Powerful substances in tiny amounts: Exploring the practice of microdosing psychedelic drugs
Petter Grahl Johnstad,
This article presents an explorative study of microdosing practices with psychedelic drugs. A microdose is defined as a sub-perceptual dose, commonly about one tenth of an ordinary recreational dose, which gives no alteration of consciousness or feeling of intoxication. Respondents (n = 17) were recruited at several Internet fora for individual interviews mediated via private messaging. Every participant was male, and the median respondent was in his 30s with a stable job and relationship and extensive entheogen experience. Respondents tended to experiment with microdosing in phases, reporting mostly positive consequences from these practices. Benign effects included improved mood, cognition, and creativity, which often served to counteract symptoms especially from conditions involving anxiety and depression. There were also reports of various challenges with microdosing psychedelic drugs, and some did not find the practice worth continuing; one participant reported of a distinctly negative experience resulting from a combination of a microdose of LSD with a recreational dose of cannabis.
Keywords : psychedelic, microdose, explorative, interview, qualitative
To microdose a psychedelic drug means to take a dose small enough to provide no intoxication or significant alteration of consciousness. This is sometimes referred to as a sub-perceptual dose. The practice of microdosing has been growing in popularity and visibility in the media since James Fadiman recounted some self-experiment reports in his 2011 book The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, but has roots going back to 1960s psycholytic therapy and, according to Fadiman (2011: 198–199), to indigenous healers and shamans who have “systematically and fully explored every dose level.” Recently, Wired UK (Solon 2016) has reported on Silicon Valley professionals microdosing LSD in order to improve their concentration and problem solving, and The New York Times (Williams 2017) recounted the marriage-saving experiences of Ayelet Waldman, who microdosed LSD over a month to great personal benefit, and proceeded to publish a memoir about her microdosing experiences (Waldman 2017).
The overall impression from these reports is that microdosing affects mood, health, and cognition in generally positive ways, while allowing the user to carry on with everyday activities. While no clinical studies of this practice has so far been published, a number of studies have indicated positive health effects from full doses of psychedelic drugs on depression and anxiety from life-threatening disease (Gasser et al. 2013; Griffiths et al. 2016; Grob et al. 2011), substance dependence (Bogenschutz et al. 2015; Johnson et al. 2014; Schenberg et al. 2014; Thomas et al. 2013), and various other somatic and psychological conditions (Carhart-Harris & Nutt 2010; Johnstad 2015). However, full doses of psychedelic drugs lead to experiences that are undisputedly very intense, and which have been reported to induce both acute panic reactions and toxic psychoses (Iversen et al. 2009). While the notion of a direct relation between psychedelics use and mental health complications is subject to dispute (i.e., Hendricks et al. 2015; Krebs & Johansen 2013), it would seem prudent to conclude that full doses of psychedelics have a potential to incur non-trivial adverse effects.
Microdosing, on the other hand, is not experientially intense, and has not been reported to result in negative health reactions in anyone. We must acknowledge, of course, that the practice of microdosing psychedelics has not yet been described in academic literature beyond basic reports of its existence (Savulich et al. 2016; Sweat, Bates & Hendricks 2016), and that the current lack of information about adverse reactions might potentially be subject to change. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that if the positive anecdotal reports of microdosing experiences earlier quoted should prove representative, the practice of microdosing would seem to be a promising candidate for providing some of the health benefits claimed for psychedelics while incurring minimal risk for mental health complications.
As of yet, however, there are no clinical studies documenting the efficacy of microdosing; despite its apparent widespread popularity, the microdosing phenomenon remains essentially unknown to science. By interviewing psychedelic users with microdosing experience, this study aims to explore the user-perceived benefits and drawbacks of these practices in a systematic fashion. There is no way to differentiate between drug effects and placebo/nocebo in these data, but the study affords us with an understanding of how “ordinary” psychedelic drug users, recruited from various discussion fora around the Internet, have taken to the practice of microdosing. As we shall see, several respondents expressed rather nuanced views about the relative benefits and disadvantages of microdosing that are not in any obvious manner indebted to placebo or nocebo effects. They also reported discovering specific practices that have worked well for them, compared to others which were found to be ineffectual or subject to negative side effects. While the findings of this study cannot be regarded as representative, they may serve to provide research questions and hypotheses for later investigations.
Current or past microdose users of psychedelic drugs were recruited for interviews at a variety of Internet fora dedicated to discussions of psychedelic experiences. Recruitment efforts centered on two separate strategies: one was to post a new thread describing the purpose of the study and asking for input, and then contact individual users by private message for further questions, and the other was to search the forum for previous entries relating to microdosing practices and then contact eligible participants by private message. This two-pronged strategy was employed at seven different user fora, of which The Shroomery, DMT-Nexus, NorShroom, and Reddit produced a range of valuable responses, while recruitment efforts at The Hip Forums, Psychonaut, and Bluelight did not produce substantial response. 39 forum members responded to initial recruitment efforts or had made noteworthy contributions to old discussions, and of these 22 members were contacted by private message for questioning. Five of these 22 did not respond to the private letter, generally for the reason that they were no longer active at the forum and therefore unreachable. These have not been quoted directly, but a few reports from this group have been included in rephrased form that serves to confound Internet search procedures while preserving the gist of the statement. The remaining 17 gave their informed consent to participation and are quoted directly in the results section of this article, although a few quotes have been translated from Norwegian. Statements have been edited for brevity and relevance to specific topics.
Not all respondents were willing to provide general demographical information. Every respondent who indicated their gender (n = 17) were male. Of the 15 who listed their age group, three were in their 20s, nine were in their 30s, and three in their 40s. Four were single, four in a relationship, and seven engaged or married (three with children). Four participants were students, while nine were in full-time employment as a factory worker, biologist, hospital worker, teacher, cook, plant scientist, and in IT security; one was self-employed and two were unemployed/disabled. Several, including one of the unemployed, held master’s degrees. They had from 3 years to 25 years of experience with psychedelic drug use, with the median length of experience amounting to about 10 years. Of the 22 forum members contacted by private message, twelve had extensive microdosing experience and ten had experimented on a more sporadic basis.
It should be noted that the recruitment process did not aim at obtaining a representative set of participants reflecting the general population of psychedelic microdose users. Participants were, as mentioned, required to volunteer for participation in response to recruitment letters posted on the Internet, and users with some enthusiasm for psychedelic drugs were probably more likely to self- select for the study; it is certainly the case that users living on the streets or confined to hospital wards or prisons did not have the opportunity to participate. In addition, every participant who indicated gender was male. The study should therefore be taken to reflect the “best microdosing practices” of a generally resourceful group of male psychedelic users.
Interviews were asynchronous and Internet-mediated, and conducted on a semi-structured basis. Such forms of interviewing have previously been validated by Meho (2006), who identified a number of advantages to such approaches and no overall negative impact on data quality. Participants interacted with the interviewer via anonymous messaging on discussion fora already familiar to them. Unless they were using camouflage technology such as The Onion Router (Tor), their IP addresses would have been accessible to the forum service provider, but this would not serve as a privacy concern beyond the risk they were already incurring through their normal use of this forum. While full Internet anonymity is somewhat elusive, participation in the study did not serve to compromise privacy to any significant extent.
Typical questions used to guide the interview:
- Why do you microdose psychedelics?
- How much experience do you have with microdosing?
- Do you microdose in cycles or continuously? How often do you do it?
- Have you noticed any negative effects from microdosing?
- How do you feel the day after you microdosed psychedelics?
Recruitment for the study was continued until new responses consistently conformed to patterns identified from earlier responses, at which point significant new information was deemed unlikely to emerge. As interviews took the form of written communication, no transcription from oral records into writing was necessary. The obtained data were analyzed using thematic analysis and Kvale and Brinkmann’s (2015) procedure for meaning condensation. Themes were constructed on a basis of open-ended, exploratory, and data-driven comparative analyses of interview responses pertaining to all major research questions.