It’s called blue apples, sewer fruit, caps, the Philosopher’s Stone, magic—what John Lennon and Timothy Leary prescribed for modernity. It united the Beat poets, hippies in vans, and naked teenagers under waves of music and love. It helped define a generation that would rather give the White House the finger and a joint than fight a pointless war; nonetheless, President Nixon declared a domestic war in 1971 against “public enemy number one.”
Decades later the public is making reformations while cities across the country have begun to decriminalize a Schedule I drug: magic mushrooms. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) affirms that psilocybin, a hallucinogenic compound, has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. It is classified with heroin, ecstasy, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), quaaludes, and cannabis.
The effects of psilocybin, when ingested, are akin to other psychedelics; one might experience euphoria, sensory hallucinations, relaxation, a wide range of emotions, and even mystical visions. Prudence is required; a misuse of this fungus can result in an unpleasant sensory state, a “bad trip,” similar to that of psychosis. The scary stories trippers tell around campfires.
Emerging decriminalization has advanced America’s discussion on entheogenic plants and fungi. Voters are now deciding whether or not these naturally grown psychoactives should be regulated for recreational, clinical, or spiritual uses. As of late, psilocybin research has challenged the DEA’s classification by demonstrating a range of medicinal benefits, and more clinician trials are in motion.
Research on psychedelics date back to the forties, when one spring day LSD’s inventor, Albert Hofmann, accidentally ingested a small amount. Three days after the accident, Hofmann started trials while dropping acid riding his bicycle home—hence, April 19 is known as Bicycle Day. Ever since then, LSD has allured the scientific and psychedelic communities. Project MK-ULTRA, the CIA’s “mind control program,” tested LSD as a potential psychological weapon during the Cold War. A fun fact: Unibomber Ted Kazcynski contributed at least 200 hours to the study.
Timothy Leary, notable for his advocacy and books on psychedelics, led the Harvard Psilocybin Project along with Richard Alpert for two years starting in 1960. Studies tested doses on prisoners and academics for therapeutic purposes—Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg included. The project was shut down after professors outed Leary’s proclivity to pressure students to participate and to neglect scientific procedures, like random sampling.
The Controlled Substance Act (CSA) of 1970, a major move in Nixon’s ever successful War on Drugs, targeted those dangerous hippies and Black Americans. The relationship between the U.S. government and drugs is like Shakespearean lovers: overly dramatic and tragic for everyone involved. The CSA classified drugs under an umbrella, hoping to throw coke and cannabis users alike behind bars. The government and media instilled the fear of plants into the American consciousness, letting millions of lives waste away in jail cells for nonviolent crimes, especially if the offender was Black.
In a 2020 analysis, The American Civil Liberties Union states that Blacks are over three times more likely to get arrested for cannabis possession than Whites. Though the CSA did not prohibit research on Schedule I’s, the restrictions discouraged scientists from making tangible developments via these substances for thirty years.
Having produced over sixty peer-reviewed articles, Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research (CPCR) is the US leader on psilocybin studies. Their 2016 study, testing varying doses of psilocybin on cancer patients with life-threatening diagnosis, found it “produced large and significant decreases in clinician-rated and self-rated measures of depression, anxiety or mood disturbance, and increases in measures of quality of life, life meaning, death acceptance, and optimism.”
In a 2016 TEDMED Talk, Dr. Roland R. Griffith, the leading psychopharmacist at CPCR, overviewed their general findings on psilocybin and its potential to ameliorate suffering. He alluded to smaller studies on the fungi, which showed promise for smoking cessation, alleviating symptoms of OCD, and reducing cluster headaches. CPCR claims upcoming research on psychedelics will focus on Alzheimer’s, PTSD, anorexia nervosa, opioid addiction, and much more.
Other findings echo what shamans and “medicine men” have proclaimed for decades: entheogens are a window into the great beyond. CPCR’s trials of high dosage psilocybin paired with meditation found that, “About 90% reported increased life satisfaction and positive spiritual change, including increased positive mood and better social relationships.” Griffith finds psilocybin’s mystical qualities fascinating, saying a majority of those patients said it was among their top-five most spiritually significant experiences—next to the death of a parent and birth of a child.
“… One might experience euphoria, sensory hallucinations, relaxation, a wide range of emotions, and even mystical visions.
Before you rush to your therapist requesting shrooms, note that decriminalization is crawling through legislation. In May 2019, Denver, Colorado, was the first city to decriminalize psilocybin, followed by Oakland and Santa Cruz, California, in June 2019 and January 2020, respectively. The spores continue to spread; Ann Arbor, Michigan, joined nine months later and two initiatives passed during this November’s election. Though these are significant steps towards legalization, others feel they are not aggressive enough.
Oregon passed Measure 109, allowing the Oregon Health Authority to create a program permitting licensed officials to administer psilocybin-assisted therapies to individuals twenty-one years or older. With a 76 percent majority, Washington, D.C., voted “yes” on Initiative 81 to list entheogenic plants and fungi low on law-enforcement priorities. Neither of these initiatives made psilocybin legal. Buying mushrooms at your local CVS will have to wait, but for Oregonians, seeking psilocybin-assisted therapy for depression and PTSD will be allowed in the coming two years.
What states and cities are next on the psychedelic horizon? Carlos Plazola, a chair on the national board for Decriminalization Nature (DN), an advocacy organization promoting the use and cultivation of entheogenic plants and fungi, disclosed a few cities and states; Baltimore, Chicago, Salt Lake, as well as cities in Florida and Maine are lobbying legislators.
To ensure the legalization of entheogens, Plazola emphasizes education and their community-serving model, which seeks to “enable the growing, gathering, [and] gifting of these [entheogenic] plants [and fungi].” Plazola hopes that cities will soon allow community ceremonies to utilize these natural substances. Just imagine: tripping together with your yoga class.
Legalization of psilocybin may have a similar journey to cannabis. While fifteen states alongside D.C. have fully legalized cannabis for recreation, it remains fully illegal in only seven states, and the rest offer a mix of medical and/or CBD only.
Plazola rejects cannabis-like decriminalization as the way to go, “It’s important that decriminalization [passes] on the grassroot level.”
He argues for-profit companies and tax incentives have commodified cannabis. Since dispensaries opened in November 2018, Massachusetts has earned over $785 million in sales tax, and cannabis is taxed at a rate between 17-20 percent. Cannabis stocks will give you another kind of high; GrowGeneration Corp., based in Denver, Colorado, has a market cap of $1.72 billion. In the end, shareholders who were probably against legalization twenty years prior gain the most, not the people who value it for its healing.
“What we’re doing, it goes counter to the Western model of profiteering and control,” Plazola explains. “That’s why we’re pushing so hard, our model. Not to say no to clinical, not to say no to medical, to say yes to our model,” Plazola goes on to say that DN’s model supports the most vulnerable, especially those targeted by the War on Drugs and the homeless.
In August of 2019, a small group of Oakland’s homeless were growing their own weed, trading it amongst themselves, and even using it to buy food. Threatened city officials tried to kick them off private property, but failed. The Oaklanders were allowed to grow six plants a piece, and their encampment was seen by the community as more of an eyesore than an actual threat.
Since decriminalization and clinical trials are still new, psilocybin users self-medicate or microdose—taking enough to feel the effects, but not enough to trip. From Portland, Oregon, Reddit user Tripple reported he went through a long, depressive patch that eventually led to a serious suicide attempt. “Through [psilocybin], I have addressed the things that caused me so much pain. I stopped using any prescription drugs, stopped drinking, and really turned my life around mentally.”
The fungi may provide other pragmatic uses. Tripple has a new groove when it comes to problem solving. “I use mushrooms proactively,” Tripple says. “I work with mushrooms when needs be; when I have confusion that is disrupting my life, or [when] I have started picking up bad habits.”
Stories around psychedelic use are filled with a widening existential understanding and spiritual growth. Tripple observes the world with a “far-out” attitude. “Here I can find passion, love, balance. Here I allow myself to experience grief. Here I can understand why people do terrible things, and I find acceptance and ability to work with these people in new ways.”
Tripple’s story is in tune with Griffith and Plazola’s belief that entheogens may provide a path to healing. As Plazola professes, we must keep “communicating the Good News.” Yet for anyone that wishes to take these plants and fungi, the experts encourage a safe environment, optimally under the guidance of a professional. It is critical for America’s myopic perspective on drugs to broaden not only in order to better understand psilocybin’s capabilities, but also keep victimless people out of jail. Discriminating shrooms for “deadbeats” and “criminals” does not cultivate progress.
The COVID-19 pandemic reaches new heights this winter, and protests are unceasing on city streets after months. We have election results that do not extinguish America’s dumpster fire of a political climate, and we are looking through our fingers to see what is next to come; we are a country of angst, tittering on the existential edge. Maybe America should observe Tripple’s experiences and remember Leary’s advice: “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.”
Christian Robinson is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine
Headline Photo Credit: Cas Holmes, Eskmaks, DCist