On Tuesday, November 3, 2020, America woke up to an absentee ballot counting and the latest disarmament in the war on drugs. Forward-thinking Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin, the THC of psychoactive mushrooms. Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic prodrug compound that is metabolized in the body to produce a hallucinogenic drug, which is what makes the experience of taking it so magical. Magic mushrooms, shrooms, boomers, and gold flesh—these are just some of the nicknames the psilocybin mystery of a spore has earned. Its recreational use was made famous in the 1960s counterculture. Now therapeutically and legally, at least in the Beaver State, it can be prescribed for easing emotional and physical suffering.
On Tuesday, March 16, 2021, almost three months after the ballot initiative passed, Oregon governor Kate Brown announced the seventeen members of the newly created Oregon Psilocybin Advisory Board. Fungi experts, health care providers, and researchers were charged with navigating board-supervised clinical trials and develop a framework for the supervised use of psilocybin products.
“Oregon showed the world that a more humane, compassionate approach is possible. Measure 110 will serve as a model and starting point for states across the country to decriminalize drug use.”
“Like many, I was initially skeptical when I first heard of Measure 109,” said Governor Brown. “But if we can help people suffering from PTSD, depression, trauma, and addiction—including veterans, cancer patients, and others—supervised psilocybin therapy is a treatment worthy of further consideration.”
Measure 109, or the Psilocybin Mushroom Services Program Initiative, allows for the “manufacture, delivery, and administration of psilocybin at supervised and licensed facilities,” according to the November ballot. The measure allows the creation of a state-licensed psilocybin-assisted therapy that people battling mental disorders or going through cancer treatments could use to aid their pain management. However, passed alongside Measure 109 was another piece of legislation. The Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative, otherwise known as Measure 110, legalized the non-commercial possession of the controlled substance. The second piece of legislation is perhaps the biggest game changer for American drug policy.
Last November, Kassandra Frederique, an executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, wrote, “Last night, Oregon showed the world that a more humane, compassionate approach is possible. Measure 110 will serve as a model and starting point for states across the country to decriminalize drug use.” The state of Oregon is a leading example for other states who may be rethinking legalization and removal of drug possession laws. Frederique also observes that “Measure 110 is arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date. It shifts the focus where it belongs—on people and public health—and removes one of the most common justifications for law enforcement to harass, arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and deport people.” Public officials and law enforcement are unwilling to address the disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for drug offences, predominantly of people of color. Frederique believes that decriminalizing the possession of psilocybin started an important debate and indirectly challenged other states to reconsider their drug possession laws. Oregon may be the first to adopt a more humane approach to dealing with drug possession, but it surely won’t be the last to broker peace in the war on drugs.
Oregon voters were in the vanguard of the legalization of marijuana in 2014, but they were certainly not high when they passed Measure 109. In November 2020, Dr. Alan K. Davis, an adjunct assistant professor in the Psychedelic Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University, published the report Effects of Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy on Major Depressive Disorder. The randomized trial of mushroom use appeared in JAMA Psychiatry. “In the overall sample, 17 participants (71%) at week 1 and 17 (71%) at week 4 had a clinically significant response to the intervention.” The trial used the Quick Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology-Self-Report, which rates depression through self-assessment. It also stated that “The QIDS-SR measure of depression, which was assessed more frequently, showed a rapid, large decrease in mean depression score among participants from baseline to day 1 after psilocybin session 1.” For a significant number of volunteers, outcomes were satisfactory. Psilocybin stimulates the receptors responsible for the production of serotonin and initiates a chemical response that’s more powerful than our body is able to produce naturally. People who suffer from depression have reduced serotonin transmission; with the use of psilocybin, researchers were able to trigger their patients’ serotonin production and bring it within their neutral range.
In an article for the New Yorker, “The Trip Treatment,” science and food writer Michael Pollan describes the life of a person with cancer who, against his wife’s advice and judgment, signed up for a clinical trial to study the effects of psilocybin. The scientists’ method of administering the treatment was similar to Orpheus offering Neno the two pills in The Matrix. In the trial, the red pill represented psilocybin, the gateway to potentially life-changing truths, like living with minimal pain. The blue pill represented a placebo containing a high dose of niacin (also known as vitamin B3) that can produce a tingly sensation when consumed in large but controlled doses. The intention was to bring in the volunteers and make them feel as comfortable as possible to enhance their experience and get the best results. Psychologist Anthony Bossis, who specializes in palliative care research, emphasizes that “Xanax isn’t the answer. So how can we not explore this, if it can recalibrate how we die?” It may come as a surprise to many big pharma believers, but those who struggle with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other maladies may want alternatives to traditional pharmaceuticals. Consuming psilocybin may be an alternative method of dealing with ailments that prescribed medication or antidepressants may no longer have any effect on.
Psilocybin is still illegal in forty-nine states although the word is already out on its medicinal benefits. During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, physical and mental pain sufferers decided to reach beyond the shelves of their pharmacy and find different means of fighting waves of depression and anxiety worsened by the virus.
Living his isolated COVID-19 life on the outskirts of Manchester, Connecticut, Oscar works at a car dealership that’s driven mainly by employees who care only about the amount of money they can get from selling a car. This has put pressure on him to perform at a high level.
Oscar’s room is filled with red and blue lights that may be a fire hazard, all daisy-chained and draped from hot-to-the-touch pipes sticking out of his ceiling. Walking into his basement room feels like entering another type of matrix. There is tapestry that covers each corner of his room and one acts as a curtain to cover a door that leads outside. There are mirrors on each wall and a whiteboard with “NEW DAY NEW PERSPECTIVES” messily written in black marker. Although inviting and cozy, after spending more than twenty minutes trying to focus on his face, everything starts to feel like a 3D movie and he’s the usher handing out the flimsy paper blue-and-red glasses.
“The you doesn’t change, but the perspective or the glasses you look through do drastically,” Oscar says about his newly developed perspective on pharmaceuticals used to treat depression. He was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed medication that made him feel less of the person he thought he could be. “I’ve gained enough experience with pharmaceuticals to know that there are better ways to find my inner peace and fight with the alien that’s making me act erratic.” To him, the experiences he gains from his “trips” using mushrooms make his life more holistic, introducing more natural and comfortable ideas of how to manage his mental challenges. He writes down whatever comes to his mind during his voyages, making sure that each drawing or sentence that pops up carries a deeper lesson for his future self to look back at and reflect on the ideas that were hidden in his subconscious.
Oscar is wearing a black sleeveless shirt with “Don’t Be So Fucking Salty” written on it; he cut the sleeves off to feel less restricted. His hair is freshly cut, pieces of it still lingering around his neck and some on his collar. His eyes are glowing with life and energy while his body is bouncing up and down with excitement. A big smile tugs at the corners of his lips. He’s a very active person; he’s always changing positions, cracking his knuckles, or jumping an invisible jump rope.
He says he found meaning in his life. Although he did just spend almost twelve hours on his feet, he doesn’t stop moving. “It’s a way of relieving the pressure that is pushing against my skull every time I leave my house,” he says while fidgeting with a rose quartz, one of many crystals that are displayed neatly on a taped up, black bookcase. “It’s not even about the trip, which adds value to the horribly tasting mushroom, but it’s also about what I bring back with me.” Although he wants to keep his mushroom supplier to himself, he does admit he struggles with the illegal aspect of it especially since finding a reliable person that can provide him with the appropriate product remains the biggest challenge. Some users consume them in the form of a capsule, some prefer to eat them inside a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Oscar prefers to microdose them in honey. He hopes someday he will be able to leave his apartment, walk to his local dispensary, and buy whatever he wants without thinking about the possible repercussions of his actions.
“Measure 110 is arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date.”
In 1996, California was the first state to legalize and approve the use of cannabis across the state. In 2012, Colorado voters followed California’s lead and approved the bill that legalized the use of marijuana in their state. As radical and controversial as that move was, the legal consumption of cannabis is now widely accepted by forty-four states. Oregon’s legalization of psilocybin is now the latest peace offering in the war on drugs.
Although still new, the legalization gives Oregonians another option to cope with pain and mental instability. The times are a-changing, and America is on a path to change the way we view and legislate Schedule 1 narcotics. Could this move by Oregon voters end the war on drugs? Not yet, but the progress made in 2020 is the first step towards something magical. As Timothy Leary said, “Think for yourself. Know what you’re doing. Question authority.”
Weronika Stachura is a staff writer for the Blue Muse Magazine
Header Photo Credit: Christopher Ott