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Unpacking Psychedelic Stereotypes and Stigma

psychedelics stereotypes
in this article
  • Introduction
  • Unpacking Stereotypes and Assumptions about Drug Use
  • Stereotypes About Psychedelic Use and Why They Matter
  • Psychedelics, Shamanism & Magic
  • Hippies, Beatniks, and LSD
  • Mad Scientists, Mind Control and Reprogramming
  • Modern Myths: Positive & Challenging Experiences

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Chemical Collective or any associated parties.

Introduction

Like it or not, being someone who explores psychedelics comes with a label. For decades, stories about hippies tripping on shrooms or acid and violent people on PCP or even narratives like psychedelics are a gateway to hard drugs. 

Having patterns of substance use as part of cultural identity isn’t necessarily a bad thing—think the Irish drinking Guinness or high-grade hashish in Morocco. For the most part, these are celebrated features of a culture. 

Other examples include, indigenous Maztecs in Mexico using psilocybin mushrooms in Mexico or the Shipibo-Conibo ayahuasqeros in Peru are now seen as authorities on how to use psychedelics. 

Yet, it’s also no secret that stereotypes can be damaging and limiting. Stereotypes are often overly simplistic. Change happens too and old presumptions may no longer apply. 

In this article, we are going to zoom in on a few stereotypes of psychedelic sub-cultures associated with psychedelics and explore how they might be impacting your trip.

Unpacking Stereotypes and Assumptions about Drug Use

psychedelics stereotypes

A stereotype is a generalized or perhaps overly simplified view, usually of a group of people. The world of psychedelics is full of them.

Some stereotypes are prejudiced, while others carry grains of truth. For example, ravers are generally thought to enjoy ecstasy. And this isn’t simply an assumption—a small survey [1] of after-hours goers confirmed 85% had used ecstasy before. 

The fact that this stereotype is both simple and often true isn’t necessarily a problem. Knowing ecstasy is at raves can assist in harm reduction. But that is not the only story being told.

Ecstasy and raves go hand in hand.

For one, ecstasy or MDMA is illegal. Using it attaches criminal behaviour to rave culture. All sorts of assumptions can follow. One might develop a bias towards people willing to break the law to attend raves and take substances. Are they reckless? Or just ignorant of the risks? Is addiction at play? What does that say about a person? 

The rabbit hole is deep. Even when a stereotype appears simple, and even true we create all sorts of stories about what that means. These can be positive or negative without having any way of knowing if such assumptions are true. The point being stereotypes, true or not, have a lot embedded in them, which influences how our culture treats people who use such substances.

Stereotypes About Psychedelic Use and Why They Matter

Prohibition has no doubt played a role in building stereotypes. Since the 70s many in the United States were shown a television ad showing an egg in a frying pan with the narrator dramatically proclaiming “This is your brain on drugs!

For some, these campaigns were terrifying and impactful. For others, laughable or even rousing curiosity about forbidden fruit. But nowadays, it’s gotten a lot more complex than “drugs are bad.” We have access to huge amounts of media and information, which means making sense of many different viewpoints and subcultures.

Some examples are: 

  • Laws and Regulations – Keeping psychedelics illegal from a desire to protect people from harm, addiction or organized crime.
  • Research and Treatment – Psychedelics show promise for treating mental health and unlocking deeper questions about consciousness.
  • Cognitive Liberty – Believing in an inalienable right to alter one’s consciousness.
  • Social Justice – Folks like Carl Hart push back against biased laws, unfairly targeting people of colour.
  • Recreational Use – Using psychedelics and other drugs for enjoyment and celebration
  • Liberation and Consciousness Expansion Terence Mckenna called people to trip as a part of an effort to resist oppression and evolve language, culture and consciousness.
  • Spiritual Development – Seeing psychedelics as an access point to ego death, mystical experiences or higher knowledge and wisdom.

And all of these generalizations matter and influence drug policy, who will have access to substances, get to do research, and ultimately psychedelics’ place in society. But these are not just high-level views of systemic issues.

Research into set and setting hints perceptions of cultures and individuals on psychedelics may influence the effects. One can argue that existing stereotypes, conscious or not, are impacting every trip we take. 

However, with this knowledge, the current psychedelic renaissance is an opportunity to create new associations with psychedelics. Existing ideas about psychedelics likely influence our motivations for taking psychedelics. 

Identifying and contemplating the influence of stereotypes can help make sense of our individual experiences. 

With that in mind, let us zoom in on some particularly famous psychedelic stereotypes.

Psychedelics, Shamanism & Magic

We have been stereotyping substance users for a long time. The people practicing what we broadly call “shamanism” are probably the oldest known example. 

Land-based traditions of taking psychoactive plant medicines or using music and dance to enter altered states exist all over the world. These traditions, like rituals creating carefully planned set and setting still influence psychedelic use today.

The shaman also has a long history of being a negative stereotype in Western culture. A somewhat recent example is when the Spanish arrived in Central and South America. The use of many psychedelic plants by the local Aztecs, Incas and various tribes was immediately connected with “the devil” with strong pushes to wipe it out.

Aztecs used many different psychedelics.

Colonial priests chronicling events assumed traditional people using plants for healing and divination were imagining other worlds and spirits. Claims of healing or spiritual knowledge were largely dismissed. Yet even today stories of miraculous healing experiences or journeys outside the body persist. 

Even today in the Amazon, concepts we might call magic are performed by brujos or sorcerers and are taken quite seriously in certain circles. The shamanic language of entities, spirits, other dimensions and mystery is part of the modern revival of psychedelic use too. Indeed, many are flocking to what remains of indigenous cultures carrying traditions of plant medicines to learn how to effectively work with psychedelics. 

Skilled shamanic practitioners learn to put visions or feelings experienced on psychedelics into context and stories of healing and magic persist. The old stories about plant medicine being only connected with “the devil” unravels, however for modern Westerners interpreting psychedelics through a lens of spirits and supernatural events can be confusing.

Hippies, Beatniks, and LSD

Perhaps the most universal stereotype of psychedelic users is hippies. A culture spawned from drug-using countercultural beatniks or “beats” of the 50s who came before, being a hippie was a hip and trendy activity in the 1960s. 

If you wear tie dye, you must be a hippie, right?

We are all familiar with the hippie stereotype. We might presume: 

  • Long hair
  • Tie-dye and bellbottoms 
  • Spaced out, disconnected
  • Connection to nature
  • Idealistic 
  • Open sexuality
  • Specific taste in music
  • Interest in Eastern spirituality

True or not, the ideas persist and when LSD became a sensation it became tied up with hippie culture.

Now, LSD and other psychedelics like magic mushrooms cannot be separated from the counterculture of those times. With culture moving on, hippies morphed into a problematic stereotype, with calling someone a hippie becoming a derogatory term in some circles. 

An assumption even existed that folks who do psychedelics are destined to become hippies has created a bit of a phobia around touching the substances, lest someone “tune in, turn on, and drop out” as Tim Leary encouraged [5] in the 60s.

For better or for worse, hippies have forever influenced the psychedelic movement. The music and art remain part of psychedelic culture, continuing with music festivals, psychedelic rock and visual arts. 

Whatever your feelings about hippies, it seems their influence will stay part of psychedelics for some time yet. But for those who don’t identify with it, can be a bit problematic. Taking LSD doesn’t make everyone drop out of society, nor does it guarantee peace and love or specific political ideals

As we shall see, in the scientific community, the strong connection between hippies and psychedelics has been a reason some have avoided the study of LSD.

Mad Scientists, Mind Control and Reprogramming

Stereotypes can be a big challenge to those engaged in research. It’s unfortunate because it’s also a group that holds a lot of power to unravel dated stigmas of psychedelic users.

Listening to early psychedelic researchers like Rick Strassman unpack the process needed to initiate the study compounds in safe and controlled settings was difficult. While psychedelic research is becoming more accepted some researchers still report being laughed at, ridiculed, and shunned by fellow scientists. 

Psychedelic research is helping change the narrative.

One research paper shows a correlation between how people viewed research and knowing those conducting it used psychedelics. If a researcher admitted to using psychedelics, people would potentially view as their research having lower integrity such as having persona bias. Investigations showed that if researchers were associated with “psychedelic culture,” (think stuff like bongo drums) the trust in their research was even lower. 

Some suggest that the dark experimentation with mind control by the CIA’s MKULTRA project using LSD for brainwashing without people’s consent tainted associations with psychedelic research. Other experiments with “reprogramming” people in Canada also produced unpleasant results which some argue left a stain on the reputations of psychedelics, governments and researchers.

Yet, as psychedelic research ramps up the understanding we have been missing profound insights is dawning. While bias in research is indeed a concern, a stereotype of being a “mad scientist” or being a biased user of substances may prevent research from occurring in the first place. Institutions resisting this kind of progress also limit the possibilities of new laws or perhaps understanding of consciousness itself which scientific inquiry can provide.

Modern Myths: Positive & Challenging Experiences

The stereotypes above are fairly well established. But as psychedelics become more popular, it seems clear that new assumptions are appearing. 

In fact, much of what we hear about psychedelics these days is swinging towards a mindset of “psychedelics are good!” 

The assumption may be refreshing for some, but like other generalizations, can oversimplify how psychedelics work. Sure, research  is pouring in for psychedelics relieving depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, PTSD, chronic pain, and other conditions. 

There is reason for optimism. But, while psychedelics are powerful tools, we can’t categorize them as magic bullets. 

It would be premature to stereotype everyone who uses psychedelics with top-notch mental health.

Psychedelics might help some people and be dangerous to others. Even in optimal conditions, they remain unpredictable. Psychedelics can be difficult, scary, or dangerous in the wrong context. Hence why shamans were highly trained and Tim Leary, who contributed greatly to the hippie culture invented set and setting. 

Stereotypes will probably always exist, all we can do is be aware of them, and perhaps help shape them. Considering how these ideas are showing up can also be an inroad to the preparation and integration of psychedelics. Addressing stereotypes can create opportunities for a place for psychedelic experiences in a culture with perhaps limited or dated ideas about drugs. 

For the time being, stereotypes persisting in the psychedelic world do have their lessons to teach.

Patrick McConnell | Community Blogger at Chemical Collective

Patrick is one of our community bloggers here at Chemical Collective. If you’re interested in joining our blogging team and getting paid to write about subjects you’re passionate about, please reach out to David via email at blog@chemical-collective.com

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