Move over, chardonnay – a growing number of professional British women are turning to hallucinogenic drugs to medicate their stress. But is it as safe as the evangelists claim? Kate Graham investigates.
Friday night rolls around and Ellie Hunt* has had a stressful week. Her job at a tech firm in Manchester is hectic and, like many of us, she struggles to switch off what she calls her ‘racing brain’. But Ellie, 31, doesn’t reach for a glass of wine to relax – she doesn’t drink or smoke. Instead, her favourite way to wind down involves something more mind-altering. ‘Once every three or four months, my husband and I take tiny amounts of magic mushrooms,’ she says. ‘We do it for a few days in a row and it gives me a great sense of wellbeing.’
Ellie is one of many professional UK women who are incorporating psychedelics – which heighten one’s state of consciousness – into their lives. Home Office statistics show psychedelic usage is on the rise, and that for women, there’s been a small but definite increase in hallucinogen use, up from 0.2 per cent in 2016/17 to 0.5 per cent the following year. Like Ellie, these women are a world away from the spaced-out students the word psychedelic normally conjures up: instead, they’re spending weekends at high-end psychedelic wellness retreats, taking private sessions with shamans or sampling drops of diluted LSD every morning – yes, really – to both destress and enhance their lives.
The current interest in psychedelics is down to an increased awareness of plant power and a disillusionment with traditional medicine, claims journalist-turned-shaman Anna Hunt, who runs retreats abroad (where psychedelics are legal) using the San Pedro cactus (which includes mescaline, a hallucinogenic) in Spain and ayahuasca in the Peruvian Amazon. ‘There’s been a dramatic increase in the number of people who’ve read about working with plants,’ she says. ‘And the idea of being on long-term medication, such as antidepressants, is unappealing to many of my clients.’
There are no guarantees, however, that psychedelics will deliver a calmer, happier you, says Harry Shapiro, director of online information service DrugWise: ‘Certain effects of drugs can be predictable, but psychedelics are not.’
There is a growing interest in psychedelics at universities and research centres across the world, including the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, where Michelle Baker-Jones is the lead guide on a clinical trial. ‘Under psychedelics, different parts of the brain start to communicate. Lots of novel connections are made, which appear to provide a fresh start for the brain. It’s like shaking a snow globe – it can help people get unstuck with their persistent negative thinking.’
Her colleague Dr Rosalind Watts is working on a study comparing the impact of psilocybin (found in mushrooms) to antidepressants. While it’s still in the early stages, she says the results from their previous study were encouraging; many participants found the drug gave them a window of being depression-free for months.
Psychedelic retreats abroad are often the first stop for women interested in experiencing the effects. At Synthesis, held in the Netherlands – where ‘magic truffles’ containing psilocybin are legal – 42.5 per cent of attendees are female, and visitors with ‘professional, high-profile jobs’ from the UK are second only to Americans, according to director of operations Rachel Aidan.
Alexa*, a 45-year-old coach from London, described her first time taking psychedelics at a Synthesis retreat as ‘profound. It helped me get out of the emotional pain of a devastating divorce. I left the retreat and went on to completely change the direction of my life.’
Alexa has since taken psychedelics again. She has also experimented with microdosing, which sees British women like her and Ellie taking miniscule amounts for a perceived boost to everyday life. One of the biggest buzzwords in pyschedelics right now, it is what’s known as a sub-perceptible dose; there are no visual effects and you don’t ‘trip.’
While microdosing is thought to have started in the US in the 1960s, the practice was given a boost more recently with tales of Silicon Valley tech gurus using the technique to increase productivity. Entrepreneur Sophie*, 41, from London, tried microdosing LSD in 2018. She’s found that it benefits her working life. ‘My intention was to be more productive in my business, and I kept a journal of the results,’ she says. ‘I would take around ten micrograms of LSD every fourth day, for a period of around ten weeks. Then I’d have a break of around two weeks and start again. I stopped procrastinating and became more focused. I’m naturally an introvert, which held me back from doing live videos for my business. Suddenly I was able to do them every day.’
She still follows this schedule, sourcing LSD on the black market. Its illegality is the biggest negative to using psychedelics, says Ellie, closely followed by how people would react if they knew. ‘No one bats an eyelid at people drinking wine to unwind, but there is definitely judgment about using drugs.’
What about the other risks? Sophie said that having just a slightly bigger dose than her usual 10 micrograms made her anxious, while at Imperial College, the team are cautious when screening participants for the study. Heart problems can be an issue, as the drug can raise your blood pressure during the session; also people with a family history of psychosis
are excluded. According to drugs information service Frank, taking LSD can make mental health issues worse, or even be responsible for setting off a mental health problem that had previously gone unnoticed. ‘Psychedelics are powerful. You could be plunged back into past painful traumas and emotions that had been shut away,’ says Dr Watts.
Then there’s the issue of whether the psychedelics are doing anything at all, particularly when it comes to microdosing. Matthew Johnson, who is studying the use of psilocybin as an anti-addiction drug for smoking at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, raises the issue of a placebo effect. He points out that while his research uses doses as high as 50 milligrams of psilocybin, a microdose could be one milligram or less. At that level, could the positive effects be simply in your mind? ‘If you’re microdosing and you’re expecting to have a really positive day, then it’s more likely that you will. I just wonder how special the effects are.’
As for those larger doses, while Johnson agrees with the ‘snow globe’ analogy (‘it does cause a strong disturbance in brain activity’), he questions what that actually means in the long term. ‘The real work needs to be done in examining the longstanding behavioural changes. That’s where the unknown is. People should absolutely be cautious when it comes to psychedelics. There are very real risks.’
With further research, could we soon see the use of psychedelics as an accepted part of British culture, the equivalent of a lunchtime yoga class? ‘If the scientific studies continue to show positive results, I hope safe psychedelic therapies will become accessible to those who need them, but they shouldn’t be taken lightly,’ says Dr Watts. ‘With yoga, so long as you have a good teacher you’re probably not going to come to any harm. With psychedelics, even though they’re potentially helpful, they also have the potential to be challenging.’
Psychedelics and the law
Both LSD and magic mushrooms are Class A drugs, meaning that possession can get you up to seven years in prison, an unlimited fine or both – while supplying someone else can mean up to life in prison, an unlimited fine or both.
The Psychedelic Society lists the best known sources, which includes LSD, psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), DMT (found in ayahuasca, a brew made from plants used in traditional ceremonies by indigenous Amazon tribes) and mescaline (found in certain cacti).
*some names have been changed.