A study based on online Google searches suggests surging U.S. interest in microdosing psychedelics, such as psilocybin, as rules around the use of such drugs begin to relax.

But the safety of these drugs isn’t entirely clear, said study lead author Dr. Kevin Yang.

“As public interest in using psychedelics and cannabis for health grows, it’s crucial that the medical community conducts studies to establish a strong evidence base for their safety and efficacy,” said Yang, a psychiatry resident physician at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine.

‘Magic mushrooms’ have long been used recreationally to get high, but in recent years numerous studies have suggested that the fungus’ active ingredient, the hallucinogen psilocybin, might have some therapeutic effects if used in smaller doses (“microdosing”) under controlled conditions.

According to a UCSD news release, people who microdose take “‘sub-perceptual’ doses of psychedelics, often over prolonged periods, with users claiming it improves cognition, mood and overall health without causing the intense hallucinogenic effects of higher doses.”

Already, eight U.S. states have had cities or counties decriminalize this type of psychedelic use, and two states, Colorado and Oregon, have legalized psychedelic-assisted therapy and decriminalized psychedelics statewide.

Those moves come at the same time that another recreational drug, cannabis, has gained mainstream acceptance and has been legalized in 24 states.

So what is the current American mood when it comes to microdosing?

To find out, the UCSD team tracked Google searches conducted in certain states in the years before and after the state changed the law around psychedelics. They also compared that data to Google searches in states which did not loosen access to the drugs.

Policies that reduced criminal penalties for psychedelics and cannabis were associated with big jumps in these Google searches, suggesting a surge in interest in microdosing, the team reported.

When it came to search words used, between 2015 and 2023, the most popular search terms for microdosing changed from “LSD” to “mushrooms,” Yang’s team found. Other popular search words included Adderall, cannabis, CBD, DMT, ketamine and MDMA.

But Yang believes a rise in interest with microdosing psychedelics comes with real hazards.

“Without understanding the risks and benefits, people may turn to unproven alternative therapies, exposing themselves to potential dangers,” he said in the UCSD news release. “It’s our responsibility as a medical community to ensure patients have access to safe, effective and evidence-based treatments.”

Senior study author Dr. Eric Leas agreed.

“Psilocybin and nearly all commonly microdosed substances are Schedule 1 controlled substances. Using these substances poses legal risks for consumers and concerns of product impurity because of a lack of manufacturing standards,” said Leas, an assistant professor in the UC San Diego Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health.

When it comes to “product impurity,” Leas points to microdosing products that claim to contain magic mushrooms, but could contain other mushroom species like the highly toxic Amanita muscaria.

What’s needed, according to the UCSD news release, are “safe products, well-informed consumers, appropriate manufacturing practices and documented benefits and risks.”

The findings were published June 28 in JAMA Health Forum.

More information

Find out more about psilocybin microdosing at Harvard Health.

SOURCE: University of California, San Diego, news release. June 28, 2024.