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How to Get a Buzz in the Australian Bush

As with most countries on the planet, Australia has a range of indigenous chemicals which can be turned into all sorts of drugs.
November 3, 2014, 12:00am

For some people, psychedelics are a hobby just as immersive as wine or military paraphernalia. It's a hobby that incorporates chemistry, anthropology, and an intermittent hint of spiritualism. But the really exciting thing is just how many ways you can get high. Plants, fungi, and animals have been defending themselves for millions of years with various alkaloids. If you're into that type of thing, you'll know marijuana is just the starting block.

As with most countries, Australia has a range of indigenous chemicals that can be turned into drugs. I wanted to know more so I found a man on the internet and went to his house in Melbourne's Dandenong Ranges. We talked about drugs and he showed me the Australian bush in a whole new light.

Alex (it's a fake name) didn't want to be photographed, but he's a kindly man with grey hair and a background in biology. Like a lot of guys, he has a backyard man cave, but his contains a filing cabinet about the size of a sideways dining-room table, with each draw labelled with a different drug. Each draw is full of books, some of which Alex hasn't read. "They get a bit repetitive," he told me with a shrug.

We took a look around his garden where Alex is growing San Pedro cactus and Wormwood for home-brew absinthe. He explained that absinthe is a bunch of herbs (mainly wormwood, hyssop, anise seed and fennel) marinated in liquor (usually brandy) for a week and re-distilled. Meanwhile San Pedro cactus is an easier source of mescaline than the more famous Peyote, which takes years to grow. To trip on mescaline for 12 hours, simply pulp a Subway foot-long log of San Pedro in a food processor, then boil until it becomes slime. Then drink, try not to throw up, and wait. Alex admits that he's actually never tried mescaline because he can't keep it down. I wonder why he's growing it.

The highlight of Alex's house is his party room. This is a shed decked out in shag pile rugs, paisley furniture and fantasy books. He admitted with a wink that it's been the scene of some great ecstasy parties. "And the real trick," he said, "is to wait until you feel the MDMA come on and then take a dose of nitrous oxide." And with that he pulled back a curtain to reveal an enormous shelf of Whip-It canisters.

After the cream we headed for the forest. I asked him about his interest in drugs."I like the way you get a revitalised perspective on the world. I can be in a mental rut and then I'll trip and it energises me." I asked him if he's ever had a bad experience and he said that he's found himself in the foetal position a few times.

The foetal position sounded bad. I asked whether he intends on sharing his drug passion with his young son. He sounded a bit hesitant. "He'd have to be adult age and I would explain both the pros and the cons and then let him make up his own mind. I certainly wouldn't be advocating something without explaining the dangers." I pushed him on these dangers and he admitted a number of people eventually "reject society's ways of thinking and prefer their own, which is a pity. The true aim of psychedelics is to learn something new and bring it back into the real world, not just stay in the psychedelic one."

We stopped at the base of a monster eucalyptus. Alex explained that the Australian army discovered a method in the 1960s for extracting mescaline from eucalyptus sawdust. While the aim was unclear, apparently 20 doses could be extracted from 1kg of wood, making a single tree a fairly intense reserve. The chemical that is extracted from the wood isn't actually mescaline, but rather a precursor called trimethoxybenzaldehyde, which can then be reduced to mescaline. The process involves soaking sawdust in alternating solutions of acids and bases until you're left with the alkaloid.

Next came a lesson in MDMA. We stopped under a sassafras tree, which is a rainforest native that contains a clear yellow oil called safrole, which Alex explains, "is easily converted into MDMA." I asked him why anyone bothers stockpiling cold and flu pills from pharmacies when these sassafras grow in our forests. "Well, there have been a few busts in the last couple of years from people producing ecstasy without importing the plant oil. There was a case a few years ago up in Byron Bay." I asked him how much Breaking Bad expertise is required and he assured me that anyone with a high school pass in chemistry could do it.

We see some unremarkable grasses and stop. Alex describes how the Ergot fungus grows on the native grass Claviceps paspali which is bad for stock feed, but a great source of Lysergic acid diethylamide. Alex also explains that ergot sometimes grows on caterpillars as a parasite that busts through their tiny faces. Acid, right?

We head back the house and talk about canetoads which, as he points out, secrete a number of toxins including bufotenine, which is a mild hallucinogen when smoked. "The only problem is that cane toads also produce a whole lot of cardiac glycosides which are really nasty. I wouldn't try it but I've heard of people who have. More exciting is a tunicate, which is a marine creature, from around Papua New Guinea which contains a 5-bromodine-DMT. I would be much more interested in that."

Finally, I ask Alex whether he wants to get high, but he shakes his head and says he has to pick up his son from school in two hours. "I don't trip much any more", he says wistfully, "it's just too hard to fit in family time. Acid is a ten hour trip, mescaline can go for twelve. Only mushrooms are really convenient because they last four. I still like to take mushrooms a few times a year." Alex moves to the window of his party room and stares into the garden. "Yes", he says dreamily. "For all that chemical extraction, mushrooms are still my favourite."

Follow Julian on Twitter: @MorgansJulian