One brisk November 1938 afternoon in Basel, Switzerland, chemist Albert Hofmann successfully synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide for the first time. The compound was set aside and forgotten for five years until Hofmann resynthesized it, accidentally absorbed some, and took the world’s first acid trip.
The discovery of acid, or LSD, changed the course of social history. Hofmann’s employer, Sandoz Laboratories, began selling it as a psychiatric panacea in 1947, hailing it as a cure for everything from alcoholism to schizophrenia to criminal behaviours and “sexual perversions.” Curious journalists warmly welcomed the new drug in their reporting.
The ’50s welcomed a new era of psychedelic research for a variety of ailments. Newspaper and magazine headlines were positive, mirroring the science world’s excitement around the newfound LSD. “Can This Drug Enlarge Man’s Mind?,” asked Gerald Heard in Horizon magazine in May 1963. He decided that it could. In November, Cosmopolitan ran a piece calling it “Hollywood’s Status Symbol Drug.”
This pro-psychedelic narrative didn’t last long, however, with some states banning sale and possession and concerned parents and citizens getting involved. It is here that we begin to see the media changing their perspectives on LSD and other psychedelic drugs, reporting on both the changing legal landscape and on shifting public opinion. “Stronger Curbs on LSD Proposed: Medical Society Committee Says Hallucination Drug is ‘Most Dangerous,’” read a headline in The New York Times on March 30, 1966. “Is the Trip Over for LSD?” asked Business Week on April 22. It was close: the psychedelic ’60s were entering the beginning of their end.
Mass media and the public are deeply, closely intertwined, with the media taking on the role of distillers, taking information straight from the source and providing it to the public in an easily digestible way. Beginning in the 1950s, mass media including newspapers and TV were the primary source of information to the public, and thus, the most important catalyst for moulding public opinion. On one hand, in the ’60s, the media was simply reporting on what some people already seemed to want to believe – that LSD and other psychedelic drugs could be dangerous. On the other, the media also played a role in shaping public opinion around these drugs and their potential dangers, and in creating the worries, often false, around them to begin with.
In 1968, possession of LSD became illegal in the U.S. After a June 17, 1971 press conference with then-U.S. president Richard Nixon, the term “war on drugs” became popularized with the media’s help. Editors quickly pivoted to publishing fear-mongering stories of addicts roaming the streets, exaggerated drug abuse statistics, and polarizing, racist takes. Usually, it was Black and other racialized people accused of being drug addicts and criminals and who made up the majority of American prison populations. By 1996, Black men were sent to prison for minor drug offences 13 times more often than white men.
Following this legal shift, drug reporting between the ’70s and ’90s skewed negative. “A New Generation Discovers LSD, and Its Dangers,” said The New York Times in December 1991. Between that headline and today, The New York Times has changed its tune. This same publication now shares dozens of stories on the so-called psychedelic renaissance. In the last few years, they’ve published pieces with a more curious tone: “What Does Good Psychedelic Therapy Look Like?” Dana G. Smith wondered this year.
In many ways, the media is responsible for shepherding the new era of acceptance we’re entering now. I think the modern-day psychedelic renaissance started around 2010 when The New York Times published “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again,” a dive into cancer patients’ experiments with psilocybin to face terminal diagnoses. Although certainly not the first (Wired published a piece on tech boys loving acid in in 2006, “LSD: The Geek’s Wonder Drug?”), a legacy publication sharing something so different from the public’s traditional understanding of medicine and healing, and from their previous stance, was radical. Since then, we’ve seen a noticeable increase in the media promotion of psychedelics.
But while journalists’ work functions as a cultural mirror, sometimes reflecting current public opinion back to the public, journalists, as the frontline workers in the information economy, need to look past existing trends and popular thought to report a more complete, and sometimes critical or unpleasant, truth.
Today, psychedelics are celebrated as a new healing cure, a way to get multiple years of therapy in one trip, and a way to treat anything and everything from depression to eating disorders to migraines. Media coverage is, for the most part, overwhelmingly positive. It seems the miracles of psychedelics don’t ever end. Celebrities are coming out as psychedelic supporters, donating millions to the cause of psychedelic therapy, and sharing their stories, whether healing or hilarious. Aaron Rodgers credits psychedelics with making him a better football player. Jaden Smith claims they made him more empathetic. Both were speakers at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies’s (MAPS) June 2023 Psychedelic Science conference in Denver, which drew over 11,000 attendees. Contrary to the headlines of the ’70s and ’80s, headlines today don’t often mention that psychedelics may not work as intended and that there are plenty of harms and risks involved.
“[T]here’s so much misinformation being peddled, it’s leading people to not get the help that they need. And a big part of that misinformation is this notion that psychedelics are somehow a magic bullet, where you can go and have an experience and it’s going to fix things in you,” says author and psychedelic therapy advocate Shannon Duncan, who believes that the media needs to be more transparent in psychedelic reporting.
The top few results for a search on psilocybin therapy are articles preaching the power of magic mushrooms: “How psilocybin, the psychedelic in mushrooms, may rewire the brain to ease depression, anxiety and more,” reports CNN. Almost no articles show up discussing the risks involved and how to figure out if they’re a good fit.
The dangers of talking about psychedelics through a majorly positive, healing lens lie in what’s being omitted. In this regard, the responsibility of psychedelic reporters is huge, says Amanda Siebert, psychedelic and cannabis journalist and author. The main problem, she says, lies in exaggerated media and lack of media literacy. “People are not reading the entire thing. They’re skimming. They’re seeing ‘oh, this person did psychedelics and it cured their depression.’ I think the problem with that is it perpetuates this idea that psychedelics are a panacea.”
“I do ultimately think the onus is on the user,” says Dr. Erica Zelfand, a physician specializing in psychedelics and lead instructor at Oregon’s InnerTrek psychedelic facilitator training school. “It’s your body, it’s your consciousness, that’s your call.” The media’s job in this, she says, is to help people decide the right choice for them. She says journalists could be doing a better job of delivering accurate, nuanced data.
Dr. Dave Rabin, co-founder of Apollo Neuroscience, thinks media professionals aren’t doing enough work to find the right sources. He says many articles about psychedelic medicine cite experts who don’t practice it, or who aren’t involved in clinical research, which can sometimes lead to articles overstating the risks, backed up by people who don’t know enough to make those claims. He adds that too often, the therapy part of psychedelic therapy is pushed aside and not talked about nearly as much as the psychedelic part, which leaves an incomplete picture of how treatment works.
Acupuncturist, primary care provider, and psychedelic therapy advocate Dr. Jonathan Fields also says the media is missing out on key parts of the psychedelic therapy journey. “[The media is] kind of talking about everything except the most important thing, which is actually the fact that it works because it’s allowing you to change your mindset,” he says. A key to the therapy is integration: psilocybin can help people integrate useful tools learned through therapy, or help people stick to regular exercise. “Rather than just like, ‘I took mushrooms. I feel great.’”
Dr. Evan Lewis, vice president of psychedelic neurology at Numinus, a Canadian company with a series of clinics focusing on psychedelic therapy, says that the media and, by default, readers and other people, just “don’t understand the importance of having a really good therapist.” He says that what remains underreported is the whole framework around good preparation, guidance and integration.
On the note of media literacy, Siebert says, the issue is that “a lot of people don’t understand the relationship that PR plays.” This puts the publications at fault, too: Paid content isn’t being clearly disclosed in the psychedelic space, and neither is the “press release regurgitation” that Siebert says sometimes happens, automatically pivoting the “article” toward positive coverage. These things are not inherently bad—they just aren’t transparent.
Promoting almost exclusively positive news and information about psychedelics can be dangerous. Today’s news cycle is more than 24 hours—it’s deeper. The internet creates echo chambers and vacuums. Two people could have differing thoughts and both, after a Google search, could come back with apparent facts to back themselves up. Gen Z gets more of their information from TikTok rather than Google, and TikTok is full of diluted, or even totally wrong, information.
While we as reporters can’t control what someone is consuming on social media, we can control the messaging that we share and propagate on our own platforms and in our articles. We are not just writing about psychedelics for the sake of writing about psychedelics.