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Americans have demonized drugs for decades. Now we’re doing them every day Americans have demonized drugs for decades. Now we’re doing them every day
(about 5 hours later)
Regular drug use – from caffeine to psychedelics – has become a fundamental part of modern life. A first-person Guardian US series explores America’s shifting relationship with mind-altering substancesRegular drug use – from caffeine to psychedelics – has become a fundamental part of modern life. A first-person Guardian US series explores America’s shifting relationship with mind-altering substances
There are plenty of fanciful, far-out theories of how the whole of civilization emerged from drug use – like the theory that the consumption of proto-LSD in ancient Greek cults catalyzed modern philosophy; or the theory that various religious traditions have their roots in revelations occasioned by the body processing stores of endogenous DMT; or the theory that the evolution of Homo erectus into Homo sapiens, and the corresponding emergence of consciousness as a phenomenon, was driven, some hundred thousand years ago, by the consumption of psychedelic mushrooms.There are plenty of fanciful, far-out theories of how the whole of civilization emerged from drug use – like the theory that the consumption of proto-LSD in ancient Greek cults catalyzed modern philosophy; or the theory that various religious traditions have their roots in revelations occasioned by the body processing stores of endogenous DMT; or the theory that the evolution of Homo erectus into Homo sapiens, and the corresponding emergence of consciousness as a phenomenon, was driven, some hundred thousand years ago, by the consumption of psychedelic mushrooms.
But you don’t need to delve that deep into the nether regions of the psychedelic dark web to believe that the world as know it – where we think and feel and transact business and eat and sleep and read the newspaper – is built, at a fundamental, inextricable level, on a drug. That drug is caffeine.But you don’t need to delve that deep into the nether regions of the psychedelic dark web to believe that the world as know it – where we think and feel and transact business and eat and sleep and read the newspaper – is built, at a fundamental, inextricable level, on a drug. That drug is caffeine.
“Few of us even think of it as a drug,” the bestselling food-cum-drugs writer Michael Pollan says in This Is Your Mind on Plants. “It’s so pervasive that it’s easy to overlook the fact that to be caffeinated is not baseline consciousness, but, in fact, an altered state. It just happens to be a state that virtually all of us share, rendering it invisible.” As outlined by Pollan, and the historians he draws from, caffeine produced a shift in the functioning of human consciousness, and in modern life itself.“Few of us even think of it as a drug,” the bestselling food-cum-drugs writer Michael Pollan says in This Is Your Mind on Plants. “It’s so pervasive that it’s easy to overlook the fact that to be caffeinated is not baseline consciousness, but, in fact, an altered state. It just happens to be a state that virtually all of us share, rendering it invisible.” As outlined by Pollan, and the historians he draws from, caffeine produced a shift in the functioning of human consciousness, and in modern life itself.
Popularized throughout Europe and the “New World” as a colonial import in the 18th century, coffee shaped everything from the prose of Balzac to the tempo of waking life. Its stimulating “buzz” allowed the nervous system to resist – or transcend – the longstanding reign of the circadian rhythms, and the tyranny of the heliocentric world. No longer was humankind subject to fickle shifts in wakefulness, nor the cosmic pas de deux of sun and moon.Popularized throughout Europe and the “New World” as a colonial import in the 18th century, coffee shaped everything from the prose of Balzac to the tempo of waking life. Its stimulating “buzz” allowed the nervous system to resist – or transcend – the longstanding reign of the circadian rhythms, and the tyranny of the heliocentric world. No longer was humankind subject to fickle shifts in wakefulness, nor the cosmic pas de deux of sun and moon.
Coffee made our present-day reality, facilitating a low-key jitter that vibrated in time with industrialism, and capitalism, and then the wan, ugly, fluorescent-lit eternity of modern office work. Coffee mugs have been adorned with cutesy phrases that wink to caffeine addiction (“Not before my coffee!”, “Coffee: Because Mondays Happen”, etc). The United States of America, we’re told terrifyingly, runs on Dunkin. We find ourselves thus united in a shared cadence of caffeination and withdrawal, which has itself become a global phenomenon. Add nicotine and alcohol to the mix and, well, you’ve basically covered many of the moods of modern life. Coffee made our present-day reality, facilitating a low-key jitter that vibrated in time with industrialism, and capitalism, and then the wan, ugly, fluorescent-lit eternity of modern office work. Coffee mugs have been adorned with cutesy phrases that wink to caffeine addiction (“Not before my coffee!”, “Coffee: Because Mondays Happen”, etc). The United States of America, we’re told, terrifyingly, runs on Dunkin. We find ourselves thus united in a shared cadence of caffeination and withdrawal, which has itself become a global phenomenon. Add nicotine and alcohol to the mix and, well, you’ve basically covered many of the moods of modern life.
It’s easy to make the case that being consistently caffeinated or drunk has shaped our world – and that if some new set of drugs came that society adopted en masse it would have a big impact on our lives and planet. But in much of the United States, that change is already happening.It’s easy to make the case that being consistently caffeinated or drunk has shaped our world – and that if some new set of drugs came that society adopted en masse it would have a big impact on our lives and planet. But in much of the United States, that change is already happening.
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A wealth of recent literature shows a substantial uptick in the use of drugs that are, in the United States, federally scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act. A wealth of recent literature shows a substantial uptick in the use of drugs that are, in the United States, federally scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act.
A Carnegie Mellon University study published this month found that, for the first time, the number of Americans who use cannabis almost every day has overtaken the number who drink that often. In 2022, 17.7 million people said they used cannabis near-daily, compared with 14.7 million near-daily drinkers.A Carnegie Mellon University study published this month found that, for the first time, the number of Americans who use cannabis almost every day has overtaken the number who drink that often. In 2022, 17.7 million people said they used cannabis near-daily, compared with 14.7 million near-daily drinkers.
These findings were in line with a 2023 study conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, which found historical highs in cannabis and hallucinogen use among young adults, aged 19 to 30. The same study found that cannabis use among adults aged 35 to 50 also reached record levels, with reported usage nearly doubling over the past decade.These findings were in line with a 2023 study conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, which found historical highs in cannabis and hallucinogen use among young adults, aged 19 to 30. The same study found that cannabis use among adults aged 35 to 50 also reached record levels, with reported usage nearly doubling over the past decade.
It’s not just pot. A 2020 report found a significant increase in LSD usage, which increased by 56% between 2015 and 2018. You don’t need to read a report to get a sense of this: chocolates and candies laced with magic mushrooms (or some synthesized chemical magic mushroom substitute) have become a popular under-the-counter item at smoke shops, bodegas, and convenience stores.It’s not just pot. A 2020 report found a significant increase in LSD usage, which increased by 56% between 2015 and 2018. You don’t need to read a report to get a sense of this: chocolates and candies laced with magic mushrooms (or some synthesized chemical magic mushroom substitute) have become a popular under-the-counter item at smoke shops, bodegas, and convenience stores.
“The patterns of drug use are diversifying enormously,” explains Dr Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Frequent use has significantly increased, and that includes daily use of marijuana. We have seen very significant increases over the past five years.” Volkow also notes that use of psychedelic drugs such as magic mushrooms and LSD has likewise increased.“The patterns of drug use are diversifying enormously,” explains Dr Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Frequent use has significantly increased, and that includes daily use of marijuana. We have seen very significant increases over the past five years.” Volkow also notes that use of psychedelic drugs such as magic mushrooms and LSD has likewise increased.
Much of this use, however, falls outside what she terms the “classical pattern of drug use”, whereby someone takes a drug to have a good time, becomes addicted, and develops a compulsive, drug-seeking habit. Cannabis, she notes, is increasingly consumed for medical purposes or alleged therapeutic benefits. And psychedelics “don’t trigger compulsive consumption”.Much of this use, however, falls outside what she terms the “classical pattern of drug use”, whereby someone takes a drug to have a good time, becomes addicted, and develops a compulsive, drug-seeking habit. Cannabis, she notes, is increasingly consumed for medical purposes or alleged therapeutic benefits. And psychedelics “don’t trigger compulsive consumption”.
There are bunch of reasons for this drug boom. In the past decade, certain classes of hallucinogens have been almost completely reframed in the culture. No longer the mind-breaking compounds that warped a generation of long-hairs, psychedelics are increasingly deployed (and understood as) therapeutic tools. Recent ballot initiatives in Oregon and Colorado have even birthed state-regulated treatment facilities, where the drugs are used in therapies to treat a range of psychological maladies hitherto thought intractable. People are even smoking synthetic toad venom to treat postpartum depression.There are bunch of reasons for this drug boom. In the past decade, certain classes of hallucinogens have been almost completely reframed in the culture. No longer the mind-breaking compounds that warped a generation of long-hairs, psychedelics are increasingly deployed (and understood as) therapeutic tools. Recent ballot initiatives in Oregon and Colorado have even birthed state-regulated treatment facilities, where the drugs are used in therapies to treat a range of psychological maladies hitherto thought intractable. People are even smoking synthetic toad venom to treat postpartum depression.
Legalization and decriminalization measures across the United States have worked both to remove criminal penalties for drug use (which fell disproportionately on Black men), while also serving to destigmatize that use. This shaking off of the crusty, Reagan-era “just say no!” attitude may also skew reporting: perhaps it’s not that drug use is actually increasing, but rather that people polled by surveys feel more comfortable reporting that use.Legalization and decriminalization measures across the United States have worked both to remove criminal penalties for drug use (which fell disproportionately on Black men), while also serving to destigmatize that use. This shaking off of the crusty, Reagan-era “just say no!” attitude may also skew reporting: perhaps it’s not that drug use is actually increasing, but rather that people polled by surveys feel more comfortable reporting that use.
The Covid pandemic, and resulting quarantine and social-distancing measures, also produced a substantial increase in psychedelic use among young people, which has sustained since lockdowns lifted and life returned (more or less) to normal. “Now that we’re all going back to having social interactions,” Volkow explains, “the expectation was that it would actually reduce the need for substances to produce experiences that are meaningful. We haven’t seen that. Basically, it has remained at a pretty high level.” And again, she stresses that patterns of use are changing as well. More and more people are taking drugs, but they’re taking them in different ways.The Covid pandemic, and resulting quarantine and social-distancing measures, also produced a substantial increase in psychedelic use among young people, which has sustained since lockdowns lifted and life returned (more or less) to normal. “Now that we’re all going back to having social interactions,” Volkow explains, “the expectation was that it would actually reduce the need for substances to produce experiences that are meaningful. We haven’t seen that. Basically, it has remained at a pretty high level.” And again, she stresses that patterns of use are changing as well. More and more people are taking drugs, but they’re taking them in different ways.
Where psychedelics might have once been savored in epic, hours-long “heroic dose” trip sessions, the process of microdosing – in which smaller, “sub-perceptual” doses are taken as a part of a daily regimen, as one might take an anti-anxiety prescription or SSRI – are becoming increasingly mainstream. Where psychedelics might have once been savored in epic, hours-long “heroic dose” trip sessions, the process of microdosing – in which smaller, “sub-perceptual” doses are taken as a part of a daily regimen, as one might take an anti-anxiety prescription or SSRI – is becoming increasingly mainstream.
The science is still unsettled as to whether microdosing actually does anything, beyond the mental benefits associated with a placebo effect. But if microdosing is merely another voguish “wellness” trend, even that speaks rather profoundly to the shift in attitudes around drug use. Many people would rather attend to their mental and psychological recourse with remorse to illegal drugs, the very possession of which still merits felony charges in most parts of the country. (If a DEA agent busts you with a sheet of LSD or a Ziploc baggie of psychoactive fungi, they probably won’t care that you’re just taking a tiny bit every single day with your OJ and granola.)The science is still unsettled as to whether microdosing actually does anything, beyond the mental benefits associated with a placebo effect. But if microdosing is merely another voguish “wellness” trend, even that speaks rather profoundly to the shift in attitudes around drug use. Many people would rather attend to their mental and psychological recourse with remorse to illegal drugs, the very possession of which still merits felony charges in most parts of the country. (If a DEA agent busts you with a sheet of LSD or a Ziploc baggie of psychoactive fungi, they probably won’t care that you’re just taking a tiny bit every single day with your OJ and granola.)
The Guardian’s new series, the High Road, looks at the changing culture of recreational – and more-than-recreational– drug use, through first-person stories of people who microdose, wake-and-bake, and otherwise get through their daily lives with the aid of illicit substances.The Guardian’s new series, the High Road, looks at the changing culture of recreational – and more-than-recreational– drug use, through first-person stories of people who microdose, wake-and-bake, and otherwise get through their daily lives with the aid of illicit substances.
Of course, no survey of America’s changing patterns of drug use and abuse would be complete without mentioning the continuing, epidemic abuse of new formulations of dangerous synthetic opioids and fentanyl analogs: an altogether less pleasant, more devastating phenomenon that also creates a perpetual state of inebriation, albeit one that remains lethal and societally stigmatized. With weed bodegas popping up on main street while fentanyl ravages deprived populations, drug policy still fails many.Of course, no survey of America’s changing patterns of drug use and abuse would be complete without mentioning the continuing, epidemic abuse of new formulations of dangerous synthetic opioids and fentanyl analogs: an altogether less pleasant, more devastating phenomenon that also creates a perpetual state of inebriation, albeit one that remains lethal and societally stigmatized. With weed bodegas popping up on main street while fentanyl ravages deprived populations, drug policy still fails many.
Still, some daily drug use is still being reframed in a fairer light, one which views a regimen of cannabis or psilocybin as roughly analogous – culturally, if not pharmacologically – to caffeine. That is: the sort of regular habit that becomes so common as to seem, in Michael Pollan’s world, invisible.Still, some daily drug use is still being reframed in a fairer light, one which views a regimen of cannabis or psilocybin as roughly analogous – culturally, if not pharmacologically – to caffeine. That is: the sort of regular habit that becomes so common as to seem, in Michael Pollan’s world, invisible.
We hope to illuminate the experiences of the modern drug user, in order to help dispel some of that lingering stigma that sticks to phrases like, well, “drug user”. After all, whether it’s caffeine, nicotine, cannabis or ketamine, broad swaths of the global population use drugs, in one form or another. And drug use itself is best regarded as not just ubiquitous, but morally neutral: neither good nor bad, with positive and negative outcomes dependent on a range of mitigating factors, from dosage, to setting, to physiology.We hope to illuminate the experiences of the modern drug user, in order to help dispel some of that lingering stigma that sticks to phrases like, well, “drug user”. After all, whether it’s caffeine, nicotine, cannabis or ketamine, broad swaths of the global population use drugs, in one form or another. And drug use itself is best regarded as not just ubiquitous, but morally neutral: neither good nor bad, with positive and negative outcomes dependent on a range of mitigating factors, from dosage, to setting, to physiology.
The curious-minded may naturally wonder how these changes in drug use may reshape society, and the world itself. If the long-reigning psychoactive trifecta of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol lubricated the queasy rhythm of over-excitement, high-strung maintenance, and mind-obliterating collapse that birthed our modern world, maybe the increased use of cannabis, psilocybin, or even LSD will achieve a corresponding effect. You know: a chiller, wigglier, less piercingly edgy world. Then again, they tried that in the 60s, and suffice to say, it didn’t quite take. Still, times are changing, yet again. Taking into account all the recent data, and the broader repositioning of the role of drugs in society, a future where office workers raise ceramic mugs emblazoned with phrases like “Don’t talk to me before I’ve had my sub-perceptual dose of LSD” may not be far off. For better or worse.The curious-minded may naturally wonder how these changes in drug use may reshape society, and the world itself. If the long-reigning psychoactive trifecta of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol lubricated the queasy rhythm of over-excitement, high-strung maintenance, and mind-obliterating collapse that birthed our modern world, maybe the increased use of cannabis, psilocybin, or even LSD will achieve a corresponding effect. You know: a chiller, wigglier, less piercingly edgy world. Then again, they tried that in the 60s, and suffice to say, it didn’t quite take. Still, times are changing, yet again. Taking into account all the recent data, and the broader repositioning of the role of drugs in society, a future where office workers raise ceramic mugs emblazoned with phrases like “Don’t talk to me before I’ve had my sub-perceptual dose of LSD” may not be far off. For better or worse.