A Trip Through the Intoxicating History and Modern-Day Use of Psychedelic Plants and Substances
by Cody Johnson
Cody Johnson’s “Magic Medicine” lives up to its subtitle, “A trip through the intoxicating history and modern-day use of psychedelic plants and substances.” More politics, history, and anecdote than chemistry or medicine, this book contains twenty-three chapters which profile a diverse number of substances: the 2C-B and the 2C family, 5-MEO-DMT, Ayahuasca, DMT, DOM and the DOX family, LSD, Morning glory, Peyote, Psilocybin mushrooms, San Pedro, Yopo and Vilma beans, MDA, MDMA, DXM, Ketamine, Nitrous Oxide, Salvia, Amanita Muscaria, Cannabis, Dipt, fish and sea sponges, Iboga, and Mad Honey.
Over the course of these profiles, it’s easy to see a narrative emerge that exemplifies the intrepid spirit of the psychonauts who discovered, popularized, or invented many of these substances: Alexander Shulgin, John C. Lilly, Albert Hoffman, Robert Gordon Wasson, and others are discussed in narratives that give them a more personal dimension, though Johnson doesn’t delve too deeply into any one person’s particular contributions. And this is perhaps the most charming feature of the book: it is written for the casual reader, and the bite-sized chapters give plenty of information with little padding or wasted space.
There are a few substances here that aren’t covered in similar volumes; most books which discuss psychedelic plants don’t ever touch on synthetic compounds like 2C-B, while certain lesser-known natural psychedelics like Mad Honey are simply more rarely discussed in the Western body of work on this subject. And “Magic Medicine,” while it examines many substances from all over the world, does approach them from a decidedly Western point of view: in the chapter on salvia, for example, Johnson writes, “In 1939, anthropologist Jean Bassett Johnson studied Mazatec shamanism and became the first to reveal this mysterious plant to the world” — surely, the Mazatec shamans who introduced him to it were themselves a part of that world.
Besides a few nit-picky points such as this one, however, the book is generally respectful towards indigenous cultures (which often hold the keys and the history of the first contact between these plants and humans), and does not (like some other authors) fail to mention them entirely. Indeed, the relationship between Westerners and indigenous peoples is very much the story of psychedelics (as in many places, psychedelic usage has been guarded as a sacred secret), and Johnson does not attempt to hide the fact that Western culture has often been a destructive force over the long course of this history.
Johnson concentrates his historical efforts on psychedelics’ development, reputation, and the legal issues surrounding their use; he does not offer any firsthand experiences (although the interested reader may find some of this type of content on Johnson’s blog, psychedelicfrontier.com/). And this is by no means a complete encyclopedia of psychedelics; Johnson has chosen a handful of well-known and lesser-known psychedelics to focus on, and combined new research with old.
Factual and well-researched, the book boasts a detailed bibliography. It’s also a thin, small book but over three hundred pages long. It doesn’t delve far into related topics such as psychedelic art and culture, or even philosophical theory and psychonautical experimentation. There is, however, some opinion offered by the author on the basis of psychedelics’ medicinal value and the legal imbalance that becomes obvious to many who examine the difference in harm between psychedelic substances and other restricted substances. While this book may not contain much new information for studious psychonauts, it does contain a lot of amusing stories from the history of psychedelia, and would likely be appreciated as a gift or an addition to an existing library.
About the Author:
Sarah McMenomy is an artist and witch. Her craft incorporates herbalism, spellwork, trance, divination, auras, and more. Her work can be found at https://sarahmcmenomy.tumblr.com