More research is recommended, but the results of this study might be a warning to psilocybin advocates that their optimism about public perception could be premature. Although the New York Times showed a significant trend upward in both positive sentiment [Figure 23] and general mentions [Figure 25] of psilocybin, this was often not reflected in the other three newspapers. In addition, even in the New York Times there was a sharp drop in positive sentiment between 2018 and 2019 [Figure 4]. If psilocybin advocates are spending most of their time discussing psilocybin with each other, rather than discussing it with people outside of their communities, they might have developed a mistaken impression of how many people have begun to accept its use.
The current environment seems to have some parallels to the first modern wave of psilocybin use in the United States. When Robert and Valentina Wasson brought psilocybin to New York City from Mexico in 1955, it and other psychedelics quickly gained enthusiasm among some scientists and users (who were often one and same). Many users were wealthy and could afford therapists and psilocybin clinics (perhaps similar to modern psychedelic events such as the Burning Man festival or psilocybin retreats in Jamaica). Once psilocybin and other psychedelics began to filter into the mainstream of American life in the 1960s, they were often used without clinical guidance or attention to setting. Some proponents like Timothy Leary actively encouraged young people to try psychedelics and there was a backlash among some older adults, particularly the parents of users. The result was that psilocybin was soon made illegal in the United States (as well as most other countries).
Today, a number of scientists and prominent users have begun to openly express their enthusiasm for psilocybin’s potential benefits. So far, most academicians discussing psilocybin have been cautious and have emphasized the need for proper use, but a new Timothy Leary could emerge. If that were to happen, and psilocybin use again began growing significantly among young Americans as it did in the 1960s, it seems possible that a political crackdown on psilocybin use and research might re-emerge.
Michael Pollan’s 2018 book on psychedelic research was optimistic about the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, yet when the city of Denver decriminalized psilocybin in 2019, Pollan urged caution on his website, writing: “Great enthusiasm has been inspired by psychedelic research, and I share it, but we should be mindful of psychedelic history too, in which exuberance about the potential of these medicines gave way to a political backlash that set back research, and access, for more than 30 years. It doesn’t have to happen again, but it could.” (Pollan).
It is difficult to reach any stronger conclusions when there have been relatively few articles mentioning psilocybin compared with other psychoactive substances. There were 534 unique articles in this study’s newspapers mentioning psilocybin between January 1, 1989 and December 31, 2019. However, over that same period for these newspapers, Nexis Uni listed 20,180 articles mentioning heroin and 38,213+ articles mentioning cocaine. Even allowing for duplicate articles, that seems an extremely higher journalistic awareness of heroin and cocaine compared to psilocybin. If psilocybin articles were to reach similar proportions, and their tone became largely negative, any positive coverage in recent years could be overwhelmed.
I recommend further research to fill the gaps of the present study. For example, it was beyond the current scope to use political leanings when choosing newspapers (particularly since the political leaning of a newspaper can change dramatically over a 31-year period). If a rigorous method could be devised to include this aspect in an analysis of psilocybin coverage, the results might be helpful. In addition, it could be revealing to research how coverage of psilocybin changes in newspapers for regions where it has been decriminalized, such as Denver and Oakland. It might also be helpful to expand newspaper analysis to psychedelics besides psilocybin. The present study was partially inspired by a similar study about the psychedelic ketamine, and it would be helpful to gauge newspaper coverage of psychedelic compounds such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
Future studies should also consider expanding their analyses to media other than newspapers. A more accurate study would probably take into account podcasts, cable news, YouTube channels, social media, and other sources. Considering how segmented the American consumption of information has become, it might be a very large, difficult, and time-consuming task to ever accurately gauge the general sentiment of the American public through media consumption. This might even be a cautionary sign for psilocybin advocates in and of itself.
1. Pollan, Michael. “Where I Stand on Magic Mushrooms.” Michael Pollan, https://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/where-i-stand-on-magic-mushrooms/. Accessed 22 Aug. 2020.