This was my favorite Mutant Vehicle, the Pulpo. Photo by Scott London.
That may sound strange given that I've basically never taken any drugs. I've always avoided drinking coffee and alcohol. They both taste revolting to me. Yes, it's an "acquired" taste. So is drinking piss. No thanks.

I've also never smoked cigarettes. They stink. It's also an "acquired" taste. What's the upside of acquiring it?

Drugs like cocaine, ecstasy, and meth (speed) have little appeal since they seem to only make you excited in some way. I have plenty of excitement in my life without an artificial boost.

Prairie farm house at Burning Man. Photo by Scott London.

The only drugs that interest me are the ones that make you hallucinate. Hallucinating is fascinating. The top hallucinogenic drugs are mushrooms and LSD.

Magic mushrooms

In the Netherlands, I legally bought some Mexican mushrooms and had a hilarious experience. It was the first time I tried them. For about 4 hours I thought everything was funny. I could not stop laughing for 4 hours. By the end of the day, my stomach hurt from all the giggling. It was wonderful.

So I was interested in trying magic mushrooms again in Burning Man. And I was even more curious about trying LSD.

Viking Mutant Vehicle. Photo by Scott London.

About a month before Burning Man, in San Francisco, a woman offered me magic mushrooms for $20. Since I don't have a clue how and where to buy drugs, I took this unsolicited opportunity as my sign to get them. So bought them and saved them for Burning Man. I was hoping they would deliver a different experience than my hilarious laughing attack in the Netherlands. They did. It was completely different.

As the sun set on a windy, dusty night at Burning Man, I slowly ate the mushrooms. About 30 minutes later, the effects started settling in. Nothing was particularly funny. Certainly not funnier than normal. Instead, I felt I had a heightened awareness:

Super big VW Bus at Burning Man. Photo by Scott London.
  • I could discern conversations that normally I couldn't hear because they were too far away.
  • I became visually aware of all sorts of subtle things.
  • I had a supernatural combination of breadth and depth: I could simultaneously be omniscient of everything around me while being able to laser focus on the details that few could see.

However, this was not the most stunning transformation.

What truly astounded me was that I began to have an acute level of empathy. Normally, I am able to have sympathy for others, but unless I've had the exact same experience, it's hard for me to have deep empathy. For example, I can feel sympathy for a starving, poor child in Guinea, but since I've never been starving or dirt poor, it's hard for me to empathize with him. While I was on that mushroom trip at Burning Man, I could truly empathize with all around me.

Dragon Mutant Vehicle at Burning Man. This is where I had my mushroom trip. Photo by Scott London.

For instance, while I was on a Mutant Vehicle, I was talking with a woman. I could not only follow everything she was saying at an unprecedented level (that laser focus I mentioned), but I also could also feel what others were feeling around me. I pointed to a man and said, "He's lonely. He wants a girl."

We watched him move through the crowd. "He will go to that girl over there on the other side of the vehicle and talk with her," I predicted.

He did. He walked away despondent. I feel terrible for him.

Another lady seemed sad. I had to go talk with her to cheer her up. She admitted that she wasn't feeling great, but she was happy to talk with me. I gave her a hug and moved on.

Shark Mutant Vehicle at Burning Man. Photo by Scott London.

Later, I ran into a man at the portable toilets. There were 15 portable toilets and I felt something was wrong with him. I asked him if he was OK. He said he had lost his bike lock and he thought it might be in one of the restrooms. Normally, I would say, "That sucks! Good luck with finding it!" Instead, I strongly wanted to help him. I opened every free toilet. After 5 minutes we found his bike lock. I was thrilled for him. I gave him a big hug.

Everywhere I went, I had an exceptional level of compassion for everyone. I wanted to give to all and help all.

Some warned me that I could have a depressed feelings after the trip ended. I didn't have one in the Netherlands nor at Burning Man. It was 100% positive. No side effects. Yes, perhaps I did some long-term brain damange, but I doubt it was worse than drinking a month's worth of liquor.

Finally, some may argue that I wasn't any more aware than usual and that it was simply the drugs that gave me that impression. Perhaps. But I doubt it. Moreover, the people I was with noticed my levels of empathy soar. They said, "We like you better this way, Francis."

Driving Mutant Vehicles on drugs?

Fish Mutant Vehicle at Burning Man. Photo by Scott London.

I was still interested in trying LSD, but I was suprised by how drug-free Burning Man is. Perhaps 20+ years ago, everyone was tripping, but today most people are sober most of the time, especially the drivers of Mutant Vehicles. Usually the owner drives it and he has spent a lot of money and time making it. The last thing he wants to do is crash it while he's shooting heroin.

Admittedly, it's hard to get into a serious crash in a Mutant Vehicle because they are limited to go about 10 kilometers per hour. You can run faster than they drive. 

The point is that Mutant Vehicle drivers are, like most Burners I met, sober. Sure, there are plenty of people who are on some sort of drug, but nearly everyone was sane and coherent. I was surprised by how many children there were. All this made it hard to find any LSD. One guy said that if I met with him later, he could hook me up, but I got distracted and never met him again.

Locamotive at Burning Man. Photo by Scott London.

By the time the Temple Juno burned (signaling the end of Burning Man), I had not had my chance to try LSD. Next time I'll be more diligent.

Ultimately, taking mushrooms at Burning Man was a transformative experience. It taught me that empathy is simply a switch in the brain -- a chemical and/or neuron that is tripped/released.

After I returned from Burning Man, I learned that there is indeed a brain switch connected to empathy. That switch is called the anterior insular cortex and brain researchers have determined that it controls are level of empathy.

Since it is just a switch, why can't I just activate it without mushrooms? I became determined to exercise that side of my brain more often. Today, I'm far from perfect, but Burning Man made me a somewhat better person.

Moreover, I'm hardly an addict. While the mushroom experience was completely positive, I haven't tried it again. Drugs are like skydiving: it's fun every once in a while. For me, that means no more than once every few years.

Let's legalize drugs!

Prairie farm house at Burning Man. Photo by Scott London.

Like Rick Steves, I'm in favor of the legalization of marijuana. I go a step further and favor legalizing all drugs. Studies have showed that alcohol and tobacco are more powerful and addictive drugs than some illegal drugs. We accept alcohol, which leads to millions of deaths across the globe (through accidents and overdose). We tried banning it in the USA in 1930s, but that just led to a huge loss in tax revenue, millions being spent in enforcing the prohibition (including putting people in jail), and widespread criminality. Banning it didn't work. So why should it work for other drugs?

Instead of having the Latin American drug lords who kill thousands of innocents in Mexico, Colombia, and elsewhere, we could tax and regulate them just like we tax and regulate Merck, Pfizer, and Genentech.

We would still have problems, for sure. However, the Drug War has not worked. Let's try the Drug Tax instead.

All photos on this page were shot by the amazing Scott London.

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