By Michelle Janikian
The recovery community is huge and diverse, but the thing most members of AA and NA subscribe to is the complete abstinence from all mood-altering substances. Yet, there’s a small and controversial movement within the community that looks to loosen the strict boundaries of sobriety by allowing for the intentional use of psychedelics.
In clinical trials with classic psychedelics like psilocybin, a high dose, monitored entheogenic experience with clinical support is being shown to help people break addictive relationships with substances like alcohol, tobacco, and cocaine. For example, at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, clinical psychologist and researcher, Peter Hendricks, and his team are finishing up a study on psilocybin-assisted therapy for cocaine addiction, and their preliminary results are quite striking. Although they haven’t completed their data collection yet, Hendricks says they have looked at the first 10 participants, six of whom received psilocybin and four a placebo. And those who received the magic mushroom compound used cocaine much less frequently than those who received the placebo following their dosing session.
Hendricks believes the psilocybin group received greater benefit because of the vast insight the psychedelic experience gave them, specifically regarding their own cocaine use. “There seems to be this change in mindset, this very specific realization that ‘my cocaine use has had a very negative impact on the people I love. And the people I love are what’s most important to me. That’s what life is all about. And I can’t let my behavior continue to impact the people I love. So I am committed to stop this,’” describes Hendricks. “In the back of their mind, there’s this sense that I’m going to get back into it [sobriety]. I’m going to be abstinent. I’m going to make a change, no matter what I have to do.”
On the other hand, many in the placebo group reduced their cocaine use, but still “continued a certain pattern of use,” says Hendricks, rather than the extended periods of abstinence and drive to stay sober they saw from the psilocybin group. “I don’t know that it’s ever really a reasonable goal that someone would stop using any given substance and never ever use again, but we want to reduce as much as we can,” says Hendricks. “And if there are lapses or bumps in the road that those lapses would not turn into a full-blown relapse where folks return to their previous use patterns.”
Although taking psilocybin in a clinical trial context is a bit different than taking mushrooms at home or out in nature, the insight psychedelic experiences provide, including the lasting motivation to prevent relapse, is a major reason folks in recovery are turning to psychedelics. Danielle Negrin, Executive Director of the San Francisco Psychedelic Society and Founder of the “Psychedelic Recovery” support group in the Bay Area explains most of the participants in her group are looking to sustain their sobriety from certain substances that cause them the most harm – like meth, opioids, or alcohol – in a practice called “targeted abstinence”. And they’re curious if psychedelics could be a part of that.
“I think that psychedelics can highlight really how harmful other substances and those behaviors can be and help us look introspectively at our lives and at our past to really reflect on the actions that we were taking and help us wake up to the fact that we are addicts and alcoholics and that recovery from that is possible,” explains Negrin.
Kevin Franciotti, who’s involved in a similar group on the East Coast, Psychedelics in Recovery, that’s now mostly an online community, tells me many members of his group are seeking out psychedelics for similar reasons. Although he couldn’t get into too much detail to protect folks’ anonymity, he says psychedelics have been helpful for people in recovery for a number of reasons, including “cultivating a conscious contact with a higher power of their understanding, which is a key component of 12 step recovery. And admitting powerlessness and then seeking the guidance from a trusting and loving power greater than oneself.” Franciotti also says he’s heard of a member using mushrooms for deeper insights into AA “step work”. For example, when it’s time to make amends with the people in their lives who they hurt with their addiction and related behaviors, they go to a mushroom trip to help them realize who else they might have hurt that they’re forgetting.
Yet even though intentional psychedelic use can seem like a good compliment to recovery, bringing this stuff up at an AA or NA meeting is risky. Most members of the program won’t want to hear it, it’s not an accepted part of the program, regardless if AA Founder Bill Wilson had life-changing LSD experiences, and so could get you ostracized from recovery communities. But that’s why groups like Psychedelics in Recovery are so important, to give a support network to folks who are trying to navigate this delicate and controversial landscape.
A new non-profit in the psychedelic community, Project New Day, is looking to support these recovery groups. Founded by Mike Sinyard and Allison Feduccia, PhD, Director and Co-Founder of Psychedelic.Support (a psychedelic integration resource), they’re inspired by psychedelic experiences helping folks overcome their addictions, and want to give back to that community. For their first order of business, they created an advisory board of four clinicians and five people who are already involved in psychedelic recovery support groups, including Negrin and Franciotti.
Feduccia says their next step is to create tangible materials, like pamphlets, for folks that go to these support groups and their family members who might be concerned about using one substance to get over another. They’re also planning on helping these support groups develop exercises they can engage participants in, as well provide referrals to clinicians for group members with more severe issues. Overall, Feduccia says they want to establish and promote best practices for such groups, and then help to promote them to a wider audience. She explains part of the plan is to expand Psychedelic.Support to include more support groups and to allow reviews. They’re also planning on providing grants to people who want to start these types of groups in their area, and to eventually expand beyond talking circles to more nature-based integration groups, like hiking or biking together.
“We’re just really in that phase of [exploring], what does the community need? How can we provide resources, information, connection to other people in a way to advance these groups?” says Feduccia. “[We’re] thinking of it as a way of modernizing an AA type program, which is really abstinence-based. We want to make this a little bit more inclusive for people as these [psychedelic-assisted] treatments become more readily available.”
And a modernized, more harm-reduction focused approach to AA is desired by many in the community. Either because they find AA to be too restrictive, or like in the case of Ethan Covey, photographer and co-Founder of the Psychedelic Sangha group in NYC, they get the help they need from AA, but eventually outgrow it and are ready to move on. In Covey’s case, after four and a half years of following the program, he felt confident that his mindset and lifestyle had changed enough – away from his destructive addictive behaviors that opioids caused him – to cautiously dip his toes in psychedelic waters for personal and spiritual growth. Perhaps, psychedelic experiences could augment his new sober lifestyle. “I really felt like I learned the lessons that I needed to learn [regarding my own addictive behaviors]. And I started questioning whether the appropriate response to that was just to continue to check off time,” he says.
Covey explains, to get to that point, he really needed those four and half substance-free years to work on himself and change his lifestyle. “But as years went by doing that, I got to a point where I became very confident in my ability to not do the things that I know I shouldn’t do.” For Covey, that means maintaining an opioid-free, and for now, alcohol-free lifestyle. While telling me this story, he’s super cautious and stops himself more than once to tell me, “This is very difficult to talk about because I most definitely don’t want to say that my experience is what anyone else would experience, you know?”
And he’s right, everyone who struggles with addiction and substance misuse/abuse is on their own very individual journey. While consciously augmenting sobriety with psychedelics might work for some, it certainly doesn’t for others. For example, even though Franciotti is passionate about psychedelics in recovery, and has helped to write safety guidelines for such use, he tells me he’s not currently using psychedelics (or any substances) since his last relapse in 2018.
Ibogaine in a clinical setting helped to get him clean, but a few years later, he helped to organize an ibogaine conference in Mexico where he would have the opportunity to take a low dose. He debated with himself for months leading up, and at the same time, was going through a period of distance from his recovery community. So when the iboga opportunity fell through at the last minute, he instead spontaneously took an unknown amount of LSD in what he sees now as impulsive drug-seeking behavior and a “fear of missing out.” Even though he considered that LSD experience to be reckless and he tried to adhere more closely to an abstinence approach afterward, it was a catalyst to beginning a full-blown relapse. Not long after, he purchased a kilo of Kratom because he heard the DEA planned to ban the substance and that eventually led him back into the arms of his problem substance: opioids.
This type of narrative is a main concern for folks who attend Psychedelics in Recovery groups, that psychedelic use is considered a relapse or can push them over the edge back to the substance that causes them the most problems. Or, another related fear that Negrin points out, that they’ll replace one substance with another, like get off prescription anti-anxiety or depression meds, only to become reliant on microdosing psychedelics.
There’s also some concern around the addictive potential of psychedelics. Unlike other substances, classic psychedelics like magic mushrooms aren’t really considered addictive because they don’t promote compulsive use like opioids, meth, or alcohol. Plus, with most psychedelics, you can’t really use them to numb yourself and escape your problems like other substances. Instead, many psychedelics offer a deeper dive into those feelings, or a new perspective on your deeply held beliefs, and that can be too uncomfortable to dive back into day in and day out.
Yet that’s not to say people can’t develop problematic relationships with psychedelics. Not to stigmatize any substance further, but there’s definitely cases of people developing problematic relationships with LSD, MDMA/ecstasy, and Ketamine, particularly. But people can become “addicted” to all sorts of things, including food, sex, sugar, exercise, shopping, stealing, gambling, the list is endless. It really depends on the person and how they’re actively engaging these dopamine-releasing activities. And that’s another reason why support groups specifically for psychedelics in addiction recovery are so important, to help people navigate this tricky landscape and hold themselves and each other accountable.
If you’re in active recovery or addiction and this resonated with you, everyone I spoke to for this story recommended really checking in with yourself before engaging in any psychedelic use and taking a harm reduction approach. So be honest with yourself on your motives or intentions for use, and seek ample community support. Whether that’s your sponsor, close friends, family, partner(s), or support groups like Psychedelics in Recovery (or a combination of all of the above), because honesty, openness, and community are crucial to avoiding old, problematic, addictive behavior patterns. But psychedelics aren’t for everyone, so really do your homework before embarking on any kind of chemically-induced journey, and always practice safe use.
About the Author
Michelle Janikian is a journalist focused on drug policy, trends, and education. She’s the author of, “Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion: An Informative, Easy-to-Use Guide to Understanding Magic Mushrooms – From Tips and Trips to Microdosing and Psychedelic Therapy”, and her work has also been featured in Playboy, DoubleBlind Mag, High Times, Rolling Stone and Teen Vogue. One of her core beliefs is ending the prohibition of drugs can greatly benefit society, as long as we have harm reduction education to accompany it. Find out more on her website: www.michellejanikian.com or on Instagram @michelle.janikian.