Who Is The Microdoser?
Despite the stigma attached to psychedelic substances, drugs like psilocybin and LSD are being evaluated for their promising potential to treat a variety of different health conditions. These benefits aren't being left to the labs, as microdosing, macrodosing, and lifetime use gains popularity.
Psychedelic Drug Users—Not Who You Might Think
Although considered to be "substances with no medical value," psychedelic substances like psilocybin and LSD are being evaluated for their potential ability to treat a variety of different health conditions. And while the research we have on psychedelics' therapeutic effects is promising, the psychedelic movement has many more challenges to face.
One of the greatest challenges associated with the psychedelic movement is the negative stigma associated with psychedelic use.
From the stereotype of psychedelic users as "hippies" to movies depicting psychedelic users as drug addicts and violent criminals, it's easy to see how these cultural beliefs took over.
But just how much truth is there to such a negative stigma, anyway? Are all psychedelic users pot-smoking hippies? Do psychedelic users have jobs? Are they criminals? Addicts? Something more?
The real answer tells us that psychedelic drug users are far more complex—and more prevalent—than you might have been led to believe.
Psychedelic Use is Common & Expanding
One of the most prevalent assumptions about psychedelic use is that it's an "underground" activity, only enjoyed by young adults at raves or clubs.
The reality is, however, that far more people are trying psychedelics than you might expect.
Heck, everybody's doing it!
A 2013 research paper sought out to determine how many people across America were using psychedelics. Researchers found that there were nearly 32 million lifetime psychedelic users in the US in 2010. Authors of the paper also noted that the rate of psychedelic use among baby boomers is similar for people aged 21–49.
In 2018, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services released the results from their National Survey on Drug Use and Health. They discovered that a whopping 22.9 million people (8.7% of Americans) reported prior use of psilocybin.
The number of psychedelic users across America is also rapidly expanding. A 2020 report published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that use of LSD jumped 56.4% between 2015–2018. This was consistent across all age groups including people 26–34 and 35–49.
This data shows us that psychedelic use is far more prevalent than you might think. It also tells us that many different types of psychedelic users at all ages—not just millennials—exist. And since many of the people polled were lifetime users, we can safely say they benefit from reoccurring psychedelic use.
Anti-drug legislators are often quick to espouse the "dangers" of psychedelics. Many of them rely on anachronistic and outdated depictions of psychedelic users across movies and TV. Others may simply speak from a more abstract place, citing deeply ingrained cultural beliefs as reasons why psychedelic use should not continue.
The best way to tackle these outdated ideas about psychedelic users is to confront them head on—with plenty of data to support our argument, of course.
So what do psychedelic users actually look like? Who are they and what do they use psychedelics for?
One type of psychedelic user steadily growing in numbers is the microdoser. A microdoser is a person who microdoses (i.e., routinely ingests small amounts of psychedelics for therapeutic benefit). LSD and psilocybin are the most commonly consumed psychedelics here.
The idea behind microdosing isn't to "trip," but rather is based on consuming a non-perceptible dose—a dose so small you can't consciously feel any effects.
There are many negative stereotypes that can come to mind when thinking of a microdoser. Some people might assume a microdoser's continual use means they're a drug addict. Others might conjure images of wealthy Silicon Valley "tech bros" using LSD to enhance their productivity. And at the other end of the spectrum, some people may assume microdosers are unmotivated, lazy hippies that just don't want to grow up.
Stereotypes Associated With Micro & Treatment Dose Personas
Select individuals may enroll in psychedelic-assisted therapies. These users may also experience the cognitive biases that microdosers encounter. Unfamiliar groups might view these users as mentally unfit, or as lost causes. Films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest may swim in their mind's eye, conjuring images of wild patients and unconventional therapies. These groups may even fear microdosers, believing them to be deranged, violent, or otherwise dangerous criminals in need of rehabilitation. Others may view psychedelic treatment facilities with the same contempt and fear they show for psychiatric facilities depicted in popular media.
Macrodosers are those who consume psychedelics in larger amounts than their microdose counterparts. This group of psychedelic users has been around a lot longer than microdosers, which is perhaps why there are so many negative stereotypes associated with macrodosers.
The most common association with macrodosers is that of indulgence and excess. Modern macrodosers are often seen as caricatures of the Woodstock-attending hippies of the '60s. They might be viewed as lazy, irresponsible party goers that don't consider how their actions affect others. Some might assume they are drug dealers themselves. Others may think of films like Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, characterizing macro users as crazy, manic, and dangerous.
These assumptions couldn't be further from the truth. Let's examine a few common misconceptions associated with these personas to reveal a new, more nuanced understanding of who psychedelic users really are.
Misconception #1: Microdosers are Rich, White Males Living in Silicon Valley
The association between Silicon Valley CEOs and microdosing has been cemented, thanks to TV shows like Silicon Valley. These shows often depict a group of rich white males microdosing substances like LSD as "productivity hacks." The end result of this media portrayal is the idea that microdose users are predominantly rich, white professionals in their 30s living in California.
While this is one of the most prevalent stereotypes attributed to microdosers, it fails to encompass the full truth of the matter. Research shows us that psychedelic users, especially microdosers, are an incredibly diverse group of people.
A paper published in 2020's Journal of Psychoactive Drugs set out to study and explore psychedelic user profiles. Data revealed participants across all age groups (18–19, 20–29, 30–39, 40–49, 50–59, and 60+). Geographical data showed that users weren't just confined to the United States, either: 31% of participants hailed from Western Europe, with other participants in South America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
Another paper published in 2019 aimed to examine how microdosing psychedelics is related to differences in personality and mental health. Participants from 29 countries responded to the survey, with a median age of 26.
One systematic study of microdosing psychedelics published in 2019 reported participants ranged in age ranges from 18, all the way to 56 and above. Participants hailed from the US, Australia, and Canada.
Another study examining novel psychoactive drug use in Rome revealed 53% of participants were males.
In short, microdosers are a much more diverse group than TV would have you believe.
Misconception #2: Microdosers are Lazy Hippies That Don’t Want to Work
One of the most deeply ingrained and problematic ideas about micro and macrodosers is the belief that they're "lazy hippies." This idea is so ubiquitous that VICE even poked fun at it in a 2018 piece:
Interviewer Mack Lamoureux asked, "Some people, like myself, can hold stereotypes of these microdosers as like hippies or tech bros or something like that, is that a pretty bad misconception?"
Responding with a sigh, Rotem Petranker said, "If the standard expectation is that the person is a hippie then yes. We asked people what they do for a living and the answers were really widespread, we had computer programmers, teachers, people from all walks of life. There were pretty diverse ages too, there were a lot of young people between 18–35 and a lot of people that were older doing it as well.
"Anecdotally it seems that way too. People have been approaching me a lot because this got a little bit of publicity, there has been like real estate agents and fitness instructors and it just seems like anyone can be doing this."
For some reason, this idea of the Woodstock hippie has stayed with us since it was first espoused in the 1960s. Images of drug-fueled partygoers trashing campsites quickly became associated with psychedelic use, so much that the two would soon become inseparable in popular culture. The idea that psychedelic users were lazy adults without jobs, who regularly consumed large doses of drugs, took hold in our minds—and has remained there ever since.
The truth is, micro and macro users don't quite conform to these anachronistic ways of thinking. In fact, there's significant evidence to suggest the opposite is true. As Petranker suggests in the VICE article, micro and macro users work in a number of different sectors: computer programmers, teachers, people from all walks of life.
Another study published in 2020's Journal of Cannabis Research examined entheogen use patterns across cannabis and psychedelic users. Researchers found that the median participant surveyed was aged 32 and working a full-time job.
The empirical evidence we do have suggests that microdosers are typically employed, which stands in stark contrast compared to traditional ideas of unmotivated hippies.
Misconception #3: Micro & Macrodosers are Uneducated & Stupid
Contrary to popular belief that drugs "put holes in your brain," psychedelic users aren't dropouts, uneducated, or stupid. In fact, research shows that psychedelic users are often college educated or have even completed secondary degrees.
The 2020 Drug and Alcohol Dependence Report showed that LSD use among individuals with a college degree or more increased from 18.2%–31.1%.
The microdosing psychedelics study mentioned earlier also revealed that the sample was, "highly educated, with 71.4% participants having completed postgraduate education. 19% participants were students."
Another paper published in 2019's Harm Reduction Journal sought out to compile microdosing benefits and challenges based on qualitative reports from 278 microdosers. Researchers found participants via Reddit. They noted that the average Reddit user tended to be "younger, educated or seeking a college education compared to the general US population."
In 2017, Johns Hopkins researchers interviewed 2,000 people about their psychedelic experiences. A whopping 51% of those surveyed had college or graduate degrees.
Misconception #4: Micro & Macrodosers are Violent Criminals
This is one of the most popular misconceptions about psychedelic use. Anti-drug propaganda in the '70s sensationalized images depicting "psychoactive substances that produced hyperbolic monsters in scenes of reefer madness or super-powerful African American men on cocaine." LSD and psychedelics were weaponized in the war on drugs, and used to drive public hysteria and fear.
The Controlled Substances Act was passed by President Nixon shortly thereafter, resulting in a deep stigma against psychedelics.
The image of a drug-crazed user as a criminal didn't end there, either. Films like Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas continued to perpetuate the stereotype of the insane, debaucherous psychedelic user as a criminal long after Nixon's reign ended.
But the data to support the idea of micro and macro users as violent criminals just isn't there. In fact, Johns Hopkins researchers found that a mere 2.6% of the 2,000 participants surveyed said they acted aggressively or violently during a bad trip.
Other research tentatively suggests psychedelic use may actually inhibit criminal behavior. A 2018 paper published in the Psychopharmacology journal aimed to explore the link between psychedelic use and criminal behavior. Researchers examined data from more than 480,000 United States adult respondents gathered over the last 13 years of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2002–2014).
Their results did, in fact, confirm the idea that psychedelic use was linked to lower rates of criminal behavior. Data revealed that lifetime "classic psychedelic" use was associated with "a reduced odds of past year larceny/theft, past year assault, past year arrest for a property crime and past year arrest for a violent crime." Researchers noted that results "were consistent with a protective effect of psilocybin for antisocial criminal behavior."
Misconception #5: Microdosers are Drug Addicts
Misconceptions about microdosers aren't limited to outdated beliefs. In fact, one of the most damaging stereotypes about microdosers is the idea that they're drug addicts.
It's easy to see why this belief has spread among those unfamiliar with psychedelics. The idea of taking drugs that will make you "trip balls" on a daily basis seems incongruous with the values modern society espouses, i.e., the ability to produce and go to work.
Microdosers, however, take small doses of psychedelics. And while microdosing does have a timely component to it, many psychedelic proponents advise taking a small dose every few days rather than everyday. Available research on microdosers highlights key distinctions between microdosers and drug addicts: namely, motivation for use and frequency of use.
Drug addiction is defined by negative consequences and the loss of function. Addiction entails using drugs at levels exceeding recommended and safe values on a daily basis, so much so that it begins to impede function. Drug addicts also typically have distinct motivations for using drugs. They're typically motivated by a need to escape external circumstances, which research shows is a factor that predicts bad trips.
When asked about possible negative consequences of use, microdosers "emphasized the dangers of overuse." Many of them even commented that they felt repeated and excessive psychedelic use diminished its therapeutic effect.
Microdosers also have different motivations than drug addicts for use. Rather than taking drugs to cope, many psychedelic users surveyed reported using entheogens for personal enhancement and expansion. Enhancement refers to "a wish for pleasant feelings and excitement." Expansion is used to connote a "desire to know oneself better, be creative and original, expand one's awareness, and understand things differently."
Misconception #6: Psychedelic Therapy Users will Have a Bad or Terrifying Experience
Believe it or not, scientists once administered high doses of LSD to research subjects who didn't know what they were receiving. Then, they strapped the subjects to hospital beds and recorded their reactions.
Is anyone surprised those experiences didn't go well? One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest deepened our cultural fear of psychiatric facilities with depictions of patients undergoing treatments with intense fear and terror. Characters like Nurse Ratched personified our fear of "the system" even further, and thus the fear of institutionalized psychiatric treatment was born.
Modern day facilities that offer psychedelic therapies, however, are a far cry from the mental institutions depicted on film and TV. Many of these facilities actually put significant effort into making sure treatment rooms are designed to be pleasant and comfortable. They also have additional protocols established, such as having a therapist or psychiatrist present during the time of therapy. Some even offer counseling sessions directly after therapy, so patients can better integrate their experiences.
We have all sorts of cultural ideas about what psychedelic users can be like. Much of the negative stigma we've cultivated, however, can be traced back to outdated, anti-drug propaganda promoted across television and movies.
Psychedelic users aren't lazy hippies, violent criminals, or drug addicts. Research shows us that microdosers, macrodosers, and patients of psychedelic-assisted therapies are typically educated and non-violent. They use psychedelics responsibly and for personal growth.
Psychedelic users report feeling happier, more focused, and less anxious than their non-psychedelic counterparts. Understanding and dismantling the negative stigma is the best way to ensure that psychedelic research (and its subsequent benefits) continues to grow.
By Janelle Lasalle