This qualitative interview study (n=30) finds that the motivation given by recreational users of psychedelics is mostly centred around curiosity and ‘having fun’ and less, but still so, about decreasing ego-inflated pathology and increasing existential awareness.
“Psychedelic research is said to be going through a renaissance with widespread public and political attention on psychedelics’ ability to clinically resolve various medicalized issues. The prevailing cultural narrative of psychedelics almost touts it as a panacea when used in regulated, clinical settings under the supervision of a trained guide. While clinical studies are certainly informative, it is important to recognize that most psychedelic use takes place in social settings, not clinical ones. This paper seeks to expand the narrative on psychedelic research by presenting in-depth interview data on a diverse sample of 30 persons who report using psychedelic substances “on their own terms.” Data indicate multiple reasons for initial and subsequent psychedelic use, only some of which comport with the prevailing narrative that psychedelic use decreases ego-inflated pathology while increasing existential awareness. Indeed, while these reasons are cited among some when discussing reasons for continued use, most interviewees report motivations related to curiosity and having fun.“
Author: Cindy Brooks Dollar
Psychedelic research is said to be going through a renaissance, but most psychedelic use takes place in social settings, not clinical ones. In-depth interview data on 30 persons who report using psychedelic substances “on their own terms” indicates multiple reasons for initial and subsequent psychedelic use.
Psychedelic research is going through a renaissance, and media reports paint an image of psychedelics as a clinical corrective, but are these reports an accurate portrayal of psychedelic use in the United States?
Over 4 decades ago, the possession and sale of classic psychedelics was criminalized, but the US population has continued to use them. Hence, the resurgence of public attention and the changing narrative about psychedelic substances beg questions about their consumption and socio-cultural relevance.
Although many journalistic reports briefly mention native practices involving entheogenic hallucinogens, most mass media stories focus on funded clinical and neurobiological research being done at medical university hospitals. This paper attempts to gain a more accurate depiction of psychedelic use in the United States.
The paper proceeds by reviewing common categorizations of psychedelic substances, discussing the problematic cultural narrative of psychedelics, and then reviewing the respondents’ reported situational context regarding psychedelic use.
What are psychedelic hallucinogens?
Psychedelics are a type of hallucinogen that alter consciousness through the 2A receptor, which influences the brain’s regulation of vision and “gut feelings”.
Psychedelics’ prevailing cultural narrative
Indigenous populations have been ingesting hallucinogens for thousands of years, and researchers have been studying hallucinogens since the mid-1950s as a way to treat those diagnosed with schizophrenia and other conditions of perceptual disturbances. In the mid-1900s, famous intellectuals and artists began publicly sharing their own experiences with and understandings about psychedelic substances. Psychedelic studies suggested that the subjective experiences resulting from psychedelic ingestion was crucial to understanding outcomes.
The 1960s marked a unique time in US history with the rise of countercultures that openly experimented with psychoactive drugs. However, in 1967 possession and sale of psychedelics were criminalized throughout the US, and in 1970 The Controlled Substances Act was passed, making classic psychedelics a Schedule I drug.
Now, decades later, sanctioned clinical psychedelic research has returned. These studies involve multi-disciplinary teams comprised of neuroscientists, pharmacologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and/or counselors, and involve dosing patients with psychedelics to examine changes in their existential fears and end-of-life anxiety and depression.
Psychedelics have been widely investigated and their conclusions have garnered widespread attention. Today’s headlines seem rather homogenous in their medical focus, and Netflix has released documentary-style yet made-for-entertainment content pieces about the beneficial effects of psychedelic use.
Problematizing the existing cultural narrative
There is disjuncture between public attention on psychedelic use and the lived reality of it. Most psychedelic use in the United States occurs in social settings, and there are few studies investigating persons using moderate or high amounts of psychedelics in social settings.
In the present paper, I present in-depth interview data from 30 persons who report using psychedelics “on their own terms.” The data provides a more inclusive, arguably more realistic portrait of psychedelic use.
Drug use motivation
In 2011, Móró et al. found that persons using psychedelics differed from other drug users, citing a desire for self-knowledge enhancement. In 2019, Kettner et al. found that persons more commonly report using psychedelics in order to feel euphoric.
Beyond systematic studies comparing use patterns, there is reason to suspect that there are motivational differences across drug types. Medical research suggests that persons use psychedelics to resolve pains associated with depression, anxiety, or addiction.
This paper relies on in-depth interview data and discusses the reasons for initial and subsequent psychedelic use. The study is part of a larger project and provides insightful information about the participants, their perceptions, and their life experiences.
Data from 30 in-depth interviews with people who have experienced psychedelics provide the basis for the present analysis. The interviews were conducted in person or over the phone, and all participants seemed forthcoming about the information reported.
This project relies on a strict definition of snowball sampling, in which four persons were contacted who were previously known to me as users of hallucinogenic substances.
Interviews lasted 75 minutes on average, but ranged from 48 minutes to 4 hours and 23 minutes. Thematic analysis identified some clear consistencies across the interviews regarding stated reasons for initial and subsequent psychedelic use.
Participants reported having tried psilocybin, LSD, DMT, mescaline, PCP, nitrous oxide, ketamine, salvia, and MDMA, and had used marijuana more than once. Psilocybin was the most commonly used psychedelic, and the frequency of use ranged dramatically from 3 to 170 with the median being about 22 times.
Interviewees’ current age ranged from 18 to 71, and their first reported use of a psychedelic ranged from age 15 to 38. Most reported having no religious affiliation, although some expressed being “atheist,” “agnostic,” “not religious”, and “spiritual, but not religious”.
Five nationalities are represented among interview participants, but all are current residents of the United States. All participants identify as Caucasian or white, and the researcher-author presents as a white, southern, US woman. There are considerable differences in reported psychedelic drug use across racial – ethnic identity groups, including significantly lower use of hallucinogens among non-white US populations, which may be due to low opportunities to try hallucinogens and/or fears of reporting drug use given the criminalization of use among nonwhites.
The narratives reveal various socio-economic statuses, with most participants having a high school diploma or equivalency and at least some college education. Work status varied greatly, with some participants being unemployed or working in skilled trades or highly specialized professions requiring advanced degrees.
The data indicate that participants took psychedelics outdoors, at concerts, and private residences, sometimes alone and other times with friends, and sometimes in states and countries where the substances are decriminalized or legal.
Among the 30 persons interviewed, most indicated their use was “recreational,” but some reported having a profound or enlightening experience that sparked discussions of subsequent use.
Notes on situational context
Participants reported having at least one other person with them for their first psychedelic drug experience, most commonly a romantic partner or their identified “best friend”. Only a few recalled having a sober companion or “trip sitter” with them for their first time.
Almost all persons interviewed reported consuming their first psychedelic drug in their teens or early-20s, and only three reported their first illicit drug experience as occurring after young adulthood. One person reported using psychedelics at the age of 28, another at 30. Both reported that their first trip was “not so good” or “really negative”, and one did not consume another psychedelic substance until about 10 years later.
Thirteen persons interviewed used the word “curious” when asked why they used psychedelics the first time. Some answers were brief, while others gave more background on their initial interest in trying psychedelic substances.
When it came to shrooms, I wanted to try it. I never wanted to do acid, but I was curious about them.
Participants’ curiosity about psychedelic substances was spurred by their peers, romantic partners, or the media. Many participants linked their introduction from peers to their curiosity, which led to their first psychedelic use.
Feeling pressure from others
Interview participants described feelings of internalized pressure to conform rather than outright pleas from others to use a particular drug. They often suggested that they initially used a psychedelic drug to be with friends or to get comfortable with friends.
I’m sort of a natural born follower, and I liked rolling with them because they were good people. I probably would have done it just to fit in, but I paid for it by having this awful experience.
The following interviewee, who was a “late bloomer” to drug-taking, recalled his first psychedelic experience with LSD.
I was living with roommates and we all took acid. I was easily influenced and curious.
Few interview participants spoke about being directly pressured by another to use psychedelics their first time. Two additional narratives provide further examples of this form of pressure.
The first time I did shrooms, I went to the beach with the guy I was dating and his mom. Some people we knew were also down there, so we ate some mushrooms and had a great time.
My friend tried the LSD chemical first, and then convinced us to try the mushroom tea. He said he had an amazing experience, and I placed all my faith and trust in him.
I just did drugs
Several persons indicated that their first consumption of psychedelic drugs was simply a part of their exploratory drug use. However, one interviewee later admitted that his introduction to psychedelics was somewhat different than other substances.
When I was really young, I tried many substances because I wanted to feel good. With psychedelics, I wanted to ascend into another plane of existence.
This person’s life story was unique, but his age of first use, general drug use history, and first form of psychedelic drug were not.
Complexities in reasons for first-time use
Many narratives suggest more than one reason for first use, and reasons for initial consumption were often multiple and sometimes competing. For example, one individual initially replied “I don’t know” when asked to explain the reason for her first use, but later explained that she wanted to do all the drugs.
The first time I tried weed was out of curiosity to see how I would be in that state of mind and to party with my friends.
A friend said that we should try tripping before we went to a concert, so we did. I was raised by hippies, so I felt that idea of being connected to things and pushing boundaries was very interesting to me.
Notes on situational context
For first-time users, having a sober person present for psychosocial support and safety was rare, but more common among persons for their subsequent uses, even if it wasn’t always planned.
I was very interested because he said it’s a psychedelic, but it’s more intense, so I decided to try it. It was very scary at first, but my friend watched over me and calmed me down when I thought I was about to die.
Despite these arranged circumstances, some trip sitting occurs unplanned. One young man reported numerous experiences with psilocybin mushrooms and LSD.
We didn’t have a trip sitter, but we had somebody there to make sure that if somebody was having a bad trip, it was going to be handled.
Decisions to use a trip sitter or guide do not seem to be related to frequency or intensity of use.
Reported reasons for subsequent use
Three persons interviewed reported using psychedelics only once, and fifteen indicated that they continued to use psychedelics because of the drug’s ability to help them have fun, let loose with friends, or feel “fucked up”. However, people did not speak uniformly about what these characterizations meant to them.
Every other time after the first, I wanted to do something different, just to feel different. I never wanted to be more spiritual or enlightened.
All of my psychedelic use was recreational, but LSD had a serene experience that made me want to do it again.
These narratives are reminiscent of Ken Kesey’s early advocacy of psychedelic drug use, in which he urged using hallucinogenic drugs for enjoyment and the spontaneous self-indulgent effects that they generate. Some interviewees emphasized psychedelics’ fun-filled consequences but implied psychedelics were different from other drugs in helping them “let loose and have fun”.
After her first psychedelic experience, she took it again to be out in nature and take photographs to try and capture all the beauty.
Three persons discussed how their reasons for subsequent use of drugs changed over time, becoming less about entertainment and more about identity exploration and spiritual development.
The first few times I did it recreationally, but after that it grew into a more spiritual experience for me.
In the beginning, I was all about trying it and tripping. Now, I use it more for therapeutic and spiritual purposes, and I don’t really use it recreationally anymore.
The first time I remember using psychedelics was in college, when I had a truly beautiful experience. I realized how powerful of a medicine this was, and I started taking them regularly.
The notion of shifting from recreational to committed use of psychedelics is something noted by Rolando and Beccaria (2019). However, the present project indicates a somewhat unintentional process towards self or spiritual learning.
E xistential searching
Several persons reported using psychedelics for existential exploration, including to “figure out life”, to get through a challenging event, to learn about themselves, and to reconnect to nature or god.
None of the persons interviewed used the term entheogen(ic) to describe their interest or motivation for substance use, but many spoke of issues congruent with the so-called entheogenic movement, which advocates utilizing cognitive and/or spiritual tools to enhance questions, contemplations, and understandings of beingness.
Interviewees mentioned electing outdoor locations to “trip in” in order to “be close to nature” and discussed visceral reactions to substance-induced harmonization. These narratives suggest that the ingestion of hallucinogenic substances accelerated their existential intelligence.
It’s more about, ‘look at how beautiful my surroundings are!’ and ‘the world seems more magical for lack of a better word’
I got the sense that these little light color beings were the smallest component of existence, and they were playing and dancing around together in this joyous sort of way. They were the answers to all possible questions. Psychedelics can be used for a lot of reasons, but spiritual is the boldest or the highest. I approach it respectfully and think I can learn a lot from it.
Many persons interviewed voiced the need to respect psychedelic substances, even though they often followed such statements with expected criticisms of that viewpoint. Importantly, the respect was not always tied to nice experiences had from ingesting substances.
If you’re lucky, a good deep trip can be a shortcut to self-discovery or therapeutic, and it can keep the door open even if you haven’t been acknowledging that in your own psyche.
Grof (1980) compared LSD sessions to psychoanalysis, and Gasser et al. (2014) noted that LSD-assisted psychotherapy helped patients access repressed emotions and understandings with greater ease.
One interview participant’s telling of his last time using psilocybin mushrooms evoked the most memorable experience, including a meeting with a gentle, benevolent, amber-colored entity that “felt fatherly” and “god-like”.
I didn’t really have a father figure in my life, so the psychedelic learning experiences made me feel safe and confident that I could do it.
A Mazatec healer named Maria Sabina guided Gordon Wasson to his first mushroom experiences in 1955. In a book about her life, Sabina speaks about the sacred knowledge of her “children” offering “the voice of a father who gives advice”.
Discussion and conclusions
Researchers encourage medically regulated use of psychedelics, but the widespread and nearly exclusive media attention on medicalized use raises critical questions. The recent opiate crisis seems relevant in examining the current resurgence of human psychedelic experiments.
In the 1990s, civilians began voicing concern about increasing opioid-related deaths. In 2012, prescriptions for narcotics began to decline, and in 2016 the US Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency to address a national opioid crisis.
In the early 1990s, the first state-funded human subjects project on psychedelic science was granted, and public consideration on psychedelic use increasingly focuses on emotional and psychological pain. Pain has always been a politicized issue, but since the advancement of neoliberal capitalism, its socio-economic relevance has become more glaring. The opioid crisis and purported psychedelic science revival may be related to macrosocial conditions.
There is evidence that psychedelic-assisted therapy has beneficial outcomes, but I can’t help but wonder if mass media attention on psychedelic’s clinical potential implying a replacement drug for pain relief, and if so, what will be the consequences?
There are limited formalized studies among current self-managing psychedelic users, but some reports mirror conclusions from clinical studies, like experiencing upturns in positive mood and decreased anxiety. These reports further highlight users’ increased productivity and work-relevant problem-solving.
Participants in the present study indicated using psychedelics for recreational purposes, to escape boredom and routine, and to seek a sense of comradery. However, many also reported a desire to experience the drug’s deeper emancipatory potential. Users and investigators note that psychedelics reduce emotional, relational, and spiritual suffering, which can remedy existential concerns. The present study suggests that people use psychedelics to have fun, party, and feel comfortable with others, because their routine life may not allow them to embody the desired degree of enjoyment.
The present sample contains diversity on a variety of factors, including life experiences, age, gender, sexual orientations, nationality, religious affiliation, and frequency and forms of psychedelic and other drug use. Many persons identified with groups who have been socio-historically marginalized linked their life histories to their drug-related activities through their perceived social position.
The way other people were partying and knowing things that I didn’t know about scared me. When I got out of high school, I was able to approach things on my own terms and think the way I wanted to.
I think my defining quality is my intelligence, and I’m afraid of losing that, which informed my approaches to psychedelic drugs. When I came out in high school, I was never bullied because everyone knew that I was under the principal’s reign, and if I was harmed, there would be no protection for them. Education protected me from my home life and from what could have been potentially detrimental social experience. When I was in high school, I went through a very rebellious, devious phase and was encouraged to sit in my room and read, and I was very successful. When I was in my senior year of high school, I didn’t have any friends that I hung out with on the weekends, so I just stayed in my room and read. I met some good friends in my senior year of high school, and my life took a turn. I had complete faith in my friend, and I probably shouldn’t have, but I was blinded by my desire to keep our relationship.
Many elements of this narrative reflect prior research on the potential isolation among youth who express non-normative sexual identities, which can lead to defensive behaviors, including some forms of drug use. This excerpt also suggests how the longing for intimate, shared connection may encourage participation in substance ingestion.
One Latina interviewee indicated that her cultural background, individual life circumstances, and understandings about herself all influenced her reasons, expectations, and interpretations of her psychedelic drug experience. I went to the coral reef underwater and experienced being free and feeling out of this world. I don’t really know why I was triggered to go there, but I feel like I have a lot of discovery to do in myself. I come from a family that was basically witches, and I’ve closed off that part of me for so many years because of some experiences I had as a child that were not necessarily positive. This also blocks off my ability to know who I really am.
Nearly all interviewees discussed feelings of being atypical, jaded, or questioning, but the narratives cited immediately above emphasize the complex ways in which psychedelic use relates to perceived social position, cultural experience, and one’s specific life history.
This study seeks to capture the stories of persons who use psychedelic or entheogenic hallucinogens outside of the direct gaze of medical or clinical practitioners. By asking interview participants to openly discuss their reasons for and experiences with psychedelic substances, we gain further insight about potential motivations and meanings of use.
The above relayed findings have implications for criminology, criminal control policy, and fairness practices. They underscore the general ineffectiveness of criminalizing drug use, and the failure of physician prescribing practices to alter people’s willingness to rely on self-medication.
The complexity of motivations for psychedelic use points to the importance of using an intersectional approach in studying matters of criminology and the sociology of crime and control.
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