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Chocolate Is a Drug

Self-styled chocolate alchemist Brian Wallace wants you to forget everything you think you know about cacao.
November 12, 2013, 5:15pm
Chocolatier Brian Wallace in his kitchen-laboratory. All photos by the author.

I meet my connection at Five Flavor Herbs in Oakland, California—a full-service shop that sells bulk Western and Chinese medicines, extracts, formulas, tinctures, and supplies. The man I've come to make and take (legal) drugs with—self-styled chocolate alchemist Brian Wallace—immediately leads me to his research and development kitchen/laboratory in the back of the building.

“Alchemy is this prescientific discipline of taking physical and metaphorical states and transforming them,” Wallace explains when I ask about his tag line. “With the original alchemists, the classic visualization was turning lead into gold. Nowadays, people still carry around a lot of lead weight in their psyches—trauma, pain, old patterns… And I believe that through developing a regular practice with medicinal foods and plants, they can heal themselves and their relationship to their past while becoming better equipped to handle whatever comes up in the future.”

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Using a mix of modern equipment and traditional methods, Wallace makes modest sized batches of raw, organic chocolate here as part of his thriving product development business. Each new blend goes through up to 15 reformulations before the ratio of cacao, cocoa butter, flavorings, sweeteners, salt and a wide range of psychoactive herbs proves optimal.

Before starting our conversation, we whip up a warm drinking blend that hearkens back to chocolate's origins in Mesoamerica. By the middle of my second small cup, the cacao starts hitting me like a strong coffee buzz, only far groovier. And it tastes deeper, richer, and more complex than any “hot chocolate” I've ever had in my life.

See below for the recipe—along with a few thoughts on how one might hypothetically add a controlled dose of psilocybin mushrooms to raw, organic chocolate drinks and bars, to produce a synergistic psychedelic effect on par with the long-forgotten formulations the Mayans and Aztecs considered “food of the gods.”

MOTHERBOARD: How did you get into making chocolate?

Brian Wallace: I came to cacao through ethnobotany, the study of the relationship between people and plants. My first “Ah ha!” dose arrived via a minimally sweetened, bitter dark chocolate in a paste.

I experienced this wonderful buzz from it and said, “Damn, this is incredible.” At the time, I was on staff at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and the feeling reminded me of our work with MDMA as a treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I just couldn't believe that cacao had such pronounced effects in high doses.

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I felt empathic and euphoric, sort of heart-centered. Later on, I found out this wasn't just on a phenomenological level, but on a physiological level as well. Because, as it turns out, a lot of cacao's effects on the mind and body are grounded in the heart and cardiovascular system. Including compounds that act as vasodilators, promoting blood flow, and vasotonics, promoting the tone of blood vessel walls. Which explains studies showing dark chocolate is good for your heart.

So is the classic heart-shaped box of chocolate a cultural clue back to traditional uses?

Definitely. People see that heart shaped box, and instinctually understand this substance as a gift meant to express an emotional connection.

I've spent most of my life studying plants, food, neuroscience, and pharmacology—just geeking out and looking for some way to combine all of these interests. When I started reading about chocolate, I discovered it's always been used as an enhancer or container for other compounds, and as nourishment for the spirit, so I decided to take all of these other plants I already knew about and combine them into something that's both familiar to people, and very new.

I was able to turn chocolate into a career because of a cultural shift that's happening right now. Consumers are getting turned on to the idea of ingesting foods for health and life enhancement, and real chocolate is a perfect fit for that. So a lot of my work now is helping businesses figure out how to ride that wave. I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so I like spreading consciousness out to the wider culture through social enterprise. The idea that you and I exchange currency for a product, and have that interaction enrich both our lives. It may sound far out, but maybe one day we’ll go back to the Mayan system of using cacao beans as currency. They definitely enhance your life more than a crumpled up piece of green paper.

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I also feel cacao can serve as a sort-of gateway substance to help people understand that what they've been told is chocolate is actually watered-down garbage. And from there, there's lots of other foods and plants we all need to reconsider. Because they have a long history of medicinal and spiritual usage, with a whole lore we've been divorced from by industrialization and mass agriculture.

It may sound far out, but maybe one day we’ll go back to the Mayan system of using cacao beans as currency. They definitely enhance your life more than a crumpled up piece of green paper.

If you look back to Mazatec culture, for example, chocolate was actually an offering to the gods, during psycho-spiritual practices. While what really popularized the idea of cacao as part of romantic courtship was the Spanish conquistadors taking chocolate back to Europe, where Casanova—a legendary 18th Century Italian nobleman—used it to seduce women. He believed chocolate to be a powerful aphrodisiac.

Is it?

Chocolate has polyphenols that stimulate nitric oxide in the body, which dilates your blood vessels—similar in pharmacological activity to Viagra. Of course, when you have that kind of increased blood flow, every tissue that can be aroused will work better—for men and women. You're also going to get flush, and your skin will grow more sensitive to touch. So you're good to go.

In 1996, researchers even discovered that cacao has really high concentrations of a compound called anandamide—an endogenous neurotransmitter found naturally in tissues and blood. Ananda is the sanskrit word for bliss, and anandamide is an endocannabinoid, which means it works as an agonist with the body's natural cannabis receptors. So when you ingest a good dose of cacao, you trigger this bliss effect that's on par with how cannabis works in the body.

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We also have on record that Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, consumed fifty cups of drinking chocolate before visiting his harem.

What do you add to chocolate to enhance its aphrodisiac effect?

I like to put in different blood movers and tonics to compliment the activity of the cacao. There's also a concept of jing in Chinese medicine—basically your vital life essence—which relates to sexuality. So there's a lot of Taoist plants—like ginseng—that I use for a synergistic boost. American ginseng is a little bit more grounding, more yin. While Chinese ginseng is uplifting and invigorating, more yang.

I also employ Yín yáng huò, a Chinese plant that roughly translates as “horny goat weed.” I suppose a group of monks must have watched some goats get incredibly frisky after eating it, and naturally thought: “What happens if we try that?”

Maca is another herb I put into almost everything, especially the aphrodisiac blends. It's an Amazonian tuber that grows underneath the ground and pairs well with the flavor of chocolate. It's earthy and rooty with a great taste.

To help people calm down and feel really grounded in their bodies, I'll add a Central American shrub called damiana that has seriously stony effects. People's eyes sort of roll back in their heads in a tantric coma. There’s a liquor from Mexico that comes in a bottle shaped like a woman that’s infused with the stuff—it goes great with chocolate. Or for an invigorating and uplifting blend, I'll add catuaba—an Amazonian aphrodisiac.

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Yohimbe, which comes from the bark of an African tree, also works amazingly well. Before Viagra, the pharmaceutical most prescribed for impotence was actually Yohimbine, an alkaloid of the herb that's been extracted, concentrated and purified. Yohimbe is also often the active ingredient in really cheaply made sexual enhancement products found at the checkout line at the gas station.

So is truck stop distribution your ultimate goal?

I once met with a potential client who makes an absurd amount of money making those products [laughs]. He wanted me to turn his formula into a chocolate, but I decided that wasn't such a good idea. I knew that selling it as cheaply as he'd want would require using inferior chocolate, and that's just not something I want to put my name on.

What's the first known use of cacao as a psychoactive drug?

That was its first use.

Around 2000 BCE we have records of the Olmec using ceremonial drinking vessels with cocoa bean residue on them. They would take the beans and grind them with a stone, then add that paste to warm water. One of the linguistic roots of chocolate actually translates as bitter liquid.

Back then, cacao wasn't an agricultural crop. Everything the Olmecs utilized was picked out of the jungle. So as a ceremonial beverage, chocolate was very rare and reserved for royalty, aristocracy, and the priest or priestess class. A cross-cultural trend that really continues until the Spanish arrive.

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I'm also far from alone in believing that psilocybin mushrooms were combined with cacao frequently in traditional cultures, because pharmacologically they match up really well. Certain compounds in cacao act as MAO inhibitors that potentiate psychedelic tryptamines. And since cacao was expensive, and the psilocybin mushrooms were hard to find, the synergistic potential of using them together whenever possible would have held great appeal.

So was chocolate a luxurious indulgence, a spiritual elixir—both?

Cacao was thought of as a sacred medicine, almost a divine nourishment.

The Mazatecs still use cocoa beans as a spiritual offering. They leave them along hiking trails and at sacred sites. Cocoa beans and honey are also consumed during their traditional psychedelic mushroom ceremony. Which still happens today in Southern Mexico.

Minus the 'shrooms, how high of a cacao dose is required to achieve an 'Ah ha!' moment?

That's a tough question, because mileage varies so much from person to person. Also, you've got to consider whether what you're ingesting is highly processed, or if it's been roasted to a degree that will destroy a lot of cacao's psychoactive compounds. With the chocolate bars I make, 30-50 grams is often enough to get a good dose. And that includes whatever sweeteners and other ingredients I use. For pure cocoa paste or nibs, fifteen to twenty grams is probably a good place to start.

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Cacao's MAO inhibitors work to disrupt the breakdown of different neurotransmitters in your body, and once you get enough of them activated in your system, they reach a functional dose that makes the other psychoactive compounds work much better—so you start getting high off your own neurochemistry. That's why it's such a natural-feeling buzz, and why most people don’t experience much of a hangover.

That's also why anybody on long-term antidepressants needs to be careful about taking large doses of cacao. Nobody's ever died from that, to the best of my knowledge, but pharmacologically it's possible to get yourself into a tricky situation—headaches, nausea, or a lot worse.

Can cacao be a drug of abuse?

Nobody's going out and committing armed robbery to get their next fix, but if you find yourself waking up in the morning and all you can think about is your morning cup of drinking chocolate, that might be a good opportunity to take a step back, and figure out if your relationship with cacao could be healthier. If I've been taking large doses daily for a prolonged period, and then stop abruptly, I get a withdrawal headache similar to coffee, but that's about it.

What about abusive practices in the production and distribution of chocolate?

Food politics are very much a part of cacao. For the amount of labor that goes into chocolate, it constantly blows my mind how cheaply you can buy a bar at the store. It's not like a fruit or a vegetable, where you grow it, you pick and you eat it. There are all these other steps in the process that most people don’t even know about.

Cacao's MAO inhibitors work to disrupt the breakdown of different neurotransmitters in your body, and once you get enough of them activated in your system, they reach a functional dose that makes the other psychoactive compounds work much better—so you start getting high off your own neurochemistry.

Unfortunately, that low price point comes from the fact that 70 percent of the world's cocoa is grown in West Africa, and a lot of that is produced in ways that are just appalling—really tragic and terrible. There's actual slave labor happening. Today. In the 21st century. For chocolate… You can go to Mali or the Ivory Coast right now, purchase twelve-year-old children for $400-600 each, and force them to produce cocoa that's eventually going to be sold off to multinational corporations.

In 2001, two legislators in congress put together the Harkin-Engel Protocol (pdf), which would have mandated that all cocoa be certified as child-labor free within ten years, but the six major corporations that control the world’s chocolate supply have fought it tooth and nail. These companies post huge annual profits, but somehow it's too much effort for them to collectively come together and ethically source their cacao, which I think is a massive cop out that they should be publicly shamed for perpetuating.

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So really, it's the same as buying any medicine or drug. You want to know your source and make sure they're credible and ethical. I only buy organic cocoa from well-vetted suppliers, and encourage others to do the same. Biodynamic chocolate is also starting to trend.

And let's say—strictly hypothetically—you wanted to make chocolate infused with psilocybin mushrooms. Can you share a recipe that's easy to make at home, for research purposes of course?

In theory, one could create a psychoactive mushroom drinking chocolate quite easily and effectively by first making a really strong tea out of the fungus and then using that as the base for the beverage. Just put the mushrooms and hot (but not boiling) water in a blender. Then run the blender on high to break up the mushrooms in the warm water solution. This increases the mushrooms' surface area, raising the efficiency of the extraction as you let it steep.

If you don't want the mushroom matter in your drink, strain it out and then return the tea to the blender. Alternatively, you could just throw all of the ingredients together in a blender and make a warm smoothie. This is the way cacao has been consumed with other medicinal and psychoactive plants and fungi for millennia, so in reality you’re just repeating a process with modern technology that used to be done by hand with a metaté or mortar and pestle and clay drinking vessels.

When making mushroom chocolate bars, most people finely powder the mushrooms and simply blend them into their chocolate. You can also take mushroom powder, coconut oil, cacao powder and honey and roll it up into little balls. The same goes for any plant or mushroom you might want to use—whether its ginger to help your digestion or mushrooms like shiitake or maitake to help your immune system.

The sky is the limit.

@pot_handbook