Psychedelic drugs include LSD (“acid”), psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline (found in peyote), ibogaine, salvia, and DMT (found in ayahuasca). Psychedelic substances have been used for thousands of years for religious and therapeutic purposes.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, psychedelic drugs such as LSD were considered promising treatments for a broad range of psychological and psychiatric conditions. Tens of thousands of people were introduced to them in clinical studies, as an adjunct to psychotherapy, or as part of a religious or spiritual practice. By the late 1960s, however, as millions of people experimented with them, psychedelics became symbols of youthful rebellion, social upheaval, and political dissent. By the early 1970s, the government had halted scientific research to evaluate their medical safety and efficacy. The ban persisted for decades, but has gradually been lifted over the past decade. Today, there are dozens of studies taking place to evaluate the medical safety and efficacy of psychedelics, and the Supreme Court has ruled that psychedelics can be used as part of the practices of certain organized religions.
The risks associated with psychedelic drugs are mostly psychological, not physical. For most psychedelic drugs, including the most commonly used ones such as LSD and psyilocybin mushrooms, there has never been a recorded overdose. Reviews of the clinical literature suggest that chronic problematic effects, when they do occur, are most often linked to psychological instability present prior to use. Comprehensive reviews of psychedelics used in research settings during the 1950s and 60s have consistently found extremely low incidences of acute and chronic problems among individuals lacking pre-existing severe psychopathology.
The effects of psychedelic drugs vary tremendously, and are difficult to categorize, since they provide access to vastly different states of consciousness. They affect different people, at different places, and at different times, with incredible variation. Psychedelics often evoke conscious awareness of subconscious thoughts and feelings, such as repressed memories, feelings about life circumstances, fantasies, or deep fears. Thus, if someone makes the decision to use a psychedelic drug, it is important for that person to be prepared to deal with unusual – and perhaps even challenging – thoughts, images, and feelings in an open and thoughtful manner.
An individual's experience using a psychedelic drug is strongly influenced by two key factors: set and setting. The set is the internal mental environment, and the beliefs, of the person who has ingested the substance. Setting is the external environment. If someone uses a psychedelic in a threatening or chaotic set or setting, that person is more likely to have a threatening or chaotic experience. Likewise, if psychedelics are used in a safe, supportive environment, it will be easier for the person to allow his or her experience to develop in a coherent, potentially meaningful manner – though some parts may still be overwhelming or psychologically jarring.
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