Leslie Siu has been microdosing every day since the coronavirus pandemic started. The CEO of cannabis company Mother & Clone uses a sublingual nanospray, which she tells Refinery29 she spritzes “under the tongue, straight to the brain” to help deal with stresses like homeschooling her five-year-old and working from home during COVID-19. “Everyone is going through the emotional rollercoaster of isolation. There are ups, downs, and a lot of unknowns,” says Canadian-born, Denver-based Siu, who’s been microdosing since 2014 when cannabis was legalized in Colorado. “I think a lot of people are waking up really confused, depressed, and anxious. Microdosing just takes the edge off and brings a little bit of calmness to your day.”
For the uninitiated, microdosing is the act of ingesting really small amounts — not enough to get you high or hallucinating — of a drug, usually cannabis, psychedelics like LSD or mushrooms, or the sedative ketamine. The party line of the microdosing community is that it helps with feelings of depression and anxiety (depending on the drug and the severity of the illness), and can make general improvements to your day-to-day life — from focus and productivity (it’s a Silicon Valley hack) to sleep and sex drive.
With the current state of our collective anxiety in 2020, microdosing could become even more mainstream. “A lot of people are quite bored and looking for different ways to escape,” says Ronan Levy, executive chairman of Toronto-based Field Trip, a newly launched mental wellness company that treats depression and anxiety with legally prescribed ketamine. Field Trip plans to expand to MDMA and mushrooms if these are drugs are ever legalized. Levy says he’s seen an uptick in interest in microdosing since the COVID-19 lockdowns. (Because you can’t provide a trip over Zoom, his company is offering virtual psychedelic therapy; the breathing techniques mimic a mild psychedelic state.)
So, is microdosing the magical answer to pandemic stress and anxiety? Not so fast. It's never advisable to take an illegally sourced drug (while cannabis edibles have been legal in Canada since December, LSD and mushrooms aren't; also, just because a drug is legal or prescribed by a doctor doesn’t mean it’s safe to take recreationally). Both Siu and Levy agree that self-medicating is not suggested if you have a severe mental illness. Here, we cut through the conflicting information and break down everything you need to know about microdosing.
Why do people microdose and does it work?
People microdose different drugs for different reasons. Microdosing ketamine with the help of a medical professional is said to help with OCD and PTSD. Cannabis is mostly for stress relief and to mellow out (the THC in cannabis triggers the release of the feel-good hormone dopamine). "I experience happiness,” Siu says of microdosing cannabis. “Your emotions feel less heavy. You just feel like, Oh, I can handle this."
With LSD (a drug manufactured from lysergic acid that can boost the happy chemical serotonin in the brain and cause hallucinations) and “magic mushrooms” (which contain the psychoactive compound psilocybin and work like LSD to cause hallucinogenic trips), the reasons are more philosophical. “People would say they were microdosing for depression, to procrastinate less at work, or to feel more creative," says Washington, D.C.-based psychedelic expert Sophia Korb, of her research.
Scientifically, it’s a different story. A study out of the University of Chicago published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, used placebos and LSD in random orders taken by volunteers and “found no evidence of enhancements in cognition and emotional processing.” In some cases, microdosing even decreased productivity.
What does microdosing feel like?
Like everything, it depends on the person. But, in short: “You don’t feel high,” Korb says of microdosing psychedelics. “You feel like you’ve had perhaps an extra cup of coffee,” she adds of its mood-boosting effect. Levy, meanwhile, describes microdosing mushrooms as giving a “rosy glow.” “You know the feeling after maybe having one or two drinks when you have a buzz, but not the cognitive impairment.”
Siu also likens microdosing cannabis to drinking alcohol. “It feels like when you have a glass of wine — you know what you would normally do at the end of your day of work during happy hour — and it feels like relief or a gentle rush.”
How exactly do you do it and how much constitutes a microdose?
The general consensus is that it’s one-tenth to one-20th of a regular dose that actually gets you high or hallucinating. But Korb says with certain drugs, like LSD or magic mushrooms, one-tenth is way too much. If you take too much, she adds “it's like having coffee too late in the day. People feel too excited.” The effects of a microdose can last up to six hours with cannabis and just a few hours for psychedelics. Most people microdose weed via edibles or extracts. Siu tends to dose 2.5 milligrams of cannabis (she prefers a strain that's low in THC) but says it’s best to start slow and build up.
Are there any negative side effects?
When it comes to psychedelics, the answer is more complex. According to Korb, people with severe PTSD who microdose LSD or mushrooms reported more flashbacks and anxiety during a clinical study. People who are colourblind experienced a side effect where they couldn’t see well enough to drive after microdosing. And of course, all of our experts noted that doing drugs of any kind can exacerbate mental-health conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. “Mental-health diagnoses are complex,” Levy says. “When you self-medicate without fully understanding them, you are taking a big risk."
As for long-term effects? “We don’t know it because nobody has been microdosing for that long,” Korb says.
Can you overdose while microdosing?
This question may seem like an oxymoron (how can you OD on a “micro” amount?) but since, in certain cases, we are talking about some heavy-duty drugs here, it’s only responsible to ask the inevitable, “could I die?” question. The answer is, if you are taking a tiny amount of a pure form of a drug, and you have no pre-existing medical conditions, you probably will not die.
A word of warning: with all illegally-purchased drugs, there is the very real concern that these can be laced with other substances, such as the deadly opiod fentanyl. Bottom line, the safest and only advisable way to microdose on your own is to start with a small amount of cannabis sourced from a legal supplier.
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If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 at any time or text 45645 between 4 p.m. and 12 a.m. ET. Residents of Quebec, please call 1-866-277-3553.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.