4 Ways Psychedelics are Used
MAY 25, 2022.
As our cultural understanding of psychedelics expands, it seems like their uses do too. But these compounds have been a more-or-less constant part of human civilization, in various forms. In order to understand how psychedelics are currently being used, we’ve identified four major categories, each with their own complex histories.
Therapeutic If there’s one use that has been most responsible for spurring the current psychedelic renaissance, it’s this one. In 2006, a team at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, led by Roland Griffiths, published a paper called “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.” This research was groundbreaking. Beyond the conclusions (that magic mushrooms can produce trippy “mystical-type” experiences that carry profound personal meaning, is something any old hippie could probably tell you) what really resonated here was the methodology. Griffiths and his team were able to provethese taken-for-granted outcomes, using the best standards of scientific and clinical rigor. The paper led to a renewed seriousness in the field, as well as a surge in general interest in psychedelics.
Since then, the number of such clinical trials has exploded. Psychedelics are being tested in treating everything from PTSD to nicotine-addiction, overeating, opioid abuse, and even Alzheimer’s. As we point out in a previous blog, these are still experimental therapies. And, as of this writing, none of these new therapies have produced drugs or treatments that have been officially authorized by the requisite government bodies (in North America, anyway). But there are exceptions. In Canada, some patients have been able to secure government exemptions to use psilocybin. And some U.S. jurisdictions have seen certain psychedelics approved within the context of licensed therapies. But for the most part, save for a few exceptions (outlined below) the only way to take psychedelics legally—and with the highest safety standards—is by taking part in one of these clinical trials.
Spiritual For many, psychedelics are primarily a spiritual tool, or sacrament. In some circles, the word “entheogen” has come to replace “psychedelic.” The former has an explicitly religious or spiritual connotation. There is a long, documented history of psychedelic use in these contexts, which predates (by millennia in some cases) the modern understanding. Some believe that the Eleusinian Mysteries—a ritual of Ancient Greece—employed a brew including ergot, a fungus from which LSD would, nearly 2000 years later, be synthesized. In the Americas, it is believed that some indigenous groups, including the Aztecs, used various psychoactive plants and fungi in religious ceremonies. Peyotism (a ritual using peyote cacti) is also an important cultural rite for indigenous tribes in North America.
In these sacraments, psychedelics were prized for the hallucinogenic reveries they produced, which were believed to be spiritual revelations. In the United States, religious exemptions are often granted to groups claiming a legitimate rite to using psychedelics, in rituals which are protected under the first amendment. A 2006 Supreme Court decision, Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal, affirmed the constitutionally protected right of a New Mexican church to imbibe ayahuasca in its services. This decision was another touchstone in the current reappraisal of psychedelics, helping to shift attitudes about their uses. Now, these spiritual experiences have become highly prized commodities. Plenty of “westerners” are drawn to retreats modelled on these traditional sacraments. This uptick in so-called “psychedelic tourism” has itself proved controversial, as some stakeholders claim that it’s part of the same colonialist pattern that indigenous groups were initially trying to escape from, via their use of entheogenic medicines.
Professional This might come as a surprise to some, but a work culture has emerged around psychedelics. For a while, stories have appeared in the press about Silicon Valley tech workers (and even some adventurous moms) “microdosing”: taking small, “sub-perceptual” doses of LSD or psilocybin. True believers tout all kinds of (alleged) benefits. There are claims that it improves focus and concentration, or even a sense of general well-being. Some say it’s a replacement for drugs like Adderall. Others regard it as a more natural substitute for the daily regiment of SSRI-style antidepressants. Author Ayelet Waldman diarized her experience microdosing in her 2017 memoir A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made A Mega Difference In My Mood, My Marriage and My Life. Certain companies in the emerging psychedelic sector are capitalizing on these claims, with low-dose psychedelic mushrooms (or truffles) geared towards microdosing.
The science may not exactly support these claims. The most recent research suggests that most of the claimed benefits of microdosing may be attributable to the “placebo effect”. Simply put - when the brain is primed to expect a certain outcome, it can have a way of manifesting that outcome. If you think a tiny drop of LSD in your morning O.J. is going to make you peppier or more focused, you’re likely to become peppier, or more focused. As one researcher has put it, “What makes the difference is not whether you have taken a placebo or a microdose—it’s whether you think you have taken a placebo or a microdose.”
Recreational For a long time, this was arguably the broadest use. And it’s one many people are likely familiar with. Many a camping trip have been ‘enhanced’ with a ziplock baggie of dried mushrooms. Generations have had their minds blown watching 2001: A Space Odyssey under the influence of LSD. And without the aid of psychedelics, the whole culture of multi-day music festivals would never have gained the popularity it has today. Amid all the talk of psychedelics’ therapeutic and clinical and sacramental uses, it’s easy to forget that psychedelics are fun. Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that they are also, by-and-large, illegal. But even that can add to the fun: the added buzz of doing something illicit, under the vigilant eyes of the law.
This raises a bigger point. For many, tripping is beneficial because it produces a whole mode of experience that is distinct from everyday reality. It’s like its own aesthetic category. And like all great art, it doesn’t need to have a point. The visuals that psychedelics can produce, the thoughts they provoke and feelings they can foster, the way they can make music sound, somehow, even better…this may be reason enough to justify their use.