How are psychedelics used?
Psychedelics, also referred to as hallucinogens, entheogens, or empathogens, are psychoactive substances that produce alterations in conscious experience. These can include changes in cognition, perception, feelings, and emotions.
The so-called “classic” psychedelics—LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and DMT—affect the brain’s serotonin system, primarily by binding to the serotonin 2A (5HT-2A) receptor.
Other substances with known hallucinogenic properties—like cannabis, ketamine, MDMA, and others—have different targets in the brain but still produce some psychedelic effects.
Humans have been using psychedelic medicine for thousands of years, mostly in religious ceremonies and spiritual rituals. Today, people use psychedelics in a wide variety of settings, including in religious ceremonies and spiritual quests, for personal development, and more “recreationally” in settings like raves, musical festivals, and in the comfort of their own homes. More recently, therapeutic uses for psychedelics have made inroads in established institutions.
Religious and spiritual traditions
Many psychedelic medicines found in nature—such as ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, San Pedro, kambo, and others—have been used in religious and spiritual ceremonies for thousands of years and many of these traditions continue to this day.
Related: Psychedelic retreats – Reviews and guides
While each of these substances has its own ceremonial traditions, a typical ceremony will be led by a religious figure such as a shaman or local priest. For thousands of years, access to and use of these substances were “regulated” by these religious figureheads. Because of this, the cultures who used them developed a deep respect (and healthy fear) of these medicines.
Native populations, mostly in Central and South America but also in North America and other parts of the world, have held onto ceremonial practices involving psychedelic medicines despite hundreds of years of oppression by the civilizations that conquered them. Today, religious ceremonies using psychedelic substances take place in both indigenous and developed areas all over the world.
Therapeutic uses of psychedelics
Preliminary studies—along with many studies from the 1950s and 60s, prior to legal bans on most psychedelics—show promising results for some psychedelics in treating a wide range of mental disorders, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), addiction, end-of-life anxiety, and more.
Due to a lack of effective treatments for many common mental illnesses, this field of study is garnering a lot of attention from mainstream institutions and the general public.
Johns Hopkins University, UCLA, Imperial College London, and Emory University are just a few of the most prestigious institutions currently undertaking research on the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs.
Psychedelics in recreation and leisure
When people think of “recreational” psychedelic users, many think of someone tripping at a music festival or rave. Psychedelics often create unique sensory experiences, imbuing the user with a sense of “oneness” with the world and others around them. It’s not surprising, then, that festival-goers and ravers would use psychedelics to amplify these sensory and social experiences.
However, these can also be places that increase the likelihood of having an unsafe psychedelic experience. Drug contamination in these settings is a concern, though it’s definitely overblown by most media outlets. Also, inexperienced users in unfamiliar settings tend to have a higher rate of “bad trips” than people who are more intentional about their “set and setting”—that is, their mindset and environment—when taking psychedelics.
Ultimately, the best tool in your toolbox for enjoying psychedelics in any environment is to get educated—which you’re doing right now.
Microdosing psychedelics for personal development
Microdosing—taking a small amount of a psychedelic drug that’s a fraction of a typical dose—is becoming a popular way to boost creativity and productivity. Doses taken are “sub-perceptible”, meaning you don’t experience the immediately noticeable physical effects of a typical dose.
LSD (“acid”) and psilocybin mushrooms are the two most common psychedelic drugs used for microdosing. But all psychedelics can be microdosed, and many people use DMT, ayahuasca, truffles, and even cannabis.
Microdosing involves taking these small doses on a schedule with “on” and “off” days for up to a period of several weeks. Then you just note how you feel, any changes in mood, how productive you are, how creative you feel, and so on, and make any adjustments from there.
For complete guides on microdosing schedules, how to prepare microdoses, benefits, risks, and many more resources, check out our Microdosing guides.
Are any psychedelics legal to use?
In nearly every country today, most psychedelic drugs are illegal to possess, manufacture, sell, and/or distribute (with a few gray areas). But this wasn’t always the case.
Psilocybin mushrooms were virtually unknown to the West until the early 1900s. LSD wasn’t synthesized until 1938 and its psychedelic effects weren’t known until 1943. From that point, psychedelics were largely unregulated until the 1960s and 70s when the backlash against the counterculture led to many sweeping regulatory changes.
In 1971, the United Nations adopted a treaty called the Convention on Psychotropic Substances. This essentially made the possession, sale, distribution, and use of many drugs, including psychedelics, illegal around the world except for scientific purposes.
UN-member countries have implemented various laws to enforce the treaty within their own borders (see list of resources below), and some exceptions have been made based on individual countries’ constitutional and legal frameworks. For instance, in the United States, some psychedelics can be used in religious settings as long as you can prove you are a member of an established religion (which isn’t always so straightforward to do).
The legal landscape of psychedelics is shifting
In recent years, several countries, including the United States, Canada, and several European states, are loosening regulations on psychedelic drugs to various degrees. Regulators have been allowing several top-rated institutions around the world to undertake scientific research to investigate the therapeutic use of psychedelics, especially psilocybin (the active compound in “magic” mushrooms).
There are also a few “loopholes” for certain psychedelics that create legal gray areas. Psilocybin mushrooms, for example, are illegal to possess, but in many areas, their spores are not. One could, theoretically, purchase psilocybin mushroom spores without any worry about breaking the law. But once you start to grow your own psilocybin mushrooms, that’s a potentially illegal activity depending on where you live.
Amsterdam is well-known for having looser drug laws. While most drugs aren’t technically legal there, there’s definitely a culture of the police looking the other way as long as you’re not causing problems. Amsterdam also hosts legal psychedelic truffle retreats.
Several cities in the United States recently loosened laws around certain psychedelic medicines as well. Oakland, California, for instance, decriminalized the possession of all plant medicines, including psilocybin mushrooms. Santa Cruz, California and Denver, Colorado also decriminalized psilocybin in recent years.
More resources on the legality of psychedelics
Types of psychedelics
- 2C-B is a synthetic psychoactive substance of the phenethylamine family. Variously described as a stimulant, empathogen, hallucinogen, and psychedelic, the compound draws comparisons to LSD and MDMA—though it’s not quite the same as either.
- 4-ACO-DMT (or psilacetin) is a semi-synthetic tryptamine closely related to the “magic mushroom” molecules psilocin and psilocybin. Like psilocybin, it appears to be metabolized by the body into psilocin.
- 5-MEO-DMT is a psychedelic of the tryptamine class extracted from the Colorado River toad. It’s said to be four to six times more powerful than its better-known cousin, DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine). It can be found in a wide variety of trees and shrubs, often alongside DMT and bufotenine (5-HO-DMT).
- Ayahuasca is an entheogenic brew or tea made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria viridis leaf. It is used in traditional ceremonies among the indigenous tribes of Amazonia. P. virdris contains DMT, a powerful psychedelic, and B. caapi contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), which work synergistically with DMT to produce a long-lasting psychedelic experience.
- Cannabis is a fast-growing, flowering plant native to Asia and the Indian subcontinent. For many thousands of years, however, it has been cultivated around the world for use in textiles, medicine, and spirituality, so it now grows on every continent but Antarctica. Cannabis is the only known source of the psychoactive cannabinoids THC and CBD.
- Datura is a genus of flowering plant from the nightshade family. The sweet-scented and trumpet-shaped flowers are known across the world for their potential as a poison, medicine, and entheogen. The species that comprise the genus Datura thrive throughout the globe in tropical and temperate climates, sometimes in peculiar conditions such as growing near landfills and roadsides.
- DMT, or N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, is a psychedelic chemical that occurs naturally in both plants and animals from underwater organisms to land mammals. DMT is also the active hallucinogenic compound in ayahuasca, which is a tea brewed from the shrub Psychotria viridis used for ritual purposes by indigenous people in the Amazon.
- Ibogaine is a naturally occurring psychoactive indole alkaloid found in plants in the Apocynaceae family such as Tabernanthe iboga, Voacanga africana, and Tabernaemontana undulata. In the iboga plant (Tabernanthe iboga), the highest concentration of ibogaine is found in the root bark. Lower concentrations of ibogaine are found in the rest of the plant along with other indole alkaloids in the same family.
- Kambo, also known as frog medicine, is the venomous secretion of Phyllomedusa bicolor (the giant leaf or monkey frog), a bright green tree frog native to the Amazon basin. It can be found in the rainforest regions of South America.
- Ketamine is a general anesthetic with powerful dissociative and psychedelic effects. Although more widely used on animals since its development in the 1960s, ketamine has long been used on humans as well—especially in patients with respiratory or circulatory problems. More recently, the drug has been hailed as a breakthrough therapy for depression, with thousands of ketamine clinics opening all over the world.
- Kratom is the common name for Mitragyna speciosa, a tropical evergreen native to the marshy jungles of Southeast Asia. It grows wild in central and southern Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and elsewhere in the Pacific Rim.
- LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), or acid, is a powerful psychedelic drug derived from a chemical found in rye fungus. This discovery was made in 1938 when Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann synthesized LSD in his laboratory in Basel, Switzerland. Years later, a tiny amount of the drug came into contact with his skin and he unexpectedly discovered its psychedelic effects.
- MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine) is a synthetic drug that alters mood and perception. Chemically similar to both stimulants and psychedelics, it produces feelings of euphoria, increased energy, empathy, and emotional well-being. Under its influence, colors and sounds (especially music) are experienced more intensely, making it a popular recreational drug at raves and music festivals.
- Mescaline is the primary psychoactive alkaloid in a range of psychedelic cacti native to the Americas. In its natural state, mescaline has been used for thousands of years in Native American religious ceremonies. Some of the most popular mescaline-containing cacti are peyote, San Pedro, and Peruvian torch.
- Peyote is a cactus (Lophophora williamsii) and a natural psychedelic high in the chemical mescaline (compared to San Pedro and Peruvian torch). It has a distinctively small, green, and globular appearance, growing close to the ground without any spines. These “crowns” or “peyote buttons” are traditionally cut from the root of the peyote plant and dried for ceremonial use.
- Psilocybin mushrooms (“magic mushrooms,” “shrooms”) are fungi that contain the psychoactive compound psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic compound capable of producing powerful hallucinations and mystical-type experiences, along with other effects. More than 180 species of mushrooms contain psilocybin or its derivative psilocin, and the fungi have a long history of use in Mesoamerican spiritual and religious rituals. They’re also one of the most popular and commonly used psychedelics in the US and Europe.
- Salvia is a perennial herb (Salvia divinorum) of the largest genus of plants in the Labiatae (mint) family. Native to the cloud forest regions of the Sierra Mazateca in Oaxaca, Mexico, it typically grows in ravines and other high-altitude, humid areas. Salvia divinorum plants can reach over one meter in height and have large green leaves, hollow square stems, and white flowers with purple calyces.
- San Pedro is a thin, columnar cactus (Trichocereus/Echinopsis pachanoi) native to the Andes in South America. It is much faster-growing than peyote, shooting up 12 inches or more in a year and occasionally producing large, white, night-blooming flowers.
Effects of psychedelics
Psychedelics can have a wide range of effects depending on the substance and the environment in which they’re used.
Another important factor is the person taking them. In fact, one of the great mysteries of psychedelics is how these compounds—many of which share strikingly similar chemical properties—produce such a wide range of experiences both between and within individual users.
While each drug has its own “flavor” of experience, all psychedelics affect sensory, emotional, and cognitive processes.
People often report heightened and/or altered sensory experiences when taking psychedelics, especially visual and auditory experiences, but other sensory modalities can be affected as well.
At sufficient doses, sensory hallucinations are common with some but not all psychedelics. Hallucinations tend to vary in intensity based on the type of drug and myriad factors surrounding the individual and their immediate environment. Taking LSD, for example, is often accompanied by vivid auditory and visual hallucinations and psilocybin can induce intense visualizations as well, especially at higher doses.
Many of these hallucinations are usually grounded in the environment you’re in, like seeing objects bend or morph in shape when you view them. Other times, you could experience full-on hallucinations of other completely new environments, people, or even mythical-type beings, as is often reported on DMT trips.
It’s also not uncommon to experience sensory synesthesia with some psychedelics—a kind of “blending” of the senses. You might be able “taste” colors, while certain sounds, like music, might be associated with changes in your visual field.
Changes in mood are quite common even with smaller doses of many psychedelics. These can range from slight elevations in your emotional affect or heightened anxiety, to full-blown experiences of joy and ecstasy—or absolute and utter terror (more on “bad trips” in a moment).
Also, a common report across many psychedelic experiences is the feeling of “interconnectedness” or “oneness” with the world and people around you. It’s common for people to not only realize, but actually feel and understand, they are part of something larger than themselves.
The way you think will often be noticeably different during a trip as well. Some say it’s as if you’ve had a different personality installed. You see objects and people in a different way. You often take novel approaches to problems because of more interaction between parts of the brain.
One of the early pioneers of LSD research, Daniel Freedman, noted that a defining feature of the psychedelic experiences was its “‘portentousness’— the capacity of the mind to see more than it can tell, to experience more than it can explicate, to believe in and be impressed with more than it can rationally justify, to experience boundlessness and ‘boundaryless’ events, from the banal to the profound.”
Indeed, many psychedelic users often recount their experience with qualifications such as “I can’t really describe it in words, but…”
For more information on the effects of specific psychedelics, check out our guides above.
“Bad trips” on psychedelics
A “bad trip” is when a psychedelic experience causes a lot of anxiety and paranoia and all of the unsavory behaviors that might go along with them.
Psychedelics are powerful substances and should be respected as such. Bad trips are a testament to that fact.
The prospect of having a bad trip is often enough to turn a lot of people off of trying psychedelics. Experienced psychedelic users, however, often point out that not only are bad trips bound to happen, they’re also not necessarily a “bad” thing.
Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris even argues that there are no “bad” or “good” trips—only safe or unsafe trips.
Think of it this way: There’s no denying all of the suffering in the world, and perhaps in your own life. So if you only experience joy and wonder and beauty in every trip you do, you’ve only had half the experience.
It’s possible to have a psychedelic experience that confronts you with a lot of negative emotions and scary thoughts and realizations while remaining safe.
With a little preparation ahead of time, you can greatly decrease your chances of having an unsafe trip. And if you do encounter something uncomfortable (and you likely will), you can also prepare yourself to deal with it when it arises.
Here are some brief tips on having a safe trip:
- Substance quality and dosage. Know where you’re getting psychedelic substances and make sure you trust the source. And know exactly how much you’re going to take based on research you do ahead of time.
- Set up a comfortable, familiar environment. Being in unfamiliar places around unfamiliar people greatly increases your chances of a bad trip, especially if you’re inexperienced with psychedelics. If you’re not in a familiar place, at least make sure you’re with people you trust.
- Have a “sitter”. Get someone you know well and trust who can help support you if you’re having a challenging experience.
To learn more about safe trips and managing uncomfortable experiences, check out our guide, How to cope with anxiety and paranoia during a trip.
Are psychedelics safe?
There is a lot of misinformation about psychedelics. Many myths have been perpetuated for decades, most of which concern safety issues around using these powerful substances. Some of these myths include:
- Psychedelics make you “crazy”/turn you schizophrenic
- LSD is often laced with dangerous contaminants
- Psychedelics damage your chromosomes
…and many more.
It is true that psychedelic substances are powerful chemicals, and as with any drug—legal or not—misuse and abuse can lead to serious safety issues.
And as with any legal drug, you should educate yourself on the risks and benefits of psychedelic drugs. Here are a few safety issues to consider:
- Drug interactions. Many psychedelics appear to operate on the brain’s serotonin system. Serotonin is found in both the brain and the gut and has several functions.
Serotonin systems are also the target of many pharmaceuticals, including many psychotropic medications used to treat mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. So if you take a psychedelic, you run a higher risk of an adverse drug interaction if you’re taking one of these medications. It’s generally considered best to avoid psychedelics if you’re taking any medication that targets the brain’s serotonin system.
- Diagnosed mental disorders. Anyone with a diagnosed mental disorder should be especially cautious when using psychedelics. Yes, some psychedelics are being used to treat various clinical mental disorders, but it’s crucial to understand that this is being done under the very close observation of trained professionals in tightly controlled environments.
If you have schizophrenia or are at a high risk of developing schizophrenia, you should not take psychedelics.
- Know your source. As with anything you put into your body—food, drugs, medicine, whatever—you should verify that it’s from a safe and reputable source. Don’t take anything from people you don’t know/don’t trust.
- Most psychedelics carry very little risk of dependence and addiction. Research shows this to be true over and over with many of the classic psychedelics (even if many anti-drug institutions continue to argue the opposite). For the most part, psychedelics don’t operate directly on the brain’s dopamine systems, a crucial factor in determining addictive potential. Highly addictive drugs like cocaine or heroin, by contrast, directly manipulate the brain’s dopamine systems.