One hazy dawn this summer at the Meadow in the Mountains festival in southern Bulgaria, the earth tilted and Amber (some names have been changed to protect people’s identities), a 20-year-old east Londoner, laughed as the sun rose and the clouds slid off the hillside. For years, she’d been terrified of what would happen if she took acid, but she felt it was time.
“I was on a good level,” said Amber, who described being perched on top of a giant wooden honeycomb art installation, staring at another construction made to look like a dragon. “There was this dragon carved out of wood, and in its mouth were these flag things. The dragon looked over these mountains. We met these people who were just so funny. I was with this guy I’d never met and we talked for eight hours straight, sitting on top of this honeycomb, with this dragon breathing fire. It was ridiculous. I felt like I was in another world. It was like a fairyland.”
The rise in clinical testing of psychedelics for depression and PTSD, and Silicon Valley execs microdosing LSD to keep on top of their game, has been well documented in the media, largely because these are drugs more associated with the counterculture, tree huggers, and jail time than science labs and corporate elites. But outside of the corporate types and clinics, is there a psychedelic renaissance happening on the streets? And if the Snapchat generation is learning how to tune in, turn on, and drop out, why now?
The data is conclusive. Tripping is up, most notably among young people. US government statistics show 1.31 million 18- to 25-year-olds admitted taking LSD in 2017 compared with 317,000 in 2004—almost a fourfold increase since the mid 2000s. And it’s not just in the US. Even among 12th graders, the use of LSD is edging up. In Britain, LSD use has jumped to levels among young people not seen since 2000, and the use of ketamine, the hallucinogenic anesthetic famous for spaced-out K-holes, has tripled in the last three years.
We were drinking tea in Amber’s dad’s garden shed, which is kitted out with a sound system and floor-to-ceiling vintage vinyl. I wanted to know why Amber and hundreds of thousands of young people like her around the world are using psychedelics such as LSD, magic mushrooms, ketamine, and DMT in greater numbers than we’ve seen in decades. Is the growing use of psychedelics an escapist response to our broken political and economic systems, a search for meaning in a universe so perverse that Prince and Bowie can die in the same year a racist replaced Obama?
“People today are like robots,” Amber told me. “Everything and everyone is online, all the time. But on drugs, especially acid, you live in the moment; you don’t care about what’s going on with your phone. I don’t even use mine when I’m out getting high.”
Consider the friction of unnatural living under modern global capitalism: social media meltdowns, claustrophobic commutes, unobtainable housing, insecure jobs, and overcrowded cities with too many lonely people. Adderall and coffee to rush you through the day and cocaine to keep you chattering into the night. Offices where your colleagues message you instead of turning their heads to talk. Where a Netflix binge is your best friend, where our politicians tell us that global warming will fix itself, where anxiety and pain are at epidemic levels, and going to university leaves you in debt for the rest of your life.
The online drug trade has made psychedelics easier to buy, and media publicity about the use of these drugs as medicines has normalized them to some extent. But as with most generalized, global drug trends, psychedelics are reemerging because of a need within society, a motivation to get high in a particular way.
Amber said most of her twentysomething friends live in shared housing in the cheaper end of the city and work 9-to-5 jobs in retail, often on “zero-hours contracts” (contracts with no minimum hours). Some have freelance hustles. They prefer psychedelics to cocaine, simply because they are more fun. “Coke makes me anxious. When I do acid or 2CB with my mates, we might act strange but we don’t give a shit,” she said. “It’s been the best summer of my life.”
The influence of acid and other psychedelics is becoming more tangible in culture. In the last few years hip-hop has become infused with psychedelic references and production styles. Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap album speaks for itself, with the singer admitting the record is “30 to 40 percent acid.” A$AP Rocky told Billboard magazine that LSD “helps [him] cope with life,” and, he claims, he has used it to fuel an orgy. Via the hip-hop scene, psychedelics appear to have been adopted by a new generation of drug users who may never have heard of Woodstock or the Grateful Dead. Frank Ocean has written about his experiences taking magic mushrooms. Even Kanye rapped about taking the psychedelics 2CB and DMT on Ye, while music insiders say his Wyoming Sessions were fueled by psychedelics.
Amber and A$AP Rocky are each small tiles in a new and complex global mosaic of people who are choosing to get high on hallucinogens. Psychedelic drugs have been typecast as the preserve of hippies, jungle shamans, and psychonauts (people who use drugs to explore their own mind), and more recently the playthings of privileged elites seeking spiritual nirvana, but this stereotype is a chimera. These once niche drugs are now being taken by an increasingly diverse population. More than 40 percent of the American young adults who admitted in 2017 to taking hallucinogens in the previous year were women, and a third were nonwhite. In the US, you are almost twice as likely to take hallucinogens if you don’t have medical insurance than if you do. In the UK the most likely psychedelics users are students, the unemployed, or those in a manual job.
“There is this deep, fundamental alienation that is driving people to seek different ways to reconnect to the natural world and give them a sense of community,” the American author J.P. Harpignies, an eco-activist with a long-standing interest in psychedelics, told me. He believes young people’s sense of disengagement today is “exacerbated by living so much of their lives online, constantly prodded with push alerts and interacting with the world via social media platforms engineered to extract as much of their attention as possible.” He argues, like Amber, that people are using psychedelics as a response to modern life. “Psychedelics are one of the vectors that a certain subgroup of people experiment with… to try to achieve more of a sense of wholeness.”
We may not want to admit it, but the human race is becoming detached from reality. Our digital social environments are closing us off from the truth, from each other, and from the natural world in which we have struck camp. We are a species trapped by a series of brightly lit screens. So it can be no surprise that a new kind of claustrophobic anxiety, particularly among the young, is on the rise, or that people are stepping into altered states in order to feel real.
In 1967, after the release of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Paul McCartney told the fashion magazine Queen: “If the politicians would take LSD, there wouldn’t be any more war or poverty or famine.” The Canadian chemist Peter van der Heyden said that kind of attitude has been baked into the psychedelic drug scene for decades. Van der Heyden operated a major drugs lab in Canada in the 1990s with the renowned US acid chemist Nick Sand. Over his life, Sand made about 14 kilograms of acid—enough for 140 million trips. Van der Heyden told me that he and Sand would stand in reverence as the acid crystallized. “We would say: ‘May this benefit all of humanity. May this lead to a greater understanding and awakening for everyone that takes it.’”
Researchers at University Hospital Basel in Switzerland in 2017 found that 12 months after a powerful 200 microgram trip, 10 of 14 participants rated the experience as among the top ten most meaningful experiences in their lives. And in January 2018, scientists at Imperial College London published research showing that depressed people treated with psilocybin reported lasting changes in their lives, saying they felt more connection with nature and less affinity with hard-line political views.
Which is handy if you’re a soldier.
Alex, 25, served as a surveillance drone pilot and commander in the Israeli army. Tripping has radically altered his outlook on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
“One of the things [that drove me to use LSD] was escapism from what the army taught me. Because you are subconsciously infused with hate, in some way,” he told me from his home in Beersheba, about 29 miles from the Gaza Strip, where rocket launches from inside the blockaded territory are commonplace.
One of Alex’s most memorable trips was in the city of Modin, near the West Bank wall at an open-air party three years ago.
“I went on a hill, and I was looking at this fence, and I saw how the terrain looks very different on one side to the other. I asked myself: ‘What is this fence for? What does it mean? Does it really change something or is it just a symbol for—what?’ A lot of people in Israel that are really against peacemaking look at this fence and say, ‘It’s us and them.’ They have never gone to the other side of the fence, but they are saying that this territory belongs to us, and is part of us. So, I was looking at it, and I was in a very psychedelic state, with an open mind, and I was really asking myself deep questions. In some way it shifted my perspective,” he said.
Did he perceive the brutality and the ugliness of that wall? “Yes. It was the very opposite of what I was hoping to see,” he told me. “A lot of times [on acid] I had felt this oneness with everything, but here, I was looking at this artificial separation.”
Alex said the way he reconciles his psychedelic experiences with his continued role as an Israeli army reservist is to do his job “in the most moral and good way, and not from a place of hate”—by talking to civilians with respect and arguing for a negotiated peace while still, in his view, defending his country. He is now a sociology and anthropology student, and is researching psychedelic drug use in Israeli soldiers who have left the battlefield.
Alex is not the only soldier who likes to trip. Last June a group of US airmen guarding nuclear missiles at their military base in Wyoming were disciplined after being caught taking LSD. During their court-martial, some of the 14 airmen described their trips. One admitted, “I absolutely just loved altering my mind”; another said he felt paranoia, while a third said “minutes felt like, colors seemed more vibrant and clear, in general I felt more alive.”
As people’s lives have changed, it follows they are using psychedelics for different reasons and in different ways. Unlike their counterculture grandparents, this generation of psychedelic users is less likely to expect the drugs to fundamentally change the world. They just want to make their own worlds a little bit saner, a bit more bearable, and a touch more magical. They are not dropping out; they are stepping back, briefly, from the mainstream to see the world, and themselves, anew. If modern life is sick, they say, then psychedelics can help us deal with it.
Billy, 18, is from a middle-class family in New Mexico. He’s on a gap year before university, and works in a CBD shop. He loves EDM. Given that one of his first experiences of psychedelics occurred when he was 14—a very early age for taking drugs because the brain is still developing—it’s amazing he continued. He and a friend ended up in an ambulance after they freaked out on three grams of mushrooms alongside a synthetic, legal version of psilocybin they had scored online.
“I started experimenting because they were accessible, and I was curious about their effects,” he told me over a Signal connection. When he was younger with friends he used to go out to the desert with mushrooms and build a fire pit. He still takes mushrooms and LSD every now and then, usually when he wants to get a fresh perspective. “Everyone looks at life as if it’s a race. The pressure to get a career path, it’s kind of artificial. People see escapism as an inherently bad thing,” he said. “But I think it’s wonderful. Psychedelics offer a holiday from your usual self.”
But they also offer him clues to the future. “There’s a lot of confusion about where I see my life going. Psychedelics help me reorient my priorities, and break down what it is I want to do, to look at that through a different lens. They give me a bit more insight. They have helped me to find, develop, and intensify my passions for the things I’ve come to care about most, such as law and chemistry.”
Some days after LSD use, Billy said, he’s more focused on how he can behave better toward his family. One time, he “got up the next day and cleaned the kitchen because I knew it would make my mom happy. I began to walk the dog more often because I felt bad for her often being cooped up at home, and I made a point to spend more time with my dad.”
It’s unsurprising when dealing with such potent compounds that the psychedelic scene can sometimes tend toward the serious. I have spoken to many young people with very earnest views on what these drugs can do for us. So it was cool to speak with Nadine, 30, who works in a Brooklyn nightclub, who said she uses drugs for fun and to release the pressure of urban life.
“I’m primarily a pleasure person. I do drugs because they give me big smiles,” she told me. And the drug she likes best for partying right now is a DMT vape pen.
Internet drug experts have found that you can make DMT, an illegal psychedelic drug found in at least 70 plants (it’s the hallucinogenic compound found in ayahuasca), into e-juice for vaping. And of course, it’s now sold online on darknet markets in ready-made vape cartridges, allowing for slower, calmer, more controlled—even public—use.
“I don’t need to be blasting off,” Nadine said. “I just need a Super Mario power-up when I’m at a party. I wouldn’t ascribe any spiritual category to DMT—I like it when my favorite track comes on at the club. Then I’m hitting that shit.”
DMT she said, is a perfect, short-acting drug for people, like her, living in hypercapitalism. “We’re too busy nowadays to take epic, crazy trips. There’s so much pressure—how much money you need to make to live in NYC. It’s a lot more than ten years ago. I see kids ten years younger than me and I wonder how they manage it.”
The rise of psychedelics has inevitably produced an elite set of trippers willing to pay through the nose for a spot of curated hallucination. Ultra-rich One Percenters in their luxury encampments at Burning Man have already been airlifted onto the psychedelic bandwagon, paying $1,000 a session to “trip guides” and snorting $160 a gram of “pure veterinarian medical grade ketamine baked in the sun,” advertised on the menu of a high-end drug delivery service for tourists in the luxury coastal resort of Tulum in Mexico.
The Manhattan-based chef Sander Kooijman recalled the demands of being a private cook for 100 super-rich Burners, some of whom were tripping out on LSD. “Last year I really underestimated the amount of tablecloths I would need, because after a day, it was filthy. They eat like maniacs,” he told the New York Post.
There are also the moneyed New Yorkers who frequent the Assemblage, a self-described co-living, co-working community space in Manhattan. Essentially a booze-free, private club for rich hippies, the monthly membership costs up to $3,900, but you do get an ayurvedic (an ancient form of medicine from India) lunch with that. In 2017 the anthropologist Alberto Villoldo gave a talk at the Assemblage, according to the New York Times, to “a packed crowd of mostly young urban professionals, some still in suits and ties from the work day,” titled “Hacking Your Neurology With Sacred Plant Medicine”—namely, ayahuasca.
The chances of any of this nouveau psychedelic master race being caught while they reach spiritual perfection, let alone flung behind bars, is near zero. Meanwhile, in the real world, harsh sentences are handed down to the hoi polloi if they are caught daring to gain some hallucinogenic respite from the daily slog. For the general public, liable as they are to suffer police shakedowns, sniffer-dog searches, and drug tests, the use of psychedelics for fun or for self-medication often has dire consequences. In the US, LSD and magic mushrooms are Schedule 1 drugs, and the sentence for someone caught for a third time distributing these drugs is life.
In October, for example, a popular street busker called Jonathan Melzer, known as the Walmart Cowboy for his performances outside the store in Chincoteague, Virginia, was sentenced to ten years in prison, with all but 26 months suspended, after being caught with a strip of 25 LSD tabs. He told police he was going to keep some and give away the rest. In 2016, Paul Lee Corbett, 63, was arrested after being caught picking magic mushrooms in Cape Disappointment Park in Washington State. Corbett was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance and awaits trial on a conviction that could lead to five years in prison.
The rich are not only co-opting psychedelic culture, they are planning on making huge amounts of money from it. Four decades after psychedelic therapy was mothballed as part of President Nixon’s war on drugs, LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and ketamine have all gained a legal foothold in medical research.
Just as with cannabis, the valid medical arguments for use of these drugs seems to be softening up public opinion, attracting millions of dollars of investment. Which is good for the science but is raising concern about exactly who is bankrolling the development of psychedelics. And the more evidence there is that psychedelics can be therapeutic, the more interested corporations are in commodifying these illegal highs.
Private companies such as Compass Pathways, which is backed by the PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel, have received FDA approval for the use of psilocybin in clinical trials for treatment-resistant depression. The minor hallucinogen MDMA, now in its third stage of clinical trials for treating Iraq veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, may be available as a prescription medicine by 2021. That’s thanks in part to a $4 million matching grant from the anonymous Bitcoin millionaire behind the charitable Pineapple Fund—and $1 million from a foundation run by the US-based Mercer family. Robert Mercer, the head of the family, helped fund Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and the right wing “news” service, Breitbart, once headed by the neofascist chancer Steve Bannon. Mercer also part-owned the disgraced data firm Cambridge Analytica.
It is possible that the rise in psychedelics use has been enabled by the internet, perhaps ironically for those users who rail against our connectivity. With the dark web delivering any drug as quickly as overnight, niche highs such as psychedelics are now much easier to get hold of. I’ve been monitoring darknet drug markets over the past decade, and have seen hundreds of vendors shift huge quantities of LSD, 2CB, and DMT and ketamine. The transactions database of just one darknet market I’ve seen showed sales during one year of 284,386 tabs of LSD, for a combined value of $2.56 million.
The web has not only democratized access to psychedelics, it has also created communities of obsessives who tell each other how to get high—with wide-ranging impacts. The best example of this is DMT, one of the world’s most powerful psychedelics. The drug is usually smoked, or rather vaporized, in a glass pipe of the kind used for smoking meth or freebase cocaine—hardly the most recreational look.
Today, a five-second Google search for “extraction tek” and “DMT” show you a drug forum post with a step-by-step guide on how DMT, a drug once so rare that William S. Burroughs searched the Ecuadorian rainforest for seven months to find it, can be extracted in two hours usingMimosa hostilis root bark, some lighter fluid, vinegar, and calcium carbonate—all of which are legal in most countries in the world and sold on eBay.
Some are finding ways to continue the outlaw spirit of the original acid counterculture, protected by the fact they are operating from the corners of the darknet. You can now buy grams of LSD crystal there—enough to make 10,000 standard tabs—for around $12,000. Or, if you need it, you can get it for free. One acid distribution network, styling itself as a latter-day lysergic church, is offering free LSD to PTSD therapists and conservationists.
“We believe that at this time in history, having more LSD in the hands of more people is to the benefit of humanity as well as many other forms of life on the planet,” they have declared on the dark web. “We feel fortunate to be in a position to spread access to this powerful tool and have accordingly decided to share our good fortune. Free LSD dispensaries are a means of spreading LSD across the globe to those who may otherwise be unable to access or afford high-quality, pure LSD.”
For Abigail, a 25-year-old student from the US state of Georgia, tripping is a coping strategy for the ravages of modern capitalism. She uses LSD only at music festivals, events she described as her “temporary outposts of sanity.”
“Psychedelics take the edge off the costs and burden of existing in a materialist and capitalist society, and the fact that this is not how life is supposed to be. There is always this beautiful moment where I think we are creating sacred spaces, where people can learn and grow, and hopefully stop perpetuating so much pain and terror in the world.”
Daniel Tumbleweed is also wary of the corporate creep into psychedelics. He self-published a book called Museum Dose, in which he documents his passion for tripping on psychedelics inside New York’s museums, art galleries, and music venues. He describes gazing in awe at art and ancient artifacts as psilocybin and mescaline analogues coursed around his synapses. “Microdosing often seems like a productivity hack, as opposed to changing [users’] lives in some positive sense. They would be better served by taking one large dose of mushrooms every six months and sorting some shit out, you know?”
One of the popular motivations for taking psychedelics recorded by the Global Drug Survey was simply to have fun, a key element of tripping that often gets lost. Harry, a 22-year-old lab supervisor from Arizona, told me: “The most impactful experiences you’re going have taking MDMA or mushrooms are going to be in the woods with a bunch of your friends and strangers, laughing hysterically and being a total fool. That is the cathartic thing. That is what some people are missing.”
It’s this union of the sacred, the secular, the functional, the ridiculous, and the bizarre that characterizes modern-day psychedelic culture. So easily typecast as naïve, utopian, and half-baked, there is, in my mind, an undeniable value in pure enjoyment, the political power of the party, and the psychedelic experience as a force to unite and inspire.
And why should those attempting to view the world and themselves honestly, critically, with empathy and idealism—however misguided their conclusions, impractical their methods, or unlikely their outcomes—be subject to greater derision than the cynical profiteers, the polluters, and the narcissists?
Within 20 years, I believe MDMA, magic mushrooms, and LSD will be available legally in the US and the EU, and beyond, and that many millions more people will use these drugs. They will do so with more knowledge, and more safely, than any generation before them. It is almost certain they will do so with more cultural legitimacy, and less legal pressure than any prior generation, and I believe that’s a positive development.
But if rising recreational psychedelic use is an escapist response to our overworked, vapid, screen-locked culture, then what does the future hold?
Flash-forward even just to 2038. First, the utopian view. Automation will have radically altered our work-life balance and our economies; minimum-income experiments will solidify into economic orthodoxy, and a new, broader-based, time-rich class will emerge from the ashes of capitalism.
Drug laws have been overhauled, and psychedelics are available and affordable to all who want them, whether medically or recreationally. Psychedelic holiday camps will open. In LED-lit parks beneath climate-controlling geodesic domes, happy, well-balanced citizens will puff on DMT vapes or slap on a short-acting transdermal mushroom patch for a quick psychic lift. Choirs of angelic nano-drones gently strum on celestial harps, on command.
Or maybe not. Capitalism is doggedly popular, and populist authoritarians are on the rise. Perhaps the drug divide will reflect increasing social divides. The rich and middle classes remain even freer to indulge their every chemical whim, insulated from the law thanks to their privilege, while poor drug users, exposed to heightened security and police patrols, are jailed for the same offenses. Maybe life will continue on its dystopian trajectory, with legal clinical or recreational use of MDMA or LSD granted only to the upper classes, to the well-insured and the wealthy.
Will psychedelic drug use remain off-grid, under the radar? I don’t know. But it’s as clear as the LSD crystals forming in a two-liter flask somewhere in a hidden laboratory, right now, that we’ve only just come up on this trip—and there’s still a long road ahead.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Additional reporting by Max Daly
This article originally appeared on VICE US.