FORT COLLINS, Colo — It’s not where most scholarly studies start, but Bethany Gray at Colorado State University knew that the forum website Reddit was the perfect home for the topic at hand.
“My survey is essentially gathering data about how psilocybin is being used in the real world right now,” Gray said. “And that’s kind of why I was pursuing this on Reddit. It’s just a uniquely suited place for gathering data on this subject. I want this be a generalizable study, and a platform like Reddit is just, like, open to basically any one with the internet in the world."
As voters in Colorado prepare to decide the future of psychedelics in the state through ballot initiatives this November, Gray and her team at Colorado State University are working to get a better idea of their current use in the world.
The anonymity of the internet allows Gray to ask her subjects how and why they’re using magic mushrooms (psilocybin), along with follow up questions like whether they are driving after using them. The hope is that the findings will be illuminating for scholars, leaders and even voters as they make up their minds on the issue.
Gray, a graduate student in the counseling psychology doctoral program at CSU, said she has no agenda for the research and is neutral regarding the upcoming ballot initiatives and decriminalization votes by city councils. There is, however, growing evidence that psychedelics like psilocybin can have broad benefits, she said.
“There is a lot of emerging evidence that psilocybin can be used for medicinal purposes,” Gray said. “So, for like headaches and cluster headaches, spiritual enhancement, and methods of like generating wellness… It can help with things like treatment-resistant depression, generalized anxiety disorder, substance use disorders and eating disorders.
“But, there are absolutely risks that I want to voice that need to be explored before psilocybin is approved for various types of use. People who take this drug without supervision or previous experience with it might react with some dangerous behavior, and they might really dislike the experience. And that's kind of known as a bad trip, colloquially. But, those risks can be mitigated with advanced information sessions, really caring and supportive supervision throughout the entire experience, and debriefing sessions.”
In-depth clinical studies on psychedelic use have been difficult to pursue in the United States, starting with their criminalization through the War on Drugs. Laws across the country are quickly changing, though. Denver decriminalized psilocybin in 2019, and other communities could follow. Citizens in Boulder have been pushing their council representatives to decriminalize psychedelic use as well.
“People are reporting less negative associations. Almost one in 10 US adults have tried psilocybin at least once in their life,” Gray said. “I don’t think we know confidently for sure whether psilocybin use — or psychedelic use in general — is a net negative or a net positive. But, my study is aiming to find out a little bit more about that.”
More than 1,100 people have participated in this survey study already, and Gray is hoping for as many as 2,500 before she shares her complete findings.