Asylum's investigative reporter Declan Tan recently travelled to the depths of Brixton to get high (and relatively scared) on all-natural hallucinogenic plant extracts. Later, he decided to write about it, and we thought it would be interesting to relate what happened. Let us say, though, that before doing something stupid like following his example, please educate yourself on the dangers of taking harmful substances. This article is obviously not intended to be an endorsement of the activities described.
"Put your hands up if you've never tried hallucinogens before." Our eyes fix onto the case of boiled cactus. Half of the group raise their hands. "Those with their hands up, find someone who's been here before and buddy up."
I shrug off any discomforting P.E-teacher tone in the command and merely follow instruction, moving toward the person nearest, a young man named William stood looking serenely at the shaman, as we're encircled by the shuffling feet and enthusiastically elevated arms of his latest students.
We're in a hollowed out warehouse just off Brixton Hill, where, if you peek out the oil-stained windows, you can glimpse the off-license-lit street and remember when the inside of your nostrils didn't reek of tepid bile. William tells me: "You shouldn't have eaten anything today. Makes the nausea worse." I regret the luncheon of fried fish as I look around at a room filled with faces grimly illuminated by naked and failing light bulbs.
About thirty individuals of varying description, but similar age, make up the company. We've all found out about this place by word-of-mouth and, in a charming twist on the banality of most SMS alerts, been informed two hours previous as to the meeting's exact location via text message in which, admittedly, we were warned not to eat.
The name of the game is San Pedro, a South American cactus with some interesting, if foul smelling, potential. We're taking a dose of juice made from boiling up fresh, rather than dried, cuttings of the plant in a process that takes a good six or seven hours to prepare, with the purpose of extracting mescaline, the hallucinogenic substance that informed Aldous Huxley when he wrote The Doors of Perception.
The shaman, a middle-aged Brixtonite dressed in loose-fitting khaki dungarees and flip-flops, has taken care of all of that. He pulls out a set of brimming glass bottles from his milk-crate, handing them out one between two, followed by the plastic cups. He has dried cuttings readily available if anyone is left out, but luckily there is enough prepared juice to go around. "There are nine more people here than last month. That's not necessarily a good thing," he explains. We've already paid for our share at the door and been handed a set of house rules, scribbled on an A5 notepad and photocopied. They read: "This is not recreational. You cannot attend meetings in three consecutive months. Be responsible with your dosage. No photography. Do not combine with other hallucinogens," and a few other legalese-sounding warnings that seem immediately futile considering the circumstances.
During the two hours that the potion takes to 'peak', as it is referred to by our instructor, the group mills around alternatively chatting and sipping water, sometimes trading up chocolate and cigarettes for ginger supplements, to quell the rumbling sickness that has fallen on empty stomachs. After a while we're settled down and sitting cross-legged on the stone floor of the abandoned factory.
"For those of you who I've not already had a chance to speak to, my name is Juan. I am originally from Peru where I lived as a trainee shaman in the jungle, before coming here to earn my living as an artist." Juan says this as he sips a different concoction, a milk bottle of ayahuasca, also known as yage, a strong vision-inducing mixture made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine of the Amazon, a vine that enraptured the mind of writer-poet, William S. Burroughs. Juan wouldn't recommend yage to a newcomer of the "altered state experiment", particularly one situated in an urban environment. His dull eyes click onto me, unseen reveries glowing in his skull. A whisper: "That would be reckless," he says.
So for now we're sticking to the cactus. We closely analyse the dilating of all his and our pupils as the effect comes on gently, lifting us into the expected heightened state of talkative awareness.
"I thought it would be like a Ken Russell movie".
I turn to Charlie, "What do you mean?"
"Theatrical and ridiculous", she looks around, "but where's the drama?" She doesn't see the smartly attired office worker dry-heaving into his emergency Costcutter carrier bag. His partner watches on, offering mumbled support, kicking a leg to headphones in her ears.
"Give it time," I say.
Trembling perception relaxes to a slow vibration. Where objects expanded they now move in horizontal lines, vertical lines, circular motion. They shimmy out of their old places in the world and into new ones I have imagined for them.
Control continues to downshift as Gustav quietly peers into view, raising his hood over his head, "I feel like I've been buried and now they're digging me up". Words have turned an awkward hue. We find it hard to discuss anything except for the current experience, the quivering of forms and the sliding of colour, the general illusory appearance of the objects around us, making it invigorating in the freshness of new experience, if not eventually tedious in the latter stages of the get-together.
Though the dose is relatively low, the effects last hours after the peak, how many exactly it is hard to tell. All users are excited and involved. No one is laid out or deranged; everyone is sharp and quick to laugh if, at times, introspective and given to long periods of blank-faced staring.
We're keeping an eye on Juan for direction, though he's thick into a back-and-forth with another set of exploded black pupils. "What are they on about?" a fidgeting Gustav asks.
"Mystical reinventions of the inner self", offers William and his cracked wry smile.
Charlie laughs, "Some deep esoteric shit".
"You don't go in for this sort of thing then?" I ask.
"Sure I do, but this dose hasn't dissolved my ego quite enough to not recognise my self. Keeping objectivity. To know when I'm rambling." William says back, "Like when I did ayahuasca in the Amazon." Our faces contract, intrigued.
"And did you lose your self?" Charlie asks with a chuckle, her smile not yet melted away.
"Ha, well, yeah. I puked it out, I think".
"So where is it now?"
There is a brief silence.
"At least there's no space for small-talk in here", Gustav says, siphoning off the last slimy dregs of San Pedro milk. We all nod restlessly in agreement.
Inevitably, growing curiosity of the outside world eventually takes its hold. Bidding an overly sincere adieu to Juan and his milk-crate, the group dissolves back into the Saturday night. Out there, the people look strange.
We must look strange. There seems a façade, built everywhere and static, is close to being dismantled. We hope the fugue will last. Heads bob loose on shoulders as we move toward the nearest pub and huddle in for a few, debating which is better: alcohol (no nausea) or San Pedro (no hangover), knowing that next month we might be on repeat.
But probably not the one after.