Michael Pollan's New Netflix Series Aims to Destigmatize Psychedelics: 8 Myths and Facts to Know
Is LSD addictive? Should you take psychedelics at home for mental health benefits? Experts set the record straight on claims from the show, plus other common myths.
“What if mental health problems like OCD, PTSD, alcoholism, and depression could all be helped by psychoactive substances?” asks science journalist Michael Pollan. “We have to think about these substances in a very clear-eyes way, throw out the inherent thinking about it.”
The four-episode streaming series dives deep into the world of psychedelics — substances that affect a person’s mind by changing mood, perceptions, and thoughts — and the emerging world of psychedelic medicine (using these drugs for clinical treatment of diseases). The episodes focus on four psychedelic drugs:
- D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), colloquially known as “acid”
- 4-phosphoryloxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine (psilocybin), a compound found in "magic mushrooms"
- 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), commonly known as “ecstasy” or “molly”
- Mescaline, a naturally occurring substance found in peyote cacti
In the book and Netflix series, Pollan reflects on the long history of psychedelic research in the United States, which started in the 1950s, but was abruptly halted in the late '60s and early '70s, when President Richard Nixon announced his “war on drugs.”
It led to a nationwide anti-drug sentiment, prompting the U.S. government to classify LSD and other psychedelics as schedule 1 drugs, under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning they were labeled as having no therapeutic benefit and posing a high potential for abuse, according to the?Diversion Control Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
But, as the series explores, research efforts picked up again in the 2000s, and in recent years, psychedelics have made a major comeback. Their potential to help conditions ranging from depression to addiction has sparked renewed interest among top scientists — and recently, the public at large.
“With the combination of the Netflix series and just all of the media coverage, we’re getting 70 calls a day from people who want to know if they can get a psychedelic,” says Jerrold F. Rosenbaum, MD, the director of the Center for Neuroscience of Psychedelics at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Stanley Cobb professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Dr. Rosenbaum says that while psychedelics offer an exciting potential for many people, a lot of misconceptions have been floating around, too, since the 1960s when the drugs were popularized for recreational use.?
Here he and others help set the record straight on claims that come up in the series and other common myths around psychedelics.
Myth 1: Psychedelics Are Addictive
Fact: Psychedelic substances, while they can be misused or overused, do not typically lead to addiction or dependence in most people who use them, according to a?review published in April 2016 in the journal Pharmacological Reviews.
In fact some studies, such as a?pilot study published in November 2014 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, have shown these drugs may actually have the opposite effect by helping individuals overcome alcohol and nicotine addiction.
“We’ve all heard really scary things about LSD and other psychedelics, so I took a good hard look at it, and was very surprised by what I found. The first was that these are not addictive drugs,” Pollan says in the Netflix series.?
“Psychedelics do not generally lead to a compulsive pattern of use, which is the hallmark of addiction,” explains?Itai Danovitch, MD, a professor and chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
“Addiction usually means your body accommodates to a drug. You have cravings, and you’re motivated to seek the drug more and more, and if you stop it, you go through withdrawal,” adds Rosenbaum. “Psychedelics don’t do this.”?
Rosenbaum cautions, however, that overuse can be a problem for some.
“There’s certainly lots of groups throughout history who become so devoted to the experience that they pursue it to some extent. It becomes a reason for being, and they spend a lot of time doing these drugs as a recreational experience,” says Rosenbaum.
Additionally, experts at the?National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) warn that certain psychedelics, such as LSD, can cause some people to develop a tolerance, meaning users must take higher doses to achieve the same effects. This can be very dangerous given the potentially unpredictable effects of LSD, NIDA experts warn.
Myth 2: There’s Not Much Research on Psychedelics
Fact: The body of research on the potential benefits of psychedelic medicines is large and ever evolving. “Renewed interest in the therapeutic effects of psychedelics spawned a resurgence, and over the last decade, there has been a groundswell of rigorous research demonstrating benefits of specific psychedelic agents for certain mental health conditions,” says Dr. Danovitch.
Scientific research on psychedelics dates back to at least the 1950s, per a?review published in May 2019 in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. “But you really have to excavate this knowledge, because it was erased from the history of science, really,” Pollan says in the show. “I mean it was just buried.”
Some notable research efforts:
- A small?study published in 2021 in the journal Nature Medicine showed 67 percent of participants with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who were treated with MDMA no longer met the criteria for having the condition 18 weeks after the study began.
- A small?study published in 2020 in JAMA Psychiatry found psilocybin treatment combined with psychotherapy may significantly reduce symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD).
- In a?study published in 2016 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, researchers found high doses of psilocybin administered under psychologically supportive conditions by medical professionals improved symptoms of anxiety and depression in people with life-threatening cancer diagnoses.
- A small?pilot study published in 2014 in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease?suggested that LSD along with psychotherapy reduced anxiety in people with terminal illnesses.
Myth 3: Psychedelics Will Make You Crazy
Fact: Psychedelics induce hallucinations, causing a person to see or sense images that aren’t real while the drug is in their system. But they’re unlikely to continue to produce these effects after a treatment session has ended.
“Intoxication with psychedelics can cause people to feel like they are losing their minds,” says Danovitch. “In most cases, after the psychedelic agent is metabolized or eliminated from the body, the intoxication syndrome resolves, and a clear sense of reality returns.”
That said, the doses used for scientific studies are often different than those used for recreation. Because of this, the effects, such as hallucinations, are often different.
Although it’s rare, these drugs can trigger persistent symptoms of psychosis in people with predisposing risk factors, such as prior history of mental illness, as well as in individuals without a history of mental illness with repeated or one-time use, according to?NIDA.
Myth 4: Psychedelics Will Permanently Fry Your Brain
Fact: Psychedelics do change the brain, but not permanently. An?article published in 2017 in the journal?Cell suggested that LSD may remain in serotonin receptors in a certain part of the brain for several hours even after the drug is no longer in the bloodstream. This research suggests that the effects of LSD can therefore also last for many hours after the drug has been cleared from the bloodstream, as previously reported by the?National Institutes of Health.
“One of the features of psychedelics is that they open up a window of what’s called neuroplasticity where you see evidence of neurons starting to bud and establish new connections,” says Rosenbaum.
What does that mean? “It’s probably a window of days or maybe hours where you have an enhanced ability to learn or to think about things and change things,” Rosenbaum explains. But those effects are not permanent.
Myth 5: Psychedelics Can Help Everyone
Fact: Pollan experiments with trying psychedelics in the docu-series, but these drugs may not be suitable or helpful for every individual.?
Those who are prone to psychosis, such as people with schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder, are not candidates for this type of treatment, according to a?review published in April 2018 in the Journal of Palliative Medicine. People with high blood pressure should also avoid psilocybin, as the drug may be associated with an increase in blood pressure, research suggests.
It’s important to note that, even for people who can safely take these treatments, they won’t always work for everyone. “The idea that these are a cure-all or a universal solvent is way overstated,” says Rosenbaum. “We have to moderate our expectations to say that this will definitely be a tool that will help some people, but it’s not the answer to everyone’s problems. So, we need to be still hopeful but temper the hype a little.”
Myth 6: Psychedelics Are Just Party Drugs
Fact: Although they’re frequently used recreationally, psychedelics aren’t likely to provide therapeutic benefits and can be very unsafe if they’re taken in this manner.
When psychedelic medicines are administered in a carefully controlled clinical setting to treat medical conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD, patients are given detailed instructions on how to prepare for the experience, says Rosenbaum. During the session, they receive constant supervision and support from trained medical professionals, Rosenbaum adds.
Accompanying psychotherapy is also a key element of a therapeutic psychedelic experience. “The therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs appear to depend on psychotherapy, which helps patients process the experience, develop insights, and pursue meaningful change,” says Danovitch.
Myth 7: Psychedelic Medicines Don’t Have Any Risks
Fact: In a well-monitored environment with meticulously measured doses of psychedelic medicines, serious side effects are rare, says Danovitch.
However, psychedelics are still powerful drugs, and in some cases,?NIDA warns, they can cause:
- Extreme anxiety or paranoia
- Psychosis, or detachment from reality
- Fast heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Sleep issues
- Dry mouth
- Excessive sweating
“It’s important that we continue to do research to determine when, where, and how these drugs work as therapeutic medications,” says Danovitch. “And we need to understand the potential risks, particularly for adolescents who have increasing access to a wide range of drugs that may affect brain development.”
Myth 8: Psychedelics Are the Endgame for Mental Health Researchers
Fact: As the Netflix series illustrates, psychedelics are an exciting development in the field of mental health medicine. Still, some scientists like Rosenbaum hope they’re simply a stepping stone to uncovering more significant treatment options.
“For me, the biggest hope for these drugs is that they will lead us to explore a new generation of therapeutics and that the psychedelics we’re using today are the forerunners of treatment, so that we will be able to develop new and better psychiatric medications,” says Rosenbaum.
He adds that some research groups are currently studying whether psychedelic medicines can offer benefits without actually inducing a psychedelic experience. In other words, they’re looking to see if these drugs could provide a therapeutic effect only.
“What we know about psychedelics is just the tip of the iceberg,” adds Danovitch. “There is a lot of pharmaceutical innovation under way to develop new medications that have the benefits of traditional psychedelics while reducing the risks.”