Psychedelics, or serotonergic hallucinogens, are defined as a class of psychoactive substances that can alter mood, perception, and cognition, according to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation. These drugs, which emerged in ancient times, were often used in ritualistic settings across cultures, the National Library of Medicine reports. They’re considered non-addictive.
Popular psychedelics include LSD (also known as acid or lysergic acid diethylamide), mushrooms (psilocybin), mescaline, peyote, and DMT (diemethyltryptamine). Some of these are naturally occuring, with psilocybin derived from mushrooms and both mescaline and peyote from cactus.
The process of taking psychedelics is referred to as “tripping,” with trips often grouped as either “good” or “bad.” The effects of psychedelics vary widely, based on the amount consumed, the drug’s potency, the setting of the trip, the mindset of the consumer and other factors. The substances can sometimes cause hallucinations as the name suggests, but also euphoria, relaxation, confusion, clumsiness, vomiting, and other side effects, the Alcohol and Drug Foundation reports.
The American public’s perception of psychedelics has shifted over the past century. In the 1960s, scientific experts referred to them as psychotomimetics — a term that linked the substances to psychosis, thereby casting them in a negative light. Psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond is credited with first using the word “psychedelic” to better describe the substances’ potential advantages, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Conservative politics during the Vietnam War era led to the federal restriction of psychedelics, labeling them as Schedule 1 drugs under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, meaning they are considered to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration. As with cannabis, also a Schedule 1 drug, there have been efforts to reclassify psychedelics given their potential therapeutic uses. The psychedelics industry could be worth nearly $7 billion by 2027, according to some estimates; again, similar to cannabis, there remain systemic inequities in who can access this market.
In the 21st century, the stigma around psychedelics is lifting. According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 7.1 million people used hallucinogens in the past year. At the start of 2023, Oregon became the first US state to permit psychedelic mushrooms for adult use, with Colorado following shortly behind it as No. 2.
Researchers are conducting trials that use psychedelic mushrooms to treat depression, Harvard Medicine reports. That testing is expanding to apply other psychedelics toward different mental illnesses, including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. However, research has shown that nonwhite populations are underrepresented in psychedelic-assisted therapy studies due to a variety of factors, including stigma around mental health disorders and a lack of diversity and inclusivity in the medical research field.
Some psychedelics like ayahuasca have a long history of use in Indigenous religions and rituals but are becoming more popular in mainstream US culture and medicine. Coverage should take care not to fetishize or exoticize such rituals.
These drugs remain illegal at the federal level; careful coverage will take into account any potential risks to sources when reporting on the subject. Citing statistics that put individual cases in context, and bringing in an expert for analysis, can go a long way to ensure thoughtful coverage.
- Psychedelics (National Library of Medicine)
- Altering Perceptions on Psychedelics (Harvard Medicine)
- Psychedelics Are a Promising Therapy, but They Can Be Dangerous for Some (The New York Times)
- Psychedelics Research and Psilocybin Therapy (Johns Hopkins Medicine)
Psychedelics, or hallucinogens, are defined as a class of psychoactive substances that can alter mood, perception and cognition, according to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation. The process of taking hallucinogens is referred to as tripping. Psychedelics can cause hallucinations as the name suggests, but also euphoria, relaxation, confusion, clumsiness, vomiting, and other effects. According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 7.1 million people used hallucinogens in the past year. These drugs remain illegal at the federal level; careful coverage will take into account any potential risks to sources when reporting on the subject.