Saturday, July 6, 2019

Mike Jay's "Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic"

Mike Jay has written extensively on scientific and medical history. His books on the history of drugs include High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture and The Atmosphere of Heaven. He lives in London.

Jay applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic, and reported the following:
Page 99 describes the isolation of mescaline from the peyote cactus in 1897 by the chemist Arthur Heffter in Leipzig, Germany. Heffter had discovered that peyote contained a large number of resins and alkaloids that might account for the hallucinations it produced. He made various extracts and tested them on himself. The resins produced nausea but no hallucinations. By a process of elimination, he came to suspect they were produced by one alkaloid compound that he had named ‘Meskalin’, after ‘mescal’, an alternative name for the peyote cactus.
On 23 November he took 150g [of mescaline]. The violet and green spots came first, then ‘images of carpet patterns, ribbed vaulting etc.’ Soon he was immersed in the visionary ‘landscapes, halls and architectural forms’ of peyote. ‘The results’, he concluded, ‘show that mescaline is exclusively responsible for the major symptoms of peyote (mescal) poisoning. This applies especially to the unique visions.’
Apart from a brief discussion in the prologue, page 99 is the first time that mescaline appears in the book in its pure chemical form. Up to this point I have followed the mescaline-containing cacti, the San Pedro and the peyote, from their ancient and traditional use in the Andes and Mexico, through their adoption by the Plains tribes of the Southwest USA, to peyote's discovery by western science in the 1890s.

This page is one of a the few places where I discuss the chemistry of mescaline in any detail, so in that sense it's not particularly representative of the book as a whole. But it is an important turning point in the story - the moment when mescaline crosses ‘a great divide into modernity: from plant spirit to chemical compound’. A central theme of the book is that mescaline has two distinct histories - one traditional and indigenous, the other western and modern - and this is one of the key moments of transition between them.

It also features another of the book's recurring themes: stories of scientists experimenting on themselves, an essential step in understanding the subjective effects of mind-altering drugs. Arthur Heffter was in a race with another chemist to isolate the vision-producing drug in the cactus. His rival, Louis Lewin, was far more prominent and distinguished, but was not prepared to test the resins and alkaloids on himself. Instead he fed them to dogs, but was unable to tell from observing them whether or not they weere hallucinating. As I conclude on page 100, ‘Heffter made the breakthrough in the laboratory of his own mind’.
Visit Mike Jay's website.

--Marshal Zeringue