|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.
“Erowid is the trusted source for young people who want to get information that’s as uncontaminated by hidden agendas as possible,” says Rick Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which maintains close ties to the site. As an example, Doblin compares Erowid to Freevibe, a sassy anti-drug Web site created by Disney and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). “Freevibe is designed to attract young people, but their MDMA page is bullshit. By providing misinformation or inaccurate information, you destroy your credibility. Kids go elsewhere.” Doblin believes that Erowid is performing a public service by providing information that citizens can use to make good choices. “Erowid shouldn’t have to do what it’s doing. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t exist. This work would be done by the government.”
Inside the psychedelic, rave and harm-reduction communities, Earth and Fire are considered leaders, even heroes. But they insist they’re just a pair of librarians — archivists and “Internet dorks” who believe that better access to better information just makes for better decisions in the long run. “Basically, we act as if there isn’t prohibition,” says Earth. “We are trying to publish this information as if the world were already making rational choices around this complicated area.”
Rationality, however, rarely claws its way into the public discussion of drug use in this country. Despite widespread disgust with the war on drugs, the dominant American narrative hasn’t budged much since Reefer Madness, which assumed that people are defenseless lemmings unable to withstand the seductive and all-consuming call of horribly damaging drugs and their demonic proponents. After years working under the radar, Erowid is now being painted into this patronizing, B-movie tableau. A year ago, CBS News ran an “Eye on America” that focused on the Web site, which they faintly praised as “the encyclopedia of altered states.” Their flash case was a 17-year-old who fell unconscious after taking a combination of 5-MeO-DMT, a mighty psychedelic tryptamine, and Syrian rue, a plant rich in a monoamine-oxidase inhibitor, or MAOI, called harmaline. By temporarily squelching enzymes that metabolize organic amines such as DMT, MAOIs significantly extend the tryptamine’s flight time. The fellow learned about this rather risky combo from Erowid, which CBS claimed had given the fellow “a brand-new way to flirt with death.” Later that year, Fox News ran a predictably hysterical piece about online drug information that showed screen shots of Erowid, although the site’s name had been blurred out. Perhaps Fox knew that CBS’s earlier spot had doubled Erowid’s server traffic for days.
These reports cast Erowid as little more than cheerleaders proffering recipes for gray-matter mischief. “Erowid are presented as somehow opposite the government, as totally positive rather than constantly negative,” says MAPS’s Doblin. “But that’s just wrong. They’re not pro-drug. They’re pro-choice, and the choice should lie with the individual who has access to good information.” Doblin points out that only an idiot could mistake the 5-MeO-DMT vault for a pusher’s hard sell. Tales of crystalline entities and the implosion of space-time abound — and these are the positive reports. Add this to the prominent list of contraindications (which includes MAOIs), and most reasonably responsible people would think very hard before embarking on the good ship 5-MeO-DMT.
But that’s the rub: How many of Erowid’s users can be said to be reasonably responsible? Leaving aside the fact that many people turn to drugs to escape the world of reason and responsibility, Doblin’s pro-choice argument requires that users are already capable of critical thinking — not to mention navigating the basics of pharmacology. “Most people who get on Erowid are bright and well educated,” says Edward Boyer, the toxicologist and emergency-room physician who treated the young man in the CBS story. “But not everyone is. I mean, how many people know what ‘contraindication’ means? When I started medical school, I didn’t know what it was.”
Boyer first started tracking online drug sites in 1996, after treating two fellows who poisoned themselves with a batch of GHB they had whipped up after discovering a recipe online. In 2001, the New England Journal of Medicine published his letter accusing Erowid and other “partisan” Web sites of providing dangerous misinformation. (Unfortunately, the research and methodology Boyer used were not included in his letter, nor did the Journal deign to print Erowid’s rebuttal.) Though Boyer has since come to cautiously admire Earth and Fire, and no longer refers to their site as “partisan,” he still argues that Erowid minimizes adverse effects and includes too much dodgy — and potentially harmful — data in its quest to present all sides. “Erowid is so comprehensive, and so much of the information is correct, that unless you’re an expert in medical toxicology you may miss the dangerous information that’s close to the surface.”
Boyer wants the assurances provided by the professional system of peer review and expertise. The problem is that, when it comes to recreational drugs in America, politics have largely hijacked these noble mechanisms. Last year, for example, the Johns Hopkins neuroscientist George Ricaurte, a prominent and tireless critic of MDMA, issued a retraction of a controversial and widely hyped paper published the previous year in the prestigious journal Science. Ricaurte’s original study reported that monkeys shot up with only moderately strong doses of MDMA experienced “severe” damage to their dopamine systems, leading to Parkinson’s-like symptoms and some deaths. Embarrassingly, it turned out that Ricaurte’s grad students had actually been shooting up the animals with methamphetamine. Though some interpreted the retraction as evidence of the self-correcting nature of science, the real question — posed by the prominent British medical researchers Colin Blakemore and Les Iversen, among others — was why Ricaurte’s report was published in the first place, given that its results were so out of whack with what we know about the very real neurotoxicity of MDMA. If Ricaurte’s study were true, then ravers would routinely be forced to dance over the corpses of their triple-dosing peers.
The unspoken reality is that, in today’s America, politics overwhelms the scientific investigation of recreational drugs. Ricaurte, for example, receives the bulk of his large research funds from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), while researchers interested in exploring the positive aspect of drugs like MDMA not only face a lack of funding or federal approval, but professional suicide. As Earth explains, “The people who know the most about this subject don’t talk about it publicly, because they are legitimately afraid for their careers.”
By creating an anonymous and evolving space of discussion, debate and trust, Erowid has not abandoned peer review, but precariously extended its boundaries. Published research findings cohabit with postings from anonymous research scientists and the interpenetrating comments of freelance alchemists, wackos and all manner of drug nerds. Earth calls it “grassroots peer review,” a process that involves self-selecting contributors whose collective intelligence increases through the dynamics of a highly networked and committed community.
Though it largely ignores policy debates, Erowid is a striking example of guerrilla information war. Millions of people, particularly young people, regularly access a repository of data whose very accessibility erodes the coercive exaggerations, hysteria and outright lies common to government and mainstream-media discussion of drugs. In addition, the very form of Erowid, which presents a model of an honest and open-minded psychoactive culture, encourages intelligent decision making. Earth and Fire don’t take up guns in the drug war; they blanket the battleground with leaflets.
I met Earth and Fire a few years ago through a rave collective that held its parties in an Episcopal church in San Francisco before the hedonic glee broke the limits of divine tolerance. Now in their mid-30s, the couple have been together since they were teenagers. Both are recognizably Midwestern: Fire’s Björk-ish moon face is framed by straight brown hair, while Earth has a towering Nordic frame, shoulder-length blond hair and a firm, determined jaw decorated with a wispy goatee. She speaks with a clipped, fiercely intelligent directness that might come off as oddly masculine were it not for Earth’s equally fierce, if more verbose, ray-gun patter. In both their dress and their self-possessed manner, they seem uncannily symbiotic. In person and even on the phone, they often finish each other’s sentences.
This conviviality is a good thing, since they spend nearly all their time together, slumped side by side before their monitors, cranking away at their Web site for up to 80 hours a week. They work out of a rambling ranch house in the foothills of the Sierras, with two cats named Circe and Pan and a growing library of drug books. Their mind-altering substance of choice is not mushrooms or pot but caffeine, which they consume in rather enormous quantities. Erowid, they joke, is fueled by Mountain Dew.
Erowid accepts no advertising, and Earth and Fire’s shoestring budget is based solely on contributions. Though their site receives outside donations, Earth and Fire have no institutional support, and no trust funds to draw from. For the last few years, nearly half of their costs were floated by Bob Wallace, employee number nine at Microsoft and a strong supporter of psychedelic research. But Wallace died unexpectedly in his San Rafael home in the fall of 2002, and Erowid’s coffers are now basically empty. The couple are trying to motivate themselves to fund-raise. “One of the positive things about being broke is that we don’t feel comfortable asking for money until we don’t have any,” Earth jokes.
Earth and Fire first met in high school near Minneapolis. Fire prefers not to talk on record about her family, but Earth explains that his father was an engineer who filled their house with computers way back in the 1970s. His dad was committed to lifelong learning and believed that people should hang out with folks of widely different ages. He also believed that Coca-Cola makes you smarter. He encouraged the neighborhood kids to hang out with him at their house, and calmed their somewhat puzzled parents with the promise that the kids’ grades would go up — but only if they were allowed to drink as much Coke as they desired. He was usually right.
From the get-go, Earth developed a logical and fiercely independent turn of mind. But he was not a rebel, and in junior high, he was actively critical of drug use. The only stoner in his class was a jerk, and that kid’s older brother had stolen Earth’s bicycle. “So the model I had was that people who did drugs were losers and thieves.” This view was confirmed by the Reagan-era “Just Say No” messages saturating the educational system. Then one day, Earth’s health teacher claimed that human beings were the only animals stupid enough to use drugs. This contradicted a Science News story Earth had recently read about belligerent African elephants tearing through large structures in order to get their snouts into booze. “I started to realize that the information I was getting was . . .”
“Tangential to the truth,” says Fire.
During senior year, Earth was asked by his fellow student-council members to help man the door at the freshman dance. To spice up the evening, the council president suggested they ‰ smoke pot together. Earth was shocked. Asking around, he soon discovered that most of the top students in his class had experimented with cannabis but didn’t want him to know about their delectation because of his hard-ass stance on the issue. Earth had pierced through one of the many falsehoods presented by prohibitionist propaganda, which is that balanced and successful people don’t use illicit psychoactives.
Earth and Fire started going out after high school, when both of them attended a small university in Florida where they majored in humanities. (Earth, who later designed scientific databases, had no interest in doing computer science; the computers he had at home were much better than those at school.) It wasn’t until after they graduated that the couple took acid — or, in Earth’s typically more exacting description, “a random piece of paper that I was given and told was LSD.” They briefly returned to Minnesota, where they felt self-consciously freaky in their embroidered jeans and long hair. So they decided to move to the Bay Area, where they could be, as Earth puts it, “somewhat conservative normal people.”
It was 1994, and the Bay Area was riding high on the combined energies of the Internet boom, the rave scene and an increasingly self-conscious psychedelic revival. Earth and Fire met large numbers of psychedelic users who broke the usual stereotypes. Earth once again confronted the lesson of his student-council year. “I encountered people who were dynamic, interesting and creative intellectuals — successful people who told me that I should try taking these things. This was dissonant with the government’s information.” (This, by the way, is how Earth talks.)
In order to resolve that dissonance, Earth and Fire started researching, and soon found themselves hooked — not on the drugs, but on the work. “The world is full of psychoactives,” says Fire. “When you see that it’s not just LSD and heroin and cocaine, that there are plants everywhere, you start to realize how deep the field is, and how much information there is to keep track of. You also realize how lacking the government information is. Not only was the minimal data we were getting on the Web contradictory to government sources, but it was contradictory to itself.”
Their desire to organize and provide access to such a vast and multifaceted field of data led them to found Erowid in 1995. “Each person on the planet has something that fits them,” says Fire, who serves as Erowid’s designer and information architect and writes many of the site’s basic pages. “Very quickly after starting this project, it became clear that it fit me. In college I found it difficult to get excited about focusing on one discipline for the rest of my life. Erowid is extremely interdisciplinary, so it has allowed me to follow my interests in chemistry, botany, history, anthropology and law.”
Earth explains that Erowid satisfied an archival urge he traces back to Dungeons & Dragons, which he once played religiously. The role-playing game exploits the fetish for mapping and collecting stuff and presents, like drug lore, a curious balance of the fantastic and the technical. Fire also used to write stories with her friends and draw detailed pictures of the floor plans of the characters’ homes. “It was very D&D but from a different angle.”
“From a girlie angle,” Earth adds.
“It wasn’t that girlie.”
But it was geeky. Earth calls the commonality “an idle-ish, paperwork, detail-oriented kind of systems thinking — a kind of externalization of memory. That’s a huge part of what Erowid is. There is no way to keep track of that amount of information without a robot assistant.” In other words, arranging and programming a good database actually makes the information more intelligent.
Initially, the Erowid robot had the modest goal of supplementing Hyperreal, then the largest purveyor of drug data online. The couple were particularly drawn to obscure and highly technical information about extraction techniques, alkaloid contents and improvements in psilocybin cultivation. In 1996, the administrators for Hyperreal ceased maintaining the site, and within two years, Erowid moved onto the Hyperreal server and absorbed the older site, instantly doubling its traffic. Though another site, called the Lycaeum, also provides a healthy, if wilder, brew of data (at www.lycaeum.org), and scores of sites devote themselves to individual compounds, Erowid comes closest to a comprehensive archive of contemporary psychoactive-drug information.
It’s not an easy place to be. The couple are perpetually overwhelmed by the need to manage, update and publish a torrent of information. “It doesn’t take an informed person five minutes to find huge gaps,” says Earth. Their tobacco and caffeine vaults are tiny, and the MDMA FAQ is horribly out of date. Large tracts of their site lie fallow. “Areas like ‘Ask Erowid,’ where visitors can ask questions that aren’t addressed on the site, are a source of unending suffering,” says Fire. “Months go by without a question being answered. If I think about that, I start to feel sick.”
But Erowid now has more-pressing demands. E-mails from emergency medical technicians and physicians attest that Erowid has saved lives, and scores of health professionals have made the site their primary online source when dealing with unfamiliar drug problems. And young adults are turning to it in droves. “When we first started, we were interested in documenting the cutting edge of information about psychoactives,” says Fire. “That had to change as it became clear that people were using Erowid in a way we had not originally intended. Not having the basic background information seemed dangerous in some ways.” The flip side of this public service is a mountain of responsibility — pressure that makes for the sort of high-minded workaholism that, combined with empty coffers, can easily lead to burnout. Paranoia also waits in the wings. Though the couple keep the site free from the sort of tasty bits useful to law enforcement, and will literally turn away from conversations that tell them more than they want to know about individuals involved in manufacture and supply, Earth and Fire sometimes fear they will get harassed simply out of spite.
Along with mistaking Earth and Fire for ravenous drug fiends, people often assume that they’re radical libertarians on the issue of drug legalization. “No controls?” counters Earth. “That seems crazed to me. I like government controls in a lot of ways. I think stop signs at four-way intersections are fantastic.” What concerns the couple is how prohibition distorts the understanding of our world’s psychoactive reality. “Consciousness is a chemically mediated process,” says Earth. “The pretense of the drug war is that, if we could just get rid of all these crazy chemicals, people wouldn’t be faced with the choice of whether to take strong psychoactives. In fact, today I can buy all manner of antidepressants, anxiolytics and stimulants. From a very early age, we are faced with caffeine, which our society only pretends isn’t a powerful psychoactive.”
And we ain’t seen nothing yet. According to Earth, we are now witnessing the early stages of what will be an explosion of more or less approved mind-altering technologies — not just drugs, but powerful digital technologies as well. “In the next 20 years, we will be faced with some very sticky issues. By oversimplifying the complicated moral, ethical and medical questions surrounding such technologies, the authorities infantilize the general public. They don’t provide tools for people to make rational choices. Instead they manipulate emotion through fear. They present a model where there is only a
Earth and Fire are the first to admit that Erowid’s philosophy is a gamble. “There isn’t anything that I don’t question about our work,” Earth admits. “Every piece of information that we put up is potentially misusable.” Dangerous recipes and “pseudo-facts” permeate the site. But Earth and Fire argue that important discussions should not be limited by the specter of what an uncorked or foolish person might do in its vicinity. “People do stupid things no matter what,” says Fire. “The drug war started long before the Internet, and there’s no reason to believe that people’s actions have become more stupid due to the online availability of information about psychoactives.”
Still, Earth readily admits that one of Erowid’s major problems is that crackpot or out-of-date documents, included for the sake of diversity or historical interest, could easily be misinterpreted by a naive user as gospel writ. One of the main goals of Erowid 3.0, a massive upgrade that the couple are coding this summer, is to provide users with quick in-house ratings of documents as well as a way to track their history and origin. But the real issue is not the quality of Erowid’s data, which is largely published elsewhere and which even critics like Boyer acknowledge is pretty high. The real issue concerns the cultural consequences of creating a handy, one-stop online database of such tantalizing lore. The experience reports, for example, are a veritable Penthouse Forum of psychoactive escapades — a “virtual peer group” in Boyer’s terms, and one that certainly
But prohibition eggs people on, too. David Franklin, a counselor at a private high school in Richmond, California, who works with at-risk kids, tells the story of two boys who decided to try pot simply because they knew they were getting a fish story. “A lot of kids realize that they’ve been given false information about drugs,” says Franklin. “They don’t know what’s a lie or what’s a truth. They think everything is false.” Unlike the government, Franklin believes that, when presented with real options and solid information, kids are generally able to make good decisions. He was once faced with a depressed 15-year-old girl who wanted to try LSD. Along with explaining the potential dark side of acid, he sent her to Erowid to read about other people’s experiences. After poring through the material, she decided that her visit to electric ladyland could wait.
Even Boyer admits that online information may turn off as many potential partiers as it turns on. At NIDA’s behest, he is currently studying the relationship between the Internet and illicit drug use among at-risk kids. So far, the results are ambiguous. “We’ve had people who are not drug users read about Salvia divinorum and thought it was cool and started using it. By the same token, we’ve had people who used to snort Ritalin get on the Web, find out that it was bad, and quit.”
The role the Internet plays in psychoactive use is also complicated by the steady trickle of new designer drugs, or “research chemicals” as Erowid calls them, many of which, like 2C-I, modify known psychoactive molecules. Because of this close resemblance, most of these substances are, arguably, restricted under the Analogue Act of 1986, which prohibits drugs that are “substantially similar” to scheduled compounds. Given the vagueness of this language, though, a steady stream of quasi-legal powders provide highs that stay one step ahead of the DEA’s scheduling process. Often based on the chemist Alexander Shulgin’s magisterial research work with his wife, Ann, in their catalogs of firsthand experiences, PiHKAL and TiHKAL, these chemicals begin their life circulating through “boutique markets” or what Fire calls “family networks” of dedicated psychonauts. Some of the more fun ones then move into a larger gray market, where they overlap or supplement established club drugs. As with the well-known (and loved) 2C-B, synthesized by Shulgin in 1974 but not marketed until the late 1980s, these more popular compounds often become controlled substances themselves. In 2002, 2C-T-7, 5-MeO-DiPT (a.k.a. “Foxy”) and the obscure but venerable AMT all wound up scheduled alongside acid and heroin.
The role that information plays in this cycle is, as Earth might say, nontrivial. Early on, potential users need to know that such substances exist, and are reportedly interesting, before they face the task of buying them online or getting a chemist friend to synthesize them. By providing information about these compounds, especially in the pivotal matter of dosage, Erowid inevitably drives the culture. A few years ago, the couple decided to label new research chemicals with a fat yellow biohazard symbol to indicate to potential psychonauts that, given the paucity of data, they were taking their brains in their own hands. To Erowid’s considerable chagrin, some gray-market vendors began using the very same symbol to hype their latest wares.
Clearly, online drug information is another one of those escaped genies that are now ravaging consensus reality. The best hope — and the one that motivates Earth and Fire — is to force the evolution of intelligence through good data, an ethos of responsibility and courage, and a seductive culture of critical thinking. “The belief that got us started and carried us forward is that everybody should have access to the same information,” says Fire. “Then we can actually discuss what’s true and not, the problems and benefits. But if law is working off one set of data, and users on their lore, and physicians on journals that no one can afford to subscribe to, then there’s no way to integrate the data and make better decisions.”
In any case, prohibition will never be the same. Erowid has already forced government sources like NIDA and ONDCP to become more sophisticated as they face a widening credibility gap with young people. In 2002, Earth and Fire were flabbergasted to receive an invitation to speak at a small NIDA conference on “Drugs, Youth, and the Internet.” The couple felt that the meetings, though surreal, went well. During one discussion about possible collaborations between NIDA and Erowid, one NIDA researcher argued strongly that the two groups should not work together. Such collaboration, he said, might ruin Erowid’s reputation.