Hallucinogen Use Rises Significantly Since 2015, Research Finds
Separate NIH-supported study also reveals hallucinogen (and marijuana) use hit an all-time high in 2021.
More Americans than ever appear to be taking psychedelic drugs. According to a new estimate from researchers at Columbia University in New York City, more than 5.5 million U.S. adults are using hallucinogens.
In a study published this month in the journal Addiction, scientists calculated that hallucinogen use climbed from 2002 to 2019, from 1.7 percent to 2.2 percent in the population who are ages 12 and older, based on data from the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Since 2015, the overall prevalence of hallucinogen use during the following four years rose by 44 percent.
“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,” wrote senior study author Deborah Hasin, PhD, professor of epidemiology (in psychiatry) at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and her collaborators.
Dr. Hasin and her team spotlighted LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in particular — prevalence of its use shot up by 71 percent from 2002 to 2019. Commonly referred to as “acid,” LSD can cause unpredictable effects. The National Drug Intelligence Center (which is part of the Department of Justice) says that some LSD users experience a feeling of despair, while others report terrifying fears of losing control, going insane, or dying. Some users have suffered fatal accidents while under the influence of LSD.
LSD and other drugs with psychoactive substances can cause harmful physical effects as well, such as high blood pressure, rapid heart rate, loss of appetite, tremors, and seizures.
Shifting Perceptions on Harmful Effects
At the same time that hallucinogen consumption has grown, the public perception that these drugs are risky has declined, according to investigators. In part, this may be due to a rising interest in “microdosing,” or taking very low doses of a psychedelic substances in an effort to improve mood, memory, and attention.
Hasin and colleagues noted that some recent studies suggest that taking certain hallucinogens may offer therapeutic benefit for some mental health conditions, such as depression, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and alcohol dependence.
“While new findings suggesting benefits from the 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,” said first author Ofir Livne, MD, MPH, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, in a statement.
The researchers also mentioned that increased availability of hallucinogens at electronic dance music parties may have fueled higher use among young adults.
Results from a separate Monitoring Your Future (MYF) survey released on August 22 backed up this study’s findings. The MYF survey, which is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (part of the National Institutes of Health), found that hallucinogen use, as well as marijuana use, reported by young adults 19 to 30 years old increased significantly in 2021 compared with 5 and 10 years ago. While the Monitoring Your Future program tracks substance use among tens of thousands of teens, this survey was based on a subset of these participants, tracking their drug use into adulthood.
The MYF poll indicated that 8 percent of young adults reported hallucinogen use in 2021, compared with 5 percent in 2016, and 3 percent in 2011.
What Kinds of Hallucinogens Are Commonly Used?
Types of hallucinogens reported by participants included LSD, ecstasy, mescaline, peyote, “shrooms” or psilocybin, and PCP.
Ecstasy (sometimes called "Molly") is the common name for MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), a synthetic drug that alters mood and perception. Often referred to “angel dust,” PCP (phencyclidine or phenylcyclohexyl piperidine) may cause a feeling of being “out of body” and detached from the environment, according to the Partnership to End Addiction. PCP has been associated with hostile and violent behaviors.
The research out of Columbia University, however, discovered that not all drug use increased. Since 2002, prevalence in the consumption of ecstasy and PCP dropped. The study also showed that consumption of hallucinogenic drugs overall among those 12 to 17 declined since 2002.
“Future investigations should assess perceived risks of different hallucinogens and dissociative agents, such as psilocybin and ketamine,” concluded the authors.
They added that further research on more addictive hallucinogens (such as synthetic tryptamines) is warranted as these drugs “have become available throughout the United States in recent years.”