What is a psychedelic?
Psychedelics (from the Greek psyche: mind, delos: make visible, reveal) are substances that induce an altered state of consciousness sometimes compared to a 'waking dream'.
The best known psychedelics are psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms), DMT (found in ayahuasca), mescaline (found in peyote and San Pedro cacti), LSD and 2C-B.
Why do people take psychedelics?
Psychedelics bring about profound and meaningful experiences. In a 2011 study by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, 18 healthy adults participated in five eight-hour sessions with either psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) or a placebo. One month after sessions, 80% of those who received the substance said the experiment was one of the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives; 50% said it was the single most meaningful experience.
80% of the volunteers in that study, after having one or two high doses of psilocybin, reported that the experience was among the 5 most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives. In fact, about 50% said it was the single most personally and spiritually significant experience of their life, comparing it to the birth of a first-born child or death of a parent. These are stunning and remarkable findings.
Many of the participants said they were left with the sense that they understood themselves and others better and therefore had greater compassion and patience. The participants themselves were not the only ones who saw the benefit from the insights they gained: their friends, family member and colleagues also reported that the psilocybin experience had made the participants calmer, happier and kinder.
This is not a new discovery. Psychedelics have been used by humans in spiritual and religious settings for tens of thousands of years (psychedelics are often called entheogens in this context). The profound shifts in worldview that psychedelics can bring about mean that they are now being investigated as a treatment for various conditions including depression, anxiety, addiction and PTSD.
People in the psychedelic trip often experience being at one with the world or even with the universe. It’s as if they’ve gone out to another place. They exist beyond their body. That experience can give them a sense of perpetuity, of permanence, of being part of the cycle of life, which of course we all are.
How many people take psychedelics?
According to UK government data, 8.9% of adults aged 16-59 have tried a psychedelic at least once in their life: that's around 2.9 million of us. In addition, 0.4% of those aged 16-59 reported use of a psychedelic in 2012/13 (around 130,000 people). Thus the number of people who tripped in the past year compares favourably to the size of political parties (Labour: 190,000; Conservative: 130,000; Lib Dem: 44,000).
Are psychedelics safe?
Any substance can be dangerous when used irresponsibly, but used with care, psychedelics are about as safe as they come. A 2010 study rated LSD and magic mushrooms as among the safest of 19 commonly used psychoactive substances, significantly safer than alcohol and tobacco.
In terms of the potential for a fatal overdose, the classical psychedelics are extremely safe. You'd have to take approximately 1,000 times the normal dose of LSD or magic mushrooms to risk death, compared to 100x for caffeine (100 cups of coffee) and just 10x for alcohol.
As for longer term safety, an unprecedented 2013 study of more than 130,000 Americans (including 22,000 who had used a psychedelic substance at least once) found that psychedelic use was not indicative of increased mental health problems. In fact, use of mescaline or psilocybin at some point in a person's life and past year use of LSD corresponded with lower rates of psychological distress.
Regarding addictive potential, while some substances lead to frequent and uncontrolled consumption in humans and are self-administered by animals in test
environments, psychedelics are almost always ingested only occasionally by humans and are not self-administered by either rodents or monkeys. Coupled with
the absence of any notable withdrawal effects, psychedelics are not considered addictive.
Bad trips with lasting psychological effects
Very rarely, people do experience extremely bad trips with lasting psychological effects. The risk of this happening to people without a history of psychiatric problems is very small, and can be further reduced by paying attention to responsible use. People with pre-existing mental health problems or a predisposition to mental health problems (such as close relatives with anxiety, depression or schizophrenia) may be more at risk, and should exercise particular caution.
HPPD and 'flashbacks'
Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD) is a very unusual condition characterised by the re-appearance of some of the effects experienced during the previously occurring psychedelic trip. Complete or partial recovery usually occurs after weeks or months, though HPPD has occasionally been reported as longer-lasting. Lingering HPPD has been reported more often following the use of very high doses and combinations of substances. You can read more in this review article.
If you're thinking of using psychedelics, do check out our page on responsible use.
So why are they illegal to possess?
The most commonly used psychedelics are currently illegal to supply and possess in the UK.
Supposedly, psychoactive substances are classified on the basis of harm, but the government's chief drug adviser was sacked when he pointed out that classical psychedelics are far less dangerous than alcohol. In reality, substances are banned on the basis of unsubstantiated health risks and tabloid hysteria as part of a peculiar moral crusade.
A 2005 report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee described the way substances are classified under the law as "arbitrary", "unscientific" and "based on historical assumptions, not scientific assessment". The report was especially critical of the classification of psilocybin mushrooms amongst the most dangerous and harmful substances.