Governments around the world consider mushrooms and LSD to be among the most dangerous illicit substances, but a new survey of drug users suggests that these psychedelics are actually some of the safest.
Around 20,000 people reported having used either mushrooms, which contain the psychoactive compound psilocybin, or LSD in the past year, according to the 2017 Global Drug Survey. Of those, just over 100 people reported seeking emergency medical treatment related to those drugs. Most of these cases were linked to LSD ― a total of 1 percent of recent LSD users and just 0.2 percent of recent mushroom users sought treatment.
By that metric, the survey concludes that mushrooms are the safest recreational drug. LSD ranked a close third behind marijuana, as 0.6 percent of people who’d used cannabis over the past year reported receiving emergency medical care.
All three drugs were less dangerous than alcohol, which was by far the most widely used intoxicant in the survey and led to 1.3 percent of all recent users seeking emergency treatment. For methamphetamine, the most harmful substance included on the survey, 4.8 percent of people who’d used in the last year ended up rushing to see a medical professional.
The Global Drug Survey, an independent research company that, since 2014, has partnered with medical experts and media groups to conduct its annual survey, compiled responses from more than 115,000 people in over 50 countries for its 2017 edition. More than 10,000 people from the U.S. responded.
Although drug concerns in the U.S. have centered around heroin and opioids in recent years, the survey suggests these substances are less of a problem elsewhere in the world. Just 2.4 percent of all respondents worldwide reported having used heroin in their lifetime, while 16 percent reported having used prescription painkillers. In the U.S., however, nearly 3 percent of respondents said they used heroin in the past year alone, while 21.2 percent said they used prescription opioids.
The survey underscores key differences between substances. For one, these drugs vary greatly in toxicity. Alcohol, cocaine and synthetic cannabinoids (sometimes called spice or K2) can cause acute harm at relatively low doses, which may lead users to seek treatment to prevent lasting health effects or even death. They are also linked to a number of common secondary health consequences, including injuries from accidents, self-harm or fights.
The typical harm profile of psilocybin and LSD looks a bit different. It’s almost impossible to overdose on these drugs alone, though using them with other substances can create more severe interactions. Even on their own, these psychedelics can cause intense episodes of fear, anxiety or disorientation, which may lead users to harm themselves, or to simply decide that they need to seek medical help. Those issues can be compounded among people who have pre-existing mental health conditions like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
The survey’s findings could say a lot about psychedelics and the way people use them. There’s little evidence of dependence or addiction related to mushrooms or LSD, said Adam Winstock, an addiction psychiatrist and founder of the Global Drug Survey, in an interview with HuffPost. Furthermore, people aren’t using them just because they think it’s fun to shroom or dose.
In fact, the survey showed that just 67.5 percent of lifetime users of psychedelics listed “recreation or fun” as a motivation for tripping. Gaining a deeper understanding of the world, learning more about yourself, mind expansion and curiosity all ranked higher. Another 35.9 percent wanted to “deal with emotional issues” and slightly more than one-quarter wanted to “deal with stress.”
Although the survey demonstrates that people use psychedelics for a variety of reasons, the relatively lower rate of purely social or recreational use means they have less overall to exposure to psychedelics than they do to other drugs, said Winstock.
He also pointed to a 2014 survey of psychedelics users in which respondents reported that they take a number of precautions before tripping.
“The second-most important strategy that psychedelic users said they adopted is they don’t drive and cycle when they’re on psychedelics, because that would be really dumb,” Winstock said. “People are more reckless with other drugs, perhaps because they feel more confident about their ability to control their actions and not be so distorted in the way they see the world, but they know that if they’re going to take a trip, they have to have their shit together.”
The emergency treatment rate for LSD was a full five times higher than it was for mushrooms, which Winstock said could be because LSD is far more potent and tends to be less predictable. Mushrooms come in a relatively standard dose worldwide ― a few pieces of fungi. It’s not possible to eyeball exactly how much LSD is on a tab or blotter, nor can you tell if it’s been adulterated with a novel psychedelic substance that could increase the risk of potentially negative or harmful interactions.
In general, however, Winstock suggested that drug users appear to exercise more common sense around psychedelics than they do with other substances.
“If people paid as much respect for the planning that they put in place when they take psychedelics, there’d probably be a lot less problems with drugs,” he said.
This isn’t to say that psychedelic trips always go as planned. Just over 5 percent of people who’d used mushrooms in their lifetime and 7.6 percent of those who’d used LSD said they’d had a difficult or negative experience involving the drug, according to the survey.
But not all “bad trips” are equal. Although clinical studies of psilocybin use have shown that, in rare cases, these episodes can have troubling long-term effects, users more frequently appear to find them “meaningful” or “worthwhile.”
This only stresses the importance of proper education and preparation, said Winstock.
The 2017 Global Drug Survey adds to a growing body of research that appears to challenge the grounds for the strict, nearly global prohibition on psychedelics. Both U.S. law and United Nations drug treaties hold that mushrooms and LSD have no medical value and a high potential for abuse and harm. But the data largely hasn’t supported that position, and emerging science has suggested that the drugs could be used to treat complex psychological conditions, including end-of-life anxiety and addiction.
In recent U.S. studies on people suffering from cancer-related anxiety and depression, psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy led to clinically significant reductions in symptoms for between 60 and 80 percent of subjects. Some patients reported that the benefits of a single dose of psilocybin, along with therapy, lasted up to seven months, with minimal side effects. Similar studies using LSD are also underway, though not in the U.S.
Initial studies have also shown that psilocybin may hold promise in treating alcoholism, building on a rich history of anecdotal evidence that psychedelic drugs, including LSD, could help people battle addiction. The Beckley Foundation, a leading advocate for psychedelic science, is also in the beginning stages of research into the effects of LSD microdosing on mood, cognition, productivity and creativity.
Supporters of psychedelics point out that this form of therapy is both controversial and potentially revolutionary because it doesn’t focus on treating symptoms. Rather, it holds that some mental illnesses can be addressed by essentially disrupting the default mode network, or ego, of a person’s brain, thereby targeting the root cause of the symptoms. In other words, it’s designed to eliminate the need for treatment, not offer an ongoing one.
Winstock says efforts like the Global Drug Survey prove it’s time to begin rethinking our approach to psychedelic substances. But he admits there are powerful interests standing in the way of progress, and not all of them are anti-drug government officials.
“The reason it’s taken so long is Big Pharma must be terrified,” said Winstock. “I’ve got patients that have been on antidepressants for years. [There’s a] possibility that you might be able to give someone six sessions of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and treat their depression so you don’t have to be on Prozac for five years, all with a drug [like psilocybin or LSD] that doesn’t have a patent.”
“That’s a huge threat to the industry,” he added, “but it makes sense to me.”