What are psychedelics?

Published on October 9, 2020 · Last updated April 16, 2021
(Ann Clancy / Leafly)

Psychedelics are potent psychoactive chemicals or plants that can alter perception, mood, and cognitive processes. Some of the most common psychedelics include psilocybin (found in certain mushrooms), LSD, mescaline (found in San Pedro and peyote cacti), ayahuasca (a brew containing a woody vine and the leaves of the chacruna plant), and DMT (dimethyltryptamine).

Mind-altering psychedelic plants naturally grow as far afield as the Amazon, the Himalayas, and the Pacific Northwest of the US. 

Psychedelics aren’t a new fad. Their use predates the written word, with archaeologists confirming their use in ancient ritual and ceremonial contexts. While the ingestion of psychedelics for recreational and sacred purposes has been ongoing, their therapeutic potential was first recognized by scientists in the mid-20th century.

Between 1950 and the mid-’60s, more than 1,000 clinical papers were published on psychedelic drug therapy, spearheaded by researchers awed by the assorted medical benefits these compounds could potentially offer. 

The introduction of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 saw psychedelics research slow to a trickle as government-sanctioned research ceased, and the compounds became tarred by the war on drugs.

Fast forward to the present day, and studies into this fascinating compound have picked up momentum again. Scientists are delving back into psychedelic research, exploring the myriad ways this unique medicine may help heal diverse ills. Recent research has shown promise in using psychedelics to treat substance dependency, PTSD, depression, anxiety, and to help with end-of-life care.

Entheogen psychedelics

The word “psychedelics” was first coined in 1957 to identify drugs that reveal useful aspects of the mind. In recent years scientists have begun referring to psychedelic compounds more properly as “entheogens.”

One of the motivations for this renaming was a concern among scientists that “psychedelics” carried negative cultural baggage from the 1960s. Use of the term entheogens is intended to allow patients, medical practitioners, policymakers, and the public to approach this emerging field of medicine and discovery without stigma or bias.

The word entheogen derives from the spiritual aspect of these substances. In Greek, the word means “generating the god within.” Entheogens are understood as compounds that promote life-altering experiences, encouraging profound insights into the nature of life and consciousness. The term entheogens also alludes to the idea that these substances are plant teachers.

How do psychedelics affect the brain and body?

(Ann Clancy/Leafly)

Physiologically, entheogens can temporarily increase blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, and hormones such as cortisol and oxytocin. Some consumers also report an increase in anxiety, although research has shown that getting the set and setting right can minimize anxiety and other causes of an unpleasant experience.

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On a mental and emotional level, those who take psychedelics often report altered sensory perceptions, such as visually complex images or fractal patterns. Many also describe feeling unusually open to others and the world around them, a sense of impaired control, increased trust, and concern for others. Consumers also frequently rank psychedelic experiences as one of their most meaningful life events. 

A sense of connectedness

Trippers also commonly report that psychedelics bring them closer to an understanding of the divine. Some describe this experience as a sense of connectedness to everything, feeling like time disappears, the loss of ego, and profound positive emotions.

In the words of the late Daniel X. Freedman, pioneer of LSD research:

“One basic dimension of behavior… compellingly revealed in LSD states is ‘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.”

The long-range benefits of an entheogenic experience

These perception-altering experiences can be transformative, carrying long-range benefits.

A May 2020 study in the journal Human Psychopharmacology suggested that psychedelic experiences deliver enduring improvements in mental outlook and attitude. Transformative trips can offer individuals with depression, anxiety, or addiction a new lens through which they can refocus their views of themselves, their lives, and their relationships with others. 

“Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid-down models of behavior and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.”

Terence McKenna

The benefits of entheogens have long been promoted by Terence McKenna, the psychedelics lecturer, researcher, and author. McKenna was also a psychonaut—a psychedelic explorer who plumbed the depths of his own consciousness in a quest to understand the self and mind. For McKenna, psychedelics offer a diving board into a more conscious state, to shake up the status quo. He once quipped:

“Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third-story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid-down models of behavior and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.”

Healing With the Psychonauts: Psychedelic Medicine Goes Mainstream

The therapeutic benefits of psychedelics

A 2016 review of the medical literature on psychedelics concluded that entheogenics are considered physiologically safe, with no evidence that they lead to dependence or addiction. There is a significant body of research that indicates psychedelics can help treat disorders that don’t always respond well to conventional medicine. 

Psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, and ayahuasca, for example, have demonstrated powerful therapeutic potential in treating conditions as diverse as PTSD, treatment-resistant depression, substance dependency, OCD, chronic pain, and anxiety associated with terminal illness diagnoses.

Scientists are still uncovering the neural mechanisms by which psychedelics work to treat these conditions. One mechanism that appears vital is the dissolution of ego. When the ego network is temporarily taken offline, new neural connections form in distinct parts of the brain. These new networks allow for novel insights and ways of seeing the world, which can release unhelpful or negative thoughts and behavioral patterns.

Why decriminalize or legalize psychedelics?

At present, psilocybin, LSD, psychedelic mushrooms, and other psychedelic substances are classified as Schedule I controlled substances under US federal law.

Legalizing psychedelics would remove all legal prohibitions against their use and make them available to the general adult population for purchase and use at will, similar to cannabis in adult-use states

Decriminalization, on the other hand, deprioritizes possession of psychedelics, so an individual would not be arrested for possessing small amounts, nor would it go on their criminal record.

Many issues relevant to cannabis decriminalization and legalization are also relevant to psychedelics, and there are compelling reasons to consider legalizing or decriminalizing psychedelics. 

What’s driving the campaign for change now

The push for decriminalizing and legalizing psychedelics has been driven in part by the growing evidence that these compounds offer therapeutic potential to millions of patients. Another reason is that the war on drugs has been reevaluated by scholars, policymakers, and the public—and found to be misinformed, racist, and enormously damaging to both individuals and society.

Psychedelics, like cannabis, have been implicated in the war on drugs, which soaks up more than $47 billion of funds in the US each year. More sobering still is the cost to society. Draconian sentencing saw the US prison population skyrocket following the 1970s when the war on drugs began. 

Black and Latino populations are notably more likely to receive prison sentences for drug violations, further entrenching socioeconomic disparities between ethnicities. Minor drug offenses that result in sentences can alter the course of a person’s life. It can be difficult to find work, rent a property, or receive assistance from the government after a drug arrest, as the consequences of that arrest can follow a person for the rest of their life. 

What is decriminalization?

Some US cities have already voted to decriminalize psychedelics. Denver became the first city to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms in 2019 under Ordinance 301. Since then, Oakland and Santa Cruz in California, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, have also seen voters pass decriminalization measures. 

Other places in the US are preparing to vote on decriminalization in the November 2020 election. In Oregon, the Oregon Psilocybin Society submitted sufficient signatures to bring Measure 109 to a statewide vote. In Washington, DC, Decriminalize Nature gathered enough signatures to put Initiative 81 on the ballot. 

The history of psychedelics

(Ann Clancy/Leafly)

For tens of thousands of years, many cultures all over the globe have used psychedelics. These natural substances were often used in sacred or religious ceremonies to help see the divine or commune with God, or for relief of certain ailments. 

LSD and other psychedelics were widely researched in the 1950s and ‘60s to treat numerous maladies, but in the US, research was largely stopped with the passing of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.

Ancient cultures

Some ancient Greeks supposedly consumed a psychedelic substance. The cults of Demeter and Persephone performed an initiation ceremony every year called the Eleusinian Mysteries, during which they would consume a drink called “kykeon,” thought to contain psychedelic properties. Theories suggest the substance was derived from Ergot fungus, of which LSD is also derived. 

Ancient Sanskrit text refers to “soma,” a plant juice that was consumed during ancient Vedic sacrifice ceremonies as an offering to the gods. Known for its hallucinogenic properties, soma is speculated to have come from Amanita muscaria, or Psilocybe cubensis, types of psychedelic mushrooms, or a type of climbing plant called Asclepias acida.

Mesoamerican cultures such as the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas were known for consuming psychedelics such as peyote, mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms, and others. In Aztec culture, mushrooms were referred to as “Teonanácatl,” meaning “flesh of the gods,” and taking psychedelics was a means of altering consciousness, communicating with the gods, and becoming one with nature.

Ayahuasca, a brew derived from the mixture of a woody vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the leaves of the chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis), was consumed for spiritual and medicinal purposes by tribes in the Amazon going back 1,000 years or more.  

Ancient Mesoamerican and South American cultures emphasize the role of the shaman, who oversees the psychedelic experience. A shaman’s purpose is to help guide an individual consuming psychedelic substances into the spirit world and through altered states of consciousness. The psychedelic experience can be overwhelming and frightening and usually involves vomiting and diarrhea.

Psychedelics in the 20th century

In 1938, Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman accidentally discovered LSD. He was experimenting with the fungus ergot, which grows in rye kernels, while working in a lab at pharmaceutical company Sandoz, when he isolated the chemical lysergic acid diethylamide—LSD. 

The substance was ineffective for the project he was working on, so Hoffman put it aside. But something about the substance intrigued him, and five years later he revisited it. When synthesizing the substance again, he absorbed trace amounts of it and noticed its powerful hallucinogenic effects. 

On April 19, 1943, Hoffman intentionally ingested a higher dose of LSD. The event became known as “Bicycle Day,” as Hoffman started to feel the effects as he rode his bike home, and it was the first intentional acid trip in history.  

He experienced visual distortions, dizziness, almost fainted, and saw what he described as “demonic transformations.” A doctor was called, but by the time he arrived, Hoffman had lapsed into a “feeling of good fortune and gratitude,” and was enjoying kaleidoscopic images when he closed his eyes, he would later say. In the morning, he reported that a “sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through me.” 

Hoffman would go on to become a life-long advocate of the drug, extolling its therapeutic benefits and abilities to open up consciousness and make individuals more aware.

Psychedelics in psychiatry

In the early 1950s, psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond and Abram Hoffer pioneered the use of LSD to treat alcoholism while working in a clinic in Saskatchewan, Canada. Osmond would later coin the term for these new types of drugs “psychedelics,” meaning “mind-manifesting,” after supervising writer Aldous Huxley on a mescaline trip. Huxley would later immortalize the experience in his book, “The Doors of Perception.” 

Osmond and Hoffer’s biochemical approach initially treated two subjects for alcoholism with LSD—one quit drinking right away, and one quit within six months after treatment. Osmond and Hoffer expanded the study to more than 700 patients over the next 10 years, and claimed similar results. 

Meanwhile, in the UK, Ronald Sandison was also using LSD in conjunction with psychotherapy to treat patients with neurosis and other ailments with great success. In one study, Sandison reported that 60% of patients recovered or improved with treatment of LSD and psychotherapy when those patients hadn’t responded to conventional therapy. 

LSD was researched throughout the 1950s and ‘60s to treat various conditions, including depression, schizophrenia, autism, and terminal cancer, among other ailments. Research on LSD was conducted over 1,000 studies involving 40,000 patients, with minimal adverse incidents.

The ’60s

In 1962, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed the Drug Amendments of 1962, which introduced new restrictions on clinical trials and drug testing, in turn restricting the use of LSD and other psychedelics for therapeutic use. 

Around the same time, hippie counterculture in the US latched onto LSD and other psychedelics. Altering one’s mind, expanding consciousness, connecting with one another, and the desire to “Turn on, tune in, and drop out,” in the words of Timothy Leary, gave LSD and other psychedelics a bad name. 

With LSD in particular, illicit manufacturing proliferated, and the general public started to view it and other psychedelics as street drugs. LSD manufacturer and patent-holder Sandoz lost interest in continuing to produce the drug and tried to distance itself from it. 

As the hippie counterculture protested the Vietnam War and called for civil, racial, and gender rights, it faced a backlash from the political establishment of the time, as well as anything and everything associated with the counterculture movement, including psychedelics.

Prohibition and the war on drugs

In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, classifying LSD and other psychedelics, such as psilocybin, DMT, and mescaline—as well as cannabis—as Schedule I drugs, the most restrictive level. 

After the passing of the Act, for example, possession of one to nine grams of LSD as a first offense will get you one year in prison, a $1,000 fine, or both. However, possession of more than nine grams of LSD can be treated as possession with intent to distribute, for which the penalty is five to 40 years, a fine of up to $2 million, or both.

Research on LSD and psychedelics in general all but ground to a halt.  

Psychedelics today

Today, attitudes toward the war on drugs are changing as people realize how disproportionately it affects Black and Latino Americans, and acknowledge the incredible amount of money wasted on it. Attitudes on how psychedelics and cannabis can offer incredible medical and therapeutic benefits are also changing. 

In 2019 and 2020 alone, the psychedelics movement has gained steam. Piggybacking on the cannabis legalization movement, several cities have decriminalized psychedelics or entheogenic plants: 

  • Denver, Colorado decriminalized psilocybin in May 2019
  • Oakland, California decriminalized entheogenic plants in June 2019
  • Santa Cruz, California decriminalized psychoactive plants and fungi in February 2020
  • Ann Arbor, Michigan decriminalized psychoactive plants and fungi in September 2020

Currently, the state of Oregon has a measure on the November 2020 ballot that would legalize the medical use of psilocybin under the care of a licensed facilitator, and Washington, DC, has an initiative to decriminalize entheogenic plants and fungi on this November’s ballot as well. 

You can support the Oregon Psilocybin Program Initiative by donating to support bringing psilocybin therapy to Oregon.

What are psychedelic mushrooms?

psychedelics, mushrooms, health

Psychedelic mushrooms—also known as shrooms or magic mushrooms—naturally contain psilocybin and psilocin. These compounds activate specific serotonin receptors in the brain, causing changes in mood, thoughts, feeling, or behavior. Incredibly, there are as many as 200 varieties of psychedelic mushrooms growing wild on every continent except Antarctica. 

Magic mushrooms have opened the door for many to step into the world of psychedelics, and magic mushroom imagery also permeates popular culture. Some even argue that the story of Alice in Wonderland can be read as a metaphor for a perception-altering mushroom trip. 

How do psychedelic mushrooms feel?

Shrooms are known for their profound effects on consciousness and perception. Taking a moderate dose, the experience usually lasts between four and six hours, with the climax occurring two to three hours after consumption. Taking a larger dose will increase the length of the trip.

Consumers often report altered sensory experiences such as flowing patterns or fractal images, a sense of time being drawn out, and personal insights that feel deeply meaningful. These trips can be extremely positive experiences, but can equally be frightening and disorientating. 

The consumer’s mindset and the context in which they take the mushrooms will strongly influence the direction the trip takes. Many argue there is a case for taking psychedelic mushrooms and other psychedelic compounds in safe and meaningful settings.

Types of psychedelic mushrooms

One of the most popular and beloved varieties of psychedelic mushroom is Psilocybe cubensis. Cubensis is also often affectionately referred to as “cubes” or “gold caps” for their gold tops. Cubes are generally larger than other varieties of psychedelic mushrooms. 

Shroom foragers know they’ve struck gold if the cap bruises blue when gently pressed due to psilocin oxidation. Cubes are the most straightforward mushroom to cultivate indoors. Similar to cannabis, selective homegrowers have helped indoor specimens of cubes become more potent over time. 

Other common species of psilocybin mushrooms include the delicate Psilocybe semilanceata, or “liberty caps,” and Psilocybe azurescens, or “flying saucers”—one of the most potent magic mushrooms out there.

How to take psychedelic mushrooms

When it comes to consuming magic mushrooms, many opt to steep them in hot water and sip the brew. For a no-nonsense approach, you can also simply eat the dried caps and stems. 

If you’re curious about trying shrooms, it’s important to know about dosing. Finding your sweet spot will mean a greater likelihood of a positive mushroom experience. Those who are interested in trying them usually start with a microdose.

What is psilocybin?

If you’re living in Oregon and planning on voting on The Psilocybin Mushroom Services Program Initiative (Measure 109) in November 2020, you may be wondering what exactly psilocybin is.

Psilocybin is one of the major chemical compounds found in psychedelic mushrooms. It’s what’s known as a prodrug, meaning it needs to be metabolized by the body to become pharmacologically active. After oral consumption, psilocybin is rapidly converted into psilocin, a psychoactive compound. While psilocybin receives most of the credit for its mood and perception-altering properties, psilocin is most likely the molecule that delivers the psychoactive effects.

In 2019, the FDA classified psilocybin therapy as a breakthrough therapy for two clinical trials investigating the effects of it on severe depression and major depressive disorder. This designation was intended to “expedite the development and review of drugs that are intended to treat a serious condition.”

Pharmacologically, evidence suggests that psilocybin has very low toxicity and is well-tolerated, though more up-to-date research is needed. While psilocybin is still classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, federal attitudes appear to be changing. 

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Emma Stone and Pat Goggins
Emma Stone and Pat Goggins
Emma Stone is a journalist based in New Zealand specializing in cannabis, health, and well-being. She has a Ph.D. in sociology and has worked as a researcher and lecturer, but loves being a writer most of all. She would happily spend her days writing, reading, wandering outdoors, eating and swimming. Pat Goggins is a former Leafly senior editor who handled the site's informational Cannabis 101 and Learn section content, as well as health and science, and growing articles. When not fixing typos or reading a book, you’ll probably find him on a boat or in the mountains.
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