Raves have been postponed indefinitely, the tie-dye trend has crested, and jam bands are... divisive as ever. But psychedelic substances consistently make headlines: decriminalized in Oakland and Denver; shown to have promise treating PTSD, depression, and anxiety; inspiring a venture capitalist gold rush.
“In addition to a pandemic, we’re facing a devastating mental health epidemic,” says Shelby Hartman, co-founder and editor-in-chief of DoubleBlind, a magazine about psychedelics. “The Western medical community failed in coming up with novel and effective treatments, and they lost a lot of credibility because of the opioid crisis, which is why Americans are considering things that are formerly stigmatized or a little scary.”
Drugs like LSD are no longer countercultural, but neither is tripping a wellness trend for everyone. Whether you’re curious what plant medicine can do for you or you’re just looking for a very detailed reason to pass on a friend’s magic mushrooms, we’ve compiled everything you need to know.
What We Mean By 'Psychedelics'
Psychedelics (or hallucinogens or entheogens) are “powerful psychoactive substances that alter perception and mood and affect numerous cognitive processes,” per a 2016 report in the journal Pharmacological Reviews. They work along the serotonin pathways but differ from drugs like cocaine or heroin in their lower potential for addiction. And, you know, they can cause hallucinations.
California’s Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit that supports research into the potential healing benefits of psychedelics, considers MDMA (aka ecstasy or molly), cannabis, and ketamine psychedelics, but for the purpose of this guide we talked to people who take or work with the classic “trippy” drugs: LSD or acid, psilocybin mushrooms, and other plant extracts that Indigenous communities use ceremonially, like ayahuasca (which contains DMT) or peyote (mescaline).
Why Would One — Hypothetically — Try Them?
The Mushroom Maker Looking For A Better Mood
I’ve been using mushrooms since I was 18 or 19, and I found they really helped with my mood, any sort of anxiety or sadness I was feeling, or things I felt stuck on. I’ve since begun synthesizing capsules out of mushrooms and other medicinal herbs and sharing them with people who want to microdose. One person told me they’re more present and in-tune with their kids. Microdosing has helped me recognize and honor my reactive tendencies, whether you call it “PMS-ing” or not.
Sometimes, when we’re upset, we get lost in the emotion, and mushrooms can help you take a step back and say, "Oh, this is the situation. This is how I’m feeling about it. What can I do about it right now? Am I looking at things in all different perspectives instead of just caught in my one emotion here?" — anonymous, founder of psilotribal
The Researcher Disrupting Obsessive Mental Patterns
I’m part of a research team at the University of Arizona that is looking at the use of psilocybin for people who have OCD. Some of what we already know about how psychedelics work in the brain is that they can disrupt patterns. They can disrupt habits and rituals and create a window of possibility for having a new kind of pattern take place or having some malleability to repetitive structures, and OCD is a lot of repetition and really entrenched habits.
Psychedelics are very promising for major depression, for OCD, for anorexia, for trauma — women have higher rates of all of these things, so women have a lot of stake in what the studies are and how the results are used. — Rajan Grewal, D.O., psychiatrist, adjunct assistant professor and clinical researcher at the University of Arizona department of psychiatry
The Retreat For Substance Users Who Have Tried Everything To Quit
I work at a retreat property in Costa Rica, where I facilitate ceremonies with iboga, a psychedelic made from the root bark of the West African Tabernanthe iboga shrub. It’s used for many purposes, including treating drug addiction. [Ed note: While iboga is classified as a Schedule I drug, U.S. pharmaceutical development companies are exploring the use of its derivatives to reduce opioid and cocaine withdrawal symptoms.]
I’ve seen people come in who had no color, no life in their eyes whatsoever — the lights are out. They don’t know what else to do. They’ve tried it all. They’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars on rehab; their families have risked their homes and their cars, everything to help them. During the ceremony, which goes from 8 or 9 p.m. until sunrise, the guest takes the medicine and lies down as we play music, dance, shake rattles, and assist them when needed. It’s beautiful to see someone come out of the ceremony and that light is on. You don’t really know what’s in there, but you see that the light is on. Something wakes up in them. I can’t think of a single guest focused on [overcoming addiction] who did not leave with that awakening to the self, like "I matter. I am of value." That can be a game-changer. — Raven Marie, assistant facilitator at Awaken Your Soul
The Neuroscientist Looking For Mental Health Care That Won’t Alter Personality
I’m currently researching how microdosing psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin can help people with mental health conditions like ADHD. We know from anecdotal claims that people who take conventional ADHD medications often feel that they numb their personality, while those who microdose say that this does not happen with psychedelics, so they stay themselves. If we prove this to be right, this would be an enormous benefit: that you can still be you but without the impairing effects of ADHD. — Kim Kuypers, associate professor with Maastricht University, faculty of psychology and neuroscience
The Medicine Woman Connecting With The Divine
Plant medicine can open us to the revelation of God consciousness. It can guide us “home,” to our own divine connection to all things. Many of us as human beings struggle to find meaning and connection, and we reach a point where we believe that we are separate, individual beings rather than connected and part of a vast and divine consciousness. When we take plant medicine, we force the veil that creates this separation to drop or open, sometimes fully, in the case of a full spiritual emergence, sometimes only partially, maybe only enough to get a glimpse of that beautiful and divine holy light. This can be realized without plant medicine as well, but plant medicine is a useful tool to impel this opening and awareness. Even just a glimpse, or just a moment of recognition can often be enough to reassure people of their right to exist, to be happy and live meaningful lives. — Adriana González Villa, owner of Radiant Heart Yoga and Ceremonial Arts, co-founder of Iboga Revolution
"Did We Know We Were Lying About The Drugs? Of Course."
(Click for the real history of psychedelics.)
What To Expect When You're Hallucinating
Pop culture depictions of psychedelics suggest the world dissolves into a melted popsicle the second the tab hits. But experienced psychonauts will tell you that hallucinations or visuals range from the subtle to the spiritual.
“[Hallucinating] doesn’t add brand new things to the environment as much as makes those things feel alive,” says Kae, 31. “It’s not pink elephants or even pink squares,” adding that they mostly notice illusions like the walls breathing, especially on acid.
The first time Althea*, 31, took ’shrooms, she says, “I kept thinking I had peed my pants. It was this intense body high.” In terms of visuals, she mostly notices patterns and waves around her when she’s tripping. On the couple of occasions when she smoked DMT, she says the visuals were “very geometric.” (Watch 2009's extremely gnarly Enter the Void if you want to know more about what that means.) “A lot of people say you blast off when you take DMT because you go to another universe for eight minutes,” she adds.
For Niwe Rabi, a doula, reiki master, and ayahuasca trip facilitator, her first experience with the plant medicine led her to recreate the experience of birth, labor and all. She adds, however, that for ayahuasca in particular, she recommends having as few expectations for your trip as possible. “You could sit beside somebody in ceremony and at the end, they’re in absolute awe, they had the light show and connected with God. And for you, nothing happened at all. The medicine is always working … [having] visions is normal, and no visions is also normal.” (Mary, 35, has done ayahuasca around eight times without a single vision.)
As with a lot about psychedelics, your mileage may vary according to dosage, frame of mind, and surroundings. “If you’re having a really mild trip, you have to look for the visuals, like in the trees blowing in the wind,” says Marie*, 39. “Tripping really allows you to see the ripples in the surface, the beauty of our world that we can be really closed off to day to day.”
These Researchers Have Mastered The Art Of The Safe Trip
Mary Cosimano, MSW, and Dr. Natalie Gukasyan, M.D., are directors at the Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University, where they research psilocybin-assisted therapy for smoking cessation, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, anorexia, and more.
Mary Cosimano: We have been running studies on psychedelics at Hopkins since 2000. We see potential for psychedelics in the treatment of addiction and anxiety. They are very low-risk in terms of adverse effects but have long-lasting benefits for psychological distress.
Natalie Gukasyan: I can count on one hand the number of times a person has received emergency medication during a session day for something like high blood pressure, significantly increased heart rate, or severe psychological distress. It is so rare, but every drug has the potential to cause unwanted side effects.
MC: Psychedelics are not for everyone. The people in our studies are carefully selected.
NG: We’re checking that potential subjects don’t have imbalances in their blood cells or liver function, which can cause an adverse reaction. We make sure there are no signs or history of co-occurring conditions like illnesses on the bipolar-schizophrenic spectrum. You have a higher chance of [psychedelic use] precipitating a manic episode of psychosis if you have a family history of those illnesses.
We spend a lot of time building rapport with subjects who pass the screening, making sure they feel safe with the study team.
MC: The volunteers in our psilocybin research studies meet with their guides for six to eight hours of preparation before their first psilocybin session. Our goal in these preparatory meetings is to begin establishing the “set” and “setting.” Set refers to a participant’s internal mental state, beliefs, and expectations, while setting is the external environment. When psilocybin sessions are conducted in an environment where the volunteer feels safe and supported, it’s more likely that they will get the maximum benefit from the session.
Running more than 400 volunteer participants in more than 800 sessions, we haven’t had anyone who has had long-term adverse effects.
NG: In one paper we published, we looked at what percentage of people had a “challenging experience” on session day [a bad trip, in other words]. It’s about 30%. A challenging experience might be very productive for somebody; afterward, they might take a different perspective on habitual patterns of thinking or behavior, or situational problems that have been with them for long periods of time. Participants often say [the bad trip] is one of the most helpful parts of their session day.
MC: That’s where the preparation comes in. If you have a negative experience and there isn’t someone you feel safe with who’s prepared to guide you, it can be very discouraging. That distress cannot be resolved in a short amount of time.
NG: In a survey of nearly 2,000 people that asked about psychologically “challenging” experiences with taking psilocybin on their own, 10.7% of individuals who had a challenging experience reported putting themselves or others at risk of physical harm, and 2.6% reported behaving in a physically aggressive or violent manner; 2.7% reported getting help at a hospital or emergency room.
MC: So many people who volunteer for our studies have had experience with psychedelics before, but when they go through our study, they say it’s nothing like those previous experiences. The benefit is the protocol. That doesn’t compare with doing it on your own.
NG: We get asked a lot, “Is this something everybody should do?” “Should I do it unassisted?” “Should I do it at home?” And no, we can’t support that kind of administration of the drug.
A Psychedelic Journalist On The Ethics Of Tripping
Shelby Hartman’s reporting on psychedelics has appeared in Rolling Stone, Quartz and VICE, among others, and she is the editor-in-chief of DoubleBlind magazine.
Psychedelics are part of a paradigm shift. People are disheartened with everything going on in society at large, from the criminal justice system to how we treat our bodies. But I would not make an explicit connection between plant medicine and broader social justice work. We have an article in Issue 3 by Camille Barton that talks specifically about the illusion that you’re going to be a better person after psychedelics. There is historical evidence that hate groups have used psychedelics.
One thing these drugs have been shown to do is promote feelings of unity. When you’re under the influence of a psychedelic, there is a sense that you are connecting with the universe, with other people, with trees. The ego that is often driving selfish behavior and the fight-or-flight response are much quieter. You feel like, "OK, I’m part of something much larger that’s happening on Planet Earth."
Something we like to mention to people considering psychedelics is sacred reciprocity. If you’re a Westerner with some privilege using a psychedelic medicine, you need to be giving back to the Indigenous communities that preserved the knowledge around psychedelic plants and fungi for thousands of years. Communities responsible for ayahuasca are currently threatened by foreign oil extraction and mining operations in the Amazon and are struggling for basic human rights. When you take these drugs you’re taking a piece of someone’s cultural heritage.
What Happens If You Get Caught?
“Penalties for psychedelics vary according to state, city, and federal enforcement — a lot,” says Natalie Lyla Ginsberg, the director of policy and advocacy at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). The federal government groups controlled substances into categories called schedules, and almost all drugs considered psychedelics — including psilocybin and LSD — are in Schedule 1, the most controlled category with the steepest penalties for use. In the eyes of Congress, these drugs have the highest potential for abuse and no acceptable medical use. At the local and state levels, laws governing these substances vary widely. (For example, marijuana is still Schedule I federally, but several states have legalized it for recreational use.) As a result, using psychedelics can land you with anything from a fine to a long prison sentence depending on where you are, who you are, and who caught you.
In cities that have moved to decriminalize psilocybin (Denver, Oakland, and Santa Cruz) you can still get arrested for using ’shrooms, but local law enforcement probably won’t treat possession as a crime. Federal agencies, like Border Patrol or the Drug Enforcement Agency, treat possession of Schedule I drugs as a crime even if they’re legal locally, but even they have to prioritize, Ginsberg says. “The federal government will be less inclined to go after an individual using mushrooms in Denver once or twice than someone trying to sell psilocybin on Instagram.”
If you are charged and found or plead guilty, mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines apply based on the amount in possession, prior charges, and intent to distribute. If the feds think you planned to sell a blotter sheet of acid, your sentence can be doubled, tripled, or set to life depending on your priors and who’s prosecuting your case. “Unfortunately, in the U.S., if you’re a person of color, you are more likely to be arrested for drug use,” Ginsburg says. “The key is knowing your own state and local drug laws.”
4 Low Risk Ways To Learn More
Be Part Of The Research
Now that it’s legal to study potential therapeutic uses of psychedelics, reputable institutions are conducting research trials around the country. There are usually several accepting participants at any given time, which you can browse on clinicaltrials.gov. Especially if you’ve been diagnosed with migraines, depression, substance or alcohol use disorder, PTSD, or OCD, you could be a good candidate. MAPS also lists several ongoing studies, although not all are still recruiting subjects. Note that you aren’t eligible for any trial if you are pregnant or planning to be.
Take A Trip To Trip (When Travel Is Safe Again)
Various Central and South American countries recognize the spiritual value of plant medicine (and don’t criminalize its use). Radiant Heart in Mexico conducts ceremonies with changa, mushrooms, and peyote, or you can head to Peru, considered to be the birthplace of medicinal ayahuasca use, where centers like the Ayahuasca Foundation offer week- or month-long retreats. You could also experience plant medicine with Shipibo healers at Soltara Healing Center in Costa Rica. Given the physical and emotional vulnerability that is part of any trip, check the conduct and safety record of the company and guide you choose. You’ll have to complete a medical questionnaire before booking your stay and be forewarned that your glamping trip could cost anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 a week.
Practice Growing Mushrooms
According to DoubleBlind, the psilocybin spores used to grow magic mushrooms exist in a gray area: They are legal to buy but illegal to cultivate in all states but California, Idaho, and Georgia, where they are also illegal to buy. But if psilocybin goes the way of cannabis — legal to grow for recreation in 10 states — D.I.Y. mushroom farms might be the next sourdough. The magazine offers an online class ($149.99) that will teach you how to grow your own wholesome, delicious and, for now, non-hallucinogenic mushrooms in nine weeks. “Psilocybin remains illegal under federal law,” DoubleBlind notes. “We do not advocate for, endorse, or intend for this video to be used to violate federal law.”
Get Microdoses Delivered To Your (Canadian) Address
A tiny dose of a psychedelic drug won’t get you high, but microdosing proponents report improved focus, reduced anxiety, and better sleep and moods. Canadian residents can buy capsules containing a fraction of the trippy dose of psilocybe from the Medicinal Mushroom Dispensary. Of its legality, the dispensary writes, “We operate in the same gray area that allowed medical cannabis dispensaries to thrive for many years before [Canadian] legalization. … The Vancouver police have indicated they don’t consider microdoses to be a big problem.” Dispensary members must provide documentation of an ailment but not a prescription.
Readers should note that laws governing psychedelics are evolving, as is information about the efficacy and safety of those substances. As such, the information contained in this post should not be construed as legal or medical advice. Always consult your physician prior to trying any substance or supplement.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. Additional reporting by Kat Stoeffel, Melanie Mignucci, and Margaret Wheeler Johnson.