The end of the year has finally arrived, and with it comes my gift to you—a thorough recap of psychoactive drug news from 2018. Before we get into it, let me provide a bit of background on what it took to create this year’s column.
I wrote the first “This Year in Psychedelics” column back in 2015, but ended up skipping it in 2016 because I greatly underestimated the time it would take to complete and failed to finish that post. However, I did come through with another edition in 2017. The gap in coverage bothered me the last couple years, so I committed to finishing the 2016 column during this year before starting work on the 2018 post that you’re now reading. So I spent the first nine months of this year working on the 2016 post, which was finally published this September. (You may notice that the publish date is 12/31/16, which was done so that it shows up in correct order when viewed on this page.) The 2016 column is much more detailed than the 2017 version, but I don’t plan to go back and rework the 2017 version because I’d like to move on and focus my efforts on making next year’s edition the best one yet.
While working on the 2016 column during the first nine months of this year, I kept up with throwing links into this year’s post, but it didn’t really start to take shape until October. So this year’s edition was essentially written in a mere three months. It’s far from perfect, but I learned a lot of things that will improve the column in the future.
Earlier this month I polled the Think Wilder audience on Twitter and Facebook about the overall scope of the blog, asking if I should narrow my focus to exclusively write about psychedelics or expand it to cover other psychoactive substances as well. Thank you to those of you who responded. Most people seemed to be interested in psychedelics, but a few reported that they found information about other drugs to also be valuable. After mulling it over for a few weeks, I decided to expand the scope of the blog to focus on all psychoactive substances. First of all, I wanted to avoid practicing drug chauvinism, the belief that some drugs are inherently “better” than others. I also feel like there is significantly more honest reporting about psychedelics than there is about drugs like stimulants and depressants and wanted to help balance things out. But most importantly, I realized that although I’m far more familiar with psychedelics and am by no means an expert on other drugs, I still have a healthy interest in psychoactive substances in general and want to see them fairly covered. I added a “cocaine” section to this year’s post, and you can expect to see news about other psychoactive substances like benzodiazepines and deliriants in the near future.
Scattered throughout this blog post are links to a few of my own pieces that were published in Psychedelic Times and Kahpi. Overall, this year’s column is fairly in-depth, and as a result it’s quite long. Writing it took a ton of energy and effort, so I’d like to encourage you to support me by becoming a patron, making a one-time donation, or sharing it with a friend if you feel moved to do so. Without further ado, let’s get started.
Cannabis is a highly complex plant. It is a mild psychedelic that possesses both stimulant and depressant qualities. Although it remains a mostly illegal drug in most parts of the world, some places have been relaxing their laws. It also has a long history of medical, recreational, and industrial use.
Researchers kept themselves very busy, with marijuana research growing exponentially due to successful legalization efforts around the world. Tens of thousands of peer-reviewed studies concerning medical cannabis were published during the last decade. This year’s research into marijuana’s effects on physical health found that smoking weed long-term isn’t linked to poor lung health One study found that it may not be as effective at treating chronic pain as it was once thought to be while another found that chronic pain relief efficacy is directly related to the concentration of THC and CBD. Other studies revealed a few of the ways that cannabis can treat different types of pain. Marijuana was also found to be effective at treating fibromyalgia, Chron’s disease, and epilepsy. Scientists also tested cannabis on animals, finding that when CBD is combined with chemotherapy it tripled survival rates in mice, reduces symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease in mice, and can effectively treat dogs with arthritis. Using marijuana was found to not affect the outcome of kidney transplants and doesn’t cause behavioral problems in youth. Upcoming studies will look at the efficacy of using cannabis-infused suppositories to treat menstrual cramps and whether cannabis oil can treat a potentially fatal skin condition called Epidermolysis Bullosa.
Studies looking at mental health uncovered a lot of new data too. A meta-analysis of 69 studies found that marijuana’s potential to harm teenagers’ brains was overstated. One widely-reported study claiming that cannabis harms the human brain turned out to be extremely misleading, as it didn’t look at marijuana or humans at all. Instead, it was investigating the effects of a synthetic cannabinoid on mice brains. Other brain studies found that cannabis use is unrelated to brain morphology, doesn’t change the structure of the brain at all, removes a toxic Alzheimer’s protein, improves working memory, and has similarities with coffee’s effects. An ongoing study is looking at whether cannabis can treat PTSD, heavy marijuana users were found to hold on to negative feelings, and weed helped people suffering from insomnia. Brain scans demonstrated how cannabis extracts could help people with psychosis and schizophrenic patients were accepting of a high-CBD/low-THC cannabis substitution. Although cannabis is amazing for many medical issues, liverwort may actually be more medically effective.
Marijuana has observable effects on drug use. Several studies found that states with legal recreational or medical marijuana did not increase teen use: a meta-analysis in Addiction, a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, a meta-analysis in Current Addiction Reports, a study in in Prevention Research, the federally-funded “Monitoring the Future” study, and a research letter in JAMA Pediatrics. Legalization also doesn’t appear to increase problematic cannabis use, either. But while the youth are staying away, marijuana use is becoming more common among older adults. A market research report found that cannabis consumers use less alcohol, pain medications, and sleep aids. A string of studies supported the idea that cannabis could help solve the opioid crisis. Studies in the Journal of Headache and Pain and Addiction found that medical marijuana users are able to replace opioids with cannabis. Other studies found that weed can help reduce opioid harms by curbing opioids and preventing overdoses. And a meta-analysis explored the relationship between medical marijuana and opioid overdoses.
Cannabis also impacts crime. Studies found that cannabis dispensaries don’t increase crime and marijuana decriminalization leads to a decrease in arrests. While Washington D.C. decriminalized cannabis possession a few years ago, the ban on marijuana sales has been driving arrests. And speaking of driving, one in seven Canadian cannabis users admitted to driving while high. But, at least in America, traffic fatalities haven’t increased since legalization, and they have actually fallen in Colorado. Other studies found that marijuana consumers can help solve crimes, and legalization disrupts the illicit market and leads to safer borders and less smuggling.
Other studies found that whole-plant cannabis creates an “entourage effect” that helps patients more than pure CBD and that the hops used in beer is related to marijuana. Evidence came out showing that all weed is pretty much the same, and genetically modified cannabis is on its way. A study found that vaporized cannabis produces a stronger high than smoking it. Access to medical marijuana is associated with fewer workplace fatalities and California experienced significant impacts to society after legalization took effect. We also learned about the most and least marijuana-friendly newspapers and blood-sucking flies that love weed.
Cannabis laws changed so much this year that it was nearly impossible to keep up. At the U.S. federal level, Congress protected medical marijuana from Jeff Sessions, Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker co-sponsored the Marijuana Justice Act, and Chuck Schumer introduced a bill to federally decriminalize cannabis. The DEA moved a cannabis medicine to Schedule V for the first time ever and hemp was officially legalized. All of this movement has some folks wondering if 2019 will be the year that cannabis is federally legalized. Cannabis initiatives were extremely successful at the state level too. California’s legal recreational market took effect at the beginning of the year, although its officials eventually disapproved of marijuana-infused alcohol and bars with on-site cannabis consumption. Arizona was on the verge of approving medical marijuana for the treatment of problematic opioid use. Albuquerque’s city council voted to decriminalize cannabis possession. Missouri and Utah legalized medical marijuana during the midterms and shortly afterward a Missouri lawmaker prefiled a bill that would legalize recreational weed if it passes. Wisconsin voters showed their support for marijuana reform by responding positively to non-binding advisory questions, which indicates that the state may be primed to change its cannabis laws in the near future. A legalization measure was defeated in North Dakota, even though the state approved medical marijuana two years ago. Vermont became the 9th state to legalize recreational cannabis, while Michigan became the 10th state, and the first in the Midwest, to legalize weed. The governor of Illinois signed a law that expanded medical marijuana access to people looking to use it as an alternative to prescription painkillers. Five cities in Ohio decriminalized marijuana. Nebraska is hoping to get a medical marijuana measure on its 2020 ballot. An Indiana judge ruled that cannabis is not a holy sacrament following the First Church of Cannabis lawsuit. New York may end up legalizing marijuana next year. New Hampshire’s House of Representatives voted to legalize cannabis possession and cultivation. So did lawmakers in New Jersey. Delaware’s governor signed legislation that would expunge past marijuana convictions of the possession of less than one ounce. Legislators in Maine overrode their governor’s veto of cannabis legalization. Kansas had long been the only state in the nation that banned beer made with hemp, but reversed its decision. Georgia’s governor approved a bill that enabled people suffering from PTSD and pain to use medical marijuana. Oklahoma voters approved a measure to legalize medical marijuana. A Florida Circuit Court judge ruled that a ban on medical cannabis smoking was unconstitutional and voters passed an amendment restoring voting rights to marijuana felons. Out-of-state patients are now allowed to purchase medical marijuana in Hawaii, but registered in-state patients are having a difficult time acquiring firearms. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands made history by becoming the first U.S. territory to fully legalize cannabis through an act of lawmakers as opposed to a voter initiative. It’s also the first jurisdiction to jump from having cannabis totally illegal to allowing recreational use without first enacting a medical marijuana program.
Although the World Health Organization postponed its recommendation for rescheduling cannabis at the United Nations summit, a lot of cannabis policy reforms succeeded in other parts of the world as well. Several North American countries had a lot to celebrate. Canada became the second country to legalize cannabis, several Caribbean nations agreed to consider legalization, and the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that the country’s ban on consuming cannabis was unconstitutional, followed by the introduction of a legalization bill. In South America, Brazilian politicians introduced a bill to legalize cannabis and later approved medical marijuana. Europe moved the needle in cannabis’ favor too. Luxembourg legalized medical marijuana and is now planning to create a recreational market for its adult residents. The UK allowed doctors to start prescribing cannabis-based medicines, as did Portugal. Israel decriminalized use and later passed a bill allowing exports of medical marijuana. And Georgia decriminalized the consumption of cannabis, but cultivation and sales remain a punishable offense. Australia became the fourth country in the world to allow exports of cannabis-based medicines and the Green Party proposed full legalization, which is strongly supported by the public. New Zealand will soon be holding a referendum to determine whether to legalize cannabis for recreational use in the 2020 general election. Over in Asia, Thailand and South Korea authorized medical marijuana. Down in Africa, Zimbabwe legalized medical marijuana and South Africa decriminalized private possession and cultivation for personal use.
Pushing forward new policies is one thing, but the way that they are enforced is another entirely. The year started out bleak. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo, signaling that the government might go after states that have legal marijuana. However, medical cannabis protections were extended as a part of a federal budget agreement shortly thereafter. Georgia separated a 15 year-old boy from his parents because they were using cannabis to stop his epileptic seizures. A Michigan police officer made an 80 year-old great grandmother spend a night in jail due to an expired medical marijuana card and cops in New Jersey forcibly searched a man’s anus and genitals for cannabis during a traffic stop. Police in Illinois claimed that they’d have to kill their police dogs if weed was legalized, but an honest cop from Colorado proved them wrong. Prosecutors in New York City dropped more than 3,000 low-level marijuana cases, several of them which had been ongoing for decades. Following the legalization of cannabis in our neighbor to the north, Canadian cannabis users were rumored to be banned from entering the United States, with a top U.S. government official confirming that legal Canadian marijuana workers and investors would be treated like illegal traffickers. However, cooler heads prevailed and the government ended up relaxing its border policy. Yet federal prosecutors still technically have the ability to seek the death penalty for possession of large quantities of pot. We’re talking 60,000 plants or more though, so unless you’ve got a huge weed farm you probably don’t need to worry about being killed for being a gardener. The DEA continued its hunt for “shoes” and “my brother,” which it insists are slang terms for marijuana, but at least seizures are on the decline. Child services continued to go after cannabis-using mothers and their kids, and the Air Force warned its members to stay away from grandma’s “marijuana-infused miracle sticky buns” during the holidays. But some other countries handle things a bit differently. A German police association advocated for the legalization of cannabis. The Canadian military made allowances for its members to use recreational marijuana—with some restrictions, and the country’s legalization forced more than a dozen K-9s to retire early.
Encouragingly, public opinion has continued to evolve its stance on cannabis faster than those that represent us. Poll after poll found that the majority Americans want to legalize pot (Pew: 62%, Quinnipiac: 63%, and Gallup: 66%). 53% of the healthcare industry is in favor of legalization and 65% of Americans told Gallup that it’s “morally acceptable” to smoke weed. One in four young Americans consume marijuana and teetotaling high schoolers are becoming more tolerant of other students to chose to partake. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) submitted more than 10,000 written comments to the FDA asking for the reconsideration of international cannabis prohibition. The public’s opinion has evolved due to a cultural shift in religious identity, an understanding of marijuana’s low level of harm, and criticism of the criminal justice system. Elsewhere, a study out of Brazil found that popular opinions on marijuana depend on the political party that endorses it, people in Peru and Argentina marched to raise support for new cannabis laws, and a silent movement to legalize weed in India is spreading across the country.
The legal cannabis industry pushed the envelope further than ever before. In the U.S., it created more than 100,000 jobs and billions of dollars in tax revenue. When the Massachusetts recreational market opened, one of its mayors was first in line to get his hands on some fresh bud. The state raised $2.2 million in the first five days of sales alone. Where is all this tax revenue going, you ask? Well, some advocate for it to be allocated toward fixing issues with mass transit or for the funding of public schools, but one compelling argument is to dedicate that money to people who have been hurt by prohibition. Some other vice industries haven’t been all that thrilled with marijuana’s success, though. As cannabis sales overtook alcohol in a U.S. city for the first time and beer sales dropped, at least one Big Alcohol company relented and has announced its intention to enter the cannabis industry itself. Cannabis-infused beer (minus the alcohol) is coming to Colorado, but overall brewers have a lot of hoops to jump through in order to legally manufacture cannabis products. Big Tobacco is also trying to get into the game, and even Big Soda has been thinking about it. Coca-Cola was reported to be considering a possible entry into the market earlier in the year, although its CEO later said that the company has no plans for cannabis drinks. But PepsiCo does appear to be interested. The technology industry has continued its merge with the cannabis industry too. Blockchain technology fused with weed, a “Yelp for pot” called Weedmaps was criticized for its Silicon Valley attitude, and vaporizer manufacturer PAX released an app to help users control their high. Some companies didn’t take too kindly to cannabis though—Google and Facebook wouldn’t allow marijuana ads on their respective sites, but Facebook did loosen up a bit a few months later, by including cannabis pages to show up in its search results. There was some trouble in the vape industry when fake vaporizer cartridges started disrupting the legal weed industry and duping black market buyers, and one company’s CBD vape liquid was found to contain harmful ingredients like cough syrup and synthetic cannabinoids. Both the beauty and food industries wanted in, too. Artisanal edible cannabis honey entered the scene for the first time. Stashing away hard-earned cash has long been a problem for the cannabis industry, but more banks are starting to welcome legal marijuana business accounts and a bill to create the world’s first cannabis bank passed in California. Marijuana extracts for pets started trending, director Francis Ford Coppola launched a luxury cannabis brand, and cannabis shops were found to increase the value of nearby real estate properties. The FDA approved the first marijuana-based prescription drug, the U.S. Senate approved federal funding for a cannabis genetics restoration project, and former House Speaker John Boehner—once a staunch cannabis opponent—is now working at a marijuana firm advisory board. My how the times have changed.
The burgeoning legal cannabis industry expanded into the rest of the world as well. Canada became the second country to institute a recreational market for weed, although it struggled to meet the huge demand for legal cannabis, almost running out of product for sale shortly after legalization. Pioneers in the country brewed the world’s first cannabis beer and Aurora Cannabis Inc. began offering medical marijuana coverage for its employees. Greece held its first government-supported medical marijuana expo and Parisians got in line to purchase low-THC cannabis after drug laws softened. Africa’s first medical cannabis dispensary opened in Durban, and Lesotho has been cashing in on the booming medical marijuana industry.
Celebrities were no stranger to weed in 2018. Elon Musk allegedly smoked weed (he totally didn’t, by the way) on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, prompting a vicious backlash from the mainstream public as Tesla shares fell and NASA ordered an SpaceX safety probe. And to top it all off, Musk inexpertly puffed on Joe’s joint in California, which is now a legal recreational state anyway. Musician Gene Simmons took $2.5 million to promote cannabis and actress Kristen Bell revealed that she smokes weed once a week and plans to host an ecstasy party, and author Malcolm Gladwell disappointingly came out against cannabis legalization.
In U.S. politics news, after a long time of denying that cannabis legalization is a winning issue, the Democrats are currently fighting the Republications over which party will lead on marijuana in 2019. Michelle Obama talked about smoking weed in her new memoir and Bernie Sanders once again criticized prohibition in his new book, and Michael Moore suggested that putting cannabis on the ballot would drive voter turnout in the 2020 election. I think he’s definitely right about that and hope we see it come to pass.
Marijuana has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments, including irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, eczema, cancer, Lyme disease, endometriosis, and trauma. It also has the potential to replace traditional labor medications, help with smoking cessation, and relieve symptoms of menopause. Some fitness enthusiasts tossed their protein shakes and started using cannabis as a workout supplement. And we learned a bit more about the connection between women, cannabis, and psychosis. With all of this great news, many doctors have started to recommend medical marijuana to their patients, and in an inspiring move, even former Attorney General Jeff Sessions admitted that there may be some benefits from using cannabis.
The medical use of cannabis oil continued to get media attention in the United Kingdom. Parents have claimed for many years that it is a highly effective medicine for children who suffer from ailments like epilepsy and autism, but it wasn’t until this year that medical application was approved in that area of the world. A 12 year-old boy and a 2 year-old girl—both suffering from epilepsy—in Northern Ireland became the first children to legally receive medical cannabis in the locale. Meanwhile, in the U.S., an epileptic high school football player was deemed ineligible for college play due to his use of cannabis oil.
More schools are offering cannabis curricula than ever before. Stockton University in New Jersey is offering a minor in “Cannabis Studies” and Florida Gulf Coast University is planning to offer a cannabis degree. Hopefully this education will go a long way toward legitimizing the plant, potentially kicking off ripple effects for other psychoactive substances as well.
Marijuana’s long and complex history got a bit more complete this year. Research found that cannabis used to grow wild in ancient Europe and that super old viruses ended up producing the plant we know and love today. And we learned a bit more about the various ways American colonists used cannabis.
Those of us looking for helpful cannabis guides had a lot to choose from this year. After all, brand-new users need to know how much weed to try if it’s their first time. And people living in Washington D.C. (where it’s legally to possess cannabis but there is no retail industry) have to figure out how to legally purchase marijuana in the nation’s capital without actually buying any cannabis at all. It’s an ingenious workaround, one which may come in handy the next time you go visit the city. And a band photographer wrote “the next bible” after smoking weed just one time.
Popular entertainment opened up a bit more to cannabis this year, as pot-infused cooking shows started to increase in popularity, but things weren’t completely groovy for cannabis fans everywhere. YouTube silently purged a lot of cannabis-related channels, which proved to be a huge loss of cultural history. However, this allowed a competitor—The Weedtube—to become more widely known for its openness to hosting drug-related content on its site, something that many technology companies have been shying away from during the past few years.
An unlikely new group of cannabis consumers has joined the party—namely, moms. And teens are now trying weed before alcohol and tobacco. It turns out they’re not consuming more cannabis, but less of the two more harmful drugs. And firearm-owning marijuana users continue to face a difficult choice—guns or cannabis?
Even though California legalized cannabis at the top of the year, marijuana was still banned at Coachella music festival. A few months later, thousands purchased and consumed weed at the first legal cannabis festival held in the state. And cannabis-based autism treatments were front and center at a suburban conference in Chicago.
Cannabis may be legal in more locales than ever before, but black markets still exist in many of those places. Illegal marijuana farms in California are using toxic pesticides and Vancouver struggled to tame its black market even after weed was legalized in Canada.
In cannabis crime news, longtime cannabis activist Marc Emery was fined $5000 for drug trafficking prior to Canada’s legalization of cannabis earlier this year, and both San Francisco and Seattle started expunging previous marijuana convictions from its citizens’ records.
One of my absolute favorite drugs, the psychedelic compound lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), can be used for recreational, medicinal and even spiritual purposes. Active at extremely low doses and capable of altering one’s thoughts and feelings, this is one of the best known and well-researched psychedelics around. So it’s no surprise to see it show up frequently in the media each year, and 2018—the 75th anniversary of the first intentional acid trip—was no different. David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and an outspoken drug expert made headlines when he gave a ton of reasons to support his opinion that it’s “irrational to deny people access to LSD.” The practice of microdosing LSD has spread from Silicon Valley to other workplaces and more and more middle class folks are giving LSD a try, sometimes at events like dinner parties. A doctor advocated for the use of LSD therapy for people who are dying. One of the best things to happen all year involved a Deadhead named Timothy Tyler, who was convicted of selling LSD in the 90s and spent 26 years in prison. He was granted clemency by Barack Obama in August 2016 but had to wait until May of this year to finally get released from prison. As a fellow Deadhead and lover of LSD, this news filled me with joy when I first heard it. Even though he spent a significant chunk of his life behind bars for such a dumb reason, I’m glad he is now a free man once again.
LSD research hasn’t slowed down in the slightest. New research uncovered all sorts of interesting things this year, like why acid makes the familiar seem more surprising, how it has the capacity to treat mental disorders by performing a harmonic reorganization of the brain, and why music sounds profoundly awesome during an entheogenic voyage. A couple studies looked at the brain, reporting findings that may help explain the chemistry behind depression and schizophrenia and how LSD may help the brain heal from disorders. In one experiment, scientists significantly reduced alcohol consumption in mice by giving them a single dose of LSD. In another, researchers gave the little creatures so much LSD—for a very long time—that it caused retinal damage. This drug was found to change something about the way that humans perceive time. And a case report told the tale of how LSD provoked synesthetic hallucinations in a congenitally blind man. Looking forward to the future, the world’s first-ever LSD microdosing study started in September. I can’t wait to find out what the research shows—does microdosing actually do anything? Time will tell, but I’ll go ahead and lay down my cards now. I’m pretty bullish on it, and I think microdosing does have a wide range of legitimate uses, ranging from things like sharpening focus and kicking productivity into the next gear to mental health benefits—relieving anxiety, treating depression, that sort of thing.
We learned a bit about how LSD influenced Western culture through a virtual reality recreation of the LSD journey that inspired the Whole Earth Catalog and a story about the time a legendary Batman editor was dared to dose Stan Lee’s coffee. Silicon Valley employees debated the rumor that Steve Jobs was tripping when he died. One guide written for newbies gave advice on how to take LSD.
LSD showed up in several popular mediums. There was a hallucinatory novel (dubbed simply Acid) that threw a wrench in the traditional ideas of family and motherhood, one character dosed another with LSD in Gaspar Noe’s film Climax, and a guy wrote a play about his acid trip called All You Need Is LSD.
There were a handful of interesting LSD-related crimes: security troops on a U.S. nuclear missile base took LSD, a delirious naked man—covered in cooking oil—was arrested after being tased twice, a student was found naked at a shopping center, a sky-high babysitter refused to go home and tried to steal toys, and millions in cryptocurrencies were seized in the largest LSD bust in European history.
A lot of people had bummer trips on LSD, kind of like the world’s first-ever acid trip. A 19 year-old was tased by police three times after punching windows and a cop, a man at a Rainbow Gathering strangled a woman and bit someone’s finger off, a man gouged a police community support officer’s face while at a party, and there was a fatal stabbing. The student who stabbed a companion to death in 2016 won his appeal for a reduced prison sentence.
Staying safe while using LSD is extremely important, but not everyone makes it a priority. Two teenagers were hospitalized after buying acid from a dealer on Snapchat, a man was found dead in the Mississippi River after a bad LSD trip during a concert, a 26 year-old man drowned in the ocean after combining LSD, cocaine, and MDMA at a music festival, and an Oregon teen’s dead body tested positive for acid and weed after he was killed by a semi truck.
But not everyone has a rough time; some people spoke out about how LSD helps them, including a woman who claimed that it cured her eating disorder, a writer had mostly positive things to say about a one-month microdosing experiment, and a professional jiu-jitsu fighter who said that acid helps him “whoop ass.” Lucy sure does pack a punch, doesn’t she?
The naturally-occurring psychedelic compound known as psilocybin can be found in many species of magic mushrooms. These fungi have been used for thousands of years for their spiritual, medical, and recreational effects. Even with such a rich history, there’s still a lot that we don’t know about this topic yet.
To help fill in those gaps in knowledge, tons of psilocybin research was conducted and published, even though scientists who want to study magic mushrooms have to jump through a bunch of kafkaesque regulatory hoops (including paying $7,000 per gram) to do it. However, the studies carried on, uncovering many interesting (and often inspiring) things about psilocybin. A few studies demonstrated that magic mushrooms are effective at treating depression without the emotional blunting that occurs with antidepressants and improving emotional face recognition in depressed patients. Along those lines, the FDA awarded psilocybin-assisted therapy the “breakthrough therapy” designation for use against treatment-resistant depression—a move that may make the drug legal for therapy by 2021. A year after a study that measured the impact of magic mushrooms on people with depression, Professor David Nutt gave an update on how those people are doing now.
But psilocybin research wasn’t limited to depression studies—others found that the chemical reduces authoritarianism and boosts nature relatedness, leads to lasting changes in positive traits (when combined with meditation and spiritual training), and might make for an effective sleep aid. Another found that microdosing psilocybin truffles can enhance creativity. One writer suggested that cannabis and mushrooms should be part of the discussion for treating concussions. Comparing the various cognitive effects of dextromethorphan (DXM) and psilocybin led to new understandings about the differences between classical psychedelics and dissociatives. Two scientists gave fearless feedback to fellow researchers in the field about how they can improve the overall quality of work being done in the psilocybin research space.
Looking at the wilder side of things, we learned that mushrooms may have actually developed psilocybin to ward off insects and that dinosaurs may have eaten magic mushrooms. We were also introduced to a parasite that drugs its hosts with psilocybin, causing their butts to fall off. So while humans might like tripping, it sure seems like the smaller creatures of the world may not enjoy it so much.
There were a bunch of studies that looked at how psilocybin might help people with substance use issues related to other drugs like alcohol, cocaine, and tobacco. And all of that research just focused on one particular chemical found in mushrooms—fungi also have plenty of other cool compounds that scientists should study.
More energy went into psilocybin policy reform in 2018 than any previous year. Earlier on, Denver, Oregon, and California were all hoping to effect change to how they approach psilocybin and magic mushrooms. However, even though reform efforts have started to gain some steam (one poll found that 39% Denver residents support the legalization of magic mushrooms) and researchers recommended that psilocybin be bumped from Schedule I to Schedule IV, none of these states ended up voting on their psilocybin-related initiatives after all. Denver for Psilocybin’s decriminalization attempt, which turned out to be quite a rollercoaster, had the most steam and received the most attention in the media. After trying twice to collect the signatures needed to get the initiative on the November ballot, the team had to throw in the towel—for 2018, that is. Now they’re working toward collecting signatures to get the initiative on the May 2019 ballot. At the time of the publication of this post, they have one more week to get it done. Meanwhile, the Oregon Psilocybin Society is hoping to get a medical initiative on the ballot in 2020.
Although psilocybin is not legal yet, new companies have begun to take shape, coalescing into the foundations of a future legal psilocybin industry. COMPASS Pathways churned out 20,000 doses of magic mushrooms for depression research but was heavily criticized by some in the psychedelic community over concerns involving the companies’ true intent. The team at Psychedelics Today withdrew its support and endorsement for MycoMeditations, a legal psilocybin-assisted retreat center located in Jamaica, after completing its obligations to the company, claiming that there were “some missing pieces around safety" at the retreat center. MycoMeditations responded by stating its intention to incorporate additional safety protocols into its program, including standardized intake interviews, training modules for staff, rigorous treatment protocols, and having an on-site physician’s assistant or registered nurse during sessions. These juicy controversies about the current state of the psilocybin industry spurred a lot of healthy conversation, which will hopefully be used to help direct the direction that this industry will head toward.
There were a ton of feature stories about psilocybin this year, including ones about how magic mushroom retreats could be the future of wellness travel, the ways we could use magic mushrooms to combat America’s opioid crisis, a dive into whether psilocybin can make people feel more empathy toward nature, and an explanation about 920 (which is essentially psilocybin’s 420). A young man wrote a piece about what it’s like to take a high dose of psilocybin in a homeless shelter for HIV+ males. A mother-daughter mushroom trip on the Jersey Shore was captured for a forthcoming film called Are You OK? Cause I’m OK.
While there are plenty of crime stories involving simple possession or distribution of psilocybin, the most interesting crimes included a Washington man who is facing up to five years in prison (and a $10,000 fine) for hunting wild mushrooms in a state park, a magic mushroom lab in Ireland, a man who crashed his vehicle while tripping on the highway and later walked into traffic, and a guy who allegedly killed his cat after eating some magic mushrooms. As a bonus, here is an example of how out of touch law enforcement is with drugs: a man posted pictures of his morel mushroom yield and the cops showed up, mistakenly believing that they were illegal.
Rounding out this section, a few standout psilocybin guides and resources were published this year, including advice on how to prepare a psilocybin mushroom microdose, a multi species psilocybin mushroom dosage calculator, a unique playlist for psilocybin journeys, and a breakdown of the differences between psilocybin truffles vs. psilocybin mushrooms.
The “love drug” known as MDMA can be classified many different ways—as an euphoric empathogen, psychedelic stimulant, or a phenethylamine entactogen, just to name a few. It sure has been a long strange trip turning “Molly” into a $100 million FDA-approved pharmaceutical medicine, but we’re closer than ever before. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Phase 2 studies were completed this year. One of them even reported an impressive 76% success rate for treating PTSD 12 months after its conclusion. While many people believe ecstasy to be a dangerous drug, new research suggested that it’s far less dangerous than previously thought. For example, MDMA was found to significantly reduce social anxiety in autistic adults, make people more cooperative and help build trust after betrayal, and dampen the encoding and retrieval of emotional memories, allowing patients to work through their trauma without an urge to run away from it. Psychologists gathered together an intentionally-diverse group of participants in an attempt to see whether MDMA would be a good treatment for the trauma of racism but the study was cut short due to several issues. Perhaps the most-covered study was one that found that giving octopuses MDMA causes the typically anti-social creatures to become more social. And more results are right around the corner—scientists began the first clinical trials to find out whether MDMA can treat alcoholism began and MAPS’ Phase 3 trials looking at MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of PTSD are now open for enrollment at five sites in the United States.
Outside of clinical research, MDMA is being used to treat eating disorders, PTSD, anxiety, depression, and problematic drug use. The Dutch Green Party has suggested its government begin to regulate ecstasy production.
MDMA found itself right at home in popular entertainment, with hip hop lyrics glorifying “Molly,” a piece of art made out of 4,000 ecstasy pills, and MDMA, a drug-fueled thriller that showed audiences another side of Asian America. A couple celebrities showed up in the news. Kim Kardashian West claimed that she was under the influence during her first wedding and when she made a sex tape. Famous DJ David Morales was arrested at a Japanese airport over an MDMA smuggling claim but was later released without charge. Jada Pinkett Smith says she used MDMA, cannabis and alcohol to cope with depression.
Opinion pieces explored the differences between British and American MDMA users, the possibility of using cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin to bankroll ecstasy research, and why Britain is seeing so many overdoses.
Ravers were joined by a few new members from an unexpected slice of the population when a small group of middle class women introduced the world to a new fad called “brieing", which involves putting MDMA in cheese and eating it during a night in. While the news media tried to make it seem more popular than it actually is, it’s still nice to know that psychoactive drugs are starting to reach people in every nook and cranny of society.
The illegal MDMA market kept busy in 2018. A fresh analysis of the most common ecstasy pills found in America shed some light on geographical trends of MDMA going back all the way to 2002. An investigative journalist went undercover in a Chinese chemical factory and tried to get employees to admit they knew their customers used their products to manufacture MDMA. Ecstasy pills shaped like President Donald Trump started showing up. The strength of pills surged to “potentially fatal” levels, sometimes doubling or even tripling the dose. MDMA producers were caught dumping tons of chemical waste in nature reserves, and $57 million worth of the drug was discovered inside sausage-making machines.
There were several MDMA-related crimes, ranging from the silly (like a man who filled a hotel bathtub with potatoes while high, claiming that “it felt like the right thing to do”) to the tragic (like when an elementary school boy accidentally shared his father’s ecstasy with friends). One pregnant 19 year-old took ecstasy in an effort to kill her unborn son while a 23 year-old mother dropped her baby boy while fleeing from police, ending up cracking his skull. Three people were arrested at a Sonic Drive-In ecstasy was found in a child’s hamburger wrapper. A Russian was given an 18-year prison sentence for smuggling MDMA in Vietnam. And the trend of dealers being sent to prison following their customers’ deaths continued, with multiple suppliers being punished harshly for providing ecstasy to others. One such 19 year-old was jailed for acquiring MDMA for himself and a couple friends was simply more technically capable of purchasing drugs from the dark web than the others, a task that requires more know-how than the average person possesses. It begs the question—do we as a society want to be punishing people who are doing their best to find clean drugs in an illegal, unregulated black market?
It’s rare to find accounts of people assaulting others while under the influence of MDMA, but a couple of men spiked an alcoholic beverage with the drug before forcing a woman to drink it and sexually assaulting her. Each man was later sentenced to more than a decade behind bars for their crimes.
Several warnings about ecstasy were issued, including ones about pills that are too strong, pills that contain other drugs like ketamine and cocaine, pills that were just plain “bad,” and the all-too-common worry that children will eat an ecstasy pill thinking it looks like candy. A few teenagers went to the hospital after taking MDMA. One took so much that his lungs collapsed.
Although alcohol causes 5% of deaths worldwide and kills way more people than ecstasy, it’s far more common for the news media to cover stories about MDMA-related deaths than ones involving alcohol. Several people died from taking ecstasy this year, including: 29 year-old Nathan Dennett, 17 year-old Lewis Haunch, 19 year-old Luke Johns, 19 year-old Michael Trueman, 21 year-old Haakon Bratland, 38 year-old Joel Taylor, 18 year-old Ellie Knowles, 15 year-old Hannah Bragg, 16 year-old Luke Campbell-Tapson, 20 year-old Patrick Coakley, 22 year-old Joana Burns, 14 year-old Bethany Devlin-McCrone, 15 year-old Shakira Pellow, 19 year-old Jack Brereton, 18 year-old Georgia Jones, 29 year-old Stacey Tierney, 16 year-old Joshua Connolly-Teale, 19 year-old Alex Masterton, 46 year-old Robert Niak, and 37 year-old Paul Burns. The first fatal overdose from fentanyl-tainted MDMA may have occurred, but the death is still being investigated at this time. While some of these deaths were attributed to toxic doses of pure MDMA, many also died from combining ecstasy with other drugs, fatal accidents that occurred while under the influence, and/or taking what was thought to be MDMA but proved to be something else entirely.
When young people die as a result of taking MDMA, parents and family members respond in a few different ways. Some issue warnings to other parents. Others share graphic photos of their children in their final hours, suffering and on life support. But many family members correctly identify the true culprit behind these deaths—drug prohibition. Some go as far as to support legalization efforts and public drug checking locations.
There were plenty of MDMA trip reports written, but one caught my eye. It is the story of a writer who began frequently abusing ecstasy and eventually had an overdose. She decided it was time to call it quits after living to tell the tale.
The powerful psychedelic compound known as N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) can be found in a variety of plants and animals around the world. Perhaps once an esoteric psychedelic substance, it has gained in popularity during the last few decades to the point where people are now vaping it at concerts. In a bit of obscure news, an Australian grass containing the drug got kangaroos so high that they couldn’t walk straight.
While DMT research is certainly still in its early days, one study worth noting was published, which found that the drug closely models the near-death experience, although there are some significant differences between the two phenomena. Psychedelic researcher Roland Griffiths put out a request to hear from people who have encountered aliens while under the influence of DMT. With any luck, the survey entries will be published in a future DMT study.
It’s rare for celebrities to talk about using DMT, but Paul McCartney talked about how he “saw God” after smoking it during the heyday of The Beatles. One writer explored the idea that DMT might be the perfect drug for our collective crisis of meaning.
We learned a bit more about this drug’s rich history after one journalist unearthed the forgotten music collaboration between Terence McKenna and a practically unknown band called Zuvuya. One of the two albums that featured Terence mirrors a DMT trip. An art exhibit explored the idea that the muslim prophet Muhammad may have been tripping on DMT when he was sitting in a dark cave for extended periods of time. The idea that DMT is produced naturally in the human brain was popularized after researcher Rick Strassman hypothesized in his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule that the drug may be created by the pineal gland. Fellow researcher David Nichols pushed back on that idea, saying that there’s not enough evidence to prove that the pineal gland alters consciousness, much less provoking mystical experiences by secreting DMT endogenously.
There wasn’t much DMT-related entertainment, but musician Jon Hopkins did give an excellent interview where he talked about psychedelic meditation and what it was like to listen to his own music after smoking DMT. As an aside, if you haven’t heard his latest album, Singularity, which came out earlier this year, you definitely should check it out.
DMT-related crimes happen with great frequency, but only one stood out to me this year. It was a case about a man who was given a 10-year prison sentence simply for possessing the stuff. Maybe there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove that our brains produce endogenous DMT, but on the off-chance that they do, how absurd will this seem in the future? It’s already outrageous enough, but after finding out that we’re all walking around with this powerful psychedelic tryptamine in our noggins at all times, it’s going to seem downright archaic.
The DMT-containing psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca has been used as a traditional plant medicine in traditional ceremonies among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. It is known for producing extraordinary visions and has the potential to heal a myriad of psychospiritual maladies. Media coverage of ayahuasca has increased steadily year-over-year, and 2018 was no different. To start things off on a jovial—albeit somewhat dark—note, the satirical publication The Onion published a piece claiming that the president of a well-known breast cancer organization (Susan G. Komen) achieved “total breast cancer awareness” during a three-day ayahuasca retreat. It’s a joke of course, and although a lot of people won’t find it funny because it deals with a serious life-threatening condition with which they have personal experience, it’s a sign of the times that ayahuasca is being referenced in The Onion of all places. An editorial titled “Statement on Ayahuasca,” which was penned by a handful of leading researchers in 2012, was republished in Chacruna. Although it’s more than six years old at this point, it still does an excellent job of highlighting concerns that exist surrounding the brew.
Scientific research has a long way to go before it sufficiently understands the mystery that is ayahuasca, but at least it has a head start. New studies this year included one where researchers gave ayahuasca to monkeys and it helped their depression, another that found that drinking ayahuasca tea helped people rapidly overcome their severe treatment-resistant depression, and one that showed that the brew may help with the healing of eating disorders. The first-ever Amazon ayahuasca sustainability study was conducted and a chemical in ayahuasca may be able to treat diabetes.
In regard to ayahuasca drug policies, not much budged this year. However, it turns out that Health Canada granted exceptions last summer to two Montreal religious groups that allowed them to import and serve ayahuasca to their members. While most countries don’t sport legal ayahuasca industries, that hasn’t stopped people from traveling to other countries to work with the brew. A couple folks, including author Graham Hancock, wrote about what it is like to go to Rythmia, a luxury plant medicine retreat center in Costa Rica that serves ayahuasca as one of its healing modalities.
When it comes to ayahuasca, plenty of issues still need to be discussed and explored. A few good editorials explored topics like whether it is cultural appropriation for white people to drink ayahuasca, how the brew is the new frontier for “psychedelic feminism,” and whether ayahuasca tourism in Peru should be regulated.
There were a few helpful guides published, including one in Men’s Health that gave its readers an idea of what to know about “the hallucinogen that blows your mind and makes you puke your guts out.” While it didn’t include anything that was all that revolutionary to a psychedelic-aware audience, the fact that information about ayahuasca is showing up in mainstream publications like this is a sign that psychedelics are becoming more accepted each and every year. Other guides worth mentioning covered what to expect when drinking ayahuasca and everything you need to know about choosing an ayahuasca retreat.
Anyone looking for ayahuasca-related entertainment had a lot to choose from this year, including three films—a look at what doctors think about plant medicines called The Shaman and The Scientist, a “mixed work” that combines augmented reality, 360-degree footage, and virtual reality to give the viewer an idea of what it’s like to go on an ayahuasca journey in the Amazon titled Awavena, and a documentary about ayahuasca and PTSD named From Shock to Awe). In addition to these movies, there was a television series called Kentucky Ayahuasca that followed a former serial bank robber and all-around career criminal who opened up an ayahuasca church in Kentucky after a life-changing experience with the brew.
Although ayahuasca is illegal in many countries, many practitioners are so moved by their experiences with working with the vine that they are willing to break the law to share it with others. Russia made it clear that it isn’t in support of ayahuasca, sentencing a Brazilian shaman to 6.5 years in prison (after being detained for nine months following his arrest) for transporting four bottles of the brew as well as sending a man to prison for 11.5 years (again, after one year of imprisonment following his arrest) for bringing a single bottle of ayahuasca back from Peru in hopes of continuing a medical treatment for his back. 2018 also brought with it the first two ayahuasca convictions in the United States, although the consequences were much less dire than those in Russia. In the first case, a Colombian-American who brought four shampoo bottles containing ayahuasca into the country was sentenced to one year of probation and 100 hours of court-ordered community service, while in the second case, a Canadian citizen was simply charged a monetary fine for simple drug possession. It’s possible that the federal system did not want to prosecute an ayahuasca case and set a precedent, regardless of whether it was positive or negative.
In an extremely bizarre case, a 19 year-old girl and her child were rescued from a doomsday sect in Peru where a man forced a harem of girls to drink ayahuasca and have sex with him. It’s an absolutely horrible story, but at least the group was discovered and a rescue happened. At least one assault occurred—former pro skater Rob Guerrero was shot in the head during an ayahuasca retreat in Peru. He survived the attack and his prognosis is looking fairly good, all things considered. But not all victims of assault were so fortunate. In a bizarre tale, a Canadian ayahuasca tourist was lynched by a mob after being accused of killing an ayahuasca shaman.
Some attendees died, including an experienced ayahuasca practitioner who fell ill after drinking a brew made at Soul Quest Church in Florida and a mother-of-one musician who drank ayahuasca in Wales prior to touring in the Middle East, where she died of a seizure. There was no indication that she died due to drinking ayahuasca, however. Following up on a death from 2014, an inquest determined that ayahuasca directly contributed to the death of a gap-year student who attended a ritual in Colombia. Without knowing the ingredients that went into this particular batch of ayahuasca or any information about contraindications specific to the man’s case, it’s difficult to explain exactly what happened here.
Nothing beats a good ayahuasca trip report, and judging by the brew’s increase in popularity, it’s possible that there were more written in 2018 than any year prior. Some of my favorite anecdotes this year includes an experience that was described as “the brutal mirror,” another that was said to be “a punch in the soul,” and Graham Hancock’s return to ayahuasca after three years away. Suffice it to say that these drinkers got a lot out of their experiences, but it wasn’t a cakewalk—they had to go through some uncomfortable spaces to get to that point.
Sometimes confused with DMT, but much different, the psychedelic tryptamine 5-MeO-DMT can be found in several plant species as well as the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad. There hasn’t been a whole lot of scientific research conducted with this substance, but that’s starting to change. This year new studies found that spiritual exploration is the top reason people consume 5-MeO-DMT and that it may unlock the mystery of neurogenesis. Another study focused on the intensity of mystical experiences occasioned by the drug and compared it with a prior psilocybin study.
One event—the World Bufo Alvarius Congress, held in Mexico City—focused entirely on this substance. This is pretty rare in the psychedelic world, because events typically cover multiple substances, rather than singling out one in particular.
There’s a thriving underground community of 5-MeO-DMT facilitators, and things got a bit controversial this year. Author James Oroc gave an interesting interview that covered pretty much everything about this network of people.
Since this drug is becoming more popular, it’s understandable that some people would get caught breaking the law to access (or help others obtain) it. People have started hunting for Sonoran Desert toads more often, and thieves were caught on video stealing them from a park in Arizona. And a company out of Oakland was accused of smuggling toad venom from Hong Kong. However, it wasn’t clear whether the substance was 5-MeO-DMT or its cousin, 5-HO-DMT.
Although there were undoubtedly countless reports of peoples’ experiences with 5-MeO-DMT published this year, one that stuck out to me described the way that the substance provoked an experience of coming home.
Mescaline is a naturally-occurring psychedelic alkaloid of the phenethylamine class that can be found in some cacti. Most psychonauts consider it to be a classical psychedelic, but it’s not as commonly used nowadays when compared to LSD, psilocybin, or DMT. For example, if you go to a music festival today you’re likely to find a lot of people using those substances, but you won’t find a whole lot of mescaline users. But for those of us that do love this chemical compound, a helpful essential guide to mescaline came out this year. And actor Jeff Goldblum described his experiences with taking the drug back in the early 1970s.
There are several species of cacti that contain mescaline, but peyote is probably the one that most people are familiar with. Arguably the most interesting article on peyote this year was about a “high dose peyote initiation” that was written in true Carlos Castaneda fashion. And it turns out that even though the cactus is threatened and controversial, it’s actually legal to sell it in Texas, assuming you are officially registered with the DEA. There was also a fascinating interview about Huichol plant medicine traditions. American Indians gathered near El Reno to celebrate peyote traditions. Because of its increasing popularity during recent decades, many people are concerned about the long-term availability of peyote. If you’re interested in learning more about this cactus, you can check out the new peyote documentary that just came out.
There’s another mescaline-containing cactus that has grown quite a sizable following, and that’s San Pedro. A TV show called Healing Powers headed to Spain to learn more about huachuma, which originally hailed from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, although it is now cultivated all over the world. It has traditionally been used as a powerful medicine, but many cultures only use it for ornamental purposes. There are plenty of people who work with San Pedro—some even think they can predict the future by consuming it.
Tabernanthe iboga is a psychedelic rainforest shrub traditionally used in West African coming-of-age rituals. This plant contains a long-lasting alkaloid called ibogaine, which has been used to successfully treat drug addiction. But exactly what is iboga and does it actually cure addiction?
Ibogaine therapy certainly has the potential to offer relief during opioid withdrawal. An effective medicine, some lawmakers have started to consider using ibogaine for addiction recovery. It’s even capable of resolving and healing childhood trauma. And it might be able to treat alcoholism, too. In and of itself, ibogaine is not unsafe—there are both risks and benefits. It’s too bad that the U.S. is forgoing such a powerful tool, but many people are seeking out underground treatment options. In fact, iboga has become so popular that it is now under threat of extinction. Two anecdotes worth checking out involve a Bwiti iboga initiation and one man’s journey to Mexico to use ibogaine to treat his addiction to heroin. And a guide was published on the different stages of an ibogaine experience.
The divine sage known as salvia divinorum had a very interesting year. After having been effectively globalized over the past few decades, salvia has started to lead chemists on a psychedelic existential journey. The existing body of scientific research about this plant is quite strange. Along the way, studies have found that this plant could be used as a powerful non-addictive painkiller to help end the opioid crisis, and it might even be an effective treatment for schizophrenia and dementia. And there were also articles that gave an overview of the plant and important tips for new salvia users.
Morning Glory Seeds
Other than articles about using morning glory seeds as a party drug, children eating them to get high (which “could mean trouble”), and a clarification about the punishment for being caught with them in the United Arab Emirates, there wasn’t a whole lot about these LSA-containing psychedelic seeds this year.
Novel Psychoactive Substances
With loads of new psychoactive substances being created each and every year, it’s nearly impossible to keep up. From a wide variety of different novel psychoactive substances to a special group of novel psychoactive substances known as synthetic cannabinoids, today’s drug users looking to experiment with altered states of consciousness have more options than ever before.
The NBOMe family of psychedelic compounds typically shows up fairly often in the news, but it had a bit of a quiet year, which is probably for the best. NBOMes are commonly sold by black market dealers as “acid,” although they’re much different than true LSD. This family of phenethylamine (and a few amphetamine) analogs is active at extremely low doses—like real acid—but they also have much greater toxicity. Many people have overdosed and died from taking NBOMEs, but there have been no deaths attributed to using LSD alone in the history of the drug. The only noteworthy article that I found about NBOMes this year was one that talked about a warning from UK police that was issued after a string of hospitalizations and deaths.
Another common psychoactive research chemical is 4-AcO-DMT, which is a psychedelic tryptamine whose effects and duration are similar to those of psilocybin, one of the primary psychoactive compounds in magic mushrooms. There were a few guides about this compound, and all of them focused on how to microdose with it. To get started, you could read this guide on how to microdose 4-AcO-DMT in seven easy steps. Next, move to the essential guide to microdosing 4-AcO-DMT. And when you’re ready for the next level, graduate from your microdosing course with the everything you need to know about microdosing 4-AcO-DMT guide. Congratulations—now you’re a microdosing master.
Unfortunately for ravers, fake MDMA has weaseled its way deep into the recreational scene during the past couple decades. When festivalgoers had their street ecstasy tested at festivals in the southeast corner of the United States, it turned out that most of them actually purchased bath salts instead of real MDMA. To be fair, “bath salts” isn’t exactly the best term for this particular type of fake MDMA—they’re more correctly identified as cathinones. There hasn’t been a whole lot of research conducted on cathinones so far, but a new PHD dissertation looked at the effects of the most popular among them using liquid chromatography. And the UK media went crazy over a cathinone it dubbed “Monkey Dust.” Another common type of fake MDMA, and the one that showed up the most often in the news media this year, is n-ethylpentylone. This drug freaked out the cops, the DEA placed it in the Schedule I category, and warnings from London came out claiming that taking n-ethylpentylone keeps users awake for three days. A euphoric stimulant called alpha-PVP (also known as flakka) made the news for causing “extreme anxiety, paranoia and hallucinations.”
The last category of psychoactive research chemicals is the synthetic cannabinoid family of compounds. These drugs are typically sprayed onto plant material and sold as an alternative to natural cannabis. While many are legal, more are made illegal with each passing year due to safety concerns. Synthetic cannabinoids made quite a splash this year, with users being stigmatized more than ever before and prompting UK police to recommend that they be upgraded to a Class A drug. Using synthetic cannabinoids in prison became more popular, which frightened nurses and guards. One former government adviser (Professor David Nutt) went as far as to say that “[drug] testing prisoners for cannabis led to the Spice epidemic.” There were a lot of overdoses—20 people overdosed in a park, eight men were taken to a hospital after taking what they thought was MDMA, but may have actually been a synthetic cannabinoid known as “spice,” there was a huge rise in ambulance calls in the UK to deal with users, and there were even some deaths. (One prison inmate who became delirious after using spice hanged himself in the shower.) All of this mystified hospitals as they scrambled to figure out why they were seeing so many strange drug overdoses. The UK responded by instituting a blanket ban against legal highs, which positioned black market street dealers as the main suppliers of synthetic cannabinoids instead of above-ground shops, which would arguably be a safer alternative. In New Zealand, the government’s science institute started drug testing emergency room patients for synthetic cannabinoids if there is any reason to suspect they have been using them.
Nitrous oxide, commonly referred to as “laughing gas,” “whippets,” or even “hippie crack,” is a dissociative gas that has been used in dental and surgical procedures for many years. It is commonly used recreationally for a wide variety of subjective effects, and is relatively safe to use. However, a teenager fell off a balcony to his death after a night of partying with alcohol and nitrous oxide earlier this year. His unfortunate death can now serve as an important reminder that while the drug poses a low risk of significant problems on its own, it’s important to take safety precautions when using nitrous, including the need to sit or lay down prior to ingesting it. Some Chicago hospitals began offering nitrous oxide to pregnant women in labor while a hospital in Australia mistakenly administered the drug to newborn babies instead of oxygen, a move that killed one baby and left another with serious brain damage. And it turns out there is a secret world of doctors who love whippits.
The dissociative psychedelic drug known as ketamine has been used medically as an anesthetic for more than five decades. While it is one of the few psychedelics with addiction potential, ketamine has a myriad of legitimate applications. When a Thai youth soccer team got stuck in a cave this year, the boys were given ketamine during the rescue to keep them calm. Police officers in Minneapolis asked medical workers to inject suspects with ketamine, leading one man to sue the cops after being injected with ketamine in a hospital because he was mistaken for someone else. A few months later, a woman sued Hennepin Healthcare after being enrolled in a controversial study that was eventually suspended due to concerns around informed consent. A ketamine clinic in Los Angeles offered an at-home nasal spray to treat depression. English pop star Lily Allen was kicked out of an awards ceremony after accidentally taking ketamine, believing it to have been cocaine.
There was no shortage of ketamine research in 2018. Most of it focused on the drug’s efficacy for treating depression. Studies found that ketamine can rapidly reduce suicidal thoughts and could be a compelling treatment for adolescents with depression, although it does seem that specific features in mood disorders have the potential to affect the outcome of treatment. The drug may even improve “electroshock” therapy, a controversial technique that has been sensationalized in television and film for decades. Although many studies involve injection, one study found that ketamine nasal spray is capable of reducing depression symptoms. Another was stopped due to side effects. Scientists are scrambling to figure out exactly what makes ketamine so effective at treating depression, and they’re coming at the problem from all sides—including marmoset and rat studies. These effects may be due to the fact that ketamine has the ability to suppress the brain’s “anti-reward” center. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that ketamine behaves like an opioid in the brain, which has led some experts to worry about the potential for it to cause dependence issues. But ketamine’s reach is not limited to depression—there are several other ways that it can be used. Studies looking at its impact on anxiety found that it can be used to treat severe social anxiety, which may be linked to changes in theta brainwaves that it causes. New studies found that it can help with chronic noncancer pain, fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, and Parkinson’s disease. Ketamine was also found to ease the debilitating side effects of a Parkinson’s treatment drug. Similar to many other drugs in this blog post, ketamine is also successful at treating substance use issues—in this case, alcohol dependence.
Regarding drug policy changes, the United Kingdom may legalize ketamine for depression treatment in 18 months. Ketamine clinics have been popping up all across America, leading to the rise of start-your-own-ketamine-business courses that promise to teach people how to work with the drug. This has sparked concern from some the mental health expert community, who claim that there isn’t sufficient evidence about how to use ketamine to offer training.
In addition to the ongoing research being conducted to find out more about ketamine, there were some articles that showed its potential health benefits. Ketamine has the capacity to treat social anxiety and PTSD, reduce emergency room opioid use, prevent mass shootings by acting as an alternative to traditional antidepressants, and potentially even stop people from killing themselves.
Out of all the ketamine-related crimes that occurred in 2018, the most interesting involved a 22 year-old woman who ended up giving birth in prison after attacking two women while experimenting with ketamine.
One guide had advice on everything you should know about taking ketamine. A few personal accounts stood out. A woman felt that ketamine cured her bipolar condition and severe depression, preventing a potential suicide. Another experienced relief just one day after using ketamine to treat her depression. And an author recounted his entertaining story of how he ended up high on green ketamine with the President of Ireland.
Significantly more than the other psychedelic substances in this post, the powerful dissociative PCP is highly stigmatized in the media. This drug is almost exclusively involved in negative stories (crimes, assaults, murders, and deaths) rather than receiving any positive coverage.
People sure do get into trouble with PCP. A mom accidentally gave her daughters the substance after confusing a bottle with vanilla extract and officers were allegedly exposed to the drug while checking a vehicle. A woman who was accused of setting a fatal fire was too high on PCP to confess in court. A man who was thought to be high on PCP claimed that white wolves were chasing him, another was shot while trying to carjack someone in a Cleveland pizzeria parking lot, another set fire to his house, another merely said “It’s the PCP” when he was arrested wearing a towel at a shopping center, another who exposed himself while under the influence, another accused of causing a deadly crash was high on PCP, and a naked man was arrested after throwing chairs off of a balcony.
There were a few noteworthy assaults this year, including a man who allegedly bit a deputy after running away, a PCP-fueled melee that left several officers injured, another dude who attacked police officers during a PCP trip, a man who harassed a woman before punching her dad and a valet, and a Salvation Army bell ringer who assaulted a shopper at a Walmart.
Sometimes assaults can turn deadly. A man stabbed his mother to death while “likely high on PCP,” Morgan Freeman’s granddaughter recorder her boyfriend high on PCP before he stabbed her to death, and a Kansas City teenager killed two people during a shotgun spree.
In addition to all of these PCP-related crimes, assaults, and murders, every now and then users are violent toward themselves. At least one man killed himself after smoking PCP this year, and a murder suspect told police that she found a man dead in a motel, allegedly having taken his own life after smoking PCP. Occasionally users are killed by cops—a Chicago teenager, high on PCP, refused commands to drop his knife before being fatally shot by police.
The class of euphoric depressants and analgesics known as opiates and opioids include drugs like heroin, opium, and the dreaded and highly-misunderstood substance known as fentanyl. While I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on this family of psychoactives, it’s a fascinating area that is rapidly changing with every passing year and I like to stay as up-to-date as I can on the goings-on in this section of the drug world. A fair amount of opiate-related research was conducted this year. For starters, the link between heroin addiction and narcolepsy was examined. A study came out showing that smoking heroin can destroy brain tissue, but it turns out that there may have been some problems with the research. A town in my local state of North Carolina screened human waste to measure opioid use and a study showed just how much doctors prescribe them. We found out more about how opium poppies evolved their powerful painkillers, that they may be largely ineffective against chronic pain, and looked at whether equipping high schools with naloxone is cost-effective.
Both the governor of a Mexican state and the country’s defense chief are in favor of legalizing opium, and there are some in India who are considering legalizing the cultivation of opium poppies. China agreed to make fentanyl a controlled substance after talks with the U.S. at the G20 summit.
Some in the U.S. government strongly encouraged federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug dealers in order to combat the so-called opioid crisis. Police in North Carolina thought that they had seized an impressive amount of fentanyl but found out that it was just 13 pounds of sugar instead. And Facebook started cracking down on opioid dealers after years of ignoring the problem.
There was a ton of opioid-related harm reduction news. The pros and cons of supervised consumption services were debated quite a bit. A major meta-analysis study questioned the evidence for such services and received a lot of media attention. Although it was later retracted, a lot of damage was already done to public perception. While some U.S. cities are interested in opening safe spaces for injecting heroin and other drugs, there are not any above-ground places currently running in the country. There are, however, underground sites operating illegally. Other countries are a bit more open-minded toward supervised consumption services, such as the Netherlands, Norway, and Ireland.
One of the main harm reduction options for opioids is naloxone, a medication that can block the drugs’ effects, often saving people from would would otherwise be fatal overdoses. While some say that using it is a moral hazard, the U.S. Surgeon General actually advised greater use to help save lives. It can be challenging to ensure accessibility to naloxone for those who need it most, so the FDA met to discuss ways to safely make it more available, potentially even selling it over-the-counter. In fact, Purdue Pharma is funding the development of affordable naloxone that could be obtained without a prescription. All sorts of places are starting to recognize the benefits of naloxone—jails, hospitals, and even funeral homes. Knowledgeable parents send their kids off to college with fentanyl testing strips and naloxone. We learned a bit more about how to properly use it this year. Although you shouldn’t leave naloxone in your car over the winter, research has shown that the substance is still stable months after its expiration date. And opioid overdose patients can be safely discharged an hour after receiving naloxone. A K-9 was saved by this drug after being exposed to heroin in jail and a nurse had her life insurance denied just for carrying naloxone. Although this drug is highly effective for many opioids, some experts believe that it isn’t strong enough for stronger synthetic opioids that are starting to flood the market, prompting the search for the “next naloxone.”
While the traditional rehab model leaves a lot to be desired, technology may be able to help those suffering from problematic opioid use. This year, Facebook started redirecting opioid buyers to a crisis helpline, the HopeBand—a wearable device that can detect opioid overdoses—was developed by Carnegie Mellon University students, and Google searches could be used to help predict heroin overdoses.
In miscellaneous harm reduction news, Walmart is planning to offer a product to help curb opioid abuse by enabling customers to dispose of unwanted or expired drugs. Addiction treatment prescriptions like suboxone and methadone can help some people wean themselves off of opioids, but it can be incredibly difficult to access them when you’re away from home. Some opioid users have begun to intentionally use fentanyl instead of heroin, which, when done correctly, could save lives and screw dealers. New evidence in favor of prescription heroin came to light, and a harm reduction journalist had some interesting results after applying hundreds of fentanyl tests to Philadelphia’s street drugs.
Unlike many of the other drugs in this column, there is a flourishing legal opioid industry. Over in the UK, Britain is the world’s biggest exporter of legally-manufactured cocaine and heroin, and prescription heroin might be coming soon to West Midlands. However, the cost of a lifesaving withdrawal drug called buprenorphine rose by 700%, causing alarm at many treatment agencies. In the U.S., fentanyl-related stocks rebounded after China agreed to strengthen its drug management and Walmart started limiting some customers to no more than a seven-day supply of opioids. Big Opium’s fines are approaching those of Big Tobacco’s as lawsuits continue to mount. The Sackler family, some of whom own Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, are facing mass litigation and criminal investigations concerning their involvement in the opioid crisis. And a former CEO accused of bribing doctors to prescribe fentanyl pled guilty to conspiracy and mail fraud.
There was an impressive collection of images and stories from the front lines of America’s opioid crisis called “The Opioid Diaries”. Reporters Public libraries have become one of the latest battlegrounds, and some have started training their staff to identify potential overdoses and administer naloxone. While firsthand reporting from inside the Mexican towns that produce America’s heroin is rare, a new documentary series called The Trade attempted to show the human side of the war on drugs. The Drug Policy Alliance’s Senior Director said in an interview that Prince could still be alive today if America didn’t shame people for using drugs.
There’s a lot of misinformation out there in regard to opiates. Donald Trump’s administration launched a serious of “very bad commercials” (his words, not mine) in a failed attempt at an opioid education campaign for young people. And the false idea that touching fentanyl can kill you was all-pervasive in the media, but at least one media outlet attempted to set the record straight.
An ancient Mediterranean juglet, dating back to more than 3,000 years ago, was found to contain traces of opium, adding evidence to a long-running debate about whether the containers were used to carry the drug.
Compared to other types of drugs, there aren’t a whole lot of opiate-related guides published, but there was a helpful article that instructed readers how to taper off suboxone.
Giant heroin spoons were displayed in public spaces as conversation starters, including one that was placed in front of Purdue Pharma and another that was left outside the Massachusetts Statehouse.
The global illegal opiate market had an interesting year. Some heroin users found lead in their supply. A gap in addiction treatment industry has created a black market for suboxone. Fentanyl made its way into other street drugs, prompting dark web dealers to voluntarily ban the drug entirely. Meanwhile, concerns were raised about China being a major source of fentanyl and other drugs. There were reports claiming that opium production in Afghanistan is at an all-time high and but the United Nations said cultivation is actually down 20 percent. Regardless, the country is producing a lot more opium than before the U.S. invasion although officials remain hopeful that farmers will replace their opium crops with saffron. Meanwhile, Southeast Asia is trying to switch from growing opium to coffee.
Nevada was poised to become the first state to execute an inmate with fentanyl, but the drug’s manufacturer sued to block its use, saying that it would be bad for the drug’s reputation. As a result the execution was postponed. After all that, Nebraska ended up beating Nevada to the punch.
Many lost their lives from overdosing on opiates, often because they mixed painkillers with other drugs. Tom Petty’s 2017 death was ruled an accidental overdose by a coroner, Colin Kroll died after mixing cocaine and opiates, and rapper Mac Miller died from mixing alcohol, cocaine, and fentanyl, although it’s possible that—just like many others who have suffered a similar tragedy, he didn’t even intend to take fentanyl in the first place, but was instead a victim of a poisoned drug supply. In fact, cocaine deaths are rising at an alarming rate precisely because of the infiltration of fentanyl into its market. While fentanyl-related overdose deaths have doubled every year from 2013 to 2016 (new data came out showing that fentanyl actually kills more people than heroin), overall opioid overdoses may be seriously undercounted. Fortunately, there has been a drop in the number of new heroin users, but Chicago’s black communities were hit hardest in opioid overdoses. An Ohio police chief died after overdosing on drugs he stole from an evidence room, including cocaine and fentanyl. And a fatal overdose at a supervised consumption service raised concerns about the possibility of naloxone-resistant drugs.
One father of a heroin overdose victim has reacted to her death in an extraordinary way. Instead of speaking out against the drug, the former chemistry teacher has begun to volunteer with The Loop, a UK-based non-profit Community Interest Company that offers drug checking services at music festivals, nightclubs, and other events.
This is the first year that I started dedicating a section to the popular euphoric stimulant cocaine, and I didn’t even begin to intentionally track cocaine-related news until last month, so this section will undoubtedly be much thinner than it would’ve been if I had been watching this space all year. One of the most important things that happened this year was the prevalence of fentanyl showing up in the world’s cocaine supply, a fact that is extremely depressing for users who want to stick to using the white stuff instead of unintentionally consuming other drugs as well. And cocaine deaths increased amid the ongoing national opioid crisis. Actor Dennis Quaid revealed that he used to use two grams of cocaine every day before he discontinued his use of the drug. In England, mental health hospital admissions linked to cocaine use have nearly tripled in the last 10 years. Colombia made an effort to get farmers out of the cocaine business. And to get people thinking about how to improve the cocaine market, an editorial asked its readers if they would pay more for ethically sourced cocaine.
The depressive intoxicant known as absinthe is an emerald green alcoholic liquor commonly called “Green Fairy.” It’s believed to facilitate creativity and act as an aphrodisiac, and was once thought to engender hallucinogenic effects. Absinthe is a fascinating substance with a rich history. Several months prior to “smoking” weed on Joe Rogan’s show, Elon Musk quietly went to Israel to drink absinthe discuss the future of the company in the Middle East. The drug may even have something to teach us about the nature of moral panics. Some absinthe enthusiasts have been hiding bottles in the woods of Switzerland for years. One Czech distiller even resurrected pre-ban absinthe by following a 200 year-old recipe. Even though it’s not incredibly popular, the absinthe market is expected to grow parallel to the overall alcoholic beverages market. A new basement bar in London dedicated to the drink opened up this month and features old-timey absinthe fountains at each table.
Kambô, also known as Sapo, is the skin secretion from the Phyllomedusa bicolor, a blue-and-green tree frog native to the Amazon basin. The art of getting holes burned into your body to administer the substance has become a bit more popular during the past few years, and as a result new urban practices have been developed by neo-shamans.
An evergreen tree in the coffee family that possesses both stimulant effects and opioid-like properties, kratom had quite an interesting year. A multi-state salmonella outbreak sent shockwaves through the kratom community. Although the source was never found, a list of brands contaminated with salmonella helped keep users safe. A poison control center in Virginia warned residents about the risks associated with the plant, and the FDA issued warning letters to kratom companies for deceptive medical claims before the agency recalled and destroyed several kratom products. Fears over pregnant mothers using kratom turned out to be overblown. One mother filed a lawsuit alleging that kratom tea caused her teenage daughter to suffer brain damage and a Thai man was electrocuted when he attempted to steal kratom leaves. The American Kratom Association announced Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) standards for kratom vendors and accused an FDA report of being pure “junk science,” arguing that the deaths attributed to kratom should be blamed on adulterated products, not the plant itself. FDA testing later found high levels of toxic heavy metals in kratom products, strengthening the organization’s belief that it is a dangerous substance. The National Institute on Drug Abuse gave $3.5 million to scientists for further research.
The legal status of kratom in the United States has shifted during the past few years, and a few states have banned it, others, like Ohio, plan to ban it soon, however it remains legal in many other states, such as New York, Tennessee, and Florida. Things may eventually change at the federal level—the DEA considered banning kratom in 2018, which prompted 40,000 Americans to sign a petition in support of the plant and dozens of others traveled to Washington, D.C. hoping to prevent the potential federal ban. If kratom does eventually get banned, it will likely create health risks and fuel terrorism. Until then, the FDA’s “shadow ban” of kratom may be causing supply shortages. In other countries’ news, Thailand legalized kratom alongside medical marijuana.
Kratom has a lot of impressive health benefits to offer, including the abilities to alleviate pain, facilitate sleep, ease opiate withdrawal, and help people stop using alcohol. And new research found that it has a relatively low toxicity too—at least when you do the math correctly. Not everyone is convinced about its merit, however. One leading fibromyalgia doctor advised people to abstain from kratom until we have more research and reliable access to safe sources. A case report came out showing that pregnant mothers who use kratom can cause neonatal abstinence syndrome in their newborn babies. And although some people develop dependency issues with kratom, it looks like that can be successfully treated with buprenorphine.
The kratom-focused publication Kratom Guides released several excellent guides this year, including effective ways to deal with kratom constipation, and a primer on whether the substance can be detected by drug tests There are also guides covering specific strains that will help increase your productivity at work, the effects that can occur with low and high doses, how often you can take it, and whether you can smoke kratom powder (and what to expect if you do).
A handful of interesting editorials about kratom were published in 2018. Some argued that the plant might be an important aid in fighting the opioid crisis and helping MMA fighters and combat athletes address their chronic pain. Kratom users in states that have banned it discussed how prohibition has made life worse. A man with a former alcohol use disorder explained his experience with using kratom to deal with anxiety. But not everyone had something nice to say about kratom. One article claimed that kratom supplements won’t make you healthier at all—instead, the substance might just make you sick.
The tropical evergreen shrub known as kava has continued to gain in popularity over the last few years. Sometimes referred to as “nature’s Xanax” or “anti-caffeine,” kava is a depressant that produces sedative and euphoric effects. In addition to drinking kava tea recreationally, some people use it (in place of supplements and opioids) to alleviate acute pain, sore muscles, anxiety, and lethargy. Studies have even shown that kava consumption has helped reduce alcohol consumption and gang affiliations among young men in New Zealand. A grant was awarded to further investigate the plant’s effects. Kava farmers said that their profits have been increasing during recent years, contrary to “fake news” reports that said otherwise. Dairies across New Zealand started selling the stuff alongside other food items like pie and chewing gum. A lot of kava news comes out of Vanuatu, a Pacific island country located in the South Pacific Ocean. This year, the country’s government tried to protect kava from outsiders, defended its reputation by destroying “non-noble kava” that one exporter was dealing, and welcomed an announcement that Poland has re-legalised kava. Some people fought for improvements in the kava industry, which was followed by an initiative to develop new quality standards for Pacific kava. Fiji Kava became the first kava listing on any global stock exchange. In entertaining news, one kava bar went as far as to hang a “God Hates Beer” sign in front of a nearby brewery and Prince Harry sipped kava tea after landing in Fiji. Unfortunately, one kava bar in West Palm Beach underwent quite a traumatic experience when a man stabbed employees in an unprovoked attack.
This natural plant stimulant had a bit of a rough year even though it also grew in popularity. To start, plenty of places wanted to make khat illegal, including villages in Cambodia and Kenya. Women in Somalia divorced violent husbands who became addicted to chewing khat. Khat consumption was linked to chronic liver disease, negative physical health effects, and mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and stress. Some Ethiopian farmers chose khat over coffee, although the existing khat farming industry stands to threaten the country’s food security, biodiversity, women, and agroforestry. The legal high started flowing into Bangladesh, prompting the country’s Department of Narcotics Control to ask the government to ban it. There were some noteworthy khat seizures: 4800+ packs were seized in Oman and more than $124k worth of khat was seized at Dallas Fort-Worth International Airport.
Although a new report declared that the drug war has been a spectacular failure, the DEA turned 45 this year and promoted Harry Anslinger, a infamous drug warrior, on its Twitter account. The FDA monitored social media for drug abuse trends. There were a few nude psychedelic parades in San Francisco. Parents who want to hire a drug-sniffing dog to snoop on their kids can now do just that, even though new figures revealed that drug dogs are actually highly ineffective. Country music musician Kacey Musgraves revealed that she wrote a song under the influence of psychedelics. In international news, an Iranian religious authority pronounced that psychedelics are considered halāl and Japan executed the leaders of an LSD-fueled doomsday science cult.
Published drug research taught us a lot this year. Studies looked at the similarities between psychedelic states and dreaming, the completed suicides among methamphetamine users, the practice of microdosing to ease anxiety and sharpen focus, the religious and spiritual roots of psychedelically-induced mystical experiences, the varieties of the psychedelic experience, and the links between psychedelics, meditation, and self-consciousness. Scientists discovered that alcohol is more likely to lead to post-sex regret than cannabis or ecstasy, tobacco and alcohol are more harmful than illicit drugs, and testing drugs at music festivals saves lives. Psychedelic drug use was associated with reduced partner violence in men, just one trip can cause changes in personality that can last for years, psychedelics promote structural and functional neural plasticity, and people who microdose scored higher on measures of wisdom, open-mindedness, and creativity. It turns out babies may be perpetually tripping after all, a study showed that EDM and heavy metal fans consume the most drugs and alcohol when compared to other genres, and scientists dosed an artificial brain with methamphetamine. A Trump megadonor donated $1 million to MAPS, black Americans are still being left out of psychedelic research, and even though there’s now a group giving grants to students researching psychedelics, some people have mixed feelings about psychedelic science. Several researchers and philosophers had a disagreement about what psychedelic research has shown thus far as well as what it can and cannot tell us about consciousness. To round out the year of drug research, the world’s biggest anonymous drug survey will stop collecting reports at the end of the date of publication of this post (December 31st, 2018).
Global drug policy news was nothing short of fast-paced and interesting. President Trump appointed a 24 year-old campaign worker to help lead the government’s drug policy office before suggesting that drug dealers should be executed. Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned, leaving behind a disastrous record on drug policy, but he was replaced by acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who sought longer-than-usual drug sentences when he was an attorney. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed in other countries, where the Czech drug tsar called for legalization and regulation of all drugs and an Egyptian MP proposed a law to decriminalize all drug use. Canada’s Liberal party also considered decriminalizing all drugs and the newly-passed “Right to Try Act” in America gave critically ill people the right to try psychedelics. Relaxed drug laws in the Netherlands enabled the Dutch to close down 19 prisons because the country didn’t have enough criminals to fill all of the cells. Asia’s newest drug war left more than 90 people dead in less than two weeks, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte may have assassinated opponents under the cover of his drug war, and Sri Lanka decided to start hanging drug dealers in order to replicate the success of the Philippine drug war. It was a bit of a mixed bag in the U.S. as police started going after people who supplied drugs to people who later died of an overdose, federal officers established unconstitutional checkpoints on the road to Burning Man, the DEA and ICE was caught hiding surveillance cameras in streetlights, and a new IRS rule denied tax-exempt status to drug policy reform groups, seemingly violating the first amendment. But it’s not all bad news—at least reform efforts inched forward in the midterms.
There are several approaches to reducing the potential risks of taking psychoactive substances. For example, the harm reduction company known as Bunk Police is actively trying to destroy dishonesty in the black market by performing drug checking at a variety of events. Professional trip sitters are offering their services to help prevent bad trips—for the low fee of $1000, that is. A man who took 140 drugs later wrote a harm reduction bible. Another wrote about the dangers of combining benzodiazepines with other drugs. And a lot of new stuff happened in the harm reduction arena this year. Perhaps the biggest news was the fact that the Department of Justice sanctioned the distribution of free water and drug education at live events. The Greek Health Ministry has started plans to create drug consumption rooms and the Denver City Council approved supervised consumption services in order to help save people from overdoses. But there were a few losses on the harm reduction front too. Stimulants remain a huge and growing problem that aren’t getting the same attention as the opioid crisis, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill to open safe injection sites in San Francisco, and Russia’s harm reductionists fell under attack again for trying to help people reduce the risks of using drugs.
The legal drug industry was busy in 2018. A study found that antidepressant use leads to worse longterm outcomes and many people who have been taking them discovered that they cannot quit. But the use of depression pills among children was cut in half in Denmark. New technology to automate molecule design is expected to speed up drug development and the FDA called out a vaping company for putting erectile dysfunction drugs in its products. People started talking about how stimulants like cocaine, ecstasy, and methamphetamine would be legally sold. And many in the psychedelic community have begun to worry that the drugs they love will go corporate.
There were plenty of excellent editorials and opinion pieces this year. Writers explored some complex issues, asking questions like which black people are allowed to trip? Can a comedown kill you? Is psychedelic research closer to theology than to science? Should we loosen the restrictions on psychedelics? Is it time to do away with job applicant drug testing? Who will be able to access psychedelic psychotherapy when it finally arrives? Is medicalization the only way to legalize psychedelics like psilocybin and ibogaine? Some had suggestions they wanted to share, like the idea that psychedelics might help our society get through the Trump years, that we should utilize psychedelics to address the increase in suicides in our society, or that psychedelics may be a new class of antidepressant. In a move that surprised many, the coverage of the Mexican drug war published at conservative media outlet Breitbart was pretty impressive. And others opined that we shouldn’t forget the risks of legalizing psychedelics, that addiction doesn’t always last a lifetime, and that the U.S. needs to decriminalize drug possession immediately.
Educating young people about drugs is extremely important and deserves more attention than it typically receives. More people are starting to discuss how we should teach students about drugs and some teenagers are actually receiving harm reduction education, which is highly encouraging.
Nothing beats interesting drug history, not in my book anyway. This year we learned about how Baltimore’s first black mayor tried to end the drug war, the psychedelic nature of Islamic art and architecture, and why animals take psychedelic substances. We also explored global shamanism, Swedish psychedelia, and got a look inside the mind of Amanda Feilding, the countess of psychedelic science.
A handful of helpful guides and resources emerged, including advice about meditating on psychedelics and navigating through the psychedelic field, as well as a couple articles I wrote about how to study psychedelics in college and how to use Sasha Shulgin’s rating scale to describe drug trips. And although it gets mainly positive press, the risks of long-term microdosing were explored.
There was plenty of new drug entertainment, including “very reluctant psychonaut” Michael Pollan’s new book, Tokyo’s psychedelic digital museum, a new documentary showing veterans treating PTSD with psychedelics, and a documentary from comedian Shane Mauss. There were also articles on eroto-psychedelic art and sex on drugs that are worth checking out.
A lot happened in psychonautic culture. Alcohol arrests trended downward while psychedelics made a comeback, the use of smart drugs rose, and people started using Fitbits and Apple Watches to monitor their heart rate while using drugs. Unsurprisingly, doctors weren’t in support of this movement. But a group of psychologists in Australia believe that the country is missing out on the global renaissance of research into the use of psychedelic drugs. There has been a bit of a psychedelic revival in Buddhism, including a new wave of people using them in their practice. Some Indonesian teenagers started boiling menstrual pads to get high while cannabis and MDMA use increased among Irish young people. There was a healthy—albeit sometimes heated—discussion about the need for systemic critique within psychedelic communities that spurred a lot of varying viewpoints about psychedelic capitalism and the mainstreaming of an underground movement.
There were loads of interesting drug-related events in 2018, including the convergence of two separate movements in Mexico at CryptoPsychedelic, a psychedelics panel being invited to a mainstream healthcare conference, and racist language that was uttered at a Women and Psychedelics Forum.
The black market for drugs had quite a year. As mentioned earlier, cryptocurrency and psychedelics was a hot topic for a while, and folks in New Zealand started using the dark web a lot more. So much so that a team is setting out to estimate the volume of drug sales in seven of the major dark web sites. But dark web users are not immune to trouble—sloppy bitcoin drug deals may haunt users for years. While one Harvard researcher concluded that legalizing drugs would boost United States budgets by $100 billion, the DEA freaked out about touching contaminated drug money.
In crime-related news, thousands more drug convictions were thrown out because a chemist tampered with the evidence, an alleged Silk Road mentor was indicted and extradited to the United States, a fingerprint drug screen test that works on both the living and the deceased was developed, and statistics showed that drug-related crimes account for over 25% of women incarcerated in the U.S.
A Philippine court convicted three police officers for the high-profile murder of a teenager as a result of the country’s drug war. Hospital data showed how Britain’s drug problem is getting worse. In the U.S., there were a record 72k drug overdose deaths in 2017 but they fell over the last year. Over in the United Kingdom, alcohol-related deaths among women have reached the highest rate in 10 years.
There were quite a few decent personal drug stories this year, including ones from Michael Pollan, a collection of “trips worth telling” that was published on Medium, and an anecdote about how getting club drugs tested can transform one’s partying habits. There was a brave report from someone who found psychedelics to be helpful for treating bipolar disorder and problematic alcohol use but was giving them up to pursue more mainstream options. A drug user discussed the various relationships one can have with drugs and Psymposia ran a series of moving pieces written by women in the psychedelic community that included one about surviving sexual abuse in the Amazon as well as victim blame when she returned home.
If you’ve made it this far, I’d like to thank you for sticking with me all the way through to the end, and I hope you learned something new. As I mentioned in this post’s introduction, I learned a lot from working on this year’s post, including the importance of chipping away gradually at a project like this (rather than procrastinating) and a better way to structure each section. I welcome any feedback that you may have, especially about writing errors, broken links, and incorrect analysis.
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Banner image by Psychedelic Astronaut.