Modern day “hippies’’ claim we are amid a revival of the 1960s counterculture, an era known for its drug-fueled, antiestablishment cultural wave that flooded through the ’60s into the ’70s. There are many contextual similarities between the ’60s and now, such as the large anti-war sentiment, the social demand for civil rights and an increase in psychedelic use. The ’60s were a time where psychedelic use was in a gray area, LSD was barely regulated and some psychotherapists even prescribed LSD to patients in the United States, since LSD was technically legal until 1968. The legality of the drug was short-lived with the induction of the Nixon administration, which took steps to demonize LSD in efforts to distract from the Vietnam War and to delegitimize the hippies associated with it.
Over the last few decades, psychedelics have risen back to prominence, with highly acclaimed institutions having conducted FDA-approved studies finding medical merit to psychedelics and several cities decriminalizing psilocybin, a natural mushroom psychedelic. The state of Oregon went as far as to “[legalize] supervised psilocybin-assisted therapy,” according to The Appeal. The demonized portrayal of psychedelics has prevented us from studying the potential health benefits that they present. By repealing the false narrative left from the Nixon era, we can comprehend the effects of psychedelics and increase overall well-being as a society.
Psychedelics have helped shape history and cultures to what they are today. In the ancient Sanskrit texts that created the Hindu religion, there is a reoccurring herb called the “Soma,” which is the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria. The ancient Greeks would make initiates of religious rituals consume a drink thought to be contaminated by the ergot fungus, which has a psychedelic component closely related to that of LSD. Psychedelic plants have been tools of non-Western cultures for thousands of years, mostly used in religious ceremonies to attain a different state of consciousness and communicate with the spirit world. Dr. Ben Sessa, a licensed and approved psilocybin psychotherapist, writes that communities who utilized these drugs “are largely associated with lower levels of mental illness than those communities who are more heavily influenced by alcohol abuse — one of the trappings of Western culture.”
Western cultures were exposed to psychedelics after the synthesizing of LSD by Albert Hofmann in 1938. At first, the press surrounding psychedelics and LSD was mostly positive, as wealthy and affluent individuals shared their experiences to publications like Life Magazine. The first wave of negative criticism came after two Harvard psychology professors named Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were kicked out of Harvard in 1963 for conducting studies of LSD on themselves and advocating for the use of LSD. The incident was named the “Harvard Drug Scandal.” After this incident, the press started to publish almost baseless articles of LSD trips gone wrong, all to dissuade children and teenagers from experimenting with LSD.
This trend of demonization of LSD and psychedelics gained more traction with the inauguration of Richard Nixon, who claimed Leary was “the most dangerous man in America.” When Nixon began the War on Drugs, he made sure to dissuade the public from using LSD. Nixon and the Drug Enforcement Adminstration (DEA) ranked drugs on a scale of Schedule I to Schedule V, with Schedule I having high potential for abuse and low therapeutic value and Schedule V being least addictive with most clinical potential. LSD was ranked a Schedule I drug, the same rank as heroin, despite thousands of studies in the ’50s stating that substances like LSD could help mental health issues and addiction. As the war on drugs raged on, LSD remained a Schedule I drug, preventing any research from being done on it, and propaganda was spread to young teens to dissuade them from using LSD or other psychedelics, leading to programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) — a government program that ran through more than 75 percent of public schools through the ’90s centered on preventing young students from succumbing to controlled substances and illegal activities. The program was deemed to have no real impact on drug behavior and was extremely expensive.
Despite the legality and negative press of psychedelics, there has been a huge uptake in LSD consumption. From 2015 to 2018, there was a 56 percent increase in overall LSD usage, a 70 percent increase for college graduates, a 59 percent increase for people aged 26 to 34 and a whopping 223 percent for people aged 35 to 49. Andrew Yockey, the lead author of a paper on LSD published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, believes that figure might have tripled in the face of COVID-19, as the increase could be allotted to the fact that some people are using the drug in a therapeutic manner or as a form of escapism.
While LSD usage is still far from the level it used to be in the ’60s, there has been more of a variety of psychedelic drugs being used. In areas like Silicon Valley, where there are immense amounts of competition between tech giants, professionals in the field have started to self-medicate with psilocybin, or “magic mushrooms,” to have an edge against younger newcomers. Most of these professionals take microdoses, which is usually one-tenth of an average dose. This allows for users to stay motivated and approach problems in a creative manner without being incapable of functioning on a day-to-day basis. Some professionals pay $2,000 a month to get their own personal trip guru to help try to better their well-being.
While psychedelics can help in work performance and provide an escape from reality, the biggest benefit lies in its ability to help mental health issues. Though psychedelics could have an adverse reaction and trigger schizophrenia, if screened and administered properly, those risks could be reduced down almost to zero. Due to the Schedule I ranking of most psychedelics, the public’s understanding of the drugs has been very limited, and most countries in the world don’t allow for testing. Recently, there have been new emerging clinical studies showing that psychedelics can help with many mental health issues. Scientific American writes, “Most of this research centers around shorter-acting psilocybin, which is in current or planned clinical trials for treating depression, anxiety, anorexia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, certain severe headaches and addiction to smoking, cocaine and alcohol.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified a 13 percent increase in mental health issues and substance abuse disorder throughout the world in the past decade. It is important to tackle this rising mental health issue that is plaguing the world. Today, “one in five Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By preventing the use and study of psychedelics, we are obstructing and hindering a new field of medicine that could help mental and spiritual well-being. Mental health issues like anxiety and depression cost the global economy over $1 trillion per year. The reality is, no drug is inherently evil or good. If we fear what we do not know, we prevent ourselves from utilizing everything we have to grow collectively as a society.
Akshay Ma Kumar is a senior majoring in economics.