What are psychedelics?

Psychedelics are mind manifesting or psychoactive substances that intensify and temporarily change sensory perceptions. They belong to a wider class of drugs called hallucinogens—substances that affect our senses directly and therefore, our perception of the world—and are often used to explore human consciousness.

Psychedelics can cause significant changes in thoughts, perceptions, and emotions. Their effects are frequently referred to as mind- or consciousness-expanding, mystical, revelatory or transcending time and space.

Psychedelics are undeniably linked to human culture and its development. Psilocybin shrooms were portrayed in Algerian cave paintings dating back to 5,000 BC; the Aztecs of Mexico dubbed it teonanacatl or “flesh of the gods,” for use in their religious ceremonies.

Around the world and throughout history, it is the West that has been the exception in not valuing altered states of mind other than the one induced by alcohol.

In the 1960s, psychedelics (particularly LSD, invented in 1938) were widely embraced by the counterculture, touted for experiences ranging from ego dissolution and heightened sensitivity to music, to experiencing expansive consciousness. Before then, LSD was limited to research labs, military experiments or used by psychotherapists.

Associated with the counterculture movement and dismissed as merely hedonistic recreation, psychedelics were quickly made illegal and misrepresented, demonized and overlooked for the coming decades.

Today, however, psychedelics and psychedelic science are making a comeback. Organizations such as California-based MAPS and the British Beckley Foundation have studied psychedelics and found them safe, effective tools for treating addiction and depression. Silicon Valley professionals and tech nerds have started micro-dosing to jumpstart creativity and tackle problem solving from a unique perspective.

Clinical psychologist Bill Richards, whose studies on psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy research stem back to 1963, wrote in his book Sacred Knowledge that psychedelics are, “reliably potent in helping people actually experience deep, transformative states of human consciousness.”They are not without risk (as with any substance) and experts like Richards warn psychedelics are not for everyone—bad trips do happen. Some argue that there are no “bad” trips, only difficult ones.

But when used intelligently in a trusted setting, psychedelics can catalyze long-term tangible benefits to mental health and psychological growth, from relieving depression to quitting smoking. Note that they are not a Golden Bullet; psychedelic insights still need to be acted upon back in consensus reality, the rent still needs to be paid, etc. This is why post-psychedelic experience integration is so important.

Why people take them?

Simply put, psychedelics cause extremely profound experiences. While the reasons for taking psychedelics vary as widely as their users, there is great consensus that psychedelic experiences lead to deep insights about life, the self and often, users experience a sense of unified consciousness that is life-transforming.

Writer Aldous Huxley, author of Doors of Perception and a huge advocate for psychedelic use, struggled to put this largely inexpressible experience into words. “It is without any question the most extraordinary and significant experience available to human beings this side of the Beatific Vision,” he wrote.

Psychedelics blur the boundaries between a user and… well, everything else.  By altering sensory perceptions of the physical world, including (perhaps even especially) our sense of a coherent self, psychedelics illuminate physical, social, mental or emotional constructs and help us see through them. In other words, they pierce through illusions while paradoxically enriching our experience of so-called material reality.

In recent years, as Westerners’ use of these psycho-spiritual tools has become more inspired by indigenous peoples’ shamanic practices, the term ‘entheogen’ or ‘inner divinity-releasing substance’ has become popularized for psychedelic plants or fungi.

Major psychedelics

Millions of people around the world have tried psychedelics substances at some stage in their life, the most widely used being LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide or ‘acid’) derived from ergot, a fungus which grows on rye and psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms (shrooms’), or fungal sclerota (‘truffles’), used by ancient societies since 1000 BC.

Other popular psychedelics include the Amazonian plant brew ayahuasca (DMT containing) mostly used for spiritual and healing purposes, mescaline, found in San Pedro and Peyote cacti, similar to LSD, profoundly altering perception of self and reality, ibogaine, also a naturally occurring psychedelic effective to treat drug addictions.

More information on classical psychedelics and other less known substances can be found on PsychonautWiki.


The Dutch government’s liberal attitude towards drugs, particularly its permissive cannabis policy, has been unmatched by any other government in the world.

Dutch drug policy has been guided by many factors, one of which includes the cultural idea of gedogen—which literally translates to ‘acquiescence’ or ‘turning a blind eye’. It’s a pragmatic approach in which the law sees individuals as capable of managing their own affairs, including their health. The reasoning is this: why push drug use underground when it will happen regardless—it is better to regulate it, thus “turning a blind eye.” The law is therefore enforced only when there’s a reason to intervene.

When it comes to soft drugs such as marijuana, this idea has led to greater tolerance, however only marijuana use has been decriminalized. Its actual production remains illegal. A similar case is mescaline or peyote, which is illegal in powder form though a living cactus is totally legal.

Given the country’s reputation for its tolerance of cannabis, it’s easy to think psychedelics are completely legal here. However, according to the Opiumwet or Opium Act (the country’s narcotics act), LSD and DMT are considered Schedule I drugs (alongside heroin and cocaine) and illegal.

However, the plant-based entheogen ayahuasca is not illegal according to the Psychotropic Substance Treaty signed in Vienna in 1971. The Dutch courts agreed in the late 1990s, after a long court case involving the Santo Daime church, that ayahuasca ceremonies can be held in the Netherlands under proper guidance.

Hallucinogenic mushrooms became illegal in November 2008 (not just here but around this same period, across Europe). With Dutch politics going through a cycle of political conservatism, the government changed the law and has pushed for zero tolerance since.

Some legally smart Dutch mushroom growers (who had supplied much of now dead European market) shifted to raising psilocybin truffles. Not as potent as shrooms, but technically not mushrooms either, they remain legal to grow, sell and consume. Grow kits which are neither truffles nor mushrooms are also legal to sell in the Netherlands.

Naturally, the PSN hopes to at some stage to lobby for a re-think of the country’s inconsistent policies regarding psychedelics.

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