Drugs

Meet the Man Who Brought DMT to the Masses

If you’ve ever puffed smokable ayahuasca—otherwise known as “changa”—you have this guy to thank.
November 11, 2020, 5:00am
julian dmt

I meet Julian in a cafe in Bowral, about an hour and a half south-west of Sydney. He’s a tall guy, mid-40s, with a loud cackle that peels off at moments you don’t expect. That aside, he seems like a regular and unassuming man. You wouldn’t know that Julian Palmer has done more to perpetuate DMT usage around the globe than almost anyone. 

DMT, or N-dimethyltryptamine, was once described by American psychologist Timothy Leary as “the nuclear bomb of the psychedelic family”. It’s a short-acting but hyper-powerful hallucinogen that’s usually sold in the form of grubby-looking yellow crystals. Once smoked in a glass pipe, these crystals produce fumes reminiscent of burning plasticine and are notoriously hard to keep down.

In the late 90s, Julian recognised this posed quite a barrier of entry for newcomers, and started trying to infuse dried herbs with DMT to create a gentler, more palatable spliff-based experience. If you’ve ever puffed smokable ayahuasca—otherwise known as “changa”—you have Julian to thank. 

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In 2019, the Global Drug Survey reported that 4.2 percent of respondents had tried some form of DMT—a drug the organisation wasn’t even measuring until five years earlier—and in 2018, the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that the drug’s usage had tripled between 2008 and 2014.   

Julian is not a chemist by trade. Instead, he describes himself as someone who, throughout the early 2000s, was on a crusade to distribute as much DMT as possible, simply by giving the stuff away. And I’ve met up with him to see just how he did that.

We spend the first few hours of the day weaving through the bush in a 4x4 belonging to the mother of Julian’s friend Tammy,* who agreed to chauffeur us around. Stuffed into the back, I ask Julian how he knows where to find the native Acacia obtusifolia. Better known simply as “acacia”, the tree is one of many plants around the world that naturally produce DMT. Acacias, however, pack their bark with far more tryptamines than most.

“There are websites you can use which show GPS coordinates for plants,” Julian explains, holding up his phone. There, on the screen, I can see hundreds of orange dots all around Sydney, indicating sightings.

“They're a very common species. If they were a rare species I wouldn't be telling people about them,” he laughs. 

He’s not wrong: within 10 minutes we’ve found our first patch. Julian suddenly shouts to stop the car and we pull over. They are short, shrubby things with long flat leaves and bright yellow flowers which also feature as our national floral emblem. It’s funny to think that such well-respected plants regularly send people into alternate dimensions. 

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These specimens are barely larger than bushes, though, and we need a good sized tree if we are to extract a usable amount of DMT. So we press on and spend a few hours pulling up at patches of bush, looking for strands that haven't been affected by bushfires.

“The acacias are the first ones to go when there's a fire,” Julian explains, before pointing out that like most Australian plants, acacias live in symbiosis with fire. “Obtusifolius are actually one of the pioneer species that come up after fire. To get the seed started, they need to be triggered with boiling water.”

In last summer's horrific bushfires, he swears some people could smell DMT in the smoke that blanketed Sydney.

When we eventually find a tree big enough for our purposes, Julian is keen to highlight the ethics of harvesting acacia. “Other people will just kill the tree,” he says. “They strip the bark off the tree and it dies. Even if you take a little bit from trees like this it'll kill them; they're quite sensitive to it.”

Far better, he says, to cut off a lower branch, which the tree won't miss. 

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“What I normally do, when I’m harvesting a plant, is I ask it if I could take a bit of plant material from it,” Julian tells me as he kneels down, grasping a carefully selected branch. “I’ll hold the tree like this and I'll spend time with it.”

“Do they ever say no?” I ask.

“Sometimes! I was out just yesterday and a tree said to me, look, I don’t want you to take anything from me.

We pack up our haul and drive to Tammy’s house where Julian is staying. A cottage in the middle of a sheep field in a conservative rural area is not what you might associate with drug production—but that’s probably why it’s a good spot. 

Weighing up the branch, Julian estimates it contains “about 400 milligrammes of tryptamine” or “enough for a few smokes”. After snapping up the leaves, twigs, and bark, and covering the lot with water and putting the pot over some heat, Julian adds a chemical that’s often used in wine making, and then lets the mixture simmer for several hours.

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“Normally, if I was trying to do a really thorough job, I would cook it twice for three hours each time,” he says. “But this will be fine for our purposes.”

While waiting, we drink herbal tea and discuss Julian’s mission to distribute changa across the globe. “I remember in 2006 when I brought changa to the UK, it was a pretty cool thing to do because a lot of people there already knew about it.”

“Did you physically carry it?”

“Oh yeah,” he laughs. “There's not people really opening your bags on the way to the UK. I'm not gonna go into details but, you know, it was fairly decent amounts, quite a few times.”

He reels off a list of countries where he’s introduced changa, and the places it has otherwise found its way to. Russia, India, Morocco, West Africa, Chile, Montenegro, China. “I seeded changa very deliberately around the world. It was a little bit Twelve Monkeys, you know? Releasing the virus all around different countries.”

There’s that cackle again. 

Julian isn’t the first person in Australia to promote DMT, though. This country has had a fairly active underground scene for decades—and in fact, when Julian first arrived, a lot of people weren’t too happy with his methods. 

“They thought I had gone full Kamikaze,” he exclaims excitedly. “They were saying things like ‘Julian's gonna wreck it for all of us, he's a fucking lunatic’. People didn't think that the world was ready for DMT or that DMT should be exposed to the public.” 

“People were not happy but I developed a lot of fans and my mission was, you know: spread this out there; share it, because it's something that really can catalyse and awaken people.”

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By now the brew has taken on a reddish hue and Julian decides it’s time to begin the extraction. It’s dark, so we move inside, and Julian pours the whole mixture into a large glass jar. Then he takes out a white jar emblazoned with the words “drain cleaner” and “poison” and mixes it in. The brew slowly turns from rusty red to oily black. 

Tammy, who has agreed to try the end product, is none too pleased watching Julian pouring in all these chemicals. “It can’t be good for you,” she says. “I thought it was natural!”

“Oh, it’s not so bad,” Julian reassures her. “This is just your basic acid-base extraction.”

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Tammy retches from the smell and says “I feel like this is turning me off drugs for life.”

Julian gives the jar a big shake. “So that is going to pull the tryptamines out,” he explains, churning the mixture vigorously. A foamy layer of red begins to form at the top of the jar. “You see all those bubbles in there? That's all the goodies.”

We wait for the layer to settle and then Julian carefully siphons it off with a turkey baster. It’s hard to think, given the enormity of plant matter he started with, that we would end up with an end product that’s barely visible—but Julian then takes a knife and begins scraping at the substance, revealing a fair amount of red viscous goo not too dissimilar to tree sap. 

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“That looks like about 200 milligrammes or so to me,” he says, scraping the goo to one side of a plate and lining it up. “Here, have a smell of this.”

I lean in, breathe cautiously, and am immediately hit with that new tennis ball smell I  recognise from bush doofs. “That’s DMT,” I exclaim, stating the obvious. “Yeah,” he laughs, adding a splash of vodka to the plate to re-liquify the substance and swirling it around before adding his herb blend of passionflower, peppermint, mullein and ayahuasca. 

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Again, the whole thing is heated until the moisture and liquid has evaporated out. Carefully Julian tips half a gram of dark red plant material out onto a sheet of paper and rolls it into a joint.

Tammy, with a small degree of trepidation, sparks it and inhales. Julian guides her through the process, telling her to inhale deeply, not like a cigarette, but to hold it in for as long as she can. 

She goes quiet, smiling around the room. “It’s not unpleasant. I feel very light,” she manages.

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“You’re on the very first level of it,” Julian says. “It’ll just be relaxing.”

“It’s very relaxing,” she replies.

“What does it taste like?” I ask.

“Mentholated, bitter, rocket fuel taste,” Julian says. “A bit like burnt furniture.”

Tammy nods in agreement. The tennis-ball smoke curdles about the room.

As I pack up, I ask Julian what the next stage of his mission looks like. Although he lists off his next few months as being full of psychedelic retreats and experiences, he says that overall he wants to move onto other things. 

“Changa is my baby which has now grown into a teenager and I never really get to see it very often. It has its own life now, you know, I feel really detached from the whole phenomena,” he explains. “There were four or five years where I was travelling, sharing, opening up doorways in various places. I used to call it missionary work. I used to wear white shirts, black slacks and hold a ‘Bible’, but it was Terence McKenna's Archaic Revival. I could really fly under the radar wearing those clothes.”

“So what are you going to do instead?” I ask.

“Make erotic films,” he replies, and I can see he’s not joking. “I also want to start making Tabernanthe manii [Ibogaine extract] and get more serious with that and other African herbs and plants…. just whatever interests me, really”. 

It’s hard not to think that whatever he does next will probably have some significant impact on the world. He has his work cut out for him, though, if he wants to top the life-changing experiences his baby has given to thousands of people across the globe.

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