There are tales of people taking psychedelic drugs and jumping out of buildings, going permanently insane, or accidentally overdosing. There are stories of children becoming addicted from LSD-laced candy, of psychedelics frying people’s brains, of the ever-present threat of terrifying flashbacks. In 1966, the chairman of the New Jersey Drug Commission called LSD “the most dangerous threat facing our country today…more dangerous than the Vietnam War.” Today, the United States classifies psychedelics as having a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.
But these claims are gross misrepresentations. Psychedelics are still often severely misunderstood, and many societal attitudes towards them are unjustified, inconsistent, or misinformed.
In part, drugs are condemned because of their addictive potential. Since psychedelics are often grouped together with other psychoactive drugs, they are commonly assumed to be addictive as well. But psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin (the psychoactive chemical in magic mushrooms) are widely accepted by the medical community as non-addictive. Unlike many addictive drugs, psychedelics do not directly activate dopamine neurotransmission in the brain’s mesolimbic pathway, the area of the brain associated with reward and addiction. In a review on psychedelic drug pharmacology, David Nichols, a pharmacologist at Purdue University, stated that psychedelics “do not engender drug dependence or addiction and are not considered to be reinforcing substances.” Further, the review notes that no scientific literature reports successful attempts to train animals to self-administer psychedelic drugs, a common measure of addictive potential.
Physiological harm, the other predominant source of anxiety over psychedelic use, is also lacking evidence in medical and scientific communities. The Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances assigns psilocybin a high safety profile—far higher than many commonly used legal drugs, such as aspirin. A classic publication on the side effects of LSD by Sidney Cohen in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases observed that “no instance of serious, prolonged physical side-effects was found either in the literature or in the answers to the [study’s] questionnaires.” A more recent review of neurophysiological harm from psychedelics by John Halpern and H.G. Pope at Harvard University drew a similar conclusion: “there are few, if any, long-term neuropsychological deficits attributable to [psychedelic] use.” Furthermore, the risk of death from overdose is almost non-existent. The lethal doses of LSD and psilocybin are around 1000 times their threshold doses (the minimum amount for a discernable psychoactive effect). For comparison, the lethal dose of alcohol is only 10 times its threshold dose. Given these facts, it is unsurprising that a recent review of the pharmacology literature on LSD in CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics reports that there are no known cases of human overdose from LSD.
Even for non-physiological harm, psychedelics rank extremely low. For example, a 2010 study by David Nutt, former chief drugs adviser to the British government, asked drug-harm experts to rank various drugs on measures of harm to the user and to society. The measures included factors such as risk of death, damage to mental functioning, loss of relationships, and so on. Psilocybin was at the bottom of the list, and LSD was third from the bottom. In contrast, the highest ranked drug for harm was alcohol.
There is further evidence to suggest that psychedelics even have potential benefits. For example, a recent study in the Journal of Pharmacology ran an analysis of data from clinical trials in the 1960s and 70s that investigated the efficacy of LSD in treating alcoholism. The results indicated that even single doses of LSD significantly reduced relapse rates for recovering alcoholics. Even in non-therapeutic settings, there is evidence that psychedelics can have benefits. In a 14-month study conducted by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine on the effects of psilocybin on healthy adults, a significant majority of subjects rated the psychedelic experience as being among the most personally meaningful experiences of their lives, as one of the most spiritually significant experiences of their lives, and as increasing their sense of well-being and life satisfaction. The relative scarcity of research still only allows tentative conclusions to be drawn. But the evidence is promising, and should not be discounted.
The most valid justification for negative judgments about psychedelics is in their potential for psychological harm. Psychedelics can lead to bad trips, intense and disturbing experiences during which the user experiences negative emotions such as anxiety, alienation, confusion, and fear. The potential to cause these experiences, combined with the unpredictable nature of psychedelics, largely drives the view that psychedelics are harmful, dangerous, and worthy of condemnation.
The risk of psychological harm from psychedelics is undeniable, and is clear reason for caution about psychedelics. But to infer the sweeping conclusion that psychedelics are universally condemnable is short-sighted. Taking a psychedelic drug is not tossing lots and hoping for the best. Although psychedelics can be unpredictable, the risks can be minimized in systematic ways. The Consumers Union Report on Drugs, a classic compendium of drug information by medical professionals, mentions that research on LSD and psychotherapy demonstrates “that the setting in which the drug is given, the expectations…prior to the experience, the reassurance given the patient as the trip progresses, and countless similar ancillary factors are…essential safeguards against adverse effects.” These safeguards recognized by medical professionals reveals the importance of drug education—telling people that acid will fry their brain is an ineffective scare tactic, but warning them about factors that can lead to psychological hazards is productive advice.
Furthermore, the incidences of bad trips are often disproportionately represented—empirical evidence indicates that bad trips are quite rare. In a comprehensive long-term study at UCLA, 221 out of 247 in the study had no negative comments at all about their LSD experience and the subsequent effects. The majority of the 26 with negative comments also reported that the experience helped them in some ways. Further, a survey study sent to 66 researchers who had used LSD or mescaline on human subjects concluded that “with proper precautions [psychedelics] are safe when given to a selected healthy group.” Though bad trips certainly exist, they are not the perennial and unpredictable risk that media portrayals might suggest.
The potential for psychological harm must be put into perspective—there are safeguards that will minimize the risks, and the incidence of bad trips is lower than might be expected from popular reports. There are many accepted activities that also have minor risks of disaster—skydiving, for example. Just as it is irresponsible for a person to skydive without a parachute, it is irresponsible to take psychedelic drugs without your friend’s chill sober older brother.
A rational assessment of the basis for condemning drugs reveals that the case against psychedelics is very weak. I have only been able to provide a brief and cursory review of the empirical conclusions concerning psychedelics, with even less room for interpretation and analysis of these conclusions. But the evidence is overwhelming that many popular views about psychedelic drugs are false or misleading. This is not a prescriptive argument that people should use psychedelics. Psychedelics are powerful substances, and many people should be turned away from them. But they can also be catalysts for self-understanding, emotional healing, creative insight, and meaningful shared experiences. Further, the case of psychedelic drugs provides some general lessons about how our society should approach drugs. Drug education and drug policies should be grounded in empirical research and rational evaluation, not conventional attitudes or sensationalized stories.
ANDREW LEE B’13 also advocates for aspirin.