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What is DMT and what are the risks?

“I have recently been offered to try DMT and after doing some research I haven’t been able to come up with any information on the negative effects of taking it. The friends who offered it to me have said the trip is quite short but really powerful and within 10 minutes of coming down you are back to normal. I understand there is always danger when dealing with drugs, particularly more powerful ones like this, however I am interested in the specific dangers of this drug. Any information you have would be appreciated.”

This is a question out of left field and certainly not one I would usually expect from a high school student – we’re talking about a very powerful hallucinogen and a substance that only experienced drug users usually experiment with and even then some of them find the effect too overpowering.

DMT (dimethyltryptamine or more specifically, 5-MeO-DMT) is found in a number of plants, as well as in the venom and skin of one particular toad! The chemical structure of the drug is similar to that of psilocybin, the chemical found in magic mushrooms. In Australia, DMT has been found in the bark of a number of commonly occurring trees, as well as a number of other plants, but it’s more usually associated with South America and shamenism. For centuries, South American Indians have used DMT during ceremonial rituals in an effort to reach a state of altered consciousness.

Unlike other hallucinogens, the DMT ‘trip’ is quite brief. When taken, the effects of the drug are immediate, peaking within a short period of time and lasting for between 30 and 60 minutes. It is for this reason that it’s often referred to as ‘businessman’s lunch’, as the whole hallucinogenic episode supposedly occurs in the time it would take to have lunch! Those who use the drug can experience powerful visual hallucinations which can involve a mixture of feelings from anything from euphoria to fear. Those I have spoken to who have used DMT have described their ‘trip’ on the drug as “the most terrifying experience of their life”, whilst others have talked about a ‘near death experience’ that has altered their view of life forever.

DMT is usually smoked and there is evidence that states of anxiety and panic are more likely to be experienced with this drug than with more commonly used hallucinogens such as LSD. This may be due to the rapid onset of the drug’s effects, preventing the user time to adjust to what they’re experiencing. As one website that promotes the drug says “Because of DMT’s extreme potency and the sudden, almost immediate onset of it’s effects, it really helps to have some prior experience and familiarity with deep psychedelic spaces. Uninformed, inappropriate experimentation could result in some fairly hellish experiences for newbies.”

The most important thing to consider when using a substance like DMT is that it is a very powerful drug. As already said, even the most experienced drug users have found it to be ‘too much’ for them. The South American shamens knew this and when they used it in rituals and ceremonies they ensured that whoever was taking it was well-prepared, looked after by others while they were affected and then also helped to recover once the experience had ended. It wasn’t something they did lightly! This is not usually how today’s young people use hallucinogens, whether they are synthetic (LSD) or naturally-occurring (‘magic mushrooms’ or DMT). Instead they are far more likely to take them in a party situation (although that is certainly not always the case) and not be at all prepared for the potentially extreme experience.

First published: May 2015
Reviewed and updated: August 2023

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