The recreational use of psychedelics is on the rise in the US in the wake of COVID-19 and amid increasing acceptance of the drug as a medicine.
In the last three years the use of hallucinogens such as LSD and magic mushrooms among young people in the US has jumped, according to the latest data from the annual Monitoring the Future survey, carried out by the University of Michigan.
Last year, when the US went through COVID-related lockdowns, 8.6 percent of US college students and 7.6 percent of young adults said they had used psychedelics in the last 12 months, compared to 4.1 percent and 4.3 percent in 2017.
The use of hallucinogens, predominantly LSD, is at the highest level since 1982 and more than five times the lowest rates in the mid 2000s.
“There’s been a huge rise in LSD among younger populations. I think it's getting more popular due to the macrodosing [taking trip-sized doses] phenomenon and the recent rise in knowledge about the benefits of these medicines, such as cognitive enhancement and personality development,” said Andrew Yockey, Assistant Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the University of North Texas.
“The pandemic has definitely taken a toll on everyone's mental health, and traditional modes of therapy are ineffective for some. You see studies showing that psilocybin, for example, is a great alternative to reducing anxiety, compared to pharmacological drugs. People report using psychedelics at home, but more and more are using these in social circles to enhance connectedness.”
Results from a survey that questions the general public on drug use, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, has tracked a similar trend, with 1.2 million 18 to 25-year-olds admitted taking LSD in 2019 compared with 317,000 in 2004 — almost a fourfold increase.
This uptick comes during an era where LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), ketamine and MDMA are being trialed and prescribed to treat a range of medical issues such as depression and PTSD, while the legal barriers to these drugs being used in therapy are falling away.
“This upward trend is likely partly due to the changing perception about the dangers and possible medicinal benefits of hallucinogen use,” said John Schulenberg, lead author on the Monitoring the Future research. He said there has been a huge decrease over the last 40 years in the percentage of 19-22 year olds who perceive experimental use of LSD as carrying great risk of harm, from 50 percent in 1989 to 28 percent last year.
This rise in the use of psychedelics is an international trend. In the UK, use of hallucinogens is at the highest rate since the mid 2000s. A special psychedelics report by the Global Drug Survey (GDS), the biggest drug use survey in the world, has found the number of people using LSD, magic mushrooms, DMT and ketamine doubled between 2015 and 2020.
Apart from using psychedelics for fun, to escape the modern world, and to cope with pandemic lockdowns, the GDS also found many people used them as an aid to wellbeing, to deal with anxiety and to get relief from a psychiatric condition. A quarter of respondents who used LSD and magic mushrooms said they had microdosed the drugs. What’s more the survey found LSD was rated as the best value for money drug in the world.
“Psychedelics are really versatile drugs. I can imagine for some people bigger doses may have allowed them to work through anxieties the last 18 months have raised for all of us,” said Adam Winstock, a consultant psychiatrist and addiction medicine specialist at University College London, who runs the GDS.
“Maybe microdosing was the ‘baking of the drug world’ for lockdown, because some people saw this as an opportunity to trial microdosing and may have had the chance to see the impact on work, performance and creativity with more time away from the office. Given most people who used more drugs said it was boredom that led to escalating use, I guess fun and passing the time will be up there as well.”
Winstock said he thinks psychedelics have got more popular globally because of their growing acceptance for use in therapy, their ready availability over the internet and as an escape from modern life.
“There has been lots of good PR about psychedelics showing the fine line between drugs and medicines,” said Winstock. “LSD is ideally suited to the dark net and postal delivery. I think we are in a decade where we all want to feel more connected to ourselves and the world and we need new ways of comprehending the madness that we see around us. I think psychedelics can offer that in a way that stimulants can’t. And also they are pretty safe.”