Six years ago, when journalist Michael Pollan started work on a book about the potential of psychedelic drugs such as mescaline, psilocybin, MDMA and LSD to treat a variety of mental health conditions including OCD, PTSD, alcoholism and depression, he met academics who were wary about declaring their interest in a subject then still considered taboo. “I interviewed several scientists who knew a lot about psychedelics and were really interested in them,” he recalls. “And when I would ask them: ‘Well, why don’t you study them?’ They would say things like: ‘The reputational risk is too great’, or ‘It would be the kiss of death for my graduate students’.”
Times have changed. When Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, was published in May 2018 it became an instant sensation. It topped The New York Times best-seller charts and has since been adapted into a four-part Netflix documentary series that hit screens last month. The book kick-started a conversation that has had real-world impacts – and not just for those with a pre-existing mental health diagnosis. In 2020, voters in Oregon backed a measure that from January next year will establish a state psilocybin program offering guided psychedelic therapy sessions to anyone 21 and older, regardless of whether they have a prescription.
Meanwhile, groundbreaking research is taking place at universities such as Johns Hopkins medical school in Maryland and California’s University of Berkeley, where Pollan himself recently co-founded the Berkeley Centre for the Science of Psychedelics (BCSP). “The psychedelic renaissance is well under way,” according to Imran Khan, the BCSP’s executive director, who spoke at a press conference last week. “We’re at the dawn of an exciting new era of scientific, social and spiritual exploration of psychedelics after several decades of their political and cultural suppression.”
This change in attitude towards psychedelics has happened at remarkable speed, but it isn’t entirely unprecedented. Oregon was also a trailblazer when it came to the use of cannabis, which was decriminalised in the state as far back as 1973. This paved the way for cannabis to be legalised for medical use, which is now the case in 37 of the 50 states, and eventually for “recreational” or adult use, which has so far passed into law in 19 US states.
Whether or not psychedelics can follow a similar pathway from medicinal use to full legalisation remains to be seen, but some companies aren’t waiting around to find out. Californian social media influencers and prominent figures such as rapper Wiz Khalifa have recently been showered with packets of psychedelic mushrooms by a brand named Psilo. The same company has recruited athletes such as nine-year NFL veteran Kenny Stills to talk about their use of psychedelics with the aim of “normalising psilo”. “The way that I was raised, I was pessimistic, negative and one of those people who I thought could never change,” says Stills in a slickly produced video for the brand. “To see my personal growth through therapy, mindset work and microdosing psilocybin totally changed the way that I think and live and feel. The easiest way for me to describe it is like the weight of all the things in the world come off of your shoulders, come off of your chest. It just makes it easier for you to live.”
Psilo isn’t the only brand looking to destigmatise the use of psychedelics. Earlier this month, Psychedelic Water launched across the US, and is now available in more than 500 locations, including Walmart and Urban Outfitters. While the lightly carbonated drink is by no means as potent as substances like MDMA or psilocybin – its active ingredient is the kava root, which has long been revered in the Fiji islands for its mildly psychoactive effects – the way it’s being marketed and sold is an indication of how psychedelics could be packaged for mainstream consumption. It ties into a popular lifestyle trend, “California Sober”, a term coined by journalist Michelle Lhooq to describe those who eschew alcohol in favour of cannabis and psychedelics, which counts the likes of singer Demi Lovato among its adherents.
At the BCSP press conference, Pollan sounded a note of caution for those companies rubbing their hands in anticipation of a psychedelic free-for-all. “These substances have enormous potential, but they are not for everyone, and they carry serious risks when used improperly,” he said. “The shift from ‘destroyer of young minds’ in the Sixties to effective medicine in the 2020s is as sudden as it is confusing to many people.”
He accepts, however, that it is unlikely that the use of psychedelics could ever be confined to purely institutional settings. “The use of psychedelics will not be restricted to the medical system,” he says. “It’s not now, and won’t be in the future. One of the striking things about the Oregon experiment is that it will make a guided psychedelic experience available to anyone over 21 regardless of diagnosis. That’s one path [through which] psychedelics are moving into society outside of medicine. I think there will be various psychedelic churches. They’re being formed right now, and I expect some of them to get recognition from the Supreme Court or the DEA as legitimate religions. That will be another path.”
For neuroscientist Dr Andrea Gomez, whose work at UC Berkeley explores how psychedelics induce cellular level changes in our brains, another pertinent concern when it comes to widening access to psychedelics is the potentially disastrous impact on the plant populations that produce some of these powerful compounds. As is something of a running theme for our species, we have failed to protect the remarkable fruits our planet produces. “We should take special consideration of the origin of some of these medicines,” says Dr Gomez. “The mescaline-producing peyote [cactus] is experiencing extinction risks, so in terms of wide use for everybody I think we should be thinking conscientiously about how wide a range we’re thinking about.” In broader terms, however, she says she believes in reducing restrictions. “Regarding the equity issue, I would say that providing access to the healing power of these medicines should be available to people who are seeking care,” she adds. “People should have access to medicines that could help them out.”
That case is being made right now in Washington DC. Last week, it was announced that the Biden administration is “exploring” the possibility of creating a Psychedelics Task Force, in anticipation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of psilocybin and MDMA, which could happen within the next two years. That will be a crucial next step. “Psychedelic drugs, including mescaline, peyote and LSD, are currently Schedule 1 substances – defined by the government as being drugs with ‘no currently accepted medical use’ and the ‘high potential for abuse’,” says BCSP’s Khan. “I think one of the things we all hope is that policymakers and lawmakers engage with the research that we at BCSP and others are doing on these substances, because I think that’s definitely challenging the view that there’s ‘no currently accepted medical use’.”
Similar arguments are being made in Britain, where clinical trials have been conducted at Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research. The 2018 documentary Magic Medicine and the 2021 BBC film The Psychedelic Drug Trial followed these trials into psilocybin’s potential as a treatment for depression, and last October Boris Johnson said he would “consider” calls to reschedule psilocybin under British law.
One consultant in the UK, who is part of a group that has been exploring microdosing psilocybin as a course of treatment, says: “On the days that I take a microdose, I don’t feel my perception has changed. But I feel more acuity, akin to coffee, except that it’s in my whole being, rather than just my mind… I can be more empathetic with the people that I interact with. And when I’m addressing a problem, I’m able to perceive a creative solution with greater ease. I have less mental chatter – less of this negative internal critic, and more of a sense that what I’m doing is the right thing. It’s helped with insomnia too.”
She is concerned, though, about the nuance of the drug being lost by businesses determined to turn a profit. “What we need to be careful of, I think, is the speed at which Big Pharma is commercialising the extract – there’s a bit of a gold rush to standardise dosages and commercialise it, whereas it needs to be responded to in an individual way – you have to find your own amount that you take, that you can tolerate and work with.”
What’s promising for advocates of psychedelics is that they’re currently enjoying something that’s increasingly rare on both sides of the Atlantic: bipartisan support. In the States, politicians as ideologically opposed as Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Republican Dan Crenshaw have proposed amendments that would allow further research into the effectiveness of psychedelics in treating PTSD, while in Britain too it’s been Conservative politicians such as Crispin Blunt MP who’ve backed campaigns such as the Heroic Hearts Project, which aims to provide psychedelics to military and emergency services veterans.
As Pollan points out, this widespread support is a sign that after years of misinformation public opinion may finally be arriving on the same page. “It’s one of those rare issues in American life right now where the right and left seem to be in agreement,” he says. “We need to nurture and cherish all those issues we can.” With support from both sides of the political spectrum, the use of psychedelics could become normalised sooner than anyone could have predicted just a few years ago. This trip is just beginning.
‘How to Change Your Mind’ is streaming on Netflix now