Psychedelics are definitely having a moment. As a new wave of research around the substances continues to be funded globally, many have deemed recent years to be the “psychedelics renaissance.” The once largely underground network of guides and Ayahuasca ceremonies has bled into the surface, permeating the consciousness of mainstream America and beyond. More than ever before, psychedelics are being used in professional contexts rather than just for recreational purposes. Tech professionals in Silicon Valley have been microdosing with psychedelic gurus to improve their work performance, MDMA has been used in therapeutic trials for those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other forms of mind-altering substances have gradually taken hold of the zeitgeist.
The 1960s were the last time psychedelics flourished in the Western world. This is why people tend to relate the substances with popular movements from the time, particularly those that took place in the US. Given their connection in many of our minds to hippies and the feeling of openness that comes as a result of these drugs, a majority of people view psychedelics in relation to wide-scale, complex issues. Social anthropologist David Dupius has previously affirmed this claim, stating that “surveys of the general population suggest that experiences with psychedelic drugs might change people’s political views and their attitudes towards nature.”
Some see psychedelics as potential antidotes to problems such as war, political disagreements and climate change as they inspire humans to embrace perspectives that are bigger than themselves. Few researchers have even advocated for the use of Ayahuasca—a powerful traditional substance naturally found in South America—to remedy the Palestine-Israel conflict. Psychedelics have also been lauded as a be-all and end-all solution for a plethora of individual and worldwide issues, especially as they continue to be addressed in the mainstream, such as on Netflix documentaries or even nationwide talk shows.
While psychedelics do have properties that encourage the dissolution of the self or the ‘I’, researchers have found that taking these substances may not have the world-salvation effect that many imagine them to harbour. For instance, Dupuis wrote that “psychedelics might just reflect or amplify the dominant values of the individuals that use them” rather than inspire them to seek out alternative perspectives. Much like the filter bubbles we all experience when interacting with social spaces online, Brian Pace, a plant pathologist at Ohio State University, observed that psychedelic research has demonstrated “an amplification of what’s laying around—which in this case would be sort of neoliberal individualist narratives.”
Pace’s statement can perhaps be best illustrated by the adoption of psychedelics and microdosing throughout Silicon Valley. The term became popularised by the subreddit dedicated to the topic over recent years, on which people document their experiences with the practice. Those involved in the tech world have praised the effects of taking small amounts of psychedelics, stating that it increases their productivity and creativity. Diane, the founder of a startup based in San Francisco, for instance, discussed with The Financial Times how regularly microdosing LSD has helped her succeed professionally. She noted that, when networking, the small dosage she takes “enhances connections and heightens empathy”—allowing her to form better connections.
Though microdosing psychedelics can be beneficial and enlightening for some, it’s important to recognise that the substances are often being taken in fast-paced corporate environments, rather than their traditional, often non-Western, settings. Diane explained this, saying that LSD “amplifies whatever is happening in your brain… We [tech professionals in Silicon Valley] are all productivity-obsessed, so that’s our usage of it.”
With this in mind, Pace further observed that, rather than prompting solutions to increase global interconnectivity, many in Western contexts seem to be coming out of trips with business-oriented ideas. In other words, Pace said, Silicon Valley micro-dosers have psychedelic-induced revelations such as: “How can I make an app to monetise this experience?” This example displays how hallucinogenic drugs can also reinforce existent, dominant modes of capitalism and other systemic structures, instead of inspiring people to think outside of this realm.
Despite the flurry of positive social change many often attribute to psychedelic usage, it’s important to keep in mind that the “psychedelics renaissance is still taking place in a market economy,” as Dupius pointed out. The researcher noted that “rather than being powerful tools for social transformation, psychedelics thus appear as non-specific—and relatively neutral—amplifiers of existing cultural factors.” What’s more, he stated, is that “the psychedelic experience remains strongly shaped by the norms and values of the social groups of those who use them.” With this in mind, individual psychedelic usage can be viewed more as an enhancement of one’s own perspectives and politics rather than a sure-fire tool for social change.
Though psychedelic usage is often linked to those who identify as liberal, it’s remarkably easy to find examples of how the far-right have embraced the substances for their own agendas. As Pace put it, though “psychedelics are chemicals carrying a lot of cultural baggage […] there is nothing inherent or essential to their character.” In other words, the substances have the potential to enhance a wide spectrum of ideologies, for better and for worse
Similarly, the way in which psychedelics have become the new hot industry to invest in demonstrates how the emergence of the drugs into the mainstream may just strengthen the present cultural and economic systems. There’s a clear discrepancy between the idea that psychedelics can be used for large-scale, disruptive changes when venture capital funds are being utilised to bring the substances to market.
It’s salient to say that increased accessibility to psychedelics can help those dealing with traumatic experiences and other mental health issues tremendously. However, the repercussions of these drugs entering the market economy should be understood to be at odds with the ideas of alternative lifestyles often connected to the substances. While psychedelics can contribute to greater day-to-day euphoria, the reality emerging in the mainstream marketplace leaves little room for the wide-scale utopian ideals often expected from the drugs.