Casual use of acid, especially in low doses, on rise again T
hey were scientists and writers in the ’40s and ’50s, mystics and musicians in the ’60s and ’70s, neo-psychedelic counterculturalists in the ’80s and ’90s.
And in the 2010s, they’re back — as college students. “They” are users of LSD — lysergic
ofIrresistibly acid diethylamide, the psychedelic drug that causes visual hallucinations, a distorted sense time and a feeling of euphoria.
The proportion of 18- to 25year-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 used LSD “casually” while at the University of Colorado-Boulder, from which 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.”
LESS STIGMA, LOWER DOSES
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, said 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 said 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 said.
In fact, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the number of overdose deaths from LSD has 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.
ENHANCING DAILY LIFE
Students have different reasons for wanting to try LSD, from enhancing their experience at music festivals to going against the grain of society, said Kyle Buller, who founded hallucinogen-oriented news site Psychedelics Today last year. Buller, 29, said 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
James Fadiman are accepting volunteers for self-reported studies on how the technique affects their lives and work.
And for students, microdosing is a way to “enhance everyday experiences,” Morris said. As an undergraduate in 2014, he founded the Psychedelic Club to provide a space for students to talk about their experiences with psychedelics, and he now runs the national non-profit that grew out of it.
Morris — whose flagship club at CU-Boulder now has about 100 members, by his estimate — said 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.
The practice has a scientific basis, Sussman said: “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.”
And “there is continued consideration as to whether LSD might help persons suffering from anxiety and depression,” he said. Emerging research in this area — which is still restricted because of LSD’s status as a Schedule I drug — is looking into how LSD can assist in psychotherapy.
“Students today are more open to it. They haven’t grown up with the same scare tactics.”
Diana Kruzman LSD is often ingested in tab form, portioned into doses and dropped onto tear-apart sheets. Frank White, Diana Kruzman is a University of Southern California student and a USA TODAY College intern.