By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Illustration by Daniel Chang|
Early last February, a 19-year-old sophomore dragged himself into the psychiatric emergency ward at a large American university hospital, complaining that his friends and family were plotting against him. Though the fellow knew his thoughts were irrational, he could not shake his bout of paranoia. He also told the receiving staff that six weeks earlier he had swallowed an unknown amount of 2C-I, a recreational drug that, in his case, produced bright colors and swirling patterns and a suffocating onslaught of cosmic dread. The bad vibes had recurred with increasing ferocity in the intervening weeks, until he finally decided to check himself in.
When a third-year medical student named Jack Ludlow showed up for his shift, the receiving staff were asking themselves the same question that probably just crossed your own mind: What the hell is 2C-I? Luckily, Ludlow knew something about the esoteric world of substance use and abuse among young adults, and identified 2C-I as a rare hallucinogenic phenethylamine. But his search of the usual medical databases for more detailed information turned up zilch. Then he aimed his Web browser toward The Vaults of Erowid (www.erowid.org), where he found data about the chemical structure of 2C-I and a link to the EU’s recent scientific review of the substance. “This information helped us to treat this patient’s symptoms,” Ludlow wrote in a letter thanking Erowid. “We expect that his symptoms will resolve completely.”
Ludlow’s tale is a conventional enough story of medicine in the age of the Internet, except that Erowid is not your conventional medical database. It is an independent Web site run by a couple of neo-hippie data geeks without Ph.D.s, institutional backup or government funding. Two longtime partners who go by the names Earth and Fire (she’s the Fire), they’ve built the most comprehensive encyclopedia of psychoactive substances online. Erowid holds 4,500 archived images and over 25,000 individual documents, including dosage charts, indexes of research articles, FAQs and legal briefs. You can feast your eyes on detailed pharmacological charts, JPEGs of freebase pipes and mushroom spores, a vibrant vault of psychedelic art, and thousands of links to everything from the Salvia Divinorum Research and Information Center to the DEA. But Erowid is more than a vast library of documents concerning those plants, powders and poisons that continue to bedevil and enchant the human nervous system. The Web site is also an example of online culture jamming at its most rigorous and mature.
The topic of psychoactive drugs is a many-headed beast, encompassing pharmacology and federal law, dirty needles and God. The structure of Erowid reflects this multidimensional approach: You open the vault for a single substance, like AMT or heroin, and from there branch out into chemistry, health, history, legal issues and personal testimonies. By far the most entertaining vault contains thousands of “experience reports” logged by psychonauts flying high (and taking notes) on exotic cacti, prescription pharmaceuticals, and newfangled phenethylamines like 2C-I. At once formulaic and bizarre, these reports provide details about dosage, timing and body load largely lacking in the hazy trip tales of yore. An individual going by the name of Fu, for example, reports that s/he consumed one gram of Harmala extract, followed 40 minutes later by 60 grams of fresh psilocybe cubensis mushrooms:
From 7:00-7:45 I began to progressively watch my ego disintegrate itself into the aethyr. This process of ego dissolution started out as a delicate web-like structure that appeared to be made of silver illuminating threads of silk emanating from the center of my field of vision. This web continued to increase in detail and otherworldliness as multi-colored translucent tentacles began to spiral around each silver thread of this “web.”
Strange and sometimes hilarious, these mad-science micro-memoirs recall nothing so much as 19th-century toxicology, when scientists routinely tested poisons and psychoactive compounds on themselves while systematically recording subjective effects.
Though Earth and Fire post many pieces themselves, Erowid is basically a collection of other people’s documents, many of which contradict one another. Psychoactives are a deeply confounding dimension of the human experience, and the site lets these loose ends dangle in plain sight, avoiding pat generalizations and absolute claims. They do not attempt to vet every wild and wacky claim, though they strive to maintain an overall tone of caution, pragmatism and healthy skepticism. Warnings of known dangers are prominently posted, but moralizing is abandoned in favor of fact and reasonable conjecture. The site will not tell you, for example, whether MDMA will damage your brain. What you will learn is that a guy named BJ Logan didn’t detect any neurotoxicity in randomly bred albino rats injected with 25 mg/kg MDMA, while another researcher found that Dark Agouti rats showed serotonin depletions at doses as low as 4 mg/kg. The rest, as they say, is up to you.
Erowid is an enormous hit. The site serves an average 400,000 page views to over 30,000 unique visitors a day, and recently logged more than half a million page hits in one 24-hour period. Surfers view an average of 13 pages each, which significantly outpaces most Web sites. Based on Erowid’s own surveys, its visitors include teachers, cops, chemists and pediatricians. By far the largest chunk are students, 3 million or so in 2003, the bulk of whom are undergrads. That’s why Erowid’s server traffic dips noticeably during summer and December vacations.