Peek Inside Philadelphia’s Psychedelics Revolution
Tripping's not just for deadheads anymore: Philly parents — and lots of other people — are learning that the secret to health, happiness and healing might just come from some formerly far-out drugs.
Like most working parents, Marissa has a lot to juggle — kids, her job as a nutritionist, her home outside of Philadelphia. And then there are the in-laws.
“I call my husband’s family a clan because there’s always somebody celebrating something or having a gathering,” she explains. That can be hard on her — she doesn’t feel the need to spend every weekend or even a full day hanging out with her husband’s extended family. “I would get anxious and bitchy,” she says of those long family sessions, and she’d be ready to go almost as soon as she arrived.
To deal, Marissa — who like most people in this story asked that we change her name for privacy’s sake — has found an unconventional solution, one that’s increasingly popular in both the Philadelphia region and the medical community.
When she’s feeling stressed or anticipating a big day with the family, Marissa takes a small nibble of a dried psilocybin mushroom and goes about her day. She’s one of many people turning to psychedelic drugs — to help manage stress, trauma and, yes, family. Some people, like Marissa, take small doses based on their own internet research, while others take larger doses in more formal settings. All of them say the experience provides them with relief they couldn’t find anywhere else.
“Having kids was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Marissa, the mom of two daughters, explains. “I’m kind of joking, but microdosing helps me be the mom that I want to be.”
In another time, not that long ago, partaking in psychedelic drugs was for hippies and free spirits — a small slice of the population in a city as big as Philadelphia. But with the resurgence and endorsement in popular culture of drugs like MDMA, psilocybin, ketamine and LSD, what only recently seemed countercultural is suddenly becoming mainstream.
The growing national psychedelic movement has been spurred on by mainstream writers like Michael Pollan, documentaries on Netflix, and larger political shifts, like the legalization of marijuana in 18 states and D.C. In the past few years, psychedelics have broken through to an audience of buttoned-up skeptics as a potential treatment for all kinds of things — from PTSD to depression to anxiety and more. From underground guided mushroom trips to ketamine-assisted psychotherapy sessions to clinical trials for therapy-assisted MDMA treatments, all with a range of intents and goals, the psychedelic movement is growing at an exponential pace.
No place is more primed for this latest wave of mind expansion than Philly, where doctors, lawyers, parents, teachers, and everyone in between is turning to psychedelics as a means to process whatever the hell happened these past few years. After a seemingly endless pandemic marked by trauma and loss, more people than ever are seeking help in the form of plant medicine in the City of Brotherly Love.
When Marissa attended Drexel in the ’90s, she considered so-called “magic mushrooms” a recreational drug, one she’d take maybe once a year, the way her friends would occasionally indulge in ketamine at raves. But that was a long time ago. Back then, she never heard about anyone doing drugs to heal from trauma or deal with life’s daily stresses. “It was just something people did for fun — there was no therapeutic effect to it,” she says.
Being a mom, though, was extremely challenging. Through some online research, she learned about microdosing, an informal practice whereby you take a small dose of a psychedelic — typically psilocybin mushrooms, frequently powdered and stored in capsules — every few days. She hoped it might help her deal with the stress of parenthood and family life.
A hemp grower in Pennsylvania steered her to someone who was growing magic mushrooms and selling them in a professionally sealed bag — “It’s the first time I didn’t get them in a rolled-up plastic baggie” — for between $200 and $250 an ounce, about a month’s supply.
Marissa says she doesn’t notice physical effects, like the stereotypical walls melting or bright colors or hallucinations you see characters experience in movies. But the emotional impacts on her have been huge. “I have found the biggest effect for this microdosing has been on my patience with my family and my daughters,” she says.
She’s noticed a ripple effect, too: “If I have more patience, then my husband is much more patient with me, and that enhances our relationship, which means I can be more present with my daughters.”
Other local residents are using microdosing to seek relief from even bigger issues. Paul, a 34-year-old nursing student in Philly, was grieving after his brother died by suicide last year. To deal with the trauma, he and his mom, both in deep pain, explored talk therapy. But they couldn’t find an affordable option. “I was looking for other alternatives that weren’t dangerous,” Paul says.
First, he turned to marijuana, but he found it made him sleepy, and he would snack too much. “One of my friends was telling me about microdosing with ’shrooms,” he recalls. It sounded good to him, so he asked the person he bought weed from if she had mushrooms. What do you know? She did.
He ground up a small amount of mushrooms, put the powder in capsules, and would take one once a day or every other day. “There’s not much information out there on how much to take,” he says, so he just poked around online and dosed himself.
In four or five months of microdosing, Paul says, he’s noticed “a complete change in my mind. My anxiety has subsided significantly. I feel like the best version of myself. I obviously still have moments of anxiety. It’s not like I’m completely cured. But I feel much better in general.”
Paul’s partner tells him he’s become a much more polite person since starting his microdosing. “Just because of the traumatic stress that I’ve been going through, it’s hard for me to be nice,” he says. “There’s always something going on, and this made me more patient.”
While microdosing can feel like a less intimidating way to test the efficacy of psychedelics for mental health, it’s only one of many options people are seeking, and in more legitimate medical settings, it has its detractors. Hannah McLane, one of the leaders of Philly’s movement toward greater access to psychedelic drugs and the founder and executive director of SoundMind, the first psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy treatment center in Philly, says the idea of microdosing a psychedelic every few days can miss the larger intention of the medicine. If we want to heal from trauma and move forward from emotional struggles, she says, small daily doses won’t necessarily achieve that goal.
“Microdosing isn’t particularly innovative; it’s just what people are used to,” McLane says — a way to make the larger treatment more palatable to the masses. Since microdosing can feel similar to taking an antidepressant or anxiety med every day — just more natural, so to speak — there’s a risk that psychedelic medicine could become just one more pharmaceutical intervention, a pattern that many in the psychedelic movement hope to avoid. “Higher doses sound a little bit scary, and everyone’s afraid they’re going to run down the street naked. And it’s like, no, the scary part is actually where the healing comes,” says McLane. “You have to go into the part of your mind that you didn’t go into before.”
Research on microdosing mushrooms is limited, and though there are more in-depth studies on the benefits of longer, more dedicated psilocybin trips for treatment-resistant depression and PTSD — many of them conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research — the drug’s status as a Schedule 1 drug, which means the FDA classifies it as having a high potential for abuse, makes studying its short- and long-term effects difficult. But change may be coming: In November of 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin for anyone over the age of 21, with a few caveats. To gain access to the drug, you must pass a screening test, and it must be administered in a licensed facility.
This change follows the FDA approval of esketamine, a ketamine nasal spray, for treatment-resistant depression. Since then, ketamine clinics have popped up everywhere, and savvy entrepreneurs have, unsurprisingly, built Silicon Valley start-ups with fancy websites and silly names like Mindbloom and Field Trip to capitalize on the movement. Fittingly, Philadelphia’s ketamine-assisted therapy clinic is a little less corporate and more down-to-earth, located in the heart of West Philly.
“I think Philly is special,” says the SoundMind Center’s McLane. “We have a history of innovation and art, and, you know, we’re the original capital of the country.” For Philly to be the next spot where people feel safe using psychedelics to explore trauma and pain makes sense, McLane says: “If you want a place that is a snapshot of American culture — the good and bad parts about American culture all contained within one little city? It’s Philly.”
The SoundMind Center looks like a lot of other houses in West Philly. It’s one half of a twin, with a big front porch and austere pillars in that classic brown. But at the treatment center where McLane, a physician and psychotherapist who trained at Penn, Temple, Harvard and Brown, is running the show, there’s a lot going on behind those doors that looks like nothing else in the city.
SoundMind is a psychedelic healing center and educational facility where patients experiencing debilitating symptoms impacting their mental health, like depression, anxiety and PTSD, can sit with a trained therapist during a ketamine-assisted psychotherapy session. Ketamine — technically the same ketamine that Marissa’s club friends would do in the ’90s — has been legal as an anesthetic for more than 50 years, but only in the past decade has research been done on its potential benefits for mental health. Ketamine produces short trips — between 45 and 90 minutes — so it’s an easier sell than using mushrooms or other psychedelics for a traditional medical community that’s only just dipping its toes into administering psychedelic medicine.
Ketamine isn’t McLane’s first choice of drug to work with, but it’s the one she’s got right now. While psilocybin has been legalized in Oregon and MDMA-assisted therapies are in trial stages for specific conditions like deep trauma and PTSD in other states, she anticipates it could be several years before the latter is approved for the same kinds of treatment that ketamine is.
There are more than 600 people on the SoundMind wait list, all hoping to see whether psychedelics can alleviate their depression, anxiety and/or PTSD. Many of them suffer from trauma caused by the pandemic. Out of all the treatment options, McLane is most excited by the promise of MDMA.
“What MDMA does is circumvent the amygdala, which is the fear center in the brain,” she explains. “So you’re essentially able to engage with a trauma memory or a difficult memory without dissociating. And that is the way you can heal.” In clinical trials for MDMA-assisted therapy, patients sit for eight hours, typically wearing an eye mask and listening to music, with two therapists who check in while the patients talk about what they are experiencing and feeling. (MDMA is a very talkative drug, so that inevitably happens quickly.)
“The gold standard for therapists working in trauma is prolonged exposure therapy, in which you’re asking someone to tell the trauma over and over again,” McLane says. “And they have about a 40 percent dropout rate, because it’s really uncomfortable.” In MDMA-assisted therapy, patients establish an intention (like processing a difficult life event or unshakable emotion) beforehand and allow that subject to naturally come up during the trip, then are usually better able to engage with feelings than they would be in traditional therapy. “Sometimes it comes up two hours in or four hours in,” McLane says. “You can’t always predict how someone’s going to get to the difficult memory. Sometimes it seems like a totally random other story.” Because of this, McLane says, the patient is “able to stay present, go into the memory, and feel it.”
Then comes the integration.
You’ll find people in the psychedelic community use the word “integration” a lot. In a more clinical setting, the term can describe the sessions that follow a psychedelic-assisted trip, during which clinicians have their patients sit and talk through what they learned on their journeys.
Natalie Ginsberg, the director of policy and advocacy at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, explains it to me in meme form over the phone before texting me an image: a withered man walking through a tunnel, looking sad and dejected. “I should sit with more medicine,” he thinks. A great dark shadow is crawling behind him with a pained look on its face, begging, “Bro, fucking integrate me.” The point: Taking psychedelic medicine may be the exciting or thrilling part, but actually putting that learning into practice on a day-to-day basis isn’t always easy.
Using psychedelics to deal with traumatic experiences, whether the death of a loved one or the anxieties of parenting — or even to get in touch with a deeper sense of self — isn’t new. But access to both formal and informal networks that guide people in their use and thus help them disinvest from the traditional pharmaceutical industry is growing. The Philadelphia Psychedelic Society helps people eager to be led on a psychedelic trip by a trained facilitator.
At the same time, those in the movement are aware that the treatments are less accessible to those in the region who might need them most. “Black, Indigenous, people of color, LGBTQIA-plus people, those who are neurodiverse — we all experience higher rates of mental illness yet have lower access to care,” says Aubrey Howard, BIPOC protocol coordinator at SoundMind, which seeks to make these therapies more available to traditionally marginalized communities. “There is definitely a barrier to entry for people of color when talking about wellness or holistic medicine or psychedelic medicine.” In other words, according to Natalie Ginsberg: “It’s generally much safer for white folks to speak publicly about drugs and drug use.” (Not to mention to use. People of color are still criminalized more often for drug use, and by extension, trust levels around these supposedly wonderful natural, still largely illegal medicines are low in marginalized communities.)
If this movement is going to succeed, Howard says, there has to be access for all, not just for those who have the time, space and money to get in touch with their inner selves for a day. “I feel that these medicines have immense potential to be agents of change in America and over all the world,” Howard says. “We don’t want to see the same thing happen with psychedelics that happened with the cannabis movement, where it’s a very small group of people, probably white, probably wealthy, who are the ones given access.”
Until a wider range of psychedelics becomes available in formal settings, there are those who are experimenting informally. Laura, a bodywork teacher in Kensington, was at the beach in the summer of 2020 when she took mushrooms for the first time since high school — not a microdose to take the edge off with her kids, but a full six-hour dose with a few friends. She hadn’t been around a lot of people since COVID, and she was able to take some time away from her six-year-old and her husband to see what the recent attention to psychedelics was all about.
“It was an intensification of a time that was already really intense,” Laura recalls.
After her trip (both physical and metaphysical) to the beach, Laura says, she sensed herself closing off: “I felt frickin’ fried. I was exhausted. That was a whole darn lot. I think sometimes it can be an ongoing enlivening, and sometimes it can be letting in a little bit more than my nervous system can handle.”
But that’s all part of the process, she says. And she’ll definitely be taking a trip again. “I think psychedelics can help us make more contact and peace inside ourselves so that we can have more contact and peace with our kids,” she says. Even though she’s not planning on doing mushrooms more than once a year, she sees the practice as a potential annual event. The substance could help heal some of our “collective deep trauma around COVID,” she says.
Of the dozens of people I spoke to for this story, almost all were kind and open, speaking of their experiences with psychedelics in almost mythically positive ways. The reasons they got into doing psychedelics were all different: stress relief, childhood trauma, depression, grief, for fun, to relax. There were people whose experiences were challenging, others who took psychedelics daily, still others who were working within a more formal framework — like the ones SoundMind is working to further popularize — by taking the drugs alongside psychotherapy once and never again.
The connecting factor among them all: Nothing else had worked or had been nearly as effective in delivering what they were searching for.
“It’s hard to explain in words,” one frequent psilocybin user, who had repressed memories of his childhood trauma, tells me. “The body remembers,” he says, so in his 30s, memories started to come back to him. “Microdosing helped me put language to a lot of those experiences that I would have trouble remembering,” he says. “It definitely helps on the day-to-day in creating new neurological pathways, opening up past wounds that are subconscious.”
But it’s not only been helpful for dealing with deeper trauma. Sometimes, it’s just what he needs to feel lighter, to lift some of the heaviness his past has pushed onto him: “At this point in time, with how my life has been going, I’ve never felt better in my entire life.”
Meanwhile, Laura, who first reexperienced psychedelics on that beach two summers ago, has seen them used more frequently among her group of parents. When she and her friends get a chance to step away from parenting duty, they’ll do psychedelics together, as a “getaway.” She’s especially appreciative of how mushrooms have affected her husband’s parenting: “I have seen him able to connect with our kid in a way that seems more expansive, having more presence,” she says.
“There’s an articulation and a brightening” that happens while she’s on mushrooms, Laura explains, and that clarity and liveliness help her interpret things in ways she never thought to before. “I really honor the wisdom of psychedelic mushrooms and want that to be an ongoing current in my life,” she says, adding that she hopes the psychedelics trend will continue to grow: “It happening anywhere would be good for everywhere. But if it did happen here, I would feel a little more Philly pride.”
The Dosing DL
Get to know the four drugs in the current psychedelic movement.
Can help with: Depression, lulls of creativity
In supervised settings, these natural hallucinogens are now considered some of the safest psychedelics. Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine found psilocybin—the chemical compound in magic mushrooms—helped relieve major depression in patients, while social users say they feel more creative, solution-savvy and self-reflective.
Can help with: Enhancing mood and productivity
Aside from inspiring Steve Jobs to create Apple’s minimalist designs, LSD microdosing is said to have antidepressant-like qualities, elevating mood and catalyzing feelings of bliss without totally altering the senses the way higher doses often do. Users also claim the drug helps boost their focus, productivity and energy levels.
Can help with: PTSD, social interaction
MDMA, or Ecstasy, can help folks open up to and connect with others and ease social anxiety, especially for adults living with autism, according to Matthew Johnson, a psychedelics researcher and scientist. When combined with psychotherapy, the drug has been reported
to assist those with PTSD in revisiting and processing traumatic experiences without becoming fearful or emotionally overwhelmed.
Can help with: Treatment- resistant depression, general perspective-shifting
Hannah McLane, of SoundMind in West Philly, says ketamine prompts a kind of disassociation that can help folks “gain perspective of their lives” and work through anxiety or trauma more objectively. In 2019, the FDA approved a version of ketamine for treatment-resistant depression, and a wearable ketamine pump intended to fight opioid addiction will soon head to clinical trials. —Laura Brzyski
Published as “Philadelphia’s Psychedelic Revolution” in the January 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.