Q&A: Understanding the Substance

The effects of a psychedelic substance can vary considerably depending on a number of factors, including the user’s expectations, the amount taken, possible impurities, and the setting in which it’s taken. While fatally overdosing on a pure psychedelic is extremely rare, some substances may be adulterated. Someone taking an adulterated substance faces an increased risk of having a stronger and/or a different experience than they intended, and there are even reports of deaths attributed to adulterated psychedelics. Taking a very high dose of a psychedelic, no matter how pure, is associated with a higher likelihood that the experience will be upsetting, jarring, or traumatic. 

As a class, the classic psychedelics are regarded as having very low toxicity to the body’s organs. However, when under the influence of any psychedelic, there is a risk of behaving in ways that could harm oneself or others.

David Nichols

David E. Nichols

David E. Nichols began studying the structure of psychedelics and how they act in the brain in 1969. Since then, he has become a world-renowned expert in the medical chemistry of hallucinogens. He is an emeritus professor of pharmacology at Purdue University, a current researcher at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and the founder of the Heffter Research Institute, which promotes the scientific study of psilocybin and other classic psychedelics.


BCSP

“Can the strength of synthetic drugs vary from lab to lab?”

David E. Nichols

“In general, if they’re pure substances, you’d expect them to have a similar effect. Although if someone takes a certain dose of pure LSD on a certain day and takes the very same dose of LSD from the same batch two weeks later, the change in set and setting could change their response.”


BCSP

“If someone buys drugs illegally, how do they know that the substance isn’t adulterated?”

David E. Nichols

“Beyond knowing and trusting the source of recreational drugs, drug testing is useful. In most countries that practice harm reduction, including the United States, you can get pill-testing kits, which tell you if the substance is what it’s supposed to be or if there are some adulterants. The recreational scene has a lot of variability, because you don’t really know — for instance, there have been cases of drugs laced with fentanyl. Those experiences can be very disruptive, disorienting, and even fatal. For example, you rarely get pure MDMA on the black market — it can contain all kinds of other compounds.”

“In most countries that practice harm reduction, including the United States, you can get pill-testing kits, which tell you if the substance is what it’s supposed to be or if there are some adulterants.”


BCSP

“Are there best practices for how people can figure out dosage and the strength of a substance?”

David E. Nichols

“Start low and go slow. If you purchased some paper blotters that you believe to be LSD, for instance, you could cut one of those blotters into four pieces, take one, and say, ‘OK, I’m going to see what a fourth of one of these does.’ Then a week later, you could say, ‘OK, now I’m going to take half of one and see.’ You’d get to a point where you know the kind of experience you’re looking for. That’s harder with tablets, although you could buy tablet cutters in a pharmacy and cut tablets in half. Capsules of powder would be a little more difficult, but you could dump it out, draw it down into a line, and cut it in half or fourths.”

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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