What taking the biggest hit of the most powerful drug will be like

What taking the biggest hit of the most powerful drug will be like

VicesApril 20, 2018 By Reilly Capps

It’s not proven, but it’s not a joke. A scientific experiment called DMTx aims to use DMT — a hallucinogenic like LSD, only more powerful — to puzzle out a mystery of psychedelic drugs, and maybe all of existence. The team behind it has chosen a drug-loving podcaster and comedian, Shane Mauss, to be the first test subject, to use a machine to do DMT longer, and more intensely, than anyone ever. He’ll be like the Tony Hawk of DMT. 

Mauss knows DMT. He once had an hour-long stage show about it and describes its indescribable effects as well as anyone. The first time Mauss smoked it, “All of this world, everything I’ve ever known, just goes ‘bu-da-bump-ba-da-bump’ — GONE! And then I shot through this tunnel of fractals and lights and insane colors I’d never seen before. And I landed in this hologram computer chip city made out of lights that looked super familiar for some reason. And these lights were communicating with me in a way that I understood perfectly, better than I’ve ever understood anything. And right away the lights were like ‘Welcome! So happy to see you!’ And I was like, ‘Ah, shit. Well, I broke my brain. Now you really did it this time, Shane. You broke your fucking brain, you reckless idiot.

“DMT is the biggest mystery I have ever come across.”

Drugs are bad, m’kay. Just say no. Don’t be a dope. The slogans taught us to hate and fear drugs. But psychedelics like LSD and molly have become bathed in a softer, sweeter light. Users aren’t ugly criminals, they’re explorers, mind-expanders, self-healers. 

DMT is the most powerful psychedelic of all. So potent thousands of people are delving deeper into it, hoping to answer some of humanity’s biggest questions. Graham St. John, author of the book “Mystery School in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT,” writes that it may be “the secret, the key, the grail” that may “prise ajar the Pandora’s box of consciousness — illuminating, perhaps, what it means to be human.” 

[At one of the fundraisers for the DMtx project, where folks plotted to perhaps do the experiment overseas. //photo Reilly Capps]

One group claims to have figured it out. Drinkable DMT — in the form of ayahuasca — is ancient. Its visions are more organic, less metallic, less alien. The native Amazonians say they know exactly what it shows: the divine light. 

Even though smokable DMT has been around since the 1950s, almost nobody in the above-ground professional world studies DMT, not in the way MAPS studies psychedelics, the FDA studies pharmaceuticals or hundreds around the world study cannabis. DMT is like a new continent, a new planet, and we haven’t sent probes. So it’s mostly people in basements and dorm rooms smoking and vaping it and theorizing on Reddit and Erowid. 

There is no consensus about the meaning of the DMT. As time passes, new language opened new possibilities for what people think they see, and the interpretation tells you as much about the person as about the drug. Programmers see it as the computer simulation. Science fiction fans see a parallel universe right next to ours, or the opening signals from an alien world. Biologists see the intelligence of the biosphere made visible. Religious people see the bardo, the realm between birth and death. 

Shane Mauss, though, was an atheist before all this, and he believed in science, and he was always steadfast about what he thought he saw on DMT: it’s not God or another dimension. Just your own subconscious, neurons rearranging themselves. “It’s all in our heads,” Mauss repeatedly told himself. “It’s like how dreams are.” 

That’s the big debate DMTx is addressing, one that rages still today, even after millions of trips on DMT. Is it in any way real? Or just in our heads? And if it’s real — what is it? 

Religion hasn’t answered it. At Johns Hopkins, religious people compare a mushroom trip with religious experiences: the two are similar. But it doesn’t say whether either one is “real.” “The toughest question for me is a simple one,” says Joseph Blankholm, a professor at UC Santa Barbara who discusses psychedelics in his course on American religion. “Are you experiencing something profound, or are you experiencing the cocktail of chemicals that makes you feel that something is profound?” 

Will moxie help? A lot of people are tackling it by … extending their DMT trips. Makes sense, right? If you want to know about the ocean, dive to the depths. Space? Blast off to Pluto. 

And just as Travis Pastrana does double backflips on his Suzuki and Chloe Kim throws 900s in the halfpipe, so psychedelics have a contingent of extreme psychonauts breaking records for drug-doing, too. 

Smoked, DMT lasts six minutes — minutes that can feel like hours — and then it disappears. To make DMT last longer, people snort it. Do it intravenously. Boof it. Add certain chemicals  — MAOIs — to extend the effects. One guy in Denver claims to have done “The Most Potent Psychoactive Concoction on the Planet,” which includes taking MAOIs, then 14 grams of mushrooms and eight hits of LSD. These methods stretch the DMT trip out to a half-hour or an hour, and intensify it many times. 

Shane Mauss, too, was an extreme psychonaut. He would rig up two vape pens full of DMT, and he’d try as hard as he could to keep smoking even while blasted off, taking in DMT on every inhale, 10 hits — the typical dose is three. Got so high he thought he was having a seizure. 

No matter how long the DMT trips last, no one seems to be able to make any more sense of it. 

So what if you could use science to make it last ... still longer? And get ... still higher? Then could you figure out if DMT is “real”? Or just in our heads? 

THE EXPERIMENT

Last year, two scientists named Rick Strassman and Andrew Gallimore published a paper showing how you could use an anesthesia machine to induce a “steady state” of DMT, and stay at the peak of DMT longer. Not for six crazy minutes. Hours. A week. Maybe a month. 

A certain psychedelic part of the Internet went nuts. The scientists were flooded with interest in what Gallimore named “The Matrix Machine.” An ayahuasca center in Peru wanted to build it. A company called Noonautics in Florida, which is affiliated with a church that uses hallucinogenic sacraments, had to have it.  

The most dedicated interest came from Medicinal Mindfulness, a Boulder, Colorado, business that helps you trip as hard as possible without breaking any laws. It holds trippy conscious cannabis circles: smoke huge rips of weed, slip on eye masks, and, participants say, feel like they’re on a psychedelic.

Medicinal Mindfulness is calling the experiment DMTx. The x stands for “extended state.” The x could also stand for “extreme.” Daniel McQueen, the head of business, says the organization has nurses, doctors and academics willing to help out. The first fundraiser was last summer, at the Shine Restaurant just off Pearl Street, with a crowd of about 75, who were told that this experiment could lead to “the greatest discovery in history.” 

The DMTx experiment could go like this: a person would lie in a comfortable room with an anesthetist and two guides. Also a vital signs monitor, emergency medical equipment, cameras and a stereo. A targeted infusion pump, the same technology used in ketamine clinics, would pump DMT through their veins. Ideally, the team could ratchet up or titrate down the DMT amount based on feedback from the subject. 

[At a DMTx information session, leader Daniel McQueen outlines the way the DMT Machine could work. //photo Reilly Capps]

If it seems safe, the subject might get a diaper and IV nutrition for long trips. 

Those involved will ask for FDA approval first. This can all be above board.

Experiments always have a “principal investigator.” Here, it’s Carla Clements, a psychologist and professor at Naropa University, a Buddhist institution in Boulder. At first, DMTx would test if hour-long or week-long DMT trips could be done safely with the help of Clements. 

Then, she wants to tackle the big question: is DMT just in our heads? Clements doesn’t think so. “There is an indication that there may be a consciousness with intelligence that we can actually connect with to receive information in order to continue our evolution or perhaps even save the planet,” she says. “This might be the first opportunity we have to contact that in a concrete way.”

What could the entities tell us that would prove things either way? If we spent a ton of time with them and befriended them? How could they prove to us that they weren’t just in our heads? If they told us the numbers of the next four Lotto drawings. How to do nuclear fusion. Beyond that — no one is sure. 

WHO IS SHANE MAUSS

So the first volunteer is Shane Mauss. Because he’d done it so much, surely he’d be able to navigate the strange space. At the fundraiser, Mauss added diversity. An atheist and a believer in science, his “Here We Are” podcast is about evolution, physics and psychology. Mauss seemed like the rationalist in the room, the clear-thinker, the sane one. 

But, around the time Mauss was chosen as DMTx subject number one, he was ramping up his psychedelic use. A couple grams of mushrooms a few times a week. A three-week ayahuasca retreat. Suddenly, his views changed. 

[Shane Mauss, seen during one of his sets on Conan, is slated to be the first into the DMTx Machine.]

Weird things would happen. He kept hallucinating a purple woman. Then, when he’d vape up his friends, without Shane describing her first, he says his friends would see the same purple woman. The woman would tell Shane’s tripping friends, “Tell Shane we love him in here.” 

High on ayahuasca, a theory occurred to him he’d never considered before: DMT isn’t God or aliens. It’s the future. The DMT beings conjured for him a cup, and kept his focus on the cup. Much later, after a DMT trip, in the real world, he’d see the exact same cup. DMT was trying to say to him: DMT connects us to future. Mauss says when he first had that thought, the concrete floor underneath him literally cracked. 

But it was Mauss’ mind that began to crack. Manic. Grandiose. He thought he’d been chosen as a messenger of DMT truth, a DMT Jesus. Afraid to sleep and lose the connection with the future, he’d stay awake for days. 

Just two weeks after the DMTx leaders chose him to be test subject number one, and boasted that he was a good candidate to handle the machine without going nuts, Mauss’ girlfriend checked him into the psychiatric ward at Cedar Hills Hospital in Portland, Oregon, where he stayed for a week. Antipsychotic drugs helped him sleep. And he came back to consensus reality ... almost. 

Mauss now believes that DMT isn’t just in our heads. DMT made him think, “There might be something organizing everything. Something pulling some strings.” Mauss doesn’t know what. But, “I’m not an atheist anymore, that’s for sure.”  

THE CRITICS

Boulder is a psychedelic mecca, home to groups such as the CU Psychedelic Club, the Naropa Alliance for Psychedelic Studies, ayahuasca churches and parts of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. What they all think of DMTx is some curious interest, but more criticism. “Just because you see something doesn’t make it real,” says a member of the CU Psychedelic Club, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the experiment. Whatever you’re seeing on DMT, it’s you. It’s always you.  

The more interesting criticism came from spiritual folks, who thought psychedelic entities really truly are beings with wills and intelligences — gods or spirits — and they’re not going to like being subjects in a scientific experiment. 

“DMT gives us access to something holy, something sacred,” says one of the critics from Naropa. “We have this gift of DMT. We can’t just milk it to figure something out.” 

The DMTx experiment, they say, misses something important. Supposedly no one can look God in the face and live, it’s like plugging an electric shaver into a power line.

Near where the CU Psychedelic Club meets, a quote from Emily Dickinson is etched into stone: The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind. 

THE FUTURE

In extreme sports, Travis Pastrana and Shaun White reached new heights, but broke a lot of bones doing it. As DMT wafts into the culture, and folks try to blast off to the asteroid belt with it, we don’t know how many will break their brains, how many will blow fuses. 

Still, life can feel so pointless, and to believe you’re seeing something meaningful is one of the greatest pleasures a human can lay claim to. Besides, a brain, like a bone, can break and heal back up again, regrow in a new way. Maybe a better, stronger way. 

DMTx has had more than a thousand people contact them to volunteer for the machine. Many have explicitly said: “I’m willing to lose my mind for this.” Right now, the organization is focused on training some of the volunteers, including doing a series of webinars — $100 a person — and hosting a week-long retreat in the fall at $1,500 a person. 

It had its second big fundraiser in February, a $100 a plate fundraiser at a yoga center.

If the FDA won’t approve it, there’s talk of finding other ways. Maybe chartering a ship and sailing it out into international waters, where no country’s laws apply. Or buy an oil platform, declare it its own country. Even going to the jungle, where laws can’t easily reach. 

DMTx is hoping to have its first subject lift off in Spring 2020. 

As of now, test subject number one is still Shane Mauss. He broke his brain a little, yes, but he still wants to know what DMT is. 

“I tend to think we will learn more from having more experience,” Mauss says. “But that’s fingers crossed we don’t lose our minds in the process.”