Weed is practically passé. There’s no longer anything too exciting about the fact that your dad regularly hits the joint at the family cookout, or that your mom occasionally swaps a nightly glass of wine for a few bites of an edible before bed. The thing is, it’s no longer exciting for them, either.
In recent years, psychedelics have undergone a cultural rebranding. The FDA is working with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to increase research on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD; Netflix recently released a documentary detailing celebrity experiences on psychedelics; and the drugs regularly receive optimistic coverage in straight-laced mainstream publications like Yahoo! Finance and Forbes.
Essentially, the institutional support of psychedelics is growing — and your parents are the target demo. As Rick Doblin, founder of MAPS, told Forbes in May, “You’re never too old for a psychedelic experience.”
Penny, 25, has had her fair share of psychedelic experiences. But while her parents were open-minded and allowed her to ask questions of them, they never partook themselves as she was growing up. Her father, however, had more than dabbled in his youth. “He claims that after following Grateful Dead for the summer of 1986 and allegedly eating an entire sheet of blotter during that time, he entered the Army and never did another drug until his 50th birthday,” she tells me. “He enlisted my 22-year-old brother to help him find mushrooms, and he had a nice little trip at home with his records and made peace with his life. Every now and again, he’ll imbibe mushrooms at a concert, but he doesn’t have any interest in trying LSD again.”
Psychedelics are a relatively “safe” illicit substance in many people’s minds, particularly psilocybin mushrooms. Like weed, they’re interpreted as more natural because they’re a plant, and for the most part, this interpretation is warranted. Beyond the potential for a bad trip, shrooms have few long-term physical side effects if taken in small quantities. Case in point: There are no known deaths from psilocybin.
LSD is similarly safe on a physical level, though it’s synthetic and more potent. It can be more of a challenge to know precisely what dose you’re taking, or whether you’re even taking true LSD, at all. This might be a change for older people who dabbled in psychedelics in previous decades. Just as weed has entirely transformed in quality and potency, developments in synthetic psychedelics might mean the “LSD” someone takes today offers an entirely different experience than the LSD of 30 years ago, with a different set of risks and side effects.
“I definitely think that he finds mushrooms to be a lot safer,” Penny says of her father. “His wife had a number of patients have adverse reactions to what they assumed was LSD in the late 1990s and early aughts, before it was easy to just order a test kit online. Then came patients dying from things like fake oxycodone in the last decade.”
While drug identification test kits are available online, there’s little regulation of them. Plus, though a test may be perfectly accurate, one would need to test multiple substances to be certain. “If he had a way to independently test LSD without having to trust that the test kits he was buying contained legitimate re-agent to prove content, he’d admittedly be more open to experiencing it again,” Penny says.
The exact statistics regarding psychedelic use among older adults don’t yet exist, but efforts to conduct this data are underway. Previous studies, however, suggest that Boomers are more likely than previous generations to use illicit drugs. While the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s report, “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health,” states that hallucinogens are used by a relatively low number of people in the U.S. monthly (1.6 million people, compared to 1.9 million cocaine users and 27.7 million marijuana users), hallucinogen use has grown each year among people over the age of 26, the oldest category studied.
Indicating a further interest in hallucinogen use is its slow creep toward decriminalization, alongside increasing medicalization. Only three cities, Oakland and Santa Cruz in California and Denver in Colorado, have decriminalized psilocybin and plant-based substances like ayahuasca and ibogaine, but nearly 100 more are considering doing the same. Such drug reform would not only prevent further incarceration for non-violent drug offenses, but numerous studies have found hallucinogens useful in treating alcoholism, opioid addiction and healing trauma and mental illness. Meanwhile, older Americans are facing increasing rates of anxiety, depression and suicide.
It’s the latter point that Natalie Ginsberg, Director of Policy and Advocacy at MAPS, sees as potentially powerful in connecting older adults with psychedelics. MAPS and other research organizations have conducted several studies on the effects of hallucinogenic therapy on end-of-life anxiety, and clinical trials of MDMA and psilocybin have been found to ease fears surrounding death in terminally-ill patients.
But even in older adults for whom death still seems distant, these fears might be partial inspiration to pursue the therapeutic effects of psychedelics in a recreational setting. “What I’m seeing reported to me is that a lot of older people are finding a lot of help from microdoses of mushrooms or LSD, which, of course, isn’t legal across most of the country, but it’s a very subtle way of improving mood and depression,” says Ginsberg. “I also think older people are drawn to bigger psychedelic experiences, not just microdoses, because of how psychedelic experiences change our understanding and feelings about death.”
It’s essential, though, that people looking to experiment with psychedelics prepare for the experience properly, whether they have utilized the substance previously or not. In psychedelics, this is called determining “set and setting.” “It’s good to have someone that you feel safe with. What would make a safe container for people? It’s different for everyone — some people can do it alone, but I think it’s good to have someone you feel safe with, someone who will give you alone time but be around so that there’s a sober person to respond to things. I think it’s helpful, but not necessary, to be in nature. It’s important to be comfortable, wear comfortable clothing, have music ready,” says Ginsberg.
Of course, preparing one’s emotional setting is just as essential. “Setting an intention is a really important thing, too,” Ginsberg continues. “This medicine is about connecting to yourself, so making a space that makes you feel really safe to connect with what we call in MDMA-therapy ‘your inner healing intelligence.’ If you get a cut, surgeons can sew it up, but they really just sew it so your body can heal itself. It’s the same with MDMA therapy. We’re making the right contact with the right medicine so that the body can heal itself.”
In states where cannabis has been legalized or approved for medicinal use, senior citizens saw the most significant increase in use compared to any other age group. Among the primary arguments for legalization and medicalization of cannabis was the belief that it could help ease pain from chronic conditions, something that would benefit older Americans most. Perhaps, then, psychedelic use could see a similar framing. After all, as hallucinogens become viewed as medicine for emotional pain, it’s older Americans who could need it the most.