Ketamine bros are giving psychedelics a bad rap. That's a problem for those who need them.

In my work as a shaman, I once had the opportunity to help a woman who, barely into her 50s, was facing a painful death from bone cancer. Emaciated, her body wracked with pain, she told me she could not lie down in bed for fear of never getting back up. I accompanied her as she took a dose of psilocybin, a psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms.

Over the next five hours, she went on a profound journey, one that allowed her to accept the fact of her imminent death and locate meaning in her experience. Afterward, she found that all the physical pain she had been experiencing had left her. “Now I believe in magic,” her husband told me. She lived her final few days in peace.

Years later, at a Miami dinner party hosted by a friend, I sat next to a woman who, after a short trip to the bathroom, returned and began laughing for no reason. She couldn’t string two sentences together. When I asked if anything was wrong, she said, “I’m so high on K (ketamine) right now, I can’t even think straight.”

Such is the confused state of psychedelics today.

I’ve seen firsthand both the transformative effects of psychedelics in treating mental health disorders as well as their casual abuse by people who think of them as a party drug.

I’ve become unnerved by this ketamine bro culture, which threatens to halt the exciting progress in psychedelic research over the past few decades.

Psychedelics are finally being taken seriously in medicine and therapy

Psychedelics herald a paradigm shift in the treatment of mood disorders. I’ve witnessed this as a trained and practicing shaman, providing personal guidance to hundreds of people – from cancer patients to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to people experiencing depression – as they come to terms with past instances of trauma or imminent death.

Becoming a shaman was the culmination of a circuitous journey to discover who I was and where I belonged. Raised in a confusing mixture of Judaism and Catholicism, I explored by apprenticing with teachers in a wide variety of faiths and traditions. I eventually found a home in the Santo Daime tradition, under the tutelage of Baixinha in Brazil, which is known for its syncretic religion that utilizes ayahuasca.

Through my training there, I saw the transformative effects of psychedelics when taken in a safe, controlled, therapeutic setting. (Ayahuasca is legal in Brazil.)

Countless studies over the past decade have highlighted the positive impact of substances like ketamine, psilocybin and other psychedelics.

Psilocybin is a psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms.
Psilocybin is a psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms.

Psilocybin, for instance, has demonstrated efficacy in treating conditions such as depression and anxiety. A 2016 study found that just a dose of psilocybin led to substantial, sustained reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms among cancer patients. Ketamine, traditionally used in medical settings as a short-term anesthetic, was suggested to have a “robust and rapid effect on depression” by a 2019 study.

These clinical and empirical data have been so encouraging that research is being conducted on psychedelics’ ability to alleviate symptoms of PTSDanorexia and alcoholism.

It’s no secret the medical community has reached a tipping point: While we are tantalizingly close to a series of breakthroughs that together could revolutionize behavioral health treatment, we’re also a couple of bad trips away from stopping this research in its tracks.

The unique value psychedelics offer to behavioral health treatments is that they induce deeper states of consciousness, which allows for the accelerated healing of trauma. They also may promote neuroplasticity, the process by which the neural networks in the brain evolve and change.

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Rise of ketamine bro culture in Silicon Valley

Of course, rewiring the brain is a delicate process. It requires humility, trust, a controlled environment and an experienced guide. That’s why psychedelics’ newfound popularity as a party drug among the Silicon Valley elite is cause for concern.

The rise of ketamine bro culture not only trivializes the incredible therapeutic potential of psychedelics, it also could lead to a public backlash that jeopardizes the medical community’s freedom to further explore the lifesaving potential of these drugs.

Elon Musk has denied abusing ketamine and told former CNN host Don Lemon in an interview that he takes a "small amount once every other week."
Elon Musk has denied abusing ketamine and told former CNN host Don Lemon in an interview that he takes a "small amount once every other week."

Perhaps the poster child for this movement has been Elon Musk. His recreational use of LSD and mushrooms, among other illicit drugs, has been reported on in The Wall Street Journal, and he has publicly endorsed the benefits of ketamine, both in microdoses for his depression and full doses for fun.

Because Musk epitomizes the tech alpha male, it sends a concerning message about what psychedelics are all about. Silicon Valley leaders trumpet ketamine, shrooms and LSD as nonaddictive drugs that can disrupt one’s own habitual thinking, leading to new heights of inspiration both in the boardroom and after hours. Almost certainly, they’re taking them without the guidance of a professional.

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It’s certainly true that psychedelics can help achieve these altered mental states. But they can also lead to severe consequences if used in this haphazard way.

Just look around Silicon Valley and you can quickly see the consequences of psychedelic abuse. Zappos founder Tony Hsieh struggled with a ketamine addiction in the years before his drug-related death in 2020. Cash App founder Bob Lee died of stab wounds in 2023; his autopsy revealed evidence of alcohol, cocaine and ketamine consumption.

"Saturday Night Live" alum Pete Davidson entered rehab last year after taking ketamine daily for four years, not long before "Friends" star Matthew Perry died of “acute effects of ketamine.”

Psychedelics stigma starting to wane. Misuse shouldn't stop progress.

It’s difficult to find reliable population-wide data on psychedelic abuse. That’s because they haven’t been widely used until recently and aren’t generally regarded as having potential for addiction.

One indicator, though, comes from a recent study finding that hallucinogen-associated visits to the emergency room in California jumped 54% between 2016 and 2022, from just more than 2,200 visits to nearly 3,500 visits. Ketamine is of particular concern, given the rise in its use in recent years.

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The history of MDMA in the United States serves as a warning. Lauded in the 1970s for its therapeutic benefits – psychiatrists believed it enhanced communication during patient sessions – MDMA, or ecstasy, as it has come to be known, was quickly absorbed into rave culture.

This led to the Drug Enforcement Administration declaring in 1985 an “emergency ban” on MDMA, placing it on its list of Schedule I drugs: substances with no currently accepted medical use. (After far too long, MDMA is under priority review by the FDA Food and Drug Administration for use in treating PTSD. A decision is expected in August.)

So while we must be mindful of the hazards of psychedelic abuse, we also must be careful not to only regard them as a public health threat – lest we lose sight of their promising benefits.

To remedy this, recreational users must acknowledge their responsibility to society. Being visibly zonked out in social situations only adds to the narrative that psychedelics are simply a fun toy. And if you’re in a position of power, the responsibility is even greater. Trivializing the effects of these drugs could encourage people to take them outside of therapeutic settings.

Sylvia Benito is a family office portfolio manager and practicing shaman, and serves on the board of Beckley Retreats.
Sylvia Benito is a family office portfolio manager and practicing shaman, and serves on the board of Beckley Retreats.

As for the news media, it’s important that reporting is not overly focused on misuse. Journalists must take a balanced approach, remembering to highlight psychedelics’ therapeutic applications as much as their harmful ones. Failing to provide adequate context perpetuates misconceptions that we can’t afford.

The good news is that the stigma around psychedelics has begun to diminish with each new study. As their potential to revolutionize behavioral health therapy becomes increasingly evident, countless people grappling with debilitating physical, mental and spiritual pain are feeling hope.

Let’s not let the behavior of a small set of irresponsible users take that away from them.

Sylvia Benito is a family office portfolio manager and practicing shaman, and serves on the board of Beckley Retreats, one of the world’s first legal psychedelic retreat companies. She works with clients in jurisdictions where psilocybin is legal.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Psychedelics like psilocybin help people. Ketamine bros threaten that