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Could "microdoses" of LSD be used to help depression?

In A Really Good Day, Ayelet Waldman tells her story of self-medicating with LSD.


It’s possible you’re already familiar with microdosing – “the hot new business trip”, according to Rolling Stone, “the drug habit your boss is gonna love”, according to GQ, and the subject of enough neo-gonzo trend pieces to make writing about it almost a genre unto itself – but in case you aren’t, allow me to help you catch up.

The term refers to a regimen in which “sub-perceptual” doses of the psychedelic drug LSD – generally around ten micrograms, about a tenth of the dose consumed for recreational purposes – are ingested once every three days in a glass of water with breakfast, in the belief that this will improve cognition, reduce distraction, aid productivity and alleviate depression, without any of the more disruptive side effects associated with dropping acid.

Although Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who first synthesised LSD in 1938, suggested that “very small doses” might one day be used as “a euphoriant or antidepressant”, the idea began to generate mainstream attention only after the publication of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide in 2011, a handbook by the American psychologist James Fadiman for those with an interest in “safe, therapeutic and sacred journeys”. It features a short chapter, close to the end, which asks: “Can sub-perceptual doses of psychedelics improve normal functioning?”

The answer appears to be yes. Fadiman’s book contains just a handful of accounts from users claiming that regular, low-level doses of acid or psilocybin (the “magic” compound in “magic mushrooms”) have improved their lives, but he has continued to solicit responses. He wrote and distributed a memo entitled “To a Potential Self-Study Psychedelic Researcher”, offering practical advice within the tricky scientific and legal framework. LSD has been illegal in the United States since 1970 and in the UK since 1971. Fadiman’s guide is prefaced by a disclaimer (“Nothing contained herein is intended to encourage or support illegal behaviour”) beside a dedication to “Ken Kesey, Tim Leary and Al Hubbard – destroyers of structures and complacency, who made it all both possible and impossible”.

Fadiman has now received hundreds of testimonies, the latest of which runs to more than 200 pages and comes from an unlikely source: “a good, Jewish, middle-class, upwardly mobile, anxiety-ridden mother”, the writer and former criminal lawyer Ayelet Waldman. A Really Good Day, Waldman’s new book, tracks changing laws and attitudes to mind- and mood-altering substances in the US. At the same time, it is an autobiographical account of how drugs have affected her life, both as a public defender representing those who have fallen foul of America’s staggeringly punitive drug laws and as a mentally ill woman, driven by desperation into trying something new.

In the prologue, Waldman makes a list of the prescription drugs that were given to her to treat what was first diagnosed as bipolar disorder but later rediagnosed as a form of PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder). She also struggles with insomnia and a frozen shoulder, conditions for which fluoxetine (Prozac), amphetamine (Adderall), diazepam (Valium), zolpidem (Ambien) and THC (marijuana), to name but a few, have proven problematic or insufficient.

Noting the irony that Waldman, a nerdy mother-of-four who distrusts all things countercultural, can remain law-abiding and “drug-free” while consuming “a shit-tonne of drugs” is the first step to understanding the hypocrisy of the situation. ­Reflecting on this, she plucks up the courage to make contact with the mysterious “Lewis Carroll”, an ailing university professor introduced to her by a friend. He sends her a tiny “cobalt blue bottle” of “vintage” stuff through the mail.

Official research was largely halted in the early 1970s, and so much of how the drug actually works remains a mystery. We know that psychedelics stimulate the 5-HT2A serotonin receptors in the brain, which in turn increases the transmission of glutamate: a powerful neurotransmitter that supports memory, learning and adaptive thinking, as well as feelings of happiness and well-being. An experiment carried out at Imperial College London in 2016 (paid for in part by a grass-roots crowd-funding campaign and the Oxford-based Beckley Foundation) used fMRI machines to monitor the responses of healthy subjects to 75 microgram doses of LSD. Waldman describes what the scans revealed: “a kind of hyperconnectivity within the brain, allowing unrelated and usually discrete regions to communicate with one another”.

Although she experiences “a slight increase in insomnia and an occasional irritable mood on Microdose Day”, Waldman is mostly positive about her results. She has moments of joy that are “nearly, though not quite, euphoric”, gains a “heightened awareness” of the world around her and has fewer fights with her family. More straightforwardly, she looks back over a month of “really good days”, in particular where work is concerned, staving off procrastination and completing her daily tasks with “ease and pleasure” (though it is not possible to know if this was the result of the ­microdoses, or just a placebo effect).

At times, the chummy prose style (“Teenagers are really good liars,” a rather lame footnote reads, “especially to their parents”) seems at odds with the subject matter. Waldman was criticised heavily in 2005 after suggesting in an essay that she loved her husband, the novelist Michael Chabon, more than she loved her kids. Her frankness about family life is admirable. It’s just difficult at times to see how these revelations relate to LSD.

In the end, Waldman writes, it isn’t happiness that microdosing brings, but insight: “a little space to consider how to act in accordance with my values, not just react to external stimuli”. As for the future, she explains that her experiment has come to an end. Her rationale is simple: she is quitting not because microdosing doesn’t work, but because it is a crime. Despite a loosening of regulations that has enabled new research into the therapeutic possibilities of MDMA (Ecstasy) for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, or psilocybin in end-of-life care, the reality remains the same. In a country where “somewhere between 8 and 10 per cent of the population are on antidepressants alone”, Waldman writes, “the one drug I have found that actually helps me I am forbidden to take”.

A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage and My Life by Ayelet Waldman is published by Corsair (231pp, £13.99)

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times

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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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