It’s difficult to turn on the radio or open a magazine at the moment without hearing about psychedelics. A quick skim of the headlines might suggest the drugs are imbued with medicinal superpowers and Silicon Valley is collectively on one long trip.
There’s currently promising research on the potential medical uses of psychedelics; though hallucinogens have not been approved for such purposes yet, the public response to the advancing trials has been enthusiastic, suggesting that the drugs will be accepted if they are approved. After decades spent banished to the margins of society, psychedelics are determinedly making their way back to the center.
In recent weeks, further psychedelic excitement has been driven by journalist Michael Pollan’s new book How to Change Your Mind, which explores the potential uses of LSD and psilocybin (the key ingredient in magic mushrooms.)
From a scientific perspective, much of what Pollan covers has been in the public sphere for a while. The scientific studies he chronicles are ongoing, and results to date have been reported on by many mainstream publications. Scientists have indeed conducted credible trials whose results suggest psychedelics are effective at treating depression (especially among those who are resistant to existing treatments) and addiction, as well as anxiety among late-stage cancer patients. Collectively, the surge in psychedelic research after several decades when researchers were largely prohibited from studying the drugs is known as a “psychedelic renaissance.”
What’s striking about Pollan’s book isn’t the medicinal benefits he covers, but the popular response. The book hasn’t just been given major attention by the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Fresh Air, The Guardian, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others, it’s been held up as the latest exploration of something almost de rigueur. “Microdosing is hot. If you haven’t heard—but you probably have,” writes John Williams in his review for the Times. After all Rolling Stone and New York Magazine have recently devoted huge features to the subject. When the Gray Lady thinks microdosing is old news, you know psychedelics are far from the cutting edge.
This public embracement of psychedelics may be heralding the end of a 50-year backlash to such drugs. In the early 1950s (roughly a decade after LSD’s hallucinatory properties were first discovered), psychedelics weren’t seen as particularly taboo. In fact, many believed them to be a potentially major therapeutic tool. At the time there were numerous clinical trials and exploratory treatment methodologies using psychedelics to address PTSD, alcoholism, and depression, among others. Major celebrities such as actor Cary Grant were game to give the drugs a shot, and effusive about the results. In a 1959 issue of Look magazine, Grant praised his LSD-enhanced therapy to resolve childhood trauma and come to terms with the ends of difficult marriages.
Some 40,000 patients were prescribed LSD from 1950 to 1965, up until politicians moved to ban the research. This decision was influenced in part by misconceptions developed in response to rogue Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, who popularized the phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out,” and infamously gave LSD to students without medical supervision.
Still even after the ban, many respectable figures were in favor of the drugs. “If they [LSD experiments] were worthwhile six months ago, why aren’t they worthwhile now?” Robert F. Kennedy asked the US Food and Drug Administration in 1966, shortly after the research ban was implemented.
Modern research into psychedelics only restarted in 2011. As of 2017, there were at least five early clinical studies on LSD, and five on psilocybin. Relatedly, the FDA has approved a phase three trial on using MDMA to treat PTSD, and around a dozen other MDMA studies. (Though MDMA, commonly used recreational drugs called molly and ecstacy, is not a psychedelic, its growing acceptance as a medical drugs following from years of only illegal recreational use follows a trajectory similar to LSD and psilocybin.)
Psychedelics becoming a mainstream medicinal drug sounds implausible. But, as history shows, it’s not at all. It’s happened before.