In recent years, drug tourists seeking ayahuasca-fueled insights — or just good stories — have flocked to the Peruvian Amazon, where the plants used to make the heady brew grow freely and the laws controlling them don’t. But the real attraction isn’t a broth; it’s DMT, formally known as N,N-dimethyltryptamine and often referred to as the “God Drug” because of its powerful, but poorly understood, effects on the human brain. A naturally occurring compound, DMT is used in Peru but found in significant quantities in Australian acacia trees, which is part of the reason politicians down under are debating its legal future. That conversation, unique in the developed world, has the potential to help the burgeoning field of psychedelic research in a way that no previous public debate has.

For anyone interested in mind-altering drugs or drug policy more generally, it’s a fascinating and critical discussion.

Right now, DMT is considered a Schedule 9 — that is to say prohibited — substance in Australia, putting it in the same very illegal class as drugs like marijuana, LSD, and ecstasy. That classification is what is being contested. This month, the Therapeutic Goods Administration within the Australian Government’s Department of Health is reviewing requests to make exemptions for small, naturally occurring amounts of the drug (approximately 0.25 milligrams per milliliter, a relatively low concentration) for religious ceremonies.

Similar exemptions have already been made stateside, where DMT is classified as a Schedule 1 substance — meaning it has no legally recognized therapeutic use and a high potential for abuse. American churches like the União do Vegetal and Sainto Daime, satirized in Hulu’s cult-themed parody The Path, were legally permitted to use ayahuasca in their ceremonies after invoking the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a preliminary injunction permitting the churches to use the drug in its ceremonies. (In 2015, a Peruvian church known as Ayahuasca Healings became the first legal and “public” — that is, open to anyone — ayahuasca church in America, but it’s currently closed off as it works out “religious exemption” with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.)

But America’s flirtation with DMT legalization has remained just that. Exceptions to the federal ban have been strictly localized, confined to a handful of churches in a handful of states. There has never been much of a political conversation about the so-called “God Drug.”

The drug’s entry into the public discourse in Australia has provided a platform for open-minded researchers to speak up about DMT’s potential as a therapeutic drug. Proponents like David Caldecott, M.D., an emergency medicine specialist and senior lecturer at the Australian National University, have been very vocal not only about the drug’s reclassification (and that of other drugs) but also about its importance in medicine. “DMT should certainly not be in the same class as a drug like methamphetamine and heroin,” Caldecott told Australia’s SBS, an Australian national TV station. “[It'] could be argued, quite vigorously that it has potential through therapy to benefit and therefore doesn’t belong in that class.”

story continues below

Caldecott is referring to the small but slowly growing number of studies outlining the possible uses of ayahuasca in treating mental health disorders. One study, published this year in the journal Brain Research Bulletin by a team of Spanish researchers, provided preliminary evidence that DMT “shows promise as a therapeutic tool by enhancing self-acceptance and allowing safe exposure to emotional events.” In the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Brazilian researchers analyzing existing ayahuasca studies called the collective results “promising” for reducing dependence and substance abuse but called for more controlled studies to replicate the preliminary findings.

        DMT is a naturally occurring substances in members of the Acacia species, many of which are native to Australia.
DMT is a naturally occurring substances in members of the Acacia species, many of which are native to Australia.

The resurgence of hallucinogenic research, spearheaded by researchers like Robin Carhart-Harris, Ph.D. at Imperial College London and scientists at the Beckley Foundation, continues to hit obstacles as words like LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA remain taboos in the mouths of the policymakers employed to deal with them. In Britain, where much of the research was taking place, studies have just hit a wall: A blanket ban on all psychoactive drugs that went into effect at the beginning of May has left the future of psychedelic research in limbo. A lack of funding post-Brexit doesn’t help.

While Australia waits for its Therapeutic Goods Administration to make its decision about DMT and ayahuasca, drug proponents like Caldecott have a rare opportunity to speak out without sounding like drug evangelists, which most of them are not. And this isn’t exclusively about DMT. It’s about psychedelic research more generally.

story continues below

“The reason why they’re hot is because we just haven’t done any of the research we should be doing because there’s been a blanket ban on all of them,” he told SBS and its national audience. “They are providing us with the keys that can unlock the human mind.”