For most, magic mushrooms carry connotations of hippies, music festivals, and perhaps a previous roommate. But, in recent years, there has been a concerted effort by psychedelic believers to change their bohemian image and bring magic mushrooms (among other psychedelics) into the mainstream. Proponents cite the spiritual and mental benefits the drugs can provide—including treatment for addiction, depression, and anxiety—as a central argument for legalizing and normalizing their usage.
The decriminalization efforts seem to be working. Almost a year ago, Denver became the first city in the United States to decriminalize mushrooms containing psilocybin, the psychoactive chemical in “magic” mushrooms. Since then, two other cities—Oakland and Santa Cruz—have followed suit by decriminalizing mushrooms as well as other “natural” psychedelics such as ayahuasca and peyote. But what does it mean to decriminalize a drug? Contrary to popular belief, the legislative actions have not included legalization, but they will have strong impacts on the future of psychedelics.
Once a substance is decriminalized, city funds are no longer directed toward prosecuting and enforcing possession charges for those over 21 and Psilocybin mushroom possession becomes the lowest possible priority for law enforcement. Cities do not have the ability to make psychedelics legal—that’s up to state and federal authorities—but they can effectively un-enforce the law through their police department. However, decriminalization does not extend to those involved in the selling of the drug and state and federal police can still make arrests. Even after decriminalization, the Denver Police Department arrested two minors (for whom possession was not decriminalized under the ballot measure) for psychedelic mushrooms and the Drug Enforcement Agency searched another man’s home who they suspected of growing and dealing.
What this decriminalization amounts to is more a symbolic message than a concrete change in the legal landscape. When asked about the impact of decriminalization, the Denver Police Department’s Media Relations Unit admitted that “psilocybin mushroom-related crime was not a big issue prior to the passage of the ordinance and has not been a big issue since.” Between 2016 and 2019, just over a tenth of a percent of filed drug cases in Denver involved psilocybin. So what’s the point of decriminalization if the psychedelics are still illegal and laws were already rarely enforced? A lot, actually, because it opens doors to future research and utilization of the drugs by a broader community.
If we look back at the history of psychedelics in the United States, the recent decriminalization marks an important turning point in a fraught history. In the 1950s and 60s, psychedelics were brought into the forefront of American consciousness by R. Gordon Wasson when he detailed his experience with psilocybin mushrooms in Life Magazine. Investigated for their mind-altering uses, psychedelics were seen as a miracle drug by both the scientific and general population, with over 1,000 studies on the drugs published before 1965. Before that, indigenous cultures have been utilizing psychedelics for thousands of years, a fact often ignored by the Western scientific community despite indigenous knowledge being used to inform Western practice. The Aztecs, for example, believed that psilocybin could be used to receive divine knowledge, Amazonian tribes used and continue to use ayahuasca to help identify and treat illnesses, and many others incorporate psychedelics into both their medicinal and spiritual practices.
As knowledge surrounding psychedelics spread throughout the 60s, these drugs made their way into the general American population, quickly becoming associated with the growing hippie counterculture. This association became a death sentence for the future of psychedelic research. As the face of anti-government and anti-war protest, anything associated with hippie culture became suspicious in the eyes of the mainstream and the government, psychedelics included. In an interview with John Ehrlichman, counsel to Nixon, he stated that their administration intentionally associated hippies (among other groups, specifically Black Americans) with drugs as an excuse to “break up their communities. . . [and] vilify them night after night on the evening news.”
Unsparingly, Nixon began the War on Drugs in conjunction with this vilification. In 1970, he signed the Controlled Substances Act, banning the use, sale, and transport of psychedelics by making them a Schedule I drug, designating them as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse and tightly controlling research. Nixon’s decision greatly derailed promising research into psychedelics as a treatment for depression, addiction, and anxiety, among other mental health problems. Researching psychedelics became both a bureaucratic nightmare and a social taboo. Up until the mid to late 2000s, research was effectively halted. Through decriminalization, however, cities are bucking this restriction.
Dr. Jeffrey Bratberg, a clinical professor at the University of Rhode Island, acknowledges the taboo still surrounding the medicalization and research of psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics, “but [the government] is coming around to this group of drugs.” Nonetheless, psychedelics remain Schedule I drugs. What research has been done, however, shows encouraging results.
In a 2014 study by Johns Hopkins, over a third of smokers treated with psilocybin did not pick up a cigarette for 12 months following their trip. Other studies have shown promising results when exploring psilocybin as a treatment for otherwise treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, and OCD. A 2017 psychological study at the University of Adelaide confirmed what many already believed: the medical benefits are commonly attributed to psychedelics’ ability for one to “step back” from themselves, changing the way participants view themselves and the issues plaguing them through a process dubbed “ego-death.” “Ego-death” is understood as a complete loss of self-identity—an experience common in mushroom trips. Users are able to step outside “the self” to look at the world and their issues more holistically. Even if a user doesn’t experience “ego-death,” professionals have compared taking mushrooms to shaking a psychological snowglobe, disrupting the worn-in patterns your brain has fallen into and helping you to break out of possibly harmful routines.
But these studies have been small-scale and many in the medical community believe more research needs to be done before we can confidently utilize mushrooms as a medical tool. Due to the crackdown in the 70s, “We’re 50 years behind on research,” notes Dr. Bratberg. In his opinion, and in the opinion of many other experts, the route to a future where mushrooms can be effectively used is one where psilocybin can be standardized. He notes that “with two mushrooms that look exactly the same, one could have much more psilocybin than the other, making it hard to effectively use.” To start regulating these drugs, the FDA needs to relabel psychedelics as drugs with medical benefits, which means “convincing the government or private companies to fund it… We have to resurrect and redo some of the trials [done in the 50s and 60s]. And if the trials show a significant enough effect, we can get it approved,” says Dr. Bratberg. This process has already begun. The US Food and Drug Administration has granted studies of both psilocybin mushrooms and MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy, a “breakthrough therapy” status, fast-tracking their future research through close collaboration with the FDA.
As one might expect, visual hallucinations and euphoric feelings are common when tripping on psilocybin. The experience is different for everyone, but one mushroom user I spoke with said that “it felt like the purest form of existence. The voice in my head was muted and my understanding felt objective and so powerful.” Another described their closeness with nature while tripping: “I could feel plants breathing. I also sensed waves of energy from large rocks.” Another user I spoke with microdosed (or, consumed an unnoticeable amount of mushrooms) often over the period of a couple of months, stating that afterward, she was able to “step back from” sensations like being too hot or cold thanks to greater control of their mind.
Despite promising research, psychedelics like psilocybin can have potentially harmful effects. Bad trips do happen, which can lead to serious psychological damage. Eight percent of users who reported bad trips sought psychological help afterward. In some very rare instances, those with increased risk of serious mental health issues, such as schizophrenia, can have psychological breaks triggered by the drugs. These concerns are not reflected in clinical trials, as researchers screen potential users to minimize the risk. And, like any mind-altering substance, mushrooms must be taken carefully and users must recognize that their judgment is compromised when high.
While many see medicalization and standardization as the best path towards effective use of psychedelics, some worry about the effects this could have on the long term future of the drugs. Decriminalize Nature, an activist group that helped decriminalize natural psychedelics in Oakland and Santa Cruz, is against medicalization as the sole route for the future of psychedelics. When speaking with Larry Norris, a co-founder and board member of the organization, he explained that he recognizes the medical benefits that drugs like psilocybin can have but remains wary: “at the end of the day, medicalization isn’t going to help 90% of the people out there, since they might not fit the criteria for use. There’s also hesitation around the medicalization and the clinical aspect, considering Big Pharma.” Instead of solely therapeutic purposes, the group’s rationale behind the decriminalization of natural psychedelics stems from the “inalienable human right to develop our own relationship with nature.”
By making psilocybin a medicalized, scheduled drug, some also worry about increased cost. As Norris explains, “We want to make sure people can grow it on their own. The danger with the other way comes from corporatization and capitalism.” If mushrooms were to be legalized and medicalized before decriminalization, drug companies could inflate prices and make mushrooms less accessible.
Possessing or producing other legalized, scheduled, drugs like Xanax or Adderall without a prescription is illegal for good reason. Counterfeit production of prescription pills is infamously subject to dangerous impurities, such fentanyl added to Xanax. However, because the growth of natural psychedelics is relatively safe and easy for everyday users, the monopolization of production with Big Pharma isn’t as much of a worry.
If you’re looking for the standardized forms that Dr. Bratberg support, however, you might see some price hikes. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins, the psilocybin currently being used in their medical research is about 13 times more expensive than the market price of homegrown varieties. This difference is due to the high standards the FDA sets in their Good Manufacturing Practices. At each step in synthesizing psilocybin, certain standards must be met to ensure safety and standardization, as opposed to homegrown varieties which can be treated like a slightly more involved houseplant.
A similar phenomenon can be seen with the legalisation of marijuana. Due to taxes accrued at multiple steps of the supply chain and governmental regulations, illegal marijuana is almost always less expensive than its legal counterpart. Even post-legalization, nearly 90% of marijuana sold in Massachusetts and 78% in California was illegal, thanks in large part to these price discrepancies. Once the price hikes drug companies are notorious for are factored in, the cost could reach even higher. In the first six months of 2019,the prices of 3,400 drugs have raised an average of 10.5%.
Others, such as Norris, cite another worry: the potential for medicalization to arbitrarily designate a user as “good” or “bad.” One might not fit the clinical criteria for psychedelic treatment but could still benefit from the perspective the drugs can offer. In a different Johns Hopkins study of psilocybin mushrooms, 94% of the fully-healthy adults studied cited their experience as one of the top five most meaningful in their lives. 39% claimed it was the most meaningful. That’s why Decriminalize Nature sees decriminalization as such an important step in psychedelics’ integration into the mainstream. Whether medicalized or not, they want to ensure that one cannot get in trouble for possessing these drugs.
This message seems to be sticking. Norris says that Decriminalize Nature is currently helping to organize similar movements in over 100 cities. Chicago’s City Council has introduced a resolution to explore the decriminalization of organic psychedelics; Washington, DC’s Board of Elections has approved the first steps towards getting decriminalization on the ballot; Vermont lawmakers are filing a bill to decriminalize; and many others across the country are organizing to do the same. We probably won’t see mushroom dispensaries any time soon, but cultural and governmental momentum is building around the usage of this promising group of drugs. Soon, you might be able to fill a prescription for psychedelics at your local pharmacy.
WILL ALLSTETTER B’22.5 believes in magic.