Powerful substances in tiny amounts: Exploring the practice of microdosing psychedelic drugs
Petter Grahl Johnstad
Working Paper · December 2017
Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 2018, Vol. 35(1) 39–51.
Doi : 10.1177/1455072517753339
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.