From a chemical standpoint, psychedelic drugs are quite safe in most cases. They have few physical side effects, no known overdose, and most have little to no addictive potential. That said, there are a few psychedelic red flags to watch out for when you trip—risks related to how you obtain and take a psychedelic drug.
This article will cover common issues you may run into while planning a psychedelic experience: things like good sourcing, choosing the right setting, checking in on your mental state, and deciding on the right person or people to trip with you (if you want someone with you at all).
Here are some common psychedelic red flags heading into a trip, and how you can navigate each one to increase your chances of a positive psychedelic experience.
Can Psychedelics Be Dangerous?
Any drug has its risks. But physiologically speaking, psychedelics are some of the safest drugs you can take. Psychedelics have no known lethal or physically dangerous dose, even in cases where people take enormous doses.
Note: ketamine and MDMA are often grouped with psychedelics, but their mechanism of action is different and overdose is absolutely possible and dangerous.
In 2015, for example, a woman accidentally snorted 550 standard doses of powdered LSD, thinking she was doing a line of cocaine. Aside from vomiting, she had no negative effects; in fact, the experience helped her break a dependence on opiates. 1
Although she had a favorable outcome, this was a single instance, so her result can’t be generalized to everyone in every situation. Taking multiple doses of anything is a bad idea.
Research also suggests that most psychedelics have almost zero addictive potential, and they don’t cause withdrawal or other harmful physical symptoms. 2
However, while psychedelic drugs themselves are fairly safe, there are a few related risks that come with them. Most of the things that make psychedelics dangerous are incidental—that is, they have to do with how you take the drug, not the drug itself.
Here’s a look at some of the risks of taking psychedelics.
Because psychedelics are unregulated, there’s a chance that the drugs you buy are impure or contain dangerous substances other than the psychedelic you want.
The risk of impurity varies by drug. MDMA (Molly), for example, is often impure, especially when sold in pill form. A 2022 study found that more than 50% of all MDMA pills sold in England contained no MDMA; in most cases, they were a combination of caffeine and cathinone (also called “bath salts”, a dangerous street drug). 3
LSD (acid) is also easy to fake. In some cases, dealers may replace LSD with synthetic psychedelics that are highly toxic, like NBOMes. 4
Other psychedelics are more difficult to fake. Psilocybin mushrooms, for example, are usually sold as whole dried mushrooms that have a distinct look. They’re immediately recognizable, and as a result, are almost always real.
Psychedelics also come with legal risk in many parts of the world. As of this article’s publication, using or possessing psychedelic drugs is federally illegal in the United States.
If you decide to take psychedelics, understand the laws and be careful.
Alternatively, you can travel to a country in which your drug of choice is legal—for example, taking Ayahuasca in Brazil. Before you leave the country to enter the most vulnerable state you can be in, do your due diligence and make sure you’re choosing a safe retreat.
Choosing the wrong trip sitter or guide
Many people prefer to take a psychedelic with a trusted person by their side. This could be a friend or family member, or it could be a therapist, shaman (in the case of Ayahuasca), or psychedelic guide.
During a psychedelic trip, your surroundings have a major influence on how you feel. If you’re somewhere comfortable with people you trust, you’re more likely to have a good trip.
However, if you’re with someone you don’t like, you may experience anxiety, panic, fear, and other negative emotions.
Some psychedelics also make you more suggestible—you’re more likely to listen to people around you and allow them to guide your behavior. 5 That means it’s especially important to take a psychedelic with someone you trust—the wrong trip sitter or guide could take advantage of you while you’re in an altered state.
While psychedelics are physiologically quite safe, they’re powerful mind-altering drugs, and they can cause psychological distress (colloquially called a bad trip).
During a bad psychedelic trip, you may experience:
- Frightening hallucinations
- Feeling trapped
Usually, bad trips are only unpleasant in the moment and cause no long-term damage. In rare cases, however, bad trips can cause lasting psychological stress.
According to a 2016 survey of more than 2000 people who have experienced a bad psychedelic trip: 6
- 93% had no lasting negative effects
- 84% said the bad trip actually improved their long-term mental health
- 7% sought therapy for lasting anxiety or depression
So while bad trips cause no long-term problems in most cases (and can actually be good for many people), they also carry a low, but not insignificant risk of lasting psychological distress.
Bad trips are more common in people with high anxiety. 7 It’s normal to have some degree of anxiety about taking a psychedelic, but if you’re feeling panicked or especially stressed, you may want to wait to take the drug until you’re in a better headspace, or you may want to pass on psychedelics entirely.
4 Things to Consider Before Taking a Psychedelic
There’s a lot of preparation you can do to increase your chances of having a good psychedelic trip.
Source your psychedelic carefully (and test it for purity)
If you’re planning to take a psychedelic, make sure you get it from someone you trust. If you’re buying the drug yourself, do some thorough research to become familiar with common forms of the drug and how each one looks (for example, pure MDMA is a yellow or off-white crystal; LSD is often sold in colorful sheets of blotter paper).
You can also buy drug testing kits online. They typically work in minutes and change color based on the substance they detect. Buying an extra dose and testing it is a good way to ensure purity of your drug.
Minimize legal risk
Psychedelics are illegal and can get you in to criminal trouble. However, if you choose to take psychedelics, it’s best to minimize your legal risk.
It’s possible to take psychedelics legally. In the U.S., you can sign up for a registered clinical trial.
You can also travel to a country in which your chosen psychedelic is legal. Psilocybin truffles are legal in Amsterdam, for example, and Ayahuasca is legal in Peru, Costa Rica, Brazil, and several other countries.
If you’re going to take psychedelics illegally, practice discretion and be sensible about where and how you trip.
Learn how to choose the right trip sitter
The best trip sitter is someone you know and trust. They’ll make you feel more secure and will decrease your odds of a bad trip.
There are a lot of unlicensed guides, psychedelic “coaches,” and other people out there who offer trip sitting services. While some of them are legitimate and well-trained, many of them are not.
Learn how to choose a trip sitter, if you decide you want one at all (some people prefer to be alone when they take psychedelics).
Practice good set and setting
Set and setting refer to your mindset and the environment in which you take psychedelic drugs.
Your emotional state and surroundings have a major influence over your trip. You want to take psychedelics when you’re in a positive state of mind. If you’re feeling overly anxious, depressed, angry, or stressed, or if you feel like you have to control your experience, your odds of having a bad trip increase.
The same is true with respect to your environment. If you choose to trip in a hostile or uncomfortable place, you’re more likely to have a bad time.
Take psychedelics when you’re feeling open to a new experience, curious, and relatively emotionally stable. Note that some amount of anxiety is normal before tripping, especially if it’s your first time. That’s fine.
By the same token, choose a comfortable, safe environment—ideally one that’s familiar to you—and surround yourself with friends and loved ones, if you want to be around anyone at all.
Choosing the right set and setting will greatly decrease the odds of you having a bad trip.
Frequently Asked Questions about Psychedelic Red Flags
Here are some frequently asked questions about psychedelic red flags.
What should you know before experimenting with psychedelics?
It’s important to consider set and setting—your mindset and physical surroundings when you take a psychedelic drug. Be aware of the effects and correct dosage of the psychedelic drug you plan to take and find a source you trust. You may want a therapist or trip sitter as well.
Who should not consider psychedelics at all?
You may want to avoid psychedelics if you or a family member has a history of psychosis—a mental disorder that causes a disconnection from reality, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Early research also suggests that psychedelics may, in theory, worsen heart valve disease in people who already have it.
What is the riskiest psychedelic drug?
From a physiological perspective, all classical psychedelics—LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and DMT—are generally safe for most people. They have no known fatal dose and cause few to no physical side effects. However, they all can cause psychological distress, especially at higher doses.
As with any substance, check with your doctor, who knows your medical history and can give you a clear picture of your individual risk.
While psychedelics themselves are fairly safe drugs, the act of taking them comes with some risks. Avoid the psychedelic red flags listed in this article, and follow the guidance above to increase your chances of a safe, pleasant trip.
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3. Mj P, S R, Htd S, F M. The Cathinone Hydra: Increased Cathinone and caffeine adulteration in the English MDMA market after Brexit and COVID-19 lockdowns. Drug Science, Policy and Law. 2022;8:205032452210992. doi:10.1177/20503245221099209
4. Zawilska JB, Kacela M, Adamowicz P. NBOMes-Highly Potent and Toxic Alternatives of LSD. Front Neurosci. 2020;14:78. doi:10.3389/fnins.2020.00078
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