to drug use. There are no specific withdrawal symptoms associated with DMT, although users will experience fatigue and occasionally confusion that lasts several hours after a dose.
The Other DMT
DMT the hallucinogen should not be confused with desoxy-methyl-testosterone, or DMT, a "designer steroid." This latter DMT was developed in the twenty-first century to fool drug testers at athletic events. It is in the steroid family and is related to testosterone, a hormone found in greater quantities in males than in females. According to Lynn Zinser in a 2005 article for the International Herald Tribune, scientists working for the World Anti-Doping Agency vowed to develop urine tests that show the presence of desoxy-methyl-testosterone, the "other" DMT.
As with other hallucinogens, DMT can cause "flashbacks." Days, weeks, or months after use, an abuser can suddenly relive an entire hallucinogenic experience, or parts of it. The loss of judgment that occurs with DMT use sometimes causes abusers to become violent, to strike out at those trying to help, or to behave in other self-destructive ways. The Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology cited a case of a young man who fought with paramedics as they tried to save his life. The patient ended up with "multiple abrasions on his arms and chest" from his struggle with health care providers.
In a federal court case that ended in 2004, the O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal religious sect won the right to use an hallucinogenic tea in its religious services. The sect cited the U.S. Constitution's right to freedom of religion in its winning court case. It is important to note that religious use of hallucinogenic teas differs greatly from recreational drug use. Religious rites featuring DMT-laced teas are presided over by experienced leaders who create a proper atmosphere for use. They help their followers to understand the experience. Abuse or overdose of the substance is not tolerated. In contrast, street DMT users often encounter preparations that might contain other ingredients, or higher doses, than expected. The resulting hallucinatory experience, while lasting only a short time, may be terrifying or life-threatening.
The Risks Are High
In an effort to bypass laws against DMT, certain companies have been selling "research chemicals" through the Internet. The legality of these chemicals is open to debate. However, these substances have not been tested for safety even through illegal experimentation. The United Kingdom's Guardian newspaper reported on two deaths, both young men under the age of twenty-one, both from a "research chemical" called 2-CT-7 they had bought over the Internet. Responding to the deaths, the DEA scheduled 2-CT-7 as a controlled substance, and its sale on the Internet ceased. Ingesting "research chemicals" bought online is as risky as any other form of drug abuse.
Anyone who shares a needle to inject street drugs runs the risk of contracting the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This virus leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), an as-yet-incurable disease that destroys the human immune system. So while DMT may not be habit-forming, it can lead to deadly complications when delivered by injection.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 created five schedules based on a drug's value as a medicine, its chances of causing addiction, and its possibilities for abuse. DMT is a Schedule
I drug, meaning that U.S. government authorities consider it one of the most dangerous drugs. Possession of DMT is illegal in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among other countries. It cannot be prescribed by a doctor for any illness. As a Schedule I drug, DMT possession carries stiff fines and imprisonment. The penalties increase significantly for repeat offenders.
DMT can be extracted from plants that are legal to buy. However, people can be arrested for creating DMT from those plants, even if they only plan to use it themselves.
Any substance that behaves like DMT—for instance, the hallucinogens foxy and AMT—are considered "controlled substance analogs." Although their names and chemical compositions may not be specifically listed in controlled substance legislation, they are still illegal because they mimic the behavior of other illegal drugs. The same holds true for many of the "research chemicals" sold over the Internet. If the effects of the chemicals mimic DMT—or if the chemicals are used to create DMT—the user/creator violates the law.
For More Information
Gahlinger, Paul M. Illegal Drugs: A Complete Guide to Their History, Chemistry, Use and Abuse. Las Vegas, NV: Sagebrush Press, 2001.
Kuhn, Cynthia, Scott Swartzwelder, and Wilkie Wilson. Buzzed: The Straight Facts about the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy, 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.
Brush, D. Eric, Steven B. Bird, and Edward W. Boyer. "Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitor Poisoning Resulting from Internet Misinformation on Illicit Substances." Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology (March, 2004): p. 191.
McCandless, David. "Goodbye Ecstasy, Hello 5-MeO-DMT: New Designer Drugs Are Just a Click Away." Guardian (February 16, 2004): p. 3.
Miller, Sukie. "Terence McKenna." Omni (May, 1993): p. 69.
Nyman, T., K. Hoppu, R. Koskinene, V. Harjola, and M. Kuisma. "A Case of Severe Poisoning Caused by 5-MeO-DMT." Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology (April, 2002): p. 324.
Porush, David. "Finding God." Omni (October, 1993): p. 60.
Sandlin, Scott. "Santa Fe Church Gets Permit for Tea." Albuquerque Journal (December 11, 2004): p. 1.
Sharpe, Tom. "Hallucinogenic Tea Case Starts in Albuquerque." New Mexican (October 28, 2001).
Zinser, Lynn. "Scientists Find New Designer Steroid: Drugs." International Herald Tribune (February 3, 2005): p. 18.
Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970.http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/ (accessed June 30, 2005).
Drug Intelligence Brief: Trippin' on Tryptamines, October 2002. http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/pubs/intel/02052/02052.html (accessed June 30, 2005).
Narcotics Anonymous.http://www.na.org (accessed June 30, 2005).
"Psilocybin & Psilocyn and Other Tryptamines." DEA Briefs & Background.http://www.dea.gov/concern/psilocybinp.html (accessed June 30, 2005).