How Erowid harnessed the communitarian spirit of the early web to change the way we use and understand drugs.
Image: Beeki / Pixabay.
"I began going into space. There were stars, and they seemed to be in a cylinder shape. They were far apart, but looking from a distance from normal eyes it would look just like a picture of space but as I came closer I could see that sorta had a cylinder depth to it that I began to enter. As I entered I began to have insight. I realized that this was some sort of astral plane in space and a sort of 'Psychic network.'" - Erowid user iliketoplay
Erowid is not a site that people often name-check as a bastion of internet culture, but it's been around longer than Reddit, longer than MySpace, and longer than Wikipedia. In 1995, around about the time of Netscape's IPO, one of the greatest single sources of online information about intoxicating substances was launched by a couple, who go by Fire and Earth Erowid. The site is still crafted in basic HTML, and seeks a task no greater than to be "an online library about psychoactive plants, chemicals, and related topics."
In doing so, it has become the hallowed halls of a unique virtual research institution—influential and mainstream enough to warrant a New Yorker profile—where the self-exploration and narrative-sharing that fuel the internet are freely applied to psychedelic experiences. The stories collected on Erowid can be intensely personal, informative, and detailed.
Through twenty years of archiving these tales, the site has provided a respected pattern for sharing personal experiments with mind-altering chemicals and plants. These sorts of experiences and experiments are not compiled anywhere else in such encyclopedic detail. The same spirit of user-sharing and open access brought people to the BBS and to Usenet, and to the early web. The ethics of user participation, crowdsourcing, and editorial vetting help share useful drug information just as much, or more, than any other online content. Before you try a substance for the first time, experienced psychonauts advise, read about it on Erowid.
"Erowid is the gold standard in psychedelic internet resources," says Emily Dare, a long-time reader and self-described "drug geek." "They focus on safety and education, where other sources I frequent are often a mix of contemporary legends, dodgy research chemical vendors, and more speculation than science."
There are many brand-new psychoactive molecules being synthesized every year, by research scientists and DIY chemists alike. These molecular analogs go by the catch-all category of "research chemicals." These substances haven't been around long enough to become illegal, nor earn any kind of street name, let alone have any authoritative studies on side effects and potentials for overdose. Those who seek to learn about psychedelics, in order to consume them or treat those who have consumed too much, have few definitive resources that encompasses the wide range of chemicals out there.
Erowid wouldn't pass peer-review standards for medical science journals—and perhaps not even the objectivity-standards of Wikipedia. But Erowid has always been about more information, not less. The site provides a wide variety of opinions and conclusions, reports, articles, and other sources. In the spirit of the internet, Erowid provides information freely with little caveat, and allows readers to decide for themselves.
The cornerstones of the site is likely the Experience Vault, where users submit their own first-person narratives of experiences with particular substances. While the submitted texts are vetted (for grammar, legibility, and focus on the substance at hand), the text of the archived stories are allowed to stand largely as they are, for readers to interpret on their own.
The information in a narrative experience is something between a product review, and watching the first penguin dive off the iceberg into sea lion-infested waters. Many of the chemicals listed on Erowid are very new to science and psychonauts alike, and as the site will often state: "not enough reliable human data has been recorded to say much with certainty." And that, for some Erowid users, is a flashing neon advertisement to experiment, and to find the boundaries of the substance.
Take, for example, "The Way it Looks When a Mind Comes Apart," an entry from a user by the name of Doctor Scrambles MD. He mixed two different chemicals together: one called AMT, a long-lasting variety of a common class of psychedelic compounds called tryptamines, and "euphoriant" that has been illegal in the US since 2003, and 2CI-NBOMe, a very new research chemical, which according to Erowid, "has nearly no history of human use prior to 2010 when it first became available online," and only just was made illegal on a temporary basis in 2013.
There is only one other report on Erowid of combining these two substances. So, for the good of internet science, Doctor Scrambles gave it a try.
The results were not good: "I was mentally lost and perpetually perplexed. It was carnivorous thinking, in the sense that it was all-consuming of every molecule of your being. I was practically paralyzed by the intense thought bombing: I couldn't look up and there was no such thing as down. The vision to my left and right was warped by narrow tunnel vision and I had no idea where I was at that time, all I knew was that I didn't want to go back. Fortunately it ended and I was returned to the panicky state of realization that if an EMT was evaluating me, they'd be very concerned. The unknown and inexplicable sensation of surging cardiovascular discomfort through my chest and left arm/leg and side of my neck was hugely disconcerting." One can't take Doctor Scrambles' story as medical evidence, but it does provide a good warning for anyone who might be tempted to try a similar combination.
Not all of the combinations are chosen for the purpose of open-minded experimentation. User Joe, in his story "3 Months of Active Psychosis Horror: An Experience with Modafinil (Provigil) & Bupropion (Wellbutrin)" details the bad interaction of two drugs that were prescribed for him by doctors. He writes, "within a week I had begun to see auras. I thought it was quite nice really, and interesting, and I began to have the archangels visiting me and I could tell them apart by the colour and energy I sensed in the room."
But things got very bad from there. He descended into paranoia and hallucination, with fears of being murdered at the hands of a demonic coven. Joe recounts how he ended up institutionalized, and diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy on account of the interaction between the drugs in his brain.
Sometimes, the nature of the experiment is, as it so often can be with drugs, just simply too much. Drug combinations have long been a popular way of testing the limits. "Speedball" is common name for mixing cocaine and heroin, and "candyflipping" is combining MDMA and LSD. In some cases, the lesson is probably to not try to mix too many things at once, though there are plenty willing to test the limits. User TweakGeek describes combining a series of methamphetamine, marijuana, alcohol, MDMA, cocaine, GHS, propoxyphene, and diazepam over a period of 14 hours. In his soberly titled tale, "Excess is Not Always Best," he notes "it took me about 3 days to come off of all of that shit, and it was NOT fun."
The cautionary tale value of Erowid is powerful. Erowid frequenter Dare says that "I recall trying to convince a friend that they did not want to experiment with Datura—which is often described as an "ordeal hallucinogen" [...] it was the wealth of terrible Datura experiences on Erowid that convinced them to pass it up." Indeed, Datura, a flowering plant growing in many American gardens, has only a handful of experiences filed on Erowid under the categories of "Glowing" or "Mystical" experiences, while those filed under "Difficult Experiences," and "Trainwrecks and Trip Disasters," go on for pages. Report titles such as "A Tale of Nudity, Arrest, & Insanity…" and "Never Do It!!!" convey the nature of these experiences.
But there are many good experiences with other drugs, from individuals who made better substance and dosage decisions. Experiences titled "Ego-Loss and Self-Realization," "Sewn into the Fabric of the Universe," and "If There is a God, He Loves Fractals," sound like psychonaut footsteps one might be more excited about following. For much more common substances like MDMA or LSD, there are hundreds of written reports, allowing readers to benefit from this anecdotal information and learn about proper sourcing, purity testing, drug interaction warnings, and dosage recommendations.
A user named iliketoplay details his experience drinking ayahuasca tea made of a combination of the bark of Mimosa Hostilis and Syrian Rue, entitled "Psychic Network, and Mental Noise." He provides feedback on his use of a particular recipe to prepare the tea, which is now considered a standard preparation, from the many people who have reported using it successfully.
User FreeFromBlue, in his experience entitled "What I've Been Looking For," describes his experiment using a combination of small doses of the anti-depressant Selegeline with basic phenethylamine, a basic molecule related to other substances like MDMA, but naturally present in humans and without a psychedelic effect. As the title might tell, FreeFromBlue had great success not in getting high, but in treating his depression over a period of six months. He writes: "Overall, this combination has been a blessing in my life. I contribute this report in hope that it may help others."
"I like that Erowid doesn't glorify nor does it frighten," another longtime reader, Rob Ray, says. "The posts there are not very performative. It's far more even-keeled than even something like Reddit, Yelp or Amazon product reviews... I have a place to go to learn more, weigh my cautions and enthusiasms, and ease into my decisions."
Both psychedelic and philosophical mind-expansion form a bedrock experience of human culture. The sorts of experiences that Erowid records go even further, representing the internet's underlying relationship to these counter-cultural influences. Many people know that digital culture pioneers experimented with drugs--but the point is not so much the interest in intoxication, as it is the interest in sharing and compiling information about such a weird interest.
The psychedelic underground has always had to rely largely on the sharing of self-discovered information. But rather than remaining in the margins of dog-eared, out-of-print books and overheard stories at parties, the virtual space of the internet has allowed Erowid to become a college, in the sense of the latin root of the word, collegium, "a community, society, or guild." And, as long as Fire and Earth Erowid are around to do the work of administering the website, it seems that the psychedelic research institution known as Erowid will be online as well.
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