Psychedelia has been busy stamping its imprint on the collective consciousness. Between Netflix series, books, podcasts, and shroom-themed yoga tights, you’d have to be living under a rock to be unaware that psychedelics are back from the land of the banished.
However, while enthusiastic researchers, psychonauts and high-profile influencers sing the praises of psychedelics, how do everyday people interact with these once-stigmatized substances? How has the growing momentum of the psychedelic renaissance affected the consumption of LSD, shrooms, or mescaline?
One of the most effective ways to capture a snapshot of populational attitudes and behaviors over time is through longitudinal surveys. Every year since 1975, the Monitoring the Future study funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) has surveyed substance use among a nationally representative sample of adolescents. A longitudinal panel carries out follow-up surveys on a sub-group of these participants, following their substance use through adulthood. Participants self-report their drug use behaviors across three time periods – lifetime, past year (12 months), and past month (30 days).
Every fall, the survey results are released. This year’s results, released in late August 2022, has yielded some fascinating findings. In 2021, 8.1% of young adults aged 19-30 reported using hallucinogens — the highest recorded number since 1988. Hallucinogens that were commonly used included LSD, MDMA, mescaline, magic mushrooms and PCP (phencyclidine).
According to the survey findings, this increase is reflective of an ongoing upward swing. 4.6% of young adults used hallucinogens in 2016, compared with 3.4% in 2011. LSD use remained at the same level from 2020 to 2021 with 4.2% of young adults using the compound, but LSD use is climbing too, increasing from 1.6% in 2011 to 3.0% in 2016. The number of young adults using hallucinogens other than LSD, such as magic mushrooms and mescaline, significantly increased from 2020 (5.2%) to 2021 (6.3%).
However, this increase in use didn’t occur across all psychedelics. MDMA was the exception, with young adult use of the substance decreasing in 2021. Only 2.6% of young adults reported using MDMA in 2021, a significant drop from 4.5% in 2020 and 4.8% in 2016.
According to Matt Zemon MSc, author of Psychedelics for Everyone and co-founder of HAPPŸŸ, the fact that young adults veered away from MDMA in 2021 is understandable..
“MDMA, when taken recreationally, is often used in social settings,” reflected Zemon. “As the amount of social opportunities was significantly limited in 2021, it’s not surprising that there was a decrease in MDMA use.” Quarantines and stay-at-home orders associated with the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021 were likely unconducive to tripping with MDMA, which is most commonly taken at clubs or festivals.
Zemon believes a number of factors may be contributing to rising psychedelic use among young adults.
“The increased use of psychedelics in young adults may be mirroring the increased rate of acceptance and understanding of the therapeutic value of these powerful medicines,” he reflects. “This generation did not grow up with the “just say no” propaganda being fed to them and thanks to the published work coming out of over 300 academic institutions studying psychedelic medicine, they are able to see the data for themselves.”
Zemon also points out that growing psychedelic use among young adults may also demonstrate an awareness of the relative safety of psychedelics compared to other drugs. According to the survey, for example, smoking among young adults has been steadily declining since 2004. The number of young adults who smoked a cigarette in the past 30 days decreased from 21.2% in 2011, to 9.0% in 2021.
“A UK study by Dr. David Nutt on the relative harm of different drugs clearly shows that legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco are significantly more harmful than non-legal psychedelic drugs,” he says. “This data, along with the data on the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs, is leading our young adults to demand a more honest discussion and reframing of our drug policy in America. ”
However, Zemon also believes a rise in depression and anxiety among young adults may also play a role in driving psychedelic use upwards.
“The fact that psychedelic use with young adults is increasing should not be surprising given that we are also seeing a rise in depression and anxiety during this same period,” he said.
“Depression and anxiety among young adults is widespread.
According to a recent study from researchers at The University of California San Francisco, young adult rates of depression and anxiety are not only the highest of any adult age group, they have increased more than older adults. Only thirty nine percent of young adults with anxiety and depression are getting counseling or medication, so this study may be a reflection of the possible ways that young adults are self-medicating.”
It’s not just young adults reaching for shrooms or LSD. The survey also showed that psychedelic use was rising among adults aged between 35 and 50. The number of adults who used hallucinogens increased from 0.8% in 2016 to 2.5% in 2021–a fairly significant leap.
However, a closer look at age within this category offers greater nuance: 4.5% of 35 year-olds experimented with psychedelic substances in 2021, compared with only 0.7% of 50 year-olds.
“First, there is a robust appetite in the general population for solutions to mental health-related problems as evidenced by the utilization rates in the survey,” he says. “Psychedelics are not only conversations happening within academic and commercial circles, but also extend to the “end user” – the person with mental health-related problems who is looking for innovative solutions.”
McIntyre also believes the survey results demonstrate growing acceptance towards psychedelics. “The general public, which has historically been hesitant to embrace psychiatric treatments, is becoming more open-minded and accepting of psychedelic-based treatments”. He points out, however, that psychedelic use among the wider populace is occurring at a pace that is leaving clinical research, regulatory approval, and legislation in its wake. McIntyre views this disjuncture as a potential cause for concern, as widespread use may be premature without robust research to back it up,
“Psychedelic utilization for now should be confined to clinical research to better establish the safety, tolerability, efficacy, as well as the appropriate diagnostic application,” he reflects.mescaline phencyclidine mdma lsd psychedelic depression anxiety psychedelics braxia scientific braxia research