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What's the next step for hallucinogens as a health cure?

From ayahuasca to magic mushrooms, we investigate the future of hallucinogenic drugs

Welcome to the Dazed Beauty Digital Spa. From the role of placebo in extreme wellness to the problem with our cannabis obsession, here we explore the complexities of the wellness industry and how it might evolve.

When Anna Choutova, a fine art student and founder of curatorial project Bad Art, first walked through the white doors of an ayahuasca retreat in Baja California, Mexico, she couldn’t have predicted what would happen next. Aged 23, the London-based graduate had exhausted all conventional means of Western medicine: Prozac, Xanax, sleeping pills, as well as a less-conventional cocktail of alcohol and opioids, which left her mentally and physically exhausted. “I grew up believing that the problems in my life could be fixed externally,” she tells me. “I was deep into an opioid addiction, suffering with extreme anxiety and paranoia, as well as a plethora of other substance abuse and mental health problems. In short, I had totally lost touch with reality.”

It was only when a close friend mentioned to her a “miracle cure” – a month-long clinic-of-sorts off the coast of Mexico – that she borrowed a “shit-ton” of money and leapt onto the closest flight to San Diego to try, what initially sounded to her, like a total scam. “I was totally sceptical at first,” she says. “To be honest, I fucking hated it. You are totally isolated from the world and you’re stuck there for three weeks before the treatments even begin.”

Yet over a period of four days, and regular doses of ibogaine and ayahuasca, plant-based hallucinogens sipped in the form of a bitter, dark brown tea, and a vague instruction to “trust the plant medicine”, everything fell into place – albeit, between intense waves of nausea and vomiting. “It is one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life,” she begins. “I spent about 24 hours feeling like part of me was dying and another part feeling like I was being reborn.”

Psychedelics are having a renaissance. Substances that were once exclusively associated with long-haired, tie-dye-wearing hippies are now just as much the subject of official medical trials as they are a remedy for long-standing depression or the productivity hack of microdosing Silicon Valley execs. Just recently, studies have shown the effects of hallucination-inducing drugs like magic mushrooms are not only improving your creativity but also relieving symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD, while a ketamine-like spray has just been approved by US officials that sees the trippy recreational substance adapted to treat depression.

“We're seeing a renewal in the last five years where people are looking at the potential avenues of these drugs,” begins Dr Timothy West, who is a neuroscientist and member of art and science collective Senscapes. “For our parents' generation, the general image of psychedelics was rooted in the hippie movement – it was a counterculture.” However, according to Dr West, psychedelics are undergoing a “second generation aesthetic”, which is moving away from the “tie-dye hippie aesthetic” of the 1960s, towards a more mainstream vision, rooted in science. “There’s scientific traction to show the general public that psychedelics can be used to treat people with mental health disorders,” he tells me.

"The benefits of hallucinogens could be yours if you can afford them"

The wellness industry has created a market and a demand for people wanting to improve their general wellbeing, and psychedelic experience retreats seem like a hot new venture for those wishing to try their hand at the $639 billion wellness tourism market, which is predicted to grow to $919 billion by 2022.  

Given the tremendous pressure put on young people to succeed in an economy known for its plummeting employment rates and silly-high rent prices, unrealistic beauty standards and social media-induced anxiety, conversations on mental health are only becoming more prevalent. So it’s no wonder that people are searching for alternative methods to improve their wellness – especially if there’s scientific backing (because let’s face it, the Prozac isn't working). “I think that the whole wellness idea has come because people are happy to talk about mental health and actually address that these are things. This comes hand-in-hand with psychedelics: to be able to talk about intimate experiences,” explains Dr West.

For Ryan Keeling, the former editor of Resident Advisor, an international music publication, an experience at an ayahuasca retreat served as a well-needed turning point. “The first time I drank [ayahuasca], I'd reached a point at which I knew something needed to change in my life but I wasn't sure what or how,” he says. That being said, the journey wasn’t exactly pleasant, but Keeling looks back on the week-long period of reflection (laced with nights of nausea and vomit, lying on a floor mattress provided by the retreat amongst a crowd of 20-or-so other attendees) with a newfound worldview and an “extra strong sense that life is too short to piss about”. Another two retreats later, Keeling quit his job, moved out of London (where he’d been living for seven years) and redirected his career. “You could say that I got what I was looking for,” he tells me.

Yet the search for enlightenment isn’t cheap, with the average cost of a psychedelic experience retreat falling easily in the thousands. Mushroom wellness retreats like Synthesis in Zandwoort, Netherlands, for example, aim to offer a middle-class experience to guests wanting to experience psilocybin (the active ingredient in mushrooms) in the comfort of a fully-equipped, modern apartment – that is, if you are willing to splash out €1750 for three days. The same goes for ayahuasca. Over the last decade, ayahuasca tourism has seen a significant rise across Europe, with many people travelling to expensive, commercialised retreats to try their hand at the potentially life-altering herb. As it stands, The Temple in Peru offers a nine-day retreat for $2,100, while the Rainforest Healing Centre costs $995 for seven days. The benefits of hallucinogens could be yours if you can afford them.

But there’s another problem. The use of hallucinogens has historically been linked to spirituality. Substances like ayahuasca – also known as la purga or “the purge” – are traditionally used among the indigenous tribes of South America under the strict guidance of a specially-trained shaman. Even though its peak in popularity amongst travellers has brought a steady source of income to some of South America’s marginalised, indigenous communities, the mainstream cooption of Ayahuasca and other psychedelics could raise questions of cultural appropriation. “Ayahuasca is hard-ingrained into indigenous culture over thousands of years, so there is a certain level of appropriation,” Dr West agrees. It has also been the subject of a number of deaths, provoking questions about the regulation of such ceremonies. A particular incident in Peru resulted in one Canadian tourist shooting a spiritual leader while high on the plant brew, while a 19-year-old boy from Bristol died after taking a dose of the plant brew in a ceremony in Colombia last year.

These stories act as cautionary tales, but when you remove the ritualistic connotations of such drugs and put the palo santo and sage to one side, there is extreme potential in extracting the active properties of these mind-altering drugs for use in medicine. While hallucinogens like mushrooms, LSD and ayahuasca are currently illegal in the UK, the positive effects of these drugs is gaining momentum. Caroline Lucas MP, the former leader of the Green Party, recently backed the campaign for the legalisation of psilocybin for treating depression.

"In order to consider hallucinogens as a mainstream wellness treatment, they will need to be regulated and made more accessible"

“More and more studies are demonstrating the long-term impact of even a single psychedelic experience on wellbeing,” says Amanda Feilding, a long-time drug policy reformer and founder of the Beckley Foundation, a think tank working for drug policies based on scientific research. “Psychedelics may have beneficial effects on neuronal functioning and brain function and facilitate a connection with the self, with others, and the natural world. The psychedelic mystical or peak experience can provide a sense of levity or perspective to better view one’s life and see what might be good to change about it.”

There's a risk of running into things too quickly, warns Dr West. “We need to develop an expertise of people who know how these things work, which only comes with experience.” Feilding agrees: “Psychedelics should not be viewed as a mental health panacea, and not everyone may equally benefit from their positive effects,” she says. “At the moment, clinical trials exclude individuals suffering from psychotic disorders (or with a family history of psychotic disorder). Outside of this rigorous clinical context, screening could lose some of its stringency, and so people with underlying mental health conditions that could potentially be worsened by psychedelics could gain access to the retreats.”

Yet the personal experiences of people who’ve tried these drugs cannot be understated, and many have seen the positive effects of these substances firsthand, which can, I’m told, feel like the cotton wool is being pulled from your (third) eye. “I believe a lot of what happens in these ceremonies is out of scientific grasp,” quips Choutova. “Each trip is unique and important. I don’t consider myself a very spiritual or religious person, but the experiences felt go beyond neurotransmitters and chemical imbalances. You go deep inside yourself and do a full on spring clean of your soul.”

In order to consider hallucinogens as a mainstream wellness treatment, they will need to be regulated and made more accessible, and the best way to do this is through legalisation. Denver has recently become the first city in America to decriminalise psilocybin, while another initiative in Oregon, to ballot the development of a licensed psilocybin therapy industry, has been approved by the state attorney general. As it stands, the impact that legalisation will have on hallucinogens is unclear, but we only need to look at the recent success of CBD oil across the UK and America to see the sheer force of the wellness industry in its ability to capitalise on the latest remedies not yet adopted by traditional Western medicine.

Admittedly, just because a product is legal doesn’t make it any cheaper to buy. Current prices will need to drop dramatically in order for mainstream access. But with legalisation comes innovation and with innovation, hopefully, methods that will explore reducing overall costs. Legalisation might also prompt greater research into ways that help emancipate the drugs from their more ritualistic, indigenous context, as a way of negating potential problems with cultural appropriation. Or better still, we might see a rise in ethical platforms that focus on supporting indigenous community and their sacred practices. Until then, our doors of perception are very much open.