There’s no fear quite like the nervous burst of energy before you plunge into a psychedelic trip. It’s steady pulse of “what ifs” and second thoughts which feel something like the click, click, click of a roller coaster car climbing the track before the big drop. Like a rolling coaster, the resulting few hours are filled with emotional and visual peaks and valleys. Thanks to a new report from the Global Drug Survey (GDS), it turns out that eerie feeling is all we have to fear about psychedelics.
According to the most recent GDS numbers, collected annually from recreational users around the world, psychedelics are the safest substances you can take.
The report found that LSD, marijuana, and psilocybin – the active chemical in magic mushrooms – were responsible for significantly less emergency room visits than any other recreational drug. At the top of the list were Methamphetamine, synthetic cannabis, and alcohol. Prescription drugs were not included in the survey.
So what gives? How is it that some of the most feared drugs in the world are also the safest?
According to Brad Burge of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Sciences, there are a number of factors that contribute to the safety of a psychedelic trip. MAPS is currently conducting tests on MDMA as a treatment for PTSD, clinical trials which have reached the final phase of FDA approval.
In the lab, MAPS use the purest form of whatever psychedelic they’re testing. But on the street, says Burge, it’s difficult to know what you’re really getting.
“The majority of Molly that’s found on the street doesn’t have any MDMA in it at all and often has other amphetamines in it.” Says Brad, which might explain the higher number of emergency room visits.
Dr. Alex O’Bryan-Tear of the Beckley Foundation agrees, almost all street drugs are not entirely what’s advertised. “Whether you see that as a harm that is inherent to the drug or the current legal situation is up for debate.” He adds.
While it appears that magic mushrooms are a low-risk choice, both Burge and Dr. O’Bryan-Tear agree that it’s difficult to say whether any drug is truly the safest. In the end, these are self-reported cases and when it comes to psychedelics, it’s all comes down to context.
“There are psychological risks of course,” Burge says, “someone can be traumatized by taking too much LSD in the wrong context.”
To that end, the environment is incredibly important and that’s why researchers and recreational users alike have come to focus on something called set and setting. The term refers to the mindset of the individual and the setting in which the substance is administered. With those qualifiers in mind, MAPS and Beckley vet all of their participants for health and psychological issues and the labs are not your typical sterile operating room. They are decked out in cozy décor to ease the participants into a sense of comfort and guided through with the help of therapists and a dope playlist.
“[The setting is] not just important for psychedelics it’s important for all drugs,” Burge insists, noting that drinking in your living room is a totally different experience from drinking in your car. That difference, coupled with the user’s mental state can make for an enlightening experience or a traumatizing trip to the emergency room.
Once there, it’s the self-reported experiences that can skew the statistics and exacerbate the dangers of the drug. It’s something which Dr. O’Bryan-Tear considers to be an overestimation of the patient’s needs. “What you get,” He says, “is people having a bad trip who…didn’t need medical help, they just need someone to sit with them and relax them.”
It’s that relaxing environment which MAPS provides at festivals like Burning Man, where their Zendo Project aided over 400 Burners this year. That project offers a comfortable place for festival-goers to ride out their trip, emphasizing a need to go with the flow of emotions that often wash over you rather than fighting them.
Dr, O’Bryan-Tear points out that, it’s difficult to get a sense of the risk of bad trips in recreational settings. Especially when a trip could last hours. An LSD or psilocybin trip is very much a roller coaster ride and negative emotions don’t always mean that the overall experience was negative.
As for an overdose, there has never been a recorded incident for either LSD, Marijuana or Magic Mushrooms. In fact, it’s said that the highest known dose of LSD was 32,000 times the recreational dose and as Dr. Obryan-Tear points out, the brave individual who went into that rabbit hole eventually made it out safely.
Which is not to say that psychedelics should be underestimated. They are substances which have an incredibly profound effect on our minds and that kind of power demands respect. But as research suggests and the numbers show, the monsters are all in our head.