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Can a Low Dose Go a Long Way?

Is it possible to tap psychedelic drugs at almost imperceptible levels to heighten normal, day-to-day functioning without all the mind melt? As it turns out, less maybe is more.
Photo via Flickr / CC.

This year, 400,000 Americans will ingest Lysergic acid diethylamide. That's on top of the 23 million Americans who've already recreationally pumped their brains full of acid. If I can hazard the guess, scores of the initiated straight tripped their faces off--a precedent for the hundreds of thousands of first timers who'll deliberately eat heroic enough amounts of Lucy so as to go well beyond the horizons of the here and now, deep into the uncharted maw of the grand mind. Maybe you fall into one of those camps. And hey, that's great. Do your thing, if you haven't already.

For others--and there are doubtless just as many, possibly more--that's enough to steer clear. The mere thought of letting go is uninviting enough. With zero interest in confronting all the batshit crazy geometric visuals and hallucinations, to say nothing of the sounds and tastes of a rollicking trip, the tabs go denied time and again. And hey, that's cool. But what if it was possible to reap some of the reported benefits of a semisynthetic psychedelic like LSD without going all heavyminded? What if it was possible to tap acid at almost imperceptible levels as a way to heighten normal, day-to-day functioning without all the mind melt?


If that's you, wrap your head around this: Less acid is maybe more. A lot more.

That's the allure of what's known as the sub-perceptual dose. It's an idea that has been gaining traction in certain pockets of the medical community, though it's neither new nor validated by any formal research. As James Fadiman notes in The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide (2011), sub-perceptual psychedelic dosings have for centuries been known about and utilized by indigenous cultures the world over. Fadiman would know. He's been in the trenches of legitimate mind-altering research for over four decades, and with time has become a sort of champion of the micro dose. Nowadays, he's tickled to find himself almost sober, if you could call it that, among the brain-blasted, self-important new gurus and high priests of what could be called a psychedelic renaissnace. Speaking at the 2013 Psychedelic Science conference in San Francisco, Fadiman did not mince words: "It's wonderful to be conservative in this crowd."

He's apparently not alone there. In 2010, Fadiman put out an open call for user-submitted micro-dose reports. On every third day ever since, an unknown number of volunteers has ingested micro doses of LSD "while conducting their typical daily routines and maintaining logbooks of their observations," as Tim Doody reported in The Heretic, a fascinating long-read on Fadiman's life's work to which this article is greatly indebted. It's unclear when and if the study will end. But we do know that "study enrollment may last for several weeks or longer" for the participants, who submit their journals, preferrably attached to "a summary of their overall impressions," to a dedicated inbox.


The problem, of course, is that psychedelics remain illegal in America and throughout much of the world. Indeed, to have any chance of getting your hands on the stuff without losing sleep over the thought of the DEA kicking your down down at 2 AM, you either have to be suffering serious mental trauma or terminally ill. That's not to undercut the growing, if still pathetically scant number of federally-approved studies whose findings continue deepening our understanding of how psychoactives may beat back the nagging horrors of post-traumatic strees, or cure nicotine or booze addiction. But the reality is that for those who believe that psychedelics and various other smart drugs could be used to the betterment of all stripes, not just people coping with PTSD or a penchant for the bottle, microdosing just hasn't been given a fair shake.

Fadiman is doing his best to change that. Even if that means skirting the law and drawing from anecdotal evidence, it's a start, no?

Fadiman at Psychedelic Science, April 2013. "It's not how much you take," Fadiman mused, "it's how much you care." (via MAPS)

He's cautious in his descriptions. In his view, there is really no one specific “normal" LSD dose range. It's all dependent on what you're looking for. For a recreational romp to the Laugh Farm and back, try 50 micrograms (mcg). For a creative nudge, go with 100 mcg. For a life-changing therapeutic session, anywhere from 100 to 250 mcg should do the trick. For an up-close, long-lasting dance with “the Divine," 400 mcg will have you on your way. To venture beyond that threshold, Fadiman cautions, is not without serious risks the user must be prepared to confront from the outset.To plumb below perceptual levels? Not so much.

For Fadiman, 10 micrograms of LSD constitutes a micro-dose, or "tener." That's about one-fifth of what's considered a typical psilocybin dose, or about one-tenth of the amount of acid you gobbled down at, oh I don't know, Bonnaroo 2006. But that's not what we're after here.


“Micro-dosing turns out to be a totally different world,” Fadiman told curious crowds at the fifth-annual Horizons psychedelic quorum last year in New York City. He went on:

As someone said, the rocks don’t glow, even a little bit. But what many people are reporting is, at the end of the day, they say, ‘That was a really good day.’ You know, that kind of day when things kind of work. You’re doing a task you normally couldn’t stand for two hours, but you do it for three or four. You eat properly. Maybe you do one more set of reps. Just a good day. That seems to be what we’re discovering.

It's not brain busting, in other words. It's not hallucinatory. It's not, well, psychedelic. "It's not a major event," Fadiman recently told Creative Insight.

What is still very much a major event is the succesful procurement of research-grade psychedelics to be used in clinical trials. Fadiman has had no such luck convincing the National Insitute on Drug Abuse, the sole proprietor of research-grade supplies of currently illicit drugs. He also can't establish proper lab conditions without facing criminal charges. The workaround? His volunteers must access the Schedule 1 drug on their own, and then parse the stuff into micro-hits of either 50 or 100 micrograms. Then they self adminster, and finally self-report. And then they repeat.

It has to be at least somewhat strange for a guy who once headed up a landmark, government-sanctioned experiment on psychedelics in creative problem solving. In 1966, at age 27, Fadiman and a few other researchers dosed an all-male group of mathematicians, engineers, architects, psychologists, physicists, and artists with 50 to 100 microgram doses of LSD and mescaline in a monthslong study. The Food and Drug Administration gave them access to the psychedelics, which proved instrumental in breakthroughs on complex problems the subjects had been briefed and working on prior to going under the influence.


Before this, clinical psychedelic research in the US seemed targeted on how a drug like LSD spurred artistic creativity--that's when it wasn't taking dark turns into the Army's so-called psychedelic Manhattan project, which saw subjects unwittingly dosed with PCP, sarin, and BZ. Not surprisingly, those who had the misfortune of unknowingly being swept up on that national shitstain didn't fill out questionnaires every few weeks, unlike the subjects in Fadiman's problem-solving project.

Which brings us back to the low-dose logs that have been streaming into Fadiman from across the country going on three years now. The confessionials, call them data, are revealing. Per Doody:

One physician reported that micro-dosing got him “in touch with a deep place of ease and beauty.” A vocalist said she could better hear and channel music. In general, study participants functioned normally in their work and relationships, Fadiman has said, but with increased focus, creativity, and emotional clarity.

If it all sounds promising, it's still impossible to hold it all up to the rigors of a proper clinical trial. Despite more and more similar anecdotal evidence cropping up--this Low-Dose Appreciation Thread, which is unrelated to Fadiman's microdose project, has from 2006 to the present day been a place for those self-adminstering sub-perceptual doses of LSD and other psychedlics to log their experiences--Fadiman has not yet presented his crowd-sourced anecdotal data in a comprehensive way.


It has a nice ring to it--less is more. For now, though, there are something like 400,000 reasons why we're still left with less of what we'd need to say with assurity that a little will go a long way.

Reach Brian at @thebanderson

More on psychedelics: 

Why You See What You See When You're Tripping on Psychedelics

The Motherboard Guide to New Psychoactive Substances

When NASA's Former Supercomputer Tripped on DMT

The Doctor Behind the Army's Psychedelic Manhattan Project Has Some Regrets (Weed Isn't One of Them)

The Biggest Psychedelic Research Group Is Asking the Pentagon to Help Kill PTSD