Midday on a mild Saturday, casually dressed in jeans and button-down shirts, waiters whisper through a crowd of party-goers in a sprawling west London flat.
Their trays are laden with kombucha ‘champagne’: non-alcoholic, gingery and effervescent in an unpleasant, medicinal way, it tastes, I realise, like spicy Alka-Seltzer. All around, however, people are sipping enthusiastically as they make conversation.
The crowd — sober, clear-eyed and jovial — seems an odd mix. There are about 30 of us; in one corner, a designer perches on a velvet chaise with the head of marketing for a mental-health tech start-up. Hedge-fund managers chat to tech execs about the crypto bubble; a food entrepreneur, an independent publisher and two south London-based artists laugh among one another. Other than the fact that no one is above the age of 40, the only thing we have in common is that we are here on the promise of a ‘psychedelic adventure’.
‘Share in the positive vibes and healing energy. Re-stoke your creative fires,’ read the invite. Then, in small print: ‘Strictly no other substances.’ I was intrigued.
‘Sorry we’re west,’ the host, Lotte, says. She squeezes my arm as we ascend a spiral staircase to a smaller room with a dazzling modern artwork on one wall. ‘But this apartment was too perfect.’ I blink twice at what appears to be a piece by a very famous contemporary artist. ‘It’s real,’ she says, nodding. The flat has been hired specially for the party and particularly, it seems, because of the artworks. ‘It’ll look really great when everyone’s on the trip later,’ she tells me.
Lotte, vegan and alcohol-free for more than a year, works for a global beauty brand. This is the second party she has hosted where guests have been invited to ‘expand their minds’ with hallucinogens such as acid, magic mushrooms and 2CB (tablets that are, effectively, a cross between ecstasy and LSD). Lotte was, she tells me, inspired after visiting a west-London holistic practitioner who underpins ‘meditation and energy work’ with biannual psychedelic retreats in the Cotswolds.
While not strictly legal, the retreats inspire such devotion in the attendees that it renders the NDAs (‘to protect the identities of the guests, not of the organisers’) almost pointless. ‘It’s such a lovely little community,’ Lotte tells me. ‘And you leave feeling very centred. I wanted to create that same atmosphere here in town, so it didn’t feel like such a commitment.’
Psychedelics have been making a quiet comeback. Fifty years since flower children were tuning in and dropping out, LSD and psilocybin have been co-opted by a new generation: urban, capitalist, successful. They have memberships to boutique gyms and work in industries where productivity is prized far above more ephemeral things such as peace and love. But despite being highly educated, they’re also wilfully blind to both the illegality of their actions and the potential dangers of these substances; anxiety, delusions and paranoia are commonplace if they’re misused on a short-term basis while frequent and heavy use of LSD can lead to psychosis and recurrent hallucinations long after users stop taking the drug.
‘I truly believe that it’s helping me to be a better businessman,’ says Steven, who has been micro-dosing acid (where a sub-perceptive amount of the drug is taken every few days, he says) for almost a year. He’s the co-founder of a property company and met Lotte at the Cotswolds retreat. ‘I had a heavy year work-wise and I think the acid has allowed me to tap into an extra 10 per cent. I don’t feel a huge difference, but I’m less reactive, more open and more in tune with others around me.’ In real terms? ‘I suppose I’m less angry, basically.’ For this new breed, the goal isn’t to ‘check out’, but to hack the mind’s potential with the help of a little chemical uplift.
Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, head of one of the few psychedelic research groups in the world at Imperial College London, agrees that they can be powerful agents for enhancing performance. He’s been conducting functional magnetic resonance imaging experiments into the impact of psychedelics on the brain for almost 10 years. ‘People report feeling somehow reconnected, within themselves to their emotions but also to other people,’ he says. ‘And even to some kind of higher cosmic order.’ He theorises that this is down to the fact they allow the brain centres dedicated to emotion, and those dedicated to rational thought, to connect in ways they normally wouldn’t.
‘They prompt more harmonious interplay between these systems, resetting us to a mode of functioning that’s more natural and more akin to the rest of the natural world,’ he says. ‘The benefits can be an increase in creativity, a heightened feeling of contentment and some people report a better understanding of their place in the cosmic order. In therapeutic terms, I actually believe psychedelics can be a more holistic treatment for disorders such as depression than, say, SSRIs.’
But it’s not just the renaissance in psychedelic research that has improved their standing among a certain higher stratum of millennial. Steven Kotler is a journalist and author, whose recent Pulitzer Prize-nominated tome, Stealing Fire, looks at the modern rebranding of these drugs. ‘I think it has been happening slowly for a number of years,’ he tells me during a crackly Skype call. It is only 5am in LA but he has already been awake for an hour. ‘Steve Jobs routinely told people that doing acid was one of the most impactful experiences of his life. That’s quite an endorsement. From there you can see a reverence for mind-altering substances spread into Silicon Valley then, via Burning Man, outwards to the rest of the world. I guess we’re in this age of acceleration, right? And the human brain is not good at processing change at this speed or on this scale. So anything we can do to keep up, we’re doing.’
It’s a sentiment I hear echoed again and again at the party: that used correctly, these drugs, some of which are synthetic, make one guest more creative, another more emotionally stable, a third more altruistic and more connected to her partner. And far from seeing it as a nefarious weekend activity, many count it as part of a holistic approach to mental and physical wellbeing. There is no mention of the fact that these chemicals can do damage to the psyche that can never be undone.
‘I think there’s a massive distinction to be made between substances that allow you to experience the full spectrum of your consciousness and those that just give you a false high,’ says Rex, an early-30s senior developer I meet at the party, gesturing with his glass. He is one of the few people drinking. ‘No one’s here to get off their face, it means a lot more than that.’
He has never taken drugs, he assures me. ‘But I don’t count the hallucinogens as drugs in the traditional sense. I did dabble with modafinil [a smart drug that is used to treat narcolepsy and has been shown to improve concentration], but it made me feel completely disconnected from the rest of my life.’
He finds that while, on the surface, the crowd at the party seems an odd mix (‘There are certainly people here I’d never have met otherwise,’ he says), there is a common love of what he calls ‘big-idea thinking’. ‘People are here for different reasons,’ he says, ‘but we meet up and discuss interesting dilemmas, explore ideas, talk about real-world problems.’ Then he adds, a little incongruously: ‘The fact that we buy everything online [on the dark web] makes a difference. No one’s calling a shady dealer at 4am.’
While, in principle, I understand his reasoning, the more self-affirming conversations I overhear the more it’s hard not to roll my eyes. Any caner (even the one calling a shady dealer at 4am) will tell you that their way of partying is, like, totally cool, not even that bad for you.
Rex’s words remind me of something Dr Sarah E Johns, senior lecturer in evolutionary anthropology at the University of Kent, once told me about our modern attitude to food: ‘There’s a prestige and morality… that never existed before — “I’m eating clean, healthy food that’s organically produced, locally sourced and small-batch.” It’s an anti-consumerist mentality. And these choices somehow make you morally superior.’ It’s hardly surprising that the generation who moralised food is doing the same with its class As. But isn’t this just like eating ‘cake’ made from avocados and calling it health food? Wishful thinking and clever rebranding?
Even as the psychedelics take effect, many of my conversations at the party come back to the scientific studies that reaffirm their benefits, as if everyone is verbally patting themselves on the back. But as Carhart-Harris himself tells me, ‘People can experience moments of crisis on these drugs, it is actually quite common. I always want to emphasise that psychedelics are powerful substances, and because they’re powerful they can be very dangerous.’
I decide not to partake this time and am handed my coat by a waiter as I leave. ‘Will you guys try it?’ I ask, gesturing to the other staff, most of whom are now standing idly by the bar. ‘God, no,’ the waiter laughs. ‘I’d rather just have a drink.’ Outside, it is still daylight when I leave.
People’s names have been changed to protect privacy
Illustrations by Michelle Thompson