On a cool Tuesday evening in mid-September, two dozen people sat in a forest glade in Prospect Park, perched on logs arranged in a rough square. Through masks that muffled their voices, one after another talked about how the pandemic had turned their lives upside down — job loss, isolation from friends and family, general anxiety about the state of the world. Some, however, had found solace in an interest the group shared — psychedelic and mind-altering substances.
While squirrels foraged through the underbrush and birds called from the trees, one man shared his experience taking LSD while quarantining at home with his parents. Another, who lost his job during the pandemic, said he recently took mushrooms at the beach and felt “hopeful for the first time in a long time.” Several attendees discussed their recent experiences with psychedelic therapy, which allowed them to come to terms with often traumatic childhood experiences. One likened the experience of living through the pandemic to a psychedelic trip in and of itself.
“This may take the rest of our lives to unpack,” said a man in a denim jacket and a plaid mask, his hair pulled back into a bun. “This may be a defining moment.”
This was the first in-person meeting of the Brooklyn Psychedelic Society, a group dedicated to discussing the spiritual and therapeutic effects of psychedelic drugs, since the beginning of the citywide lockdown in March, and many attendees were eager to discuss how psychedelics had helped them deal with the stress of the experience.
Nationwide, researchers have estimated that use of psychedelics such as LSD may have tripled during the pandemic, partly as a therapeutic mechanism or a form of escape. But awareness about the potential uses of psychedelic drugs — from MDMA to LSD to psilocybin mushrooms — for therapeutic or spiritual purposes has been growing for years. Though these drugs are still illegal on a federal level, some cities — such as Oakland and Denver — have moved to decriminalize their consumption.
Groups like the Brooklyn Psychedelic Society are at the forefront of this movement, according to the group’s founder, Colin Pugh. Though he provides no illegal drugs at the group’s meetings, Pugh hopes to create a space for people to discuss their experiences, where those who have never tried psychedelics can learn more about them.
And he says that he’s experienced an influx of people coming to the group’s sessions and events over the past few years, particularly since a book by New York Times journalist Michael Pollan thrust psychedelics into the mainstream. Other groups, such as the unaffiliated New York City Psychedelic Society, have also popped up.
“Most people who come haven’t taken psychedelics seriously,” Pugh said. “They want to re-enter that relationship in a more thought-out way.”
Pugh encourages this type of reflection in his group, which prior to the COVID-19 pandemic met twice monthly at a coffee shop in Bushwick. After the start of social distancing measures in March, the Brooklyn Psychedelic Society transitioned to small group meetings over Zoom, as well as larger virtual events that could draw several hundred people.
Currently, many scientists and medical professionals are pushing for more research into how psychedelics can help people who struggle with trauma or mental illness. During the pandemic, scientists in Wisconsin and Washington state pointed out the potential for psychedelics to treat PTSD, depression and anxiety as a result of COVID-19.
“People are looking for ways to lead healthier and happier lives, and current Western medical treatments are not always successful,” said Caroline Dorsen, an anthropology professor at New York University who studied groups of underground psychedelic users. “They’ve tried antidepressants, and they want something that’s different. Psychedelics feel like the answer for them.”
In recent years, a growing body of research has examined how psychedelics can help treat everything from nicotine addiction to depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. But because most psychedelics are classified by the federal government as “Schedule I” drugs — meaning they have no medical purpose and can only be studied with a special permit — research into their safe use and effects has been limited, Dorsen said.
In the absence of any official psychedelic treatments or guided sessions, “underground” guides have begun administering hallucinogens, such as ayahuasca or psilocybin, to people looking for a healing or spiritual experience. Dorsen spoke to 15 of these guides, mainly in and around New York City, and found that they aimed to keep participants safe and focused during the ceremony, as well as discuss the experience with them afterward.
Even some licensed therapists have embraced the potential of psychedelics to help their clients. Will Siu, a psychiatrist who practiced in New York City for years and recently moved to Los Angeles, offers a form of psychotherapy called “psychedelic integration,” during which he helps clients break down some of the realizations they come to after having a psychedelic experience or discusses potential legal treatments, such as ketamine therapy.
“People who see me tend to have depression or anxiety. They’ve been doing therapy and it hasn’t helped,” Siu said. “This is giving them real hope.”
After initially seeing his patient load drop during the first months of the pandemic — particularly for ketamine therapy, which has to be administered in person — Siu found that he could conduct productive psychedelic integration sessions over Zoom, and recently began making house calls to administer ketamine as well. Throughout the later months of the pandemic (and partially bolstered by his appearance on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Netflix wellness show, The Goop Lab), he has consistently been receiving more inquiries about psychedelic therapy than ever before, Siu said. The pandemic, Siu said, has only increased people’s need to deal with anxiety, depression and reflections from their past, brought to the surface by months in isolation.
“It’s about connectivity, community, connection to each other — love, really, at the source,” Siu said. “And what COVID has done was that physically, it took people away from each other. It led people to have to face the things that were underlying this entire time.”
At the same time, Siu warned that psychedelics can have detrimental effects if taken incorrectly. Though LSD and psilocybin are not considered addictive or toxic on their own, their mind-altering effects can lead to anxiety and self-harm, while MDMA can be fatal if taken at extremely high doses.
“Psychedelics bring painful memories, painful emotions to the surface, so that we can deal with them — but the pandemic was then doing it on its own,” Siu said. “I’ve definitely gotten more emails during these past few months of people also saying, ‘I did psychedelics, I feel worse right now.’”
But Siu believes that licensed professionals can help people use these substances in a safe and beneficial way. Psychedelic use and therapy have to go hand in hand, Siu said, in order to be effective.
That argument was echoed by Anthony Adams, a friend of Pugh’s who shared his experience overcoming childhood trauma and mental illness with the help of MDMA and therapy at a Brooklyn Psychedelic Society meeting last October.
Adams, 38, said he experienced psychosis, anxiety and depression in his 20s, and got no relief from prescription medications. He was raised in a Catholic family and experienced religious hallucinations where he felt a deep fear of going to hell.
After experimenting with MDMA in his 30s, he said he was able to face his traumas and learn to overcome them — with help from underground therapists who guided him on his journey.
“It’s like the word of God in a molecule,” Adams said. “It felt very divine.”
Correction, Sept. 29: This article was revised to include Will Siu’s current place of residence.