Americans' Perception of Psychedelics Shifting

The science of psychedelics continues to validate what clinicians have known for years about the benefits in treating mental health.

Over the last 30 years, the science of psychedelics has accelerated and continues to validate what clinicians have known for years about the benefits of psychedelics in treating mental health and wellness.

For a population suffering from increased issues of mental health – 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year – it seems as if American public opinion about the good of psychedelics should follow.

Yes and no.

First some history.

How Psychedelics Became Taboo

Generally speaking, American public opinion about psychedelics was cemented in the 1970s, when LSD, one of the more popular psychedelics connected with the social upheaval at the time, was classified as a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency.

The general consensus then was that the government at the time was right about the evils of psychedelics. Only crazy people and hippies did psychedelics like these.

The DEA claimed that there was no medicinal value for these substances, even though, according to an article in the journal of Neuropsychopharmacology in the early 1950s, psychedelics – particularly LSD – were being used widely by psychologists and psychiatrists in research and clinical practice. An estimated tens of thousands of patients were treated with psychedelic psychotherapy over a period of about 15 years.

In 1960, the first major conference on psychedelics was held in Europe.

All that amped-up activity came to a crashing halt in the mid-1960s, after psychedelics researcher Timothy Leary was discredited because of incidents with his psychedelics work at Harvard.

Research wouldn’t ramp up again until the 1990s.

A New Era of Research

The new wave of research brought with it a better understanding of psychedelics as medicine and lifted it out of the quagmire of a life-destroying drug categorized by the U.S. federal government as just as bad as heroin.

“As a clinician long-committed to the view that neuroscience should inform psychiatry, psychedelics have always looked like a serious opportunity,” Robin Carhart-Harris wrote in a May 2021 journal article. Carhart-Harris is head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research, Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London.

“Their structure and pharmacology inspired a generation of neurochemists to understand neurotransmitters and their receptors. And, the very idea that drugs could usefully change the experience of distressed patients with psychiatric disorders underpinned the revolution in psychopharmacology in the three decades from 1950.”

At the very least, the information coming from trusted sources is confusing. For example, an article in the New York Times spelled out the good and bad of psychedelics – with the bad seemingly outweighing the good.

The article reported there is some indication that psilocybin and LSD can damage the heart over time, because they overwork the neurons around the heart. MDMA has the same risk and possibly could cause kidney damage.

A Rolling Stone article took a different bent, reporting generally positive things about psychedelics. But it left readers with this somewhat concerning caveat: “We don’t really understand the mechanism behind the cognitive effect of psychedelics, and thus cannot 100 percent control the psychedelic experience.”

Public opinion is firmly divided. A May 2021 poll from HarrisX and The Hill revealed that a majority of voters – 65 percent – thought psychedelic substances do not have medical uses. But more than a third of voters, 35 percent, said they believe the substances do.

Younger voters tended to be more likely to say psychedelic substances have medical uses. Fifty-three percent of 18-29-year-olds said “magic mushrooms” have medicinal benefits, while a majority of voters 30 and older disagreed.

Democrats and independents were more likely to be in support of psychedelic for medical uses, at 43 percent and 41 percent, respectively. Just 23 percent of Republican voters agreed.

A more recent poll conducted in July by an international research data and analytics group found that Americans who have tried at least one of the popular psychedelics outside of any clinical trial (LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, mescaline or ketamine) and who are likely to be more supportive of any investigational research have these characteristics:

  • Very liberal (52 percent)
  • Have a family income of $100,000 or more (42 percent)
  • Possess a postgraduate degree (42 percent)
  • Are 30-44 years old (39 percent)
  • Live in the Western U.S. (37 percent)

The survey also found that most Americans oppose decriminalizing psilocybin (44 percent), oppose decriminalizing LSD (53 percent), and oppose decriminalizing MDMA (53 percent).

Democrats (60 percent) are more likely to favor psychedelic research than independents (54 percent) and Republicans (45 percent).

So there it is – a disparity of opinions following various throughlines of demographics, reflective of the American landscape on many things right now.

But even as decriminalization efforts rally across the country, with researchers and lawmakers working together to change opinions about the therapeutic value of psychedelics in treating PTSD and treatment-resistant depression, there is a sense of a viral win for the acceptance of psychedelics.

Some believe the medical cannabis legalization movement that began in 1996 helped smooth the bumpy pathway to acceptance of another federally illegal substance, such as psychedelics.

“In summary, a door has been opened for the medical repurposing of psychedelics,” Carhart-Harris wrote. “The possibility exists that drugs like psilocybin can meet a major unmet need in the treatment of psychiatric disorders.

“Regardless of who the ‘right’ patient population might be eventually, a key challenge now is to design the optimal trial to demonstrate efficacy, agree its validity with regulatory authorities, and fund it.”

Dave Hodes

David Hodes is a business journalist based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He has contributed feature articles to several cannabis and psychedelics publications, as well as general business/lifestyle publications, on a variety of topics. Hodes was selected as 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access. He is a member of the National Press Club, and the deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.


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