(CN) — Joe Hudak struggled with his return to civilian life.
The 47-year-old veteran spent 20 years in the special forces, including around five years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After returning to the U.S. in 2011, he tried to kill himself twice — landing him a stint in a psychiatric hospital. Doctors tried out a range of medications and therapies in an effort to ease his symptoms. “You name it, I had pretty much done it,” Hudak said in an interview from his home in San Diego this month.
After 18 months in care, doctors determined Hudak was no longer a danger to himself or others and released him. But “I wasn’t leading a happy, joyous, fulfilled life,” Hudak said. He still experienced a range of negative symptoms, including a “cacophony of voices in my head — like an entire committee that berated me all day long.”
Desperate and running out of options, Hudak last year connected with Veterans Exploring Treatment Options, a nonprofit that helps vets suffering from PTSD and other problems try out psychedelic therapy. The group paid for him to go to Mexico, where he tried a dose of ibogaine, a potent hallucinogen found in several tropical plants.
About 2.5 million middle-aged Americans took hallucinogens last year, up from 1.5 million the year before and more than five times the number in 2016, according to government data. The growing interest in psychedelics is changing the face of drug-taking in America, bringing in customers who might have never before considered taking controlled substances. (The terms “hallucinogens” and “psychedelics” lack standard medical definitions and are mostly used interchangeably, though both refer to drugs that dramatically alter perception and cognition.)
Some, like Hudak, are traveling out of the country to try psychedelic treatments. Meanwhile, as drugs like ketamine and psilocybin become increasingly accepted and legal across the United States, an affluent clientele is spawning a domestic drug boom for the supposed mind-expanding substances.
States and local governments are relaxing laws on psilocybin, the active drug in mushrooms. Ketamine, a dissociative, is catching on as a mainstream treatment for depression. Spravato, a nasal-spray version of the drug, was approved by the FDA in 2019. That’s on top of other and more obscure psychedelics, all of which are feeding a renewed interest in the substances amongst Americans.
David Herzberg, who studies the history of illegal drug use at the University of Buffalo, says cultural figures like best-selling author Michael Pollan are giving psychedelics an air of “approval and legitimacy.” Pollan has boosted the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, including through the book and Netflix series “How to Change Your Mind.”
“I talk to a lot of strait-laced people who have never done any drugs, period,” Herzberg said in an interview. “Suddenly, they’re all interested in using hallucinogens for therapy.”
Psilocybin has become the drug of choice for many hallucinogen-curious Americans. One reason might be a recent spate of widely publicized scientific studies suggesting that psilocybin is a promising treatment for depression and other mental health disorders.
Now, the drug appears to be on the same trajectory as cannabis, with medical use and legalization on the horizon.
While the drug is still illegal under federal law, it’s legal for supervised use in Oregon and Colorado. It’s been decriminalized in a slate of cities, including in California and Massachusetts, and could soon be decriminalized for all 40 million citizens across the Golden State.
As with cannabis, legalization is creating a new industry that benefits from promoting the drug. “There is enormous capital investment in the fledgling hallucinogen commercial sector,” Herzberg said. “It’s not kooky anymore once billions of dollars are going into it.”