The comparisons are already coming in and the season has barely begun. Summer 2021 is expected to be the 21st century Summer of Love. After emerging from the longest social winter of our lifetimes, some people think we will storm triumphantly into a bacchanal to be remembered.
We are already seeing Instagrammable teary reunions and invitations for breathlessly ambitious festivals. In our hearts, we are leaning towards long meandering empathogenic-driven catch ups with long lost friends, cosmic voyages catapulting through each other’s consciousnesses.
Psychedelics promise us unprecedented ways to connect after such an impossible time apart; in some places, the party has already begun. But in the ways we choose to celebrate the end of one danger, might another be waiting to strike? In the magic that psychedelics invite us to revel in, how might we also be inviting danger ourselves?
The collective health of our society has suffered deep wounds over the course of the year, deepening the psychological fault lines already existing in our society of loneliness, anxiety and depression. While our need for mental health services increased over the last year, the prohibitively expensive and overtaxed mental health system – inaccessible to many even before the pandemic – was not able to answer.
Record numbers of people reached out for help, but the overburdened mental health system wasn’t enough – resulting in strikingly high increases in rates of depression, anxiety, suicide ideation and other markers of need.
This left many searching for tools to take their mental health into their own hands, frequently through the use of mind altering substances. Alcohol use skyrocketed – society’s most familiar and acceptable way to take the edge off. Cannabis, recently decriminalized in many jurisdictions, catapulted into the mainstream, proving to be a popular coping mechanism to while away long nights of Netflix binges and solo pizza parties.
Classical psychedelics played a role for many as well, as people hopefully attempted to replicate the successes of recent clinical trials with their own DIY version. For some folks, this meant dissociating their pain away with ketamine – for some, to the extent that it led to ketamine bladder syndrome and eventual removal.
With the rising popular acceptance of LSD and psilocybin, many took the long weeks of isolation as a time to experiment with increasingly popular microdosing protocols – or took high doses in solitude, hoping that they could somehow break through the existential dread.
Psychedelics in a Brave New World
As we emerge from our collective chrysalis, many people wish to take the joy and wonder of psychedelics and apply it to their social lives in ways that are less about surviving day-to-day existence under impossible circumstances. This desire comes from a place of optimism – that the power of psychedelics can help us remember who we were striving to be as a community before the pandemic tore it all apart.
But we’re different now. We’re not the people we were in those first bleary days of 2020. The pandemic has changed us in ways that will also inexorably change our relationship to the psychedelics we have known and loved, and in ways that could cause harm if not assessed with care. For those whose physical isolation has also meant abstinence from substances, tolerances have reset – biologies have changed – and our internal setting with it. Changes in these variables will powerfully impact how we relate to our external social and environmental settings.
Many of us, while alone these long months, have had the dubious pleasure of being forced to look inward. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we are probably still reeling from the personal insights we have gleaned, often ineffectively integrating these learnings into our own psyches. How could we have, without the consistent external support of loved ones?
We must remember that this processing, so often left unfinished, may be torn open as we start to utilize psychedelics in small group settings again. Psychedelics have a tendency to tear open Pandora’s Box, whether you are ready for it or not. That joyous reunion party you’ve been fantasizing about for the last year may quickly turn into an unending upwelling of past trauma that has been simmering beneath the surface, waiting to be released. No one is really OK right now, not after the year we’ve all had.
There are many resources out there available to assist with basic harm reduction. The Psychedelic Safety Alliance, which I co-founded, will be offering psychedelic safety courses throughout the summer to assist in creating tactical plans in how you approach psychedelic usage during the re-opening.
Navigating Interpersonal Connection and Risk
The effects of touch starvation are well documented. When you read through accounts of what people miss most, hugs are often the highest on the list. Those familiar with MDMA and other empathogens are eager to take these substances with loved ones again, to freely and deeply experience that singular magic of human connection. However, these psychedelics treasured for their ability to reduce inhibition could lend themselves to trouble as we struggle to navigate spaces of deep interpersonal connection after such a long absence.
Even before the pandemic, our ability to give consent is made more difficult to assess in the moment while on any mind altering substance, and has led to countless tragic incidents where individuals experience severe, preventable trauma. This combination of the mounting desperate need for touch, the uneven education around consent frameworks, and potent compounds we’ve lost familiarity with could lead to a perfect storm of conditions for sexual consent violations.
Many of us, giddy to simply see each other, may choose to use to excess – mixing and matching compounds with wild abandon, seeking to erase the memories of the last year in an imperfect attempt to transcend painful recollection. Underground markets for substances still carry all the faults they always did. The possibility of adulterants, including the slow creep of fentanyl into psychedelics and other substances, has not gone away. Without the stringent use of test kits, adulterants could still harm you and your loved ones.
Our frail communities have staggered their way through the pandemic, and now we find ourselves at the other side. How we choose to join together once more with each other will be a testament to how we care for each other. We’ve cared enough to stand apart from each other for more than a year now, physically detached even though our hearts have leaned inexorably to each other. Do we care enough now, as we plunge out of our germ pods and into parties, to take the moment to assess these other dangers? How will we support ourselves in integrating a once-in-a-century trauma without causing even more harm?
When we look at ourselves – the shenanigans we wish to dive into and the events we’re hoping to attend – are we still properly examining these other vectors of risk? The temptation to simply throw ourselves into careless joy with each other, to shake off this heavy load of executive function we’ve been shouldering this last year, is tempting. But we cannot allow ourselves to disregard some of the very real harms that psychedelics can still cause us if we do not treat them with proper gravitas.
Psychedelics, like any drug, are tools: they have demonstrated astonishing efficacy in healing some of our deepest wounds, but that knife can cut both ways and wound us deeper still. Are you measuring doses with precision? Are you testing your substances for adulterants before you pass them out to your friends? Are you, while still sober, having meaningful consent conversations with the individuals you are taking psychedelics with? Do you have a psychedelic safety plan in place to support yourself and your friends in case something goes sideways?
When all is said and done – when the drugs are gone, summer fades, and the pandemic ebbs, what will you be able to say? Did you take steps to minimize the risk of harm to your friends? Or will you see your friends come to even more harm from simple, preventable issues? This is our chance – as we step forward and reunify with each other – to do so with mindfulness, with intention, and with the clear purpose to be better than how we once were.
Image: Nicki Adams using adapted graphic by EFF Photos