Prescription proscription

A growing number of people believe taking tiny amounts of psychedelic drugs has therapeutic effects where other medicines haven't worked. But research is hampered by moral panic

Hero image

Ayelet Waldman is an unlikely psychonaut. A self-confessed “nerdy” middle-aged mother of four, the former attorney turned novelist has never scored illegal drugs. Her kids describe her as a “basic bitch”. She isn’t seeking a chemical sat-nav to spiritual enlightenment, nor to explore the outer reaches of her mind. But some time ago she started dropping acid. She’s merely one of a growing number of professionals asking: can microdosing LSD make you happier and more productive?

Whereas LSD used to be associated with providing an escape hatch from reality, it’s now helping people confront – and thrive within – it. No longer counter-culture, it’s instead the drug du jour of the “squares”. Microdosing is reportedly widespread in Silicon Valley, as tech-savvy workers find it helps them perform. Rolling Stone called it the “hot new business trip”.

“People who microdose don’t want to trip their balls off,” explains Waldman, from her home in Berkeley, California. “We just want to feel better. It’s like taking a little bit of Zoloft [an anti-depressent] mixed in a cocktail shaker with Adderall [an amphetamine used to treat ADHD] but with none of the negative side-effects.”

As she details in her recent book – deep breath – A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made A Mega Difference In My Mood, My Marriage and My Life, Waldman’s life has long been hijacked by her volcanic mood swings. Diagnosed with, variously, bipolar disorder, premenstrual dysphoric disorder and post-partum depression – as well as suffering from a painful case of frozen shoulder – her frame of mind tailspinned downwards upon reaching the threshold of the menopause.

“I began to get really unstable,” remembers the 52 year old. “I was picking fights with my husband [Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chambon] and being a shitty mom to my kids. I was more and more despairing and then I started getting suicidal. That was the moment I realised I needed to take action. I decided to try something that seemed crazy at the time – but in retrospect does not – which is microdosing.”

Ayelet Waldman microdosed for a month. “It proved to be a miracle.”

As her book’s title suggests, the gamble was a resounding success. It worked as a system reset on her brain. Within a dose, she found herself calmer, able to concentrate better and gliding into a state of “mental flow” – a feeling of full immersion in her activities. “It proved to be a miracle,” she says.

Microdosing means taking a minuscule amount of LSD, 10-20mg (a trip would be 100-150mg), of psilocybin – the magic component in magic mushrooms – every three days. There are no hallucinations with these tiny doses, just an increased sense of wellbeing and myriad testimonies of good, productive days. LSD activates 5-HT2A receptors in the brain, increasing the transmission of glutamate – which some scientists call Miracle-Gro for the brain, because it increases growth, connections and activity.

Albert Hoffman, the Swiss scientist who first synthesised LSD in 1938, microdosed for the last two decades of his life

In the midst of a downwards spiral of pain and depression – and in between Googling the effects of suicide on children – Waldman stumbled upon The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide by the Californian psychologist and writer James Fadiman who, since 2010, has been cataloguing people’s experiences of microdosing. He decided to study the effects after discovering that Albert Hoffman, the Swiss scientist who first synthesised LSD in 1938, had microdosed for the last two decades of his life to clarify his thinking.

“He lived to be 102 and was still giving two-hour lectures aged 100, so I thought, maybe there’s something to it,” says Fadiman. She says people who microdose can be split into two distinct groups: the “harder, faster, stronger” biohackers, and those who are in pain. His inbox overflows with emails from people from more than 20 different countries – 18 per cent from the UK – reaching out to take part in his anecdotal study. “It’s hugely popular at the moment,” he says. “It feels like microdosing has finally been discovered.”

There has never been an officially sanctioned study of microdosing – most research ceased when LSD became vilified as a threat to conservative America in the 1960s – but Fadiman’s collection of accounts reveals that the hallucinogen enhances energy and creativity. “Put simply: it makes people function better,” he says.

“Depressed people have told me they’ve had five different kinds of therapy and nothing’s helped. Within taking a microdose twice – that’s once every three days – they’re feeling considerably better already.”

A twenty-something woman who suffers from crippling social anxiety recalls: “I took a microdose and, as a test, I went to a supermarket at night. Usually when I go there, I keep my head down and don’t make eye contact and it takes me forever to make a decision. After my first dose, I went and I made purchases with ease and I looked at people. It was if I was normal.”

The lack of research into microdosing, Fadiman says, is partly due to “the fact nobody noticed”. At higher doses, psychedelics have “amazing, vivid, staggering, life-changing effects. Synaesthesia is common, so music is colour and colour is music.” But the dose required to simply function better is sub-perceptual. “Let me give you a parallel. When you get older, you’re supposed to take a baby aspirin, 81mg daily, for your heart. Now aspirin has been around as a drug for 150 years, but it was only 20 years ago that somebody said: ‘What would be the effect of taking one-fifth of the usual dose?’ It keeps people from dying from heart disease – but nobody noticed.”

Unpacking the political baggage of LSD, Waldman argues that the apocryphal scare stories of students whose hallucinations led them to jump off high buildings have little basis in reality. “What happened was you had the rise of the counter-culture movement simultaneously with the civil rights movement. You had a lot of white kids deciding they were going to protest the [Vietnam] war, and they were going to align with African-Americans and protest civil rights. Into this tumult steps mystical drugs guru Timothy Leary, with his rallying cry of ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’.

“LSD is non-addictive, and its known side-effects seem non-threatening compared with many attention and mood disorder meds on the market.”

“What’s more terrifying to your average white parents than a message to their children to drop out of college? Nothing. Immediately, Nixon jumped on this and LSD was permanently linked in the social imagination to the counter-culture and anti-war movement and it was criminalised.”

Under pressure from the US, in 1971 the United Nations categorised psychedelics as class A drugs. Much of the world followed suit, including the UK. But despite its forbidding reputation, LSD appears medically safe. “There’s no LD50 [lethal dose] with LSD because we don’t have a verified fatality,” notes Waldman. “It’s non-addictive, and its known side-effects seem non-threatening compared with many attention and mood disorder meds on the market.”

“Antidepressants were a great miracle but the research I have is that for at least a third of people, they don’t work well at all. Since they’re the most popular pharmaceuticals in the world, that’s a lot of people.”

“Bill Wllson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, wanted LSD to be part of AA’s offficial protocol because there’s tremendous research that psychedelic drugs, when used in the appropriate setting, can be effective in causing people to stop using destructive drugs like heroin – and getting over addiction to alcohol.”

The science behind it is that depression and addiction rest on reinforced patterns of brain activity. Microdosing a psychedelic will introduce a chaotic element that disrupts these established routes, giving an opportunity for new things to be learnt as well as old things unlearnt. Some have compared the effect to shaking a snow-globe.

“It reduces blood supply to the system called the default mode network in the brain,” says Amanda Feilding, who runs the Beckley Foundation, a drugs think-tank at the forefront of a renewed scientific movement to rediscover the lost potential of psychedelics. “It allows those rigid patterns which have got stuck to unfreeze and new connections can take place. It’s like the conductor exiting the room, leaving the orchestra to play music that’s more experimental.”

A groundbreaking Beckley-Imperial College London study gave psilocybin to people who had suffered depression for over 18 years and been unresponsive to conventional treatments. “After only two doses, 67 per cent of participants were depression-free one week after treatment, and 42 per cent remained in remission after three months,” notes Feilding.

Waldman no longer microdoses LSD. Once her month’s supply – bequeathed to her by an ailing academic known only as “Lewis Carroll” – had run out, she terminated the experiment as she did not want to buy it illegally. “I couldn’t go to jail – if only because Jenji Kohan has already written Orange Is The New Black, so I’d have nothing to do all day,” she quips drily. “But if it was made legal, I would be on it every day.”

There was no comedown. “The only withdrawal is that when I feel shit now, I know there’s something out there that can make me feel better and it’s depressing that I can’t do it.”

Although prohibited, Fadiman notes: “The drug warriors who like to put people in jail aren’t really that interested in psychedelics, particularly microdosing, which causes no harm. There’s not a lot of money changing hands. It’s a little bit as if people were trading caraway seeds.”

“I’m optimistic people will realise that it’s better someone not be depressed than we have regulation which is not based on science at all. The biggest thing you realise is that by taking a millionth of a gram of something, your whole system can function better and there can’t be anything morally wrong with that.”

Having dedicated five decades of her life to altering people’s perceptions towards psychedelics, Feilding is aware of the considerable challenges. “Unfortunately LSD – those three letters still carry a very heavy taboo,” says the 74-year-old Countess of Wemyss and March. “Psilocybin is less stigmatised. But even then, while most advanced countries are moving towards scientific evidence-based policy – with regulated medical cannabis markets – unfortunately the UK seems to be heading backwards.”

Waldman is more equivocal, using language as colourful as a kaleidoscopic trip. “Who is willing to bet that the world will do anything anymore? I didn’t think my country was going to elect a Cheeto-dusted fuhrer.” A notion that would surely have anybody reaching for the cobalt-blue bottle of liquid LSD, a dropper, and scouring Amazon for home-testing kits.

Microdosing: the downsides

Ayelet Waldman stresses she is not advocating that readers start purchasing LSD on the Dark Web and avidly poring over the Reddit forums devoted to the subject.

“With microdosing, my message is don’t try this at home because a) I don’t want to end up arrested and b) if you’re going to do this, you have to become comfortable with doing things like testing,” she says.

“You have to buy a testing kit to know what you’re taking – luckily, those are available on Amazon.”

Earlier this year Cambridge University scientists Barbara Sahakian professor of clinical neuropsychology, Camilla d’Angelo, research assistant in psychiatry, and George Savulich, psychiatry research associate, warned in an article for The Conversation: “Those who microdose incorrectly risk having unwanted, full-blown trips or even experience unpleasant trips. There are even some reports of psychosis-like symptoms in certain vulnerable individuals who use LSD recreationally. However two recent US population surveys found no link between using psychedelics and mental health conditions.”

The Home Office points out the legal ramifications. Possession of LSD or magic mushrooms – Class A drugs – can incur a prison sentence of up to seven years, an unlimited fine or both, depending upon the quantity of the drug you have.

A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made A Mega Difference In My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life by Ayelet Waldman is published by Corsair. Read a comic book version of this story by Amy Evans in the 22 May edition of Big Issue North

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Prescription proscription

  • My Homepage
    27 May 2017 15:22
    ... [Trackback] [...] Read More Infos here: [...]
  • Kate
    22 May 2017 16:57
    I've found that the best way to beat depression, is to minimize escapism though instant gratification. Stuff like eating cookies and watching TV. Basically, go out there, set goals, and live life instead of watching other people live theirs while munching on Doritos. I know because I used to be a lazy, depressed mess until I made lifestyle changes and slowly became disciplined. I highly recommend this brilliant guide on beating depression at:

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.