Magic Medicine: A Trip Through the Intoxicating History and Modern-Day Use of Psychedelic Plants and Substances by Cody Johnson

Magic Medicine: A Trip Through the Intoxicating History and Modern-Day Use of Psychedelic Plants and Substances is a beguiling jewelry box of a book by Cody Johnson, the Boston-based blogger behind Psychedelic Frontier. Johnson’s blog is a pillar of the psychedelic journalistic community: a vibrant resource containing essays, up-to-date interviews and discussions related to happenings in psychedelic scientific research, music, and art.

In Magic Medicine, Johnson makes a considered effort to widen the accessibility of his subject matter beyond the psychonautical audience—written to pique the interest of anyone “from complete neophytes to veteran trippers, seekers and sages to skeptics and scientists.” The book is an illustrated encyclopedia detailing the effects, history and cultural import of a range of substances including the classical psychoactives like LSD, MDMA, ketamine and ayahuasca. These mainstays in the current discourse on psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy are discussed alongside some of the more eclectic fruits of the psychedelic family tree, such as mad honey, bufotenine-containing vilca beans and 5-Bromo-DMT containing sea sponges.

Each of the 23(!) entries provides a very comprehensive introduction to each substance, detailing its date of discovery, duration of effects, active compounds, and trends in cultural usage. All along with a “storied history” of its journey towards its current status within the contemporary cosmos of psychedelic science and drug policy reform. These are accompanied by gracefully delineated vegetal and molecular illustrations by Holly Neel, resulting in an aesthetic which feels like a sleekly updated, psychedelic take on a Victorian botanical almanac.

Johnson’s juxtaposition of concisely delivered background information with surprising trends in substance usage makes for a consistently illuminating read. For example, in the entry on 2-CB, which was discovered by Alexander Shulgin in 1974, he provides a glimpse into the molecule’s brief cameo as the “medicine of the singing ancestors.” Better known as a potential therapeutic agent, dancefloor drug and “lucid aphrodisiac,” it may come as a surprise to learn that 2-CB underwent a brief period of being hailed by Xhosa healers in South Africa as a less toxic means of inducing visionary states than their locally available entheogenic plant brews. Subsections with stories such as these elevate each entry out of “neophyte” territory and bolster the potential of Magic Medicine to expand an experienced reader’s existing knowledge base.

The 2-CB-tripping Xhosa unite with many other groups and individuals within the pages of Magic Medicine, whose practices of use, research and trip reports adorn each compound with sociocultural narrative layers. Pivotal characters include James, Davy, Shulgin, Hofmann, Leary, hosts of ethnobotanists and anthropologists, and trailblazers from psychedelic literature and counterculture, such as Ginsberg, Huxley, Kerouac and the Grateful Dead.

Johnson’s inclusion of vivid trip-reports from this wide variety of different cultures and sources effectively conveys the depth and breadth of the ways that communities and individuals can be tantalizingly weirded out – but, more importantly, touched, healed and transformed – by psychedelic experiences. The diverse array of contributions to research and culture which coalesce in Magic Medicine gives an indication of the scope of the interconnectivity that exists between the discovery, exploration and artistic representation of psychoactive substances.

Johnson’s organization of material according to an effects-based, rather than legal, classification system is one of the triumphs of Magic Medicine. The deleterious impact that banning psychoactive substances has had historically on efforts to unlock and utilize their therapeutic potential is a core theme of the text. Correspondingly, the four classifications Johnson uses foreground some of the properties of his chosen pharmacopeia that most command respect, utterly separating their essence from making sense in a criminal context.

Among the qualities foregrounded, many of the substances that Johnson terms ‘Classic’ are steeped in thousands of years’ worth of traditions of use. The compounds classified as ‘Empathogenic’ and ‘Dissociative’ are presented as uniquely important aids to psychotherapy and to our increased understanding of the human mind. And, the final section, on ‘Unique’ psychoactives, evokes the sheer wondrousness of the natural world, elucidating the need to conserve and respect it at the book’s close.

As the sole substances classified as ‘Empathogenic,’ MDMA, “the crown jewel of the empathogens” is paired with its currently less famous precursor MDA. Johnson shines a well-deserved spotlight on MDA with an entry which is every bit as detailed as that of MDMA, featuring a range of trip reports collated during early scientific exploration of the “original love drug.” These celebrate MDA’s ability to help users perform “apparent acts of mind-reading,” and its potential to facilitate mystical experiences. Indeed, the entries on the lesser known drugs are the book’s best: the discussion of the perplexing, Shulgin-synthesised drug DiPT, which provides eight to 12 hours of primarily auditory hallucinations, is a particular highlight.

A hardcover tome glowing in greens and gold, Magic Medicine is an aesthetically beautiful work that would be an apt addition to any psychedelic book collection. However, its pages contain none of the stuffiness of a collector’s item. Johnson handles the many esoteric elements of his subject matter with concision and simplicity, resulting in a transportative and informative reading experience that will help a wide variety of people to foster a love of learning about psychedelics.

Magic Medicine: A Trip Through the Intoxicating History and Modern-Day Use of Psychedelic Plants and Substances (Fair Winds Press, 2018) is available here.

Rosalind Stone

Rosalind is the publicist for the Psychedelic Press, a features writer for The Third Wave and and co-directs drugsand.me, a platform which offers students accessible, unbiased and scientific information about drugs via its website and workshops. Coming to drugs from an English literature background, she is fascinated by fictional representations of psychedelics and their (often equally or more fictive!) portrayals in the mainstream media. Previously Communications Officer at the Beckley Foundation, she has words in The Guardian, Kaltblut Magazine, VolteFace, Psymposia, and Talking Drugs.

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