Why Young Brits Are Taking So Much LSD and Ecstasy

A recent government report revealed that there's been a spike in how many pills and acid tabs are being consumed by people in the UK.

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Jul 27 2015, 4:20pm

Not saying this lot have taken anything—we took this photo at an ecstasy-legalization "loophole party" in Dublin that time Ireland accidentally made pingers legal, so this is just a bunch of people doing their best impression of a gurn. Photo by Sarah Elizabeth Meyler

Not many young British people have acid to thank for their first narcotic experience. One of the original counterculture drugs of the 1960s and 70s, for a while it seemed that—in this modern age of myriad highs and limited downtime—LSD was going the way of the dodo. Over the past 15 or so years, it seemed to have become a bit of a relic: increasingly hard to get hold of, unless you had a load of mates into progressive trance or DIY drug synthesis.

However, last week, statistics from the Crime Survey of England and Wales showed that LSD has experienced a U-turn, just as it was about to sail off the edge of the known world. Also revealed was a surge in the popularity of ecstasy, with use nearly doubling over the past couple of years—though this was perhaps less surprising than quite how many people are tripping in 2015, bringing LSD back from the brink of relative obscurity.

The main group of people giving acid the kiss of life are those from the younger end of the millennial generation. According to the survey, in the last two years, the number of 16- to 24-year-olds taking LSD has jumped threefold, from 0.4 percent in 2012–13 to 1.2 per cent in 2014–15, returning to the levels of 15 years ago.

So what's behind this psychedelic renaissance?

One of the first drivers of drug trends is supply. After its fall in popularity, getting hold of trustworthy LSD wasn't easy. But a couple of years ago, it seemed that more of the stuff—at higher purity levels—was finally making its way back to the British market through the traditional channels; in 2012–13, law enforcement seized 3,000 doses of LSD, rising to 5,000 doses in 2013–14.

A vendor selling LSD on the now defunct dark web marketplace Silk Road

However, the supply of LSD and other copycat hallucinogens has been revolutionized by one thing more than any other: the dark web.

This year's Global Drug Survey found that online drug markets were a popular place to go for people seeking LSD, as they allow consumers to source from all over the world, rather than just off some man parked up outside their local Currys. And although young people don't often get their drugs directly over the internet—a fact backed up by the government's drug use statistics—many of their suppliers do, in bulk, and these sites make it far easier for them to buy in stock that they can then sell on to existing customers IRL.

Another factor in the apparent rise of LSD use might not actually be down to LSD whatsoever. People who prefer to trip on the right side of the law are buying a legal LSD hybrid, 1P-LSD, which popped up on the dark web in January of this year, hours after AL-LAD, another LSD substitute, was banned. A minute chemical tweak away from the real thing, 1P-LSD is one of the most effective psychoactive doppelgängers on the market: most users cannot tell the difference between the analogue and LSD, which may have led some to report what it is they've taken as genuine lysergic acid diethylamide.

Another factor might be the price. Individually, LSD sells for around £8 [$12.50] a trip, with its hybrids half the price—though that cost tumbles the more you buy. Lasting far longer than your average amphetamine, it's a relatively cheap drug in times of austerity.

Bleak times call for colorful drugs—substances that can provide more of an escape than mechanical, real-world mixers such as cocaine and alcohol. So maybe it's no coincidence that the government's drug use statistics revealed that ecstasy use among 16- to 24-year-olds has nearly doubled over the last two years, to levels not seen since 2003. This is likely down to increased purity, with ecstasy pills and powder now containing high levels of MDMA, and therefore increased euphoric and empathogenic effects on the user—the kind of feelings that keep you coming back.

Ecstasy, so it happens, was the drug people turned to over the last period of Tory rule. "At the height of the 80s' go-for-it, go-it-alone enterprise boom, ecstasy catalyzed an explosion of suppressed social energies," wrote the music journalist Simon Reynolds in 1998. "Raves' values—collectivity, spirituality, the joy of losing yourself in the crowd—were literally counter to the dominant culture. Ecstasy's empathy- and intimacy-inducing effects didn't just offer a timely corrective to Thatcher-sponsored social atomization; the drug was also the remedy for the English diseases of class-consciousness and emotional reserve."

Politics is one thing, but a more likely catalyst for the surge in ecstasy is the renewed popularity of dance music, after a time in the 2000s when hip-hop and indie dominated the UK charts. Because with more interest in dance music comes more interest in club nights, and with an interest in club nights comes an interest in something that's going to keep you dancing all night. Bear in mind this kind of thing is taking place in university cities as previously drug-illiterate as Durham, and you'll start to understand why the number of British ecstasy users might have risen.

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As a whole, there seems to be more of a psychedelic current running through British youth culture than during any other period in recent memory. Established last year by a group of young academics to bring together "people fascinated by and appreciative of psychedelic substances," the Psychedelic Society says its word-of-mouth events around the UK are attended by hundreds of people, mainly in their twenties.

Furthermore, festivals such as Secret Garden Party, Body and Soul, and Shambala (the first to accept Bitcoin as payment for tickets) are taking on a psychedelic hue. This year, Secret Garden Party ran a new stage, the Psychedelia Smithsonian, "a sonic tribute to LSD in all its musical forms, where you [could] expect San Francisco-inspired flower power, tripped-out electronica and blissed-out ambient beats aplenty."

Last year, the festival—which has an emphasis on more LSD-friendly daytime events—featured a talk by psychedelic scientist Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, a researcher at Imperial College London, who gained a cult following among some young LSD users after touring universities last year.

I spoke to Andy Roberts, author of Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain, to ask for his opinion on why LSD and other psychedelics are experiencing a surge in popularity among the young.

"Acid fell out of favor in the 1980s with the rise of MDMA," he said. "Young people wanted easy drugs, ones you could dance or hang out or go to pubs with, and which only gave loved-up sensations, with little or no hangover. For many, acid was too hard for them emotionally; too difficult to control."

From the early 2000s, however, a rise of anti-consumerist ideals brought with it a revived interest in LSD—with Roberts pointing out that "acid [can be] the best tool available to de-program one from the straight world." Psychiatrists revisited the work done on acid in the 1950s, and better quality LSD began to appear. In 2011, the world's largest psychedelic conference, Breaking Convention, became a bi-yearly event, bringing over 800 likeminded people together to talk seriously about the many uses of acid and other psychedelic drugs.

"There is now a more coherent psychedelic culture in the UK than there has ever been," said Roberts. "Psychedelic societies are springing up all over the UK, and with all the above it is much easier for people to access the LSD experience, and to find likeminded people who can support them in 'learning the ropes' so they can have safe, life-changing experiences that help them see the everyday world as being the truly miraculous, second-by-second event that it is."

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