Hallucinogenic Mushrooms Are Having a Moment. Here's What It's All About.

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Photo Credit: Photofusion/Shutterstock
February 11, 2019
Updated 11d ago

More than 50 years after the psychedelic Summer of Love, psilocybin, the psychoactive component in magic mushrooms, is having a moment.

Researchers at leading universities have been conducting research on the purported medical benefits of mushrooms for years, but as studies yield promising results, the opioid epidemic persists and sentiment warms toward cannabis, mushrooms are earning a lot more attention. Lawmakers and psychotropic advocates have concurrently advanced separate measures in Oregon, Colorado, and, most recently, Iowa, that attempt to loosen restrictions on these hallucinogenic fungi.

Mushrooms: A Brief History

For thousands of years, indigenous peoples in South and Central America have considered mushrooms to be sacred and used them in rituals for medicinal and ceremonial purposes, according to the Center for Substance Abuse and Research at the University of Maryland. In the late '50s, mushrooms entered popular culture in the United States when author, banker, and ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson took a trip to Mexico and published an account of his experience with hallucinogenic mushrooms in Life Magazine. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, Wasson sent a sample of the mushrooms to Albert Hofmann, the chemist credited with discovering LSD (acid), after which more rigorous research into potential applications of the mushrooms began. Psychedelics eventually made their way out of labs and were embraced by the free-wheeling, anti-war counterculture movement, which viewed them as key to seeking enlightenment ー as well as having a good time. Their association with the counterculture, however, made them vulnerable, despite their medicinal promise. And in 1970, mushrooms were swept into the Schedule 1 lock box ー classified as having high potential for abuse and no known medical application ー along with substances like heroin, LSD, and MDMA (ecstasy), under President Richard Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act. (Nixon aid John Erlichman later admitted in a 1994 interview with Harper’s Dan Baum that criminalizing drugs was largely about targeting war critics (hippies) and African Americans.)

What Do Mushrooms Do?

Criminalization has made it very difficult to study the benefits of mushrooms, but some persistent researchers have prevailed. Trials at New York University and Johns Hopkins, among others, have seen promising results from mushrooms in participants coping with addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and end-of-life anxiety. Johns Hopkins researchers have recommended, based on their findings, that psilocybin be re-scheduled to Schedule 4 ー which is right where you find drugs like Klonopin and Valium. In October, the Food and Drug Administration even granted “breakthrough therapy designation” to a psilocybin-based therapy for depression.

What Comes Next?

There’s a wave of movement across the U.S. to loosen restrictions on these mushrooms.

Prior to 2018’s midterm elections, aspiring Marina, California, mayoral candidate Kevin Saunders sponsored a ballot initiative that would have decriminalized psilocybin. Like Saunders’ bid for mayor, it ultimately failed.

Rep. Jeff Shipley (R- Iowa) filed two bills in Des Moines in February that attempt to slacken the state's vice-like grip on psilocybin and psilocin ー another component in mushrooms. One calls for removing them from Schedule 1, the other calls for re-scheduling psilocybin and select other hallucinogenic drugs for medicinal purposes.

“There’s so much potential for research and clinical applications. I hope we can empower and trust patients to make their own best decisions,” Shipley told Marijuana Moment.

In May, citizens in Denver, Colorado, will have the opportunity to vote to decriminalize possession and growth of mushrooms after a petition, circulated by Decriminalize Denver got well over the amount of signatures needed.

Decriminalize Denver Campaign Director Kevin Williams said the group was motivated to create the campaign by the opioid crisis, pervasive mental health issues, as well as an array of promising research. Williams is optimistic Denver, which has historically been progressive about drug policy, could be a leader with mushrooms as well, adding that polling last summer indicated that about 45 percent of Denverites supported the initiative.

“There’s a very strong undercurrent of use in American culture, and people are afraid to talk about it because of the potential extreme ramifications of being criminalized for it,” Williams said.

Oregon's secretary of state in November approved language for a 2020 ballot initiative that would decriminalize mushrooms and make it easier to study them. The measure needs well over 100,000 signatures to actually make it to the ballot, according to Quartz.

If even one of these measures passes, it could add to the growing momentum in the U.S. of rethinking a more than 50-year-old drug policy.