While it's not surprising to hear about the hippies of the 1970s experimenting with psychedelic drugs, or hallucinogens, a new study shows that an estimated 32 million people in the U.S. have used LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), “magic mushrooms” (psilocybin), or mescaline (peyote and other cacti) at some point in their lives, many in the recent past.
To take a closer look at psychedelic use today, researchers Teri S. Krebs and Pål-Ørjan Johansen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology used data from a randomly selected sample of more than 57,000 individuals ages 12 and older who were questioned for the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
According to Krebs and Johansen’s study, the rate of lifetime psychedelic use was highest among people ages 30 to 34, with higher rates in men than in women. The authors also found that older adults were more likely to have used LSD and mescaline, whereas younger adults were more likely to have used "magic mushrooms."
Misconceptions about Psychedelic Use
“In our experience, people are surprised about the high rate of psychedelic use in the U.S.,” Krebs said in an interview with Healthline.
Her study differs from previous research done on the use of psychedelics in that it incorporates data from a large population study and focuses specifically on the three classic psychedelics: “shrooms,” LSD, and mescaline.
“Prevalence data on psychedelic use in the U.S. is often reported for LSD alone, or for psychedelics grouped together with PCP (popular in the 1970s), MDMA (popular since the 1990s), and/or other ‘hallucinogens,'” the authors wrote. According to the study, “older estimates of hallucinogen use also included cannabis, amphetamine, and cocaine as hallucinogenic drugs,” or focused on psychedelic use among teenagers, rather than adults.
On top of confusion among researchers, the public tends to have several misconceptions about the use of psychedelics, Krebs said.
“Many people assume psychedelics must be addictive,” she said. “But experts agree that psychedelics do not elicit addiction or compulsive use.”
Another common myth is that psychedelics have been completely banned, Krebs said. “Actually regulated, medical, scientific, and religious use of psychedelics is allowed in the U.S., in other countries, and by international treaties,” she said.
Why Psychedelics Might Not Be All Bad
While most of us are brought up hearing only about the negative consequences of taking mind-altering drugs, not everyone believes they are all bad. In fact, Krebs said that “in surveys of users, many people report subjective beneficial effects from using psychedelics.”
“People report deeply personally and spiritually meaningful experiences, feelings of connection to nature, insight into problems, and greater understanding of themselves, other people, and the universe,” Krebs said. “To some extent, this is consistent with findings in clinical studies.”
Psychedelics are also not known to cause schizophrenia, nor do they have any “known long-term, harmful effects on the brain or other organs of the body,” Krebs said.
Of course, as with anything that alters the mind, there are always potential negative effects, including feelings of anxiety and confusion while under the influence of a hallucinogen, Krebs said.
However, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Drugs and Human Performance Fact Sheet, “the incidence of LSD in driving under the influence cases is extremely rare,” and according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, “serious side effects often attributed to LSD, such as irrational acts leading to suicide or accidental deaths, are [also] extremely rare.”
The Steve Jobs Perspective
Psychedelic use has been prevalent in the U.S. since the late 1960s, and while it’s difficult to predict future cultural trends, the use of “magic mushrooms” has increased since the 1970s in the U.S. and worldwide. This is “likely due to dissemination of simple home cultivation techniques, instructions on finding wild mushrooms, and information about effects and methods of psilocybin mushroom use,” the study authors wrote.
Whether the use of psychedelics will change in the future, it’s safe to say that there will always be those who believe slipping into an altered state of mind can lead to enlightenment.
Even Apple co-founder Steve Jobs described taking LSD as one of the most profound experiences of his life: “LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important—creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”