The second coming of psychedelics in pop culture

In 2018 Michael Pollan, a professor of journalism whose career had largely revolved around meditative books about the spirituality of cooking, published a bestseller about psychedelics and their place in contemporary society.

How To Change Your Mind was unique at the time. It wasn’t a musician, youngster, or smoky-eyed psychonaut describing the magic of psychedelic drugs between bong rips, it was the voice of a 63-year-old professor who had lived through the War on Drugs, backed by an illustrious publishing career. What business did he have with such an unsavoury subject?

second coming of psychedelics in pop culture
Image: Key-Z Productions

The second coming of psychedelics in pop culture heralds a larger change; one that drifts beyond the world of entertainment and into wider society itself.

Pollan is hardly the only voice in published media who’s riding the so-called second wave of psychedelics – the first marked by Albert Hoffman’s discovery of LSD and its subsequently world-shaking effects on popular culture. Johann Hari’s staunchly anti-War on Drugs novel Chasing The Scream was a 2015 bestseller.

In music, psychedelic rock has cracked into the mainstream for the first measurable time since the zany peak of prog rock and total market domination of Pink Floyd in the ’70s. Commercially successful musicians such as Jon Hopkins and Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips are forthcoming about their drug use, Chance the Rapper started his debut mixtape by declaring “Rap’s just made me anxious, and acid made me crazy”, and Father John Misty tripped balls at a Taylor Swift concert.

Mycologist Paul Stamets – also one of the world’s leading experts on psilocybin mushrooms – clocked almost five million views when he appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience (one of the top 10 most popular podcasts on the planet). One of 2016’s most darling viral videos depicted a couple attempting to assemble IKEA furniture while high on acid.

Brad Pitt spaced out on an acid-laced cigarette during the climax of Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and Shia LeBeouf tripped for 24 hours straight in preparation for his role in The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman. That’s method, baby.

And if you believe the rumours, half of Silicon Valley and Wall Street are starting their day with a cheeky psychedelic microdose.

What caused the shift? Why are we suddenly allowed to, outside of the underground circles where these substances persisted for the last 50 years, talk about psychedelics with our mums, bosses, local members, and grandparents?

Half the reason, as we’ve already observed, is thanks to pop culture. The other side is legislative.

Recently, as cannabis legalisation has swept across Canada and North America, smaller pockets of positive psychedelic legislation are sprouting. This year Denver decriminalised the possession and use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, the first ever US city to do so. Oakland in California soon became the second, and the campaign is now gaining national momentum.

On the medicinal side, studies into the effects of psychedelic substances were resumed as far back as the ’80s, yet a few recent experiments point to a wider change of play. Psilocybin has recently been shown to benefit patients afflicted with a number of mental health problems including PTSD and depression.

Meanwhile on Australian soil, a Melbourne hospital is treating terminally ill patients with high doses of psilocybin, an attempt to dampen anxiety as they face the end.

Both sides of this reemergence of psychedelics, legislative and populist, play essential roles in their wider acceptance. They appeal to different demographics. For instance, young people are more likely to experiment with drugs after they watch Christopher Walken take peyote in Seven Psychopaths, and Pollan has no doubt sparked psychedelic interests in a whole generation of older people. What we’re seeing now is all bases covered, from the little rascals who only needed a pat on the back to boomers who needed their entire perspective shattered and subsequently rebuilt.

Then of course, there are many people who would never touch a drug unless it was legal, or if they believed it was dangerous. That’s why legalisation, in your hometown or halfway across the world, has a twin benefit; it provides a safer system for those who live in legal zones, and it provides a diagram for others to follow. Think about it like getting a killer reference from your old boss, Amsterdam.

The last five years have also seen the world’s largest ever survey of drug takers emerge, the appropriately named Global Drug Survey. Reviewing 123,814 people from 30 countries in 2019, the last GDS revealed a plethora of critical data, pertaining to both the growing popularity of psychedelic substances and their relative harmlessness.

In 2014, the year of the first GDS, 10.1% of respondents had taken LSD and 10.6% of respondents had taken magic mushrooms. In 2019 those numbers had jacked up to 17.5% and 14.8% respectively. The 2019 GDS also reported that LSD, cannabis, ketamine, and magic mushrooms were the four safest drugs to take (based on the percentage of drug users who had been admitted to emergency rooms), with mushrooms being the safest overall. Only 0.4% of psilocybin users had sought medical treatment while on drugs, and 0.9% of LSD users had done the same. Alcohol, MDMA, cocaine and methamphetamine were all deemed more harmful by users.

Respondents also decreed that shrooms and LSD were the two best value-for-money drugs in the world, even though the global average price of LSD doubled (roughly $15 to $30) between 2018 and 2019. Cha-ching.

So where does this place us – socially, legally, cosmically? Here we find ourselves at the precipice of a society where psychedelic drugs are treated as nonchalantly as alcohol, caffeine, or over the counter pharmaceuticals. Or cannabis, in legal states or countries. At this stage we know these drugs are getting more popular, that they’re safer to use than other substances, and that they carry potentially huge medical benefits.

But as prolific as these chemicals and their effects become in art, music, film and literature, their mostly illegal status remains. What we need is more than Seth Rogen tripping balls on the silver screen a couple more times, it’s a wider saturation that crosses boundaries. It’s powerful works of non-fiction on the New York Times bestseller list, it’s peer-reviewed studies that can’t be ignored, and it’s politicians willing to fight for something that’s been demonised for most of the last half-century.

The reemergence of psychedelic drugs in popular culture is the small gear that slowly but surely turns the gigantic wheel of legalisation. It’s working its little ass off down there, but in time it will cause a revolution.