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The new sober-ish

Tiny doses of magic mushrooms, LSD, and cannabis have hit wellness culture, while the stigma around the drugs recedes.

A person in a space suit on a mysterious planet covered in mushrooms while cannabis-mint stars twinkle in the background.

Part of the Drugs Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Jamie, a 24-year-old from Albany, New York, has tried everything to improve her mood. She burned through two and a half years of therapy, reams of self-help literature, and so many tangerine-orange cylinders full of antidepressants. She has made significant lifestyle changes, like signing up for a regimented exercise program and leaving her suffocating hometown. Though Jamie’s anxiety became easier to manage, she still felt like something was missing, somewhere in the pit of her being.

“I felt a disconnect from my logical, ever-critical brain to my soul,” she told Vox. (Jamie is being referred to by her first name because she is a business owner and is concerned about the stigma around drug use.)

Jamie had experimented a few times with psilocybin, better known as magic mushrooms, in her social life, and was fond of the way the drug seemed to bring her into closer communion with her inner self. Naturally, Jamie became curious about the potential of “microdosing” — a buzzy, self-medicating practice in which people take a small dose of a hallucinogen each day in the hope that it will brighten them up to the outside world. Jamie was at her wits’ end. “I figured what the hell, let’s give this a go,” she says.

“It’s been about four months since [I started microdosing] and my life has changed drastically,” Jamie continues. “I still have depressive episodes, but I’m feeling so many more emotions than I ever have. Antidepressants made me feel numb … But there comes a time when the numbness gets tiresome. I thought, ‘What is the point of living if I’m not going to feel what it’s like to be alive?’ … It is a gentle looking-glass into the deepest parts of my soul. But I am the one doing the work. I get all the credit. It truly is amazing.”

Jamie knows that mushrooms are still stigmatized in a wide swath of American society, but she no longer considers her psilocybin use as anything beyond a crucial element of her daily routine. “I do not consider myself under the influence of recreational or illegal drugs,” she says.

In that sense, Jamie is emblematic of America’s dramatically transformed relationship with drugs. We’re living in an age of over-the-counter weed brownies, of ketamine-assisted talk therapy, of CBD dog treats. Several cities have decriminalized magic mushrooms, and Texas — known for having some of the most draconian marijuana laws in the country — has cleared the path for professionals to study the medicinal effects psychedelics could have on PTSD.

What the government once considered contraband is being claimed by wellness culture, one tiny dose at a time; together, we’re manifesting a new definition of sobriety. Perhaps a daily sprinkle of psilocybin will be another part of a healthy subsistence, packed neatly into medicine cabinets alongside the fish oil and multivitamins. After all, the chaos of the last few years has left so many Americans with a singular priority: to be calmer and happier, by any means possible.

Allison Feduccia is the CEO of Psychedelic Support, which advocates for the integration of plant-based psychoactive medication into American health care practices. Feduccia, who has a PhD in neuropharmacology, believes that America’s rejuvenated interest in the healing potential of street drugs can be traced to the mounting evidence that psychedelics and amphetamines may be an important salve in a clinician’s toolbox.

The amphetamine MDMA is being used as a buffer in high-intensity therapy sessions — a way for patients to explore their grief without being overwhelmed by it. A study published by the National Academy of Sciences found evidence that psychedelic use could lead to long-term mood benefits. (They came to this conclusion, naturally, by surveying 1,200 people who were tripping at music festivals.) Johns Hopkins has also published research showing that magic mushrooms were an effective countermeasure against major depression symptoms.

The root of all this analysis points to Feduccia’s second, and more important, point. Americans’ use of antidepressants has been climbing steadily. Psychedelics provide a different path; if mood-altering substances such as benzodiazepines are among our most-prescribed medications, is it that much of a reach to try marijuana or psilocybin?

“Mental health treatment hasn’t had a great breakthrough in many decades,” says Feduccia. “Lots of people have been convinced to take a lot of antidepressant medications ... to help deal with stress, trauma, depression, and anxiety. But these substances have side effects, and they don’t always work out for people over time.”

“People are asking, ‘What else is there that can help?’” she says. “And with our isolation, those feelings have only escalated.”

The science surrounding microdosing specifically — which is to say, ingesting small amounts of a drug — is thin. Christopher Nicholas, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies psychedelics, tells me that research conducted on microdosing has revealed no indication of quality-of-life improvements, save for the noise created by placebo feedback, though Nicholas says more work needs to be done on the subject to come to a firm conclusion. (Because many drugs, including LSD and marijuana, were classified as, and remain, illicit Schedule I drugs in the eyes of the federal government, studies into their effectiveness as therapeutics largely halted in the 1970s.)

Katharine Neill Harris, who analyzes drug policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, argues that much of the microdosing craze can be chalked up to an ascendant class of Bay Area tech barons who’ve claimed that a daily fragment of LSD has made them more efficient and creative while on the job. When successful people endorse a habit, she says, society is going to take notice regardless of what the data implies.

“You have this Silicon Valley enthusiasm for psychedelics, and I think that’s been popularized and it dovetailed with the other wellness trends,” says Harris. “We already have a craze over CBD products, and I think going from there into [the mainstreaming] of microdosing psychedelics isn’t that big of a jump.”

This theory bears out in mainstream consumer demand. You can purchase psilocybin-infused chocolate bars off the internet, or suit up in workout gear infused with CBD. Need to freshen up before a big meeting? Try a mint containing a teensy 2.5 milligrams of cannabis. At long last, America’s disastrous war on drugs is being chipped away by the indomitable forces of tasteful advertising and stately packaging.

Professionals who spoke to Vox all described mounting evidence that psychedelics and other drugs — at least in doses strong enough to affect brain chemistry — can be a balm for contemporary life. In 2020, 10 percent of US residents said they had smoked marijuana in the past month, compared with 4 percent in 2002, and Americans now overwhelmingly agree that the substance should be legalized for recreational, or at least medical, use. Data around psychedelics is harder to track, but Scientific American reported a distinct uptick in LSD usage at the height of the pandemic.

We’ve all noticed the rise of cannabis boutiques — some sheathed in an artisanal, crystal-strewn aesthetic, others as slick as Apple Stores — as prohibition in the country recedes from its paramount place in the culture war. Shoppers in those stores are opting for products that contain a minuscule amount of THC, far below the paralyzing load in the average weed brownie. BDSA, a market research firm for cannabinoid products, found that the sales of low-dose cannabis items in California far outpaced everything else on dispensary shelves. It all points to a foreclosure on our archaic understanding of drug use; perhaps being sober-ish and a microdosing enthusiast are one and the same.

“I think the exceptionalism that has been carved out around cannabis has been extended to psychedelics. Although the people who’ve used them for decades have always felt that way because they don’t have the dependence-inducing qualities of other drugs,” says Harris. “But there’s still plenty of stigma. Something like meth use is still stigmatized in a way that isn’t starting to change.”

There are plenty of caveats with that conclusion. Harris notes that this recharacterization of drug use leaves out those who are most frequently victimized by America’s punitive drug policies. They can be most easily legally obtained through formal clinical treatment, which leaves aside recreational users, who may still be accosted by the police.

“Access will come first to people with money. Insurance companies aren’t going to cover [psychedelic treatment] right away, so if you can pay $1,200 a month to get [psychedelics] in the mail, then okay,” Harris says. “Decriminalization is still very, very critical. Whether or not people should be using them for their health is a separate question from whether or not they should get in legal trouble for it.”

Harris is explaining a paradox that has existed throughout the nation’s entire history. It’s well established that minority Americans are far more likely to be jailed for drug offenses than their white counterparts. In 2020, the ACLU reported that Black people were almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than their white counterparts — despite the historic period of narcotic liberalization we’re living through. This injustice is hard to ignore whenever we spot a sumptuous package of THC-infused organic gummies that can be delivered to our doors; the drug renaissance only makes the partitional biases of the law more apparent.

Still, after decades of living in an environment dominated solely by destructive, addictive substances like alcohol and nicotine, it’s no wonder Americans are considering their alternatives. (Psilocybin, for example, is not considered addictive.) Amy Donohue, 51, a Phoenix resident, insists that magic mushrooms saved her life. She resolved to quit drinking after her father died 20 years ago because she had already seen too many of her family members succumb to alcohol. A small dose of psilocybin, says Donohue, eliminated her anxiety about being around drinking at social functions. Previously, even the smell of liquor on someone’s breath used to trigger her. Not anymore.

“[Microdosing] makes me comfortable in situations where there is alcohol. I don’t always fear I’m going to relapse, but it’s hard to go to an event where nobody is drinking,” says Donohue. “It helps soften the blow of having to be around it in this society.”

The science maintains that a tiny spot of psilocybin is not going to shake up anyone’s worldview. Yes, as a species, we’re all on a neverending hunt to discover the magic bullet that will finally unlock the tranquil life we ought to be living, which is far more elusive than it probably should be. But Feduccia offered a clue when she pointed out one fascinating trend: As it turns out, clinical trials involving psychedelics had a knack for summoning an outsized placebo effect in control groups. For whatever reason, the mere thought of a mind-altering substance flowing through our bloodstreams is enough for us to be more at peace.

“The placebo effect has been shown to have a real biological basis. The body can actually release endorphins, you can see real changes when you give someone a placebo,” says Feduccia. “That’s one of the most intriguing things about psychedelics. If you can consistently induce a placebo response, then that’s probably the greatest finding in medicine of all time.”

It cuts to the ancestral appeal of recreational psychedelics — this idea that they help us transcend our mind and body so that we may become more in touch with our spirit. If you feel happier, then it must be working. Don’t ask any more questions because everything else is irrelevant. Who wants to harsh the high?

Luke Winkie is a reporter from San Diego. In addition to Vox, he has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

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