Humanity’s relationship to psychedelic substances dates to prehistoric times. Plant medicines like ayahuasca, peyote, and psilocybin mushrooms have been used in indigenous ceremonies for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Other psychedelic substances, like LSD or MDMA, were synthesized in the first half of the 20th century.
In the 1950s, substances including psilocybin, LSD and mescaline were embraced by literary figures like Allen Ginsberg and Aldous Huxley. That same decade, psychedelics attracted the interest of researchers and therapists who saw in them a potential to understand and treat forms of mental illness. During this period, over 1,000 studies of psychedelics as medicines and creative catalysts were published. Among the researchers in the 1960s were Harvard professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass), who popularized psychedelics among the youth counterculture, which fueled popular social movements for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Responding to the perceived political threat, President Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” led to psychedelics being placed on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, beginning a prohibition against psychedelics that has lasted decades.
In the 1970s, the psychoactive qualities of MDMA were discovered by chemist Alexander Shulgin. He introduced the compound to therapists who used it in pioneering forms of couples therapy. MDMA made its way into club culture, which led to it becoming illegal in the 1980s.
In 2006, a Johns Hopkins study on psilocybin and mystical experiences initiated a new wave of scientific research. Now hundreds of studies a year are being published looking at the potential for psychedelic-assisted therapy to treat a variety of conditions, including substance abuse disorder, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and chronic pain. Over $2.5 billion has been invested in companies seeking to create and support psychedelics for medical use. In parallel, grassroots efforts and legislative initiative across the U.S and internationally have led to policy reform regarding psychedelics.
Things to Know
- Psychedelic plants and fungi have been used as ritual sacraments across the globe dating back thousands of years.
- Christianity’s persecution of paganism led to an obliteration of sacred plant knowledge in the West.
- Indigenous tribes in South America, Africa, and North America practice their sacred plant traditions to this day, despite missionaries and colonizers.
- In the mid-20th century, LSD was widely embraced by the hippie counterculture, until President Nixon declared the War on Drugs.
- Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, first explored in the 50s and 60s, is at the center of today’s reemergence of psychedelic science.
LSD was extensively explored in therapy and clinical research before it was made illegal, and pushed forward by the 1960s youth counterculture.Read about LSD history.
Psilocybin Mushroom History
It is likely that people have ingested magic mushrooms for millennia.Read about psilocybin mushroom history.
MDMA was first synthesized in 1910s Germany as a research compound, and eventually gained popularity as a recreational substance in clubbing and rave scenes, and a therapy tool.Read about MDMA history.
While not considered a classic psychedelic, ketamine was the first “psychedelic” drug to receive “breakthrough therapy” status from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).Read about ketamine history.