MAPS Bulletin Winter 2021: Vol. 31, No. 1
Why does psychedelic journalism matter? It matters because something as controversial as these substances — as nuanced, daunting, easily misconstrued, liable to be demonized or lionized — needs dedicated reporters who believe these substances are important — whether they’re currently legal or illegal, regarded by the outside as cures or poisons — and whether anyone in the rest of the media world cares or not.
After all, the mainstream, Western media has had a love-hate, up-and-down relationship with psychedelics. LIFE Magazine started covering psychedelics in 1957, when Gordon Wasson reported on the “magic” mushrooms of the Indigenous Mazatec Mexicans. For the next decade, the media covered psychedelics with open curiosity and, at times, reverence. They featured musicians using LSD for creativity, spiritualists finding god, and studies suggesting psychedelics could make you healthier.
An advertising-driving media, though, runs in cycles, and it runs on juicy stories. So if yesterday’s hero can be today’s villain — that’s a good story. By the late 60s and early 70s, the media soured on psychedelics, and tales of teen girls jumping out windows were more likely to sell papers. They were also following the lead of politicians like Richard Nixon, who called Tim Leary “the most dangerous man in America” and drug use “public enemy number one.” The press’s sour relationship with psychedelics, and their tendency to exaggerate the downsides, actually helped psychedelics get banned.
By the 70s and 80s, the mainstream media tended to either ignore psychedelics or recycle old stories about the drugs driving you crazy. Even when there was psychedelic news, the media culture wasn’t set up for it. Respectable places like the Washington Post drug-tested new reporters, and pitches on psychedelic culture tended to go nowhere.
Folks who had actually tripped, had been shaken and stirred by the fantastical, shattering, absurd heights of megadoses were stunned. “Why this is not four-inch headlines in every newspaper on the planet I cannot understand,” marveled DMT philosopher Terence McKenna, “because I don’t know what news you were waiting for, but this is the news I was waiting for.”
As the Internet came online, psychedelic news finally found an opening it would never let goof. Most news came not from pro journalists but from passionate psychonauts like David Wilder of Think Wilder, now nearly 15 years old and still the best psychedelic news aggregator. “When I was starting out, there wasn’t a whole lot of information,” emails Wilder. “As a result, I ended up learning a lot of lessons [about using psychedelics] the hard way. My blog and YouTube channel help people learn how to avoid making the same mistakes that I made.”
It wasn’t hard to keep up with the news. Even just a few years ago, the above-ground psychedelic news could only fill a few column inches, and professional reporters had to scrounge for stories. “In 2017, when I started covering psychedelics full-time, it was pretty easy to keep up with all the comings and goings. A few new studies, a news item here or there, and that was about it,” emails Troy Farah, who co-hosts the Narcocast podcast.
But those lean times for psychedelic news are history. Catalyzed, in large part, by MAPS, the psychedelic news today comes in tidal waves: psilocybin and MDMA-assisted psychotherapy are fast-tracked to become legal treatments for depression and PTSD; a half-dozen jurisdictions have decriminalized some psychedelics; Oregon approved psilocybin therapy; psychedelic-focused companies are traded openly on Canadian exchanges; celebrities flaunt their psychedelic use; retreats thrive in Jamaica, Mexico and The Netherlands. “It’s getting to be impossible to keep up,” emails Farah.
Mainstream media are once again poking around psychedelics, even stodgier outlets like 60 Minutes and The New York Times. A few older, edgier organizations cover psychedelics extremely well and regularly: VICE, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Playboy. And cannabis-friendly outlets, such as Marijuana Moment, Leafly, High Times, Merry Jane, and Rooster, staffed by journalists aware that psychedelics are cousins of weed, crank out regular content.
But none of that is enough to keep up with the torrent of news from a culture now bursting at the seams of the straightjacket once thrown around it.
Thankfully, a large number of psychedelic news organizations have popped up to cover the culture, science, and — especially — the financial aspects of the emerging psychedelic industry. These websites, podcasts, social media feeds, subreddits, and newsletters are being created by all manner of people: established journalists, eager investors, and passionate hobbyists. Some are polished and professional, some corporate and slick, some homespun and quirky. Overall it creates an information ecosystem that matches — if not exceeds — all the action and news in the psychedelic space, and creates huge opportunities for psychedelic-focused journalists, publishers, and readers.
A look at a small batch of the new publications help give you a sense of who’s running these outlets and why. For many, love of psychedelics — not money, fame or recognition — is their motivation.
Madison Margolin and Shelby Hartman were weed journalists who decided they wanted to give psychedelics what nearly every beautiful thing in the world has, from racehorses to flower gardens: a sharp, sensually aesthetic, almost luxurious physical magazine — the Sunset or Vanity Fair of tripping. “We saw an absence in the media sphere of an outlet for people who are psychedelically curious,” says Margolin, managing editor. DoubleBlind is built to be a gateway drug for neophytes, mixing how-to’s for newby trippers with stories to bewitch Internet-dwellers with short attention spans — about witchcraft, BDSM, and asking “Could Giving Acid to Dolphins Help Us Talk to Aliens?” (Answer: might as well try.) Margolin wants to attract new psychonauts but also “keep psychedelics weird.” “If the mainstream is getting into psychedelics,” Margolin says, “how can we actually make the mainstream more psychedelic and accepting of weirdness and, you know, chaos — the beauty of entropy and uncertainty.”
There is also a growing group of news outlets whose founders are determined to give voice — not to the whole subculture, — but to some particular facet of psychedelics important to them. For example: Psychedelics Today — a blog, podcast and online education hub — was founded by folks who believe the modern materialist mindset is “killing us and harming the planet,” in the words of co-founder Joe Moore, and sought to raise the profile of Stan Grof. Moore knew Grof’s breathwork often inspires a larger worldview — that the Self and the Cosmos are connected, that there is Something More. Moore hopes these ideas can “help evolve humanity, science and medicine” — to basically save us all. Another site, Chacruna, an educational nonprofit, speaks for nature and the folks who know her best, intent on being a bridge between the ceremonial use of sacred plants and the Western psychedelic world of molecules and clinical tria
ls, hipsters and outlaws. “Plants matter,” executive director Bia Labate often says. (Labate is also Chief Editor of this MAPS Bulletin.) Chacruna’s articles come from shamans and ayahuasqueros talking about indigenous rights, wisdom, and struggles, and Western academics often highlight underrepresented voices such as women, queer folks and people of color. Psymposia, a website and podcast with an anarchic, anti-capitalist bent, often highlights the shadow side of psychedelics, calling out new businesses for unethical moves or just general un-coolness, such as dropping the traditional culture and meaning of psychedelics to make them palatable to investors. And the Third Wave, which teaches courses on microdosing, is hyper-focused on the practice of taking small amount of psychedelics as an adjunct to self-improvement and self-acceptance.
And then there is the rapidly-expanding class of outlet that did not exist at all until just a few years ago: the psychedelic business site. PsilocybinAlpha, Truffle Report, Shroom Investor, Psychedelic Finance, PsyTech, Microdose, and more, all survey the business landscape, offering interviews and commentary. Some are more promotional than journalistic and revel in the zooming stock prices of psychedelic startups. (No small thing. Atai Life sciences, a biotech company exploring ibogaine, has raised over $210 million, and Compass Pathways, focused on psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy, is now valued at more than two billion dollars.) In the coming era of big psychedelic money — an era old psychedelic fans barely imagined — these business-focused websites will connect and cohere the industry to itself. Many outlets have ties to companies they cover, creating platforms for CEOs and investors to talk to one another about opportunities and IPOs.
Other news sites are partly laying the groundwork for future money-making endeavors. Psychedelic Invest, for example, was started by psychedelic investors keeping track of their own industry with an stock index of every public psychedelic company. An arm of the company brings private deals to accredited investors. There are plans to have a tradeable psychedelic index fund “when the market matures,” messages co-founder Cody Shirk. Another outlet, Psychedelic Spotlight, full of interviews and news items, is owned by Global Trac Solutions, a newly formed psychedelic company which has not yet announced its business plans.
All these publications — and more on the way — ensure that a subculture that was once ignored when it wasn’t being spat on — is now drenched in news aimed at every type of user — fans of plants and foes of capitalism, microdosers and macrodosers, therapists and shamans and investors.
And then you have to ask: is it strange that drugs once totally reviled are far, far more likely to be celebrated now? If Aldous Huxley was right to call these “heaven and hell” drugs, journalists are once again super focused now on the heaven. And so concerns remain, particularly among journalists, about balance.
“Journalism about psychedelics has definitely grown in scale and sophistication, but it still has a long way to go to become a journalistic beat,” emails Michael Pollan, journalism professor at the University of California-Berkeley. Pollan’s 2018 bestseller, “How to Change Your Mind,” is credited with bringing the Psychedelic Renaissance to mainstream attention. “Much of the stuff out there — the online magazines — are still more evangelical than journalistic, and could benefit from a somewhat more rigorous and skeptical approach — from the voices of people who are not necessarily already in the psychedelic tent. Evangelical journalism is great for pumping up the choir, but it can repel people who are fearful or simply uninformed,” Pollan goes on. “From the outside, it can look like a cult.”
“Psychedelics are an exciting science,” messages the journalist Troy Farah. “But publications that herald this new era also have a responsibility to champion facts over anecdotes and not exaggerate the potential of entheogenic substances.”
A few new outlets see the lack of balance and seek to correct it. Lucid News aims at “accurate and fair” psychedelic journalism, not boosterism or sensation, its editors write on their mission statement, asking reporters and editors to reveal their own biases and conflicts of interest, and to seek out balance. “They add real, legit reporting,” says Ifetayo Harvey, a contributing writer. “There’s something to be said about reported pieces given the lack of that in the psychedelic space.”
And Psychedelic Science Review, a new site, believed the psychedelic Internet was lousy with low-quality info: “subjective experience reports, poor analysis of high-quality research, and general widespread misinformation,” in the words of Barb Bauer, lead science researcher. Her site sifts through piles of new studies and produces fact-based, objective scientific reporting, without editorializing or pushing an agenda.
Historically, burgenouning subcultures have gotten the press coverage they deserve. And Michael Pollan says he is confident that a cadre of rigorous journalists will emerge and turn psychedelics into a regular journalistic “beat.” However: we’re in a new, uncertain time for journalism. Google, Facebook and Twitter post stories and then suck up all the ad revenue, like paperboys who pocket all the subscription money. Will there be enough resources to fund the kind of journalism psychedelics needs? Creative solutions are needed. Outlets such as DoubleBlind and Psychedelics Today earn much of their revenue not through ads, but by selling courses on, for example, how to grow mushrooms or integrate trips. Chacruna is one of several sites that has a membership program. A lot of sites ask readers for donations.
It matters. Psychedelics are developing they kind of press corp they need if they are finally going to get the four-inch-headlines Terence McKenna wanted — with solid journalism alongside those headlines: features that add context, graphs to track company revenue, and sidebars to point out psychedelics’ shadow sides. Psychedelics deserve to be covered thoroughly. Not like a fringe, sideshow, fluke — but like a real thing, like the astounding substances they absolutely are.
PSYCHEDELIC JOURNALISM LIST
Psychedelic content, written:
Psychedelic Science Review
Cannabis outlets that cover psychedelics well
Psychedelic companies with active blogs:
Mainstream outlets that cover psychedelics well
Reilly Capps worked as an EMT responding to 911 calls in Boulder, where he grew fascinated with the impact of alcohol and street drugs on his patients’ health. His reporting for Rooster, a Colorado magazine, helped catalyze Denver’s 2019 vote to decriminalize mushrooms. He co-founded the Denver Mushroom Cooperative, a hub for growers and users of all types of fungi. He has written about drugs for DoubleBlind, the Telluride Daily Planet and the Washington Post. He contributes articles, guides and website content to psychedelic companies, notably The Third Wave. Follow Reilly on Twitter: twitter.com/reillycapps