You’re not tripping: LSD is making a comeback

They were scientists and writers in the ’40s and ’50s, mystics and musicians in the ’60s and ’70s, neo-psychedelic counter-culturalists in the ’80s and ’90s.

And in the 2010s, they’re back — as college students.

“They” are users of LSD – lysergic acid diethylamide, the psychedelic drug that causes visual hallucinations, a distorted sense of time and a feeling of euphoria.

The proportion of 18- to 25-year-olds who reported using LSD in the past year grew by 40% between 2013 and 2015, according to the government-funded National Survey on Drug Use and Health. In comparison, use rates among people ages 26 and older stayed constant over the same time period.

The upswing reflects not only new uses for LSD – like taking small doses to improve creativity or focus – but also a shift in attitude among students who see the illicit drug as relatively safe and even potentially beneficial, despite the risks.

“People start out of curiosity,” said Nick Morris, who says he used LSD “casually” while at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where he graduated in 2015. “People are curious about expanding their minds and developing new thought patterns. A lot of people do it just to see what it feels like.”

 

Not your grandparents’ LSD 

Part of the reason for the upswing in LSD use is that the student population tends to be less afraid of the drug than in previous decades, says Frank White, a sociology professor at the University of North Dakota who teaches a class on drugs and society.

Taken in tab form, acid, as it’s commonly known, evokes images of drug-fueled escapades: people jumping out of windows while “tripping” because they believed they could fly, or staring at the sun for so long they went blind. Though some of these stories have been proven false, instances of people behaving erratically — and even violently — while on LSD are well documented.

But although some users have had “bad trips” with negative effects like panic attacks, flashbacks and psychosis, White says students today don’t have the same negative associations with LSD that their parents and grandparents did. Because LSD use fell significantly in the early 2000s following a drop in availability, many college-age students haven’t heard the extreme stories that circulated among earlier generations, and view LSD almost with fresh eyes.

“Some of the stigma has been removed,” White said. “Students today are more open to it. They haven’t grown up with the same scare tactics.”

Part of the reason is that LSD today is much less potent, with the average dose less than half of what it was in the 1960s. This makes overdoses, serious accidents and bad trips less likely to happen, White says.

In fact, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the number of overdose deaths from LSD have stayed near zero since 1999. And Steve Sussman, a University of Southern California professor specializing in drug use among adolescents and adults, points out that LSD typically isn’t addictive.

 

Experimentation and innovation

Students have different reasons for wanting to try LSD, from enhancing their experience at music festivals to going against the grain of society, says Kyle Buller, who founded hallucinogen-oriented news site Psychedelics Today last year. Buller, 29, says that it’s sometimes seen as a rite of passage or part of typical young adult exploration, like experimenting with alcohol or sex.

“Psychedelics are not new, but the internet makes information spread like wildfire, and new information keeps growing,” Buller said.

One newer form of LSD use that’s taken root in some colleges is microdosing, a practice that involves taking small amounts of LSD – usually about one tenth of a common dose, or 10 micrograms – to enhance creativity or sharpen focus without causing the strong visual effects of a full dose. The trend has been widely documented among Silicon Valley tech executives, and researchers like psychologist James Fadiman are accepting volunteers for self-reported studies on how the technique impacts their lives and work.

And for students, microdosing is a way to “enhance everyday experiences,” says Morris, the CU-Boulder graduate. As an undergraduate in 2014, Morris founded the Psychedelic Club to provide a space for students to talk about their experiences with psychedelics, and he now runs the national nonprofit organization that grew out of it.

Morris — whose flagship club at CU-Boulder now has about 100 members, by his estimate — says he knows students who microdose while hiking, studying, exercising or journaling. They find that LSD makes experiences like producing art, skydiving or testing out virtual reality programs all feel deeper and more intense.

Sussman notes that the practice has a scientific basis. “While tripping dosages may lead to a variety of perceptual distortions … light dosages have been associated with mood improvement, increase in sensory perception, possibly better social collaboration,” Sussman said.

Sussman added that “there is continued consideration as to whether LSD might help persons suffering from anxiety and depression.” Emerging research in this area – which is still restricted because of LSD’s status as a Schedule I drug that’s strictly banned by the federal government – is looking into how LSD can assist in psychotherapy, with organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies organizing some early studies.

 

An emphasis on education

The number of students using LSD is still relatively low. The 2015 Monitoring the Future study, which tracks drug use among young people and is funded by the National Institutes of Health, found that just 3% of college students used LSD in the past year. At its peak in 1995, the percentage was more than double.

College students are using other drugs, like marijuana — 37.9% used it in the past year, according to the 2015 study — at much higher rates. But the recent spike in LSD use can still be dangerous, White says, because the drugs students think they’re getting aren’t always what they appear. Drug dealers can mix hallucinogens with unknown substances or other, more dangerous drugs like methamphetamine – a process called “cutting” or adulteration – to increase profits.

Even if they get the right substance, White says, students might not use it safely because of a lack of education. So instead, he advocates working with law enforcement, school administrators and medical professionals to teach students about the real risks and safest methods, a process called “harm reduction.”

That’s the aim of Morris’ Psychedelic Club, which has expanded to the University of North Dakota, where White teaches, as well as the University of Georgia and the cities of Denver and Chicago. The Psychedelic Clubs hold regular meetings, invite guest speakers, promote awareness of psychedelic research and educate members about the effects and risks of different drugs.

They’ve faced some opposition from college administrators at CU-Boulder, Morris says, like when they rented out drug-testing kits to students so they could tell what they were using or when they provided trained “trip sitters” who would watch out for them while they were under the influence.

Ryan Huff, a spokesman for CU-Boulder, confirmed that the university doesn’t condone the use of illegal drugs, which are “harmful to (students’) health and not permitted on campus.”

But Morris says the Psychedelic Club has a good relationship with the administration overall because its main goal is education, not promotion.

“I came in not knowing how to navigate the different states (of consciousness) myself, and not seeing how it could cause psychological difficulties,” Morris said. “There should be a space where people can openly talk about those experiences and learn about them safely.”

Diana Kruzman is a University of Southern California student and a USA TODAY College intern.