Erowid, the Encyclopedia of Psychoactives, Approaches Its Third Decade
The Internet's top source of accurate information about drugs has earned the trust of consumers, the respect of experts and a reputation as a harm reduction pioneer. Substance.com caught up with its cofounder, Fire.
Do you want to know what it feels like to take a new brand of acid? Or what a toxicology test would tell you about the contents of a particular ecstasy tablet? Or what is known about the effects, safety, dosage and other characteristics of almost any legal or illegal psychoactive chemical or plant? Check out Erowid, the oldest, largest and (arguably) most comprehensive, accurate and current database of psychoactive drugs on the Internet. The website, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, informs about 100,000 readers a day.
Many of these folks are students. Some are dedicated members of the so-called psychonaut community—seekers of altered states of consciousness. But being the go-to site for highly credible information about thousands of illegal drugs, Erowid serves the knowledge needs of a wide range of consumers and professionals alike, including scientists, medical researchers, doctors and, perhaps most important, emergency room technicians and physicians.
The website was originally concocted in 1995 by a then-recent college graduate couple in San Francisco. Their identity-protecting Erowid names are Earth (the man) and Fire (the woman). The name “Erowid” is an Indo-European conglomerate that translates approximately as “Earth Wisdom.”
In some ways, public perception has changed very little. There are endless misunderstandings about the way psychoactive drugs work, what the primary dangers are or what benefits there might be.
With Fire’s early attempts to learn HTML, Earth’s impressive hoard of unorganized drug information and their shared interest in psychoactives, the website was born. Although it initially appealed to “data geeks” like themselves, their database of drug facts, laws, and personal drug experiences (“Trip Reports”) have become an essential harm reduction service for many drug-curious young adults. While I was a student at one of the largest public high schools in New York City, the name Erowid carried an almost legendary air of respectability.
A nonprofit, Erowid gets all of its funding from private donations—no government money, no ads for vitamins, say, or marijuana dispensaries. The site has no institutional affiliations, and neither Earth nor Fire has an advanced degree in biochemistry or anything else. So how did they become widely respected experts and make Erowid the drug information giant that it is today? We asked Fire (Earth was busy with the site) to take time to share their secret.
Now that 10 years have passed since Erowid’s “About” page was created, what are some accomplishments that you could add?
Erowid serves information about psychoactive drugs now to more than 16 million people a year. Our EcstasyData project has ramped up and is testing more than 300 submitted samples a year. We’ve been working hard to keep up with the vast number of new drugs that are being sold in pressed tablets as “ecstasy” or “molly” and that are being sold online under either their correct chemical name or misrepresented or misidentified as other new drugs.
Have your objectives changed in the two decades since the site launched in 1995?
Yes and no. When we first began, Erowid was intended to gather advanced information about recreational drugs. But we quickly realized that there needed to be a foundation of basic information: dosages, legal status, a description of effects, duration, etc. Over the years, I think we’ve become known for both. We’re a place that one can go to look up what a drug is, as well as a place to read more deeply about how people use psychoactives and what effect different choices have. That includes uses within a spiritual context or for therapeutic purposes.
And now we’re getting back to one of our earliest questions, which is, What do people who took psychedelics or other psychoactive drugs in the 1960s think about that drug use now? Do they regret their use? Would they change it? What recommendations would they make to young people now who are making decisions about their own use?
How has society’s perception of drugs changed since you started?
In some ways, public perception has changed very little. Many people know little about the drugs they take, whether legal or illegal. There are endless misunderstandings about the way psychoactive drugs work, the differences between them, what the primary dangers are or what benefits there might be.
One of the biggest changes is the number of available psychoactive drugs. New technologies in drug development and marketing have led to hundreds of new drugs, each just slightly different than the next. This increases the complexity of encouraging a culture of responsible drug use.
To what extent has Erowid influenced drug policy and culture rather than merely reflecting it?
It has always been our intention to help people make better choices by providing them with accurate information about drugs. That requires a process of reflecting the ways that people use psychoactive drugs, so that others can see the results of particular choices and then make their own choices based on having a sense of the outcomes of particular actions. We feel that we’ve had an impact on the world by helping create an expectation of accurate information and at least some development of a culture in which people use psychoactive drugs with care and knowledge.
What has Erowid’s relationship with the law been like? Have you experienced censorship or other difficulties?
I guess it’s not unexpected, but we have had little in the way of communication with law enforcement. We’ve never experienced any censorship or serious threat of censorship. What has surprised us most is that we’ve had very few law enforcement officers contact us to collaborate in any way on any projects.
How has the relationship between Erowid and the scientific research community developed since the site launched in 1995?
We’ve developed close relationships with researchers in many fields. We assist researchers in finding subjects for their psychoactive drug-related studies, in promoting their online research and in editing and fact-checking their writings. We think of ourselves as being at the center between researchers and their subjects. We’re trusted as an information source by both, and can help each communicate with the other.
What particular research have you been involved in recently?
Earlier this year Earth and I spoke at the annual conference of the American College of Medical Toxicologists [on herbal products and extracts used as recreational drugs]. We’ve found that we have a lot in common with toxicologists, who work hands-on with patients or who consult with poison control centers about drug-related cases. We help by providing feedback about toxicology-related publications as well as helping toxicologists keep up-to-date about the effects of newly available drugs.
We also work with numerous researchers who analyze data we have collected through our “experience report” submissions as well as our EcstasyData testing results. And we have co-authored several papers [”Use patterns and self-reported effects of Salvia divinorum: An internet-based survey”; ”Abnormal visual experiences in individuals with histories of hallucinogen use: A web-based questionnaire”; ”Ketamine is associated with lower urinary tract signs and symptoms”].
You and Earth have a relationship that goes back a very long way, don’t you?
Yes, very long. Earth and I both grew up in Minnesota. We went to the same high school near Minneapolis and became friends there. We began dating after high school and then both went to New College in Florida. We began Erowid after we moved to California a year after graduating from New College. We’ve been together, usually working side by side at the same desk, ever since.
Douglas Capraro is a writer and musician from Queens, New York. A recent SUNY Purchase College graduate, he is an editorial intern at Substance.com.
You Might Also Like
Check out this interactive feature to get a unique sense of the current numbers—based on data from SAMHSA, the CDC and the FBI—for drug use, drug problems and more.... Read More
We're winning: More progress has been made toward enlightened drug policies and treatment in the past five years than in the previous 25. Here's an advocacy agenda to take us even closer to the future we need.... Read More
Derided or applauded as America's No. 1 opponent of marijuana legalization, Kevin Sabet strives to strike a moderate tone. But where is he really coming from?... Read More
Formed to fight for "nothing about us without us" and promote health, drug user unions foster solidarity and some schisms. They're meeting in Baltimore next week to hammer out a national plan.... Read More
Who exactly is prohibition supposed to be helping? After many years of enforcing drug laws as a police officer, my experience with an addicted family member changed my attitude for good.... Read More