The mainstreaming of psychedelics has brought forth multiple sources of often-conflicting information about the mind-manifesting substances. In a first-of-its-kind survey, researchers sought to learn where psychedelics users turn to for information about them.
Psychedelic users believe popular media inaccurately portrays psychedelics, according to the results. The study also found users least trust psychedelic information produced by governments and pharmaceutical companies, and mostly rely on their own experiences for knowledge.
Described as a “backlash to the backlash,” today’s excitement around psychedelics in popular media stands in stark contrast to a history of anti-drug propaganda that portrayed psychedelics as highly dangerous. Given this polarity between past and present perspectives, a recent study from the University of Michigan (UM) sought to investigate the use and perceptions of psychedelic information among users. Their findings were published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in April.
Participants were recruited online, through mailing lists and social media, and in person at Entheofest, an annual psychedelic advocacy event in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where psychedelic plants and fungi have been decriminalized since 2020. Questions about psychedelic information were part of a larger survey set to broadly explore psychedelic perspectives and practices among users.
Of the 1287 responses, 79.5% said their “own experimentation and experiences” was their primary resource for psychedelic information. Study co-author Moss Herberholz, a Michigan-based Psychedelic Integration Therapist, found this unsurprising.
“Before the racist war on drugs this is how research was done for a long time,” said Herberholz “People would try psychoactive substances on themselves first and foremost before other people.”
Exemplifying this notion of a self-experimenting scientist is the late Alexander Shulgin. During the 1970s, Shulgin created hundreds of psychedelic substances, often self-testing their psychoactive effects alongside his psychiatrist colleagues.
Whereas self-use was frequent among users, only 5% sought information from their medical provider. Prof. Daniel Kruger, study lead and investigator at UoM’s Population Studies Center, described this finding as “very troubling,” though “not surprising” considering the medical field’s historical stigmatization of psychedelics.
Participants also sought psychedelic information from the internet (61.7%), friends (61%), internet discussion forums and books (57%) and articles in scientific journals (54.6%), and social media.
Enghoff described how the reported use of social media raises concern about potential harms in new and inexperienced psychedelic users.
Since the advent of social media, misinformation about drugs, treatments and disease has been a long-standing issue in public health, with studies finding healthcare misinformation in up to 87% of posts.
“Our study indicates that social media was both widely used and commonly mistrusted as a source of psychedelic information,” said Enghoff. “With experience, many people develop the ability to discern between helpful and harmful psychedelic information, but the growing interest in psychedelics may draw in an increasing number of people who have not had a chance to develop this ability, and who may thus act on questionable psychedelic advice in social media posts.”
Responses showed peer-reviewed journals to be the most trusted source of information. “The fact that half of our participants were reading articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals was really striking,” Kruger wrote. “As an academic, it was very pleasing to see that these peer-reviewed journal articles were the most trusted source of information.”
Among the participants’ least trusted sources of information were popular media, governmental bodies, and pharmaceutical companies, rating them as only “somewhat” trustworthy.
The study results align with a wide-scale investigation by the Pew Research Centre, published in 2020, showing U.S. citizens had more trust in scientists compared to national government, news media, and business leaders. However, following the pandemic, another investigation found the population’s trust in scientists has since decreased.
The survey authors described how incoherence between scientific data, personal experience, and drug policy is likely to be a key factor in the participant’s general distrust in media, government, and medical institutions.
“For decades, psychedelics have been both illegal and the object of powerful anti-drug campaigns worldwide,” wrote Enghoff. “Still, many people have continued to use them, often without experiencing any apparent harm and sometimes experiencing significant benefits instead. This obviously creates a divide.”
Jasmine Virdi, a journalist, educator and activist, also considers the war on drugs as a major reason for distrust, noting the political agendas of mainstream news companies.
“If governments, and by extension the popular media outlets that serve them, truly cared about us, they would roll out educational campaigns that are true to the research,” said Virdi.
Along with being untrustworthy, participants also viewed popular media as inaccurate. Only 13% of participants thought popular media accurately described psychedelics’ benefits, and 10% thought it accurately described psychedelics’ risks.
Additionally, 60% of participants thought the media failed to distinguish between different psychedelic substances. “Mainstream media has a tendency to homogenize the discussion around psychedelics, tending to lump them all together in one simple category,” said Virdi.
Although the participants mostly associated misinformation with government and media, David Erritzoe, clinical director of Imperial College London’s Center for Psychedelic Research, said that because the psychedelic research field is still relatively new, most psychedelic information remains somewhat uncertain regardless of its source.
“People need to be really critical about what information they take in because evidence is not evidence,” said Erritzoe. “The field is still so early in its days there’s little systematic oversight analysis on data we have available. Until we have enough studies and knowledge for people to write something complete and solid, it will be a maze to navigate in.”
Helping guide psychedelic users in this so-called “maze,” the authors called for “accelerated psychedelic education at all levels.” With their results highlighting a significant trust gap, and participants largely relying on their own experience, the authors suggest that moving forward, greater collaboration between psychedelics users and official institutions for psychedelic information is key.
The authors concluded, “these results point to the need for further efforts in education, policy, research, and community building to align these two worlds, especially in relation to younger generations growing up in a rapidly developing psychedelic climate.”
Image: Nicki Adams