Psychedelic revolution? Over 5.5 million Americans now use hallucinogens, study reveals

NEW YORK — Does the United States have a growing drug problem? Researchers from Columbia University suggest that more American adults than ever are experimenting with hallucinogens. Their study finds hallucinogen use has increased noticeably since 2015 among Americans over the age of 26.

Conversely, adolescents between 12 and 17 are using fewer hallucinogens. In 2019, estimates show that more than 5.5 million Americans used hallucinogens, accounting for 2.2 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 12. For comparison, roughly 1.7 percent of the population used hallucinogens in 2002.

More specifically, LSD use between 2002 and 2019 increased across all age groups. The past 12-month rate of use increased from 0.9 percent in 2002 to four percent in 2019 among Americans between 18 and 25.

Meanwhile, PCP use among Americans has declined since 2002, and ecstasy rates have seen a similar drop since 2015. This project is the first ever to formally perform a series of statistical analyses examining the prevalence of overall hallucinogen use while assessing different age groups over the past two decades.

To research this topic, study authors analyzed data provided by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) pertaining to 2002-2019 for participants 12 and older.

What are hallucinogens?

The term “hallucinogen” covers a large array of psychoactive substances, including drugs like LSD. The United States classifies most hallucinogens as Schedule I drugs, which often cause adverse side-effects such as anxiety, confusion, acute delusional states, and a prolonged sense of fear and dread. Additionally, studies have connected LSD, ecstasy, and many other hallucinogens to an increased risk of autonomic, endocrine, cardiovascular, and neurological side-effects like high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, loss of appetite, tremors, and seizures. PCP is one of the most dangerous hallucinogens, due to its tendency to cause hostile and violent actions in users.

“While new findings suggesting benefits from use of certain hallucinogens among a range of cognitive areas are being published at a rapid rate, there are still gaps in knowledge concerning safe hallucinogen use, and evidence for potential adverse effects even with professionally supervised use that warrant attention,” says first study author Ofir Livne, MD, MPH, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School, in a university release.

Is there a ‘psychedelic revolution’ coming?

While the prevalence of 12-month LSD use among Americans increased between 2002 and 2019, risk of “regular LSD use” actually dropped significantly overall among all age groups between 2002 and 2014.

“Our finding of an upward trend in 12-month LSD use, overall and by age, matches our finding of a downward trend in perception of LSD as risky,” explains senior study author Deborah Hasin, PhD, professor of epidemiology (in psychiatry) at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “Factors such as changes in risk perception, in the specific types of drugs available and in expectations of beneficial effects of ‘microdosing’ may all have led to increased use of certain hallucinogens in recent years.”

“Given the recent media coverage showing that an increasing number of adults may be reporting positive effects of ‘microdosing’ and expecting therapeutic benefits of hallucinogens without negative effects, our findings merit a comprehensive examination of time trends and motives for hallucinogen frequency and quantity of use,” Dr. Livne adds.

“In light of popular media reports of a forthcoming ‘psychedelic revolution’ with commercialization and marketing that may further reduce public perception of any risk, researchers, clinicians and policymakers should increase their attention to the rising rates of unsupervised hallucinogen use among the general public,” Dr. Hasin concludes. “Our results highlight such use as a growing public health concern and suggest that the increasing risk of potentially unsupervised hallucinogen use warrants preventive strategies.”

The study is published in the journal Addiction.

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