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A New Look at Hallucinogenic Psilocybin Mushrooms
For more than fifty years, Western research into the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms (Psilocybe spp.) by aboriginal peoples of Mexico and other parts of southern North America and Central America, and publications regarding such investigations, have fed an exponential increase in the cultivation and use of hallucinogenic mushrooms by citizens of the United States and other modernized civilizations.
Ritually used by those native peoples for religious purposes, "shrooms" became tremendously popular within the U.S. "hippie" counterculture during the 1970s, thanks in large part to the publication of several books detailing practical methods for cultivating Psilocybe cubensis, a species which is common on cow and horse dung in the Southeastern states (South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and southeastern Texas).
In 1967, Jefferson Airplane vocalist Grace Slick sang about the purportedly mushroom-induced hallucinations of Alice (from Alice in Wonderland) in the Top Ten song "White Rabbit," apparently warning against the dangers of a Psilocybe-induced "bad trip." Within a few years after the federal government banned psilocybin in 1970, "magic 'shrooms" had become such a significant part of American counterculture that their use was widely perceived as "standard operating procedure" for attending concerts by certain popular touring bands (most notably the Grateful Dead). Rock musicians commonly incorporated mushrooms in the artwork used on their album covers. The 1980 feature film Altered States famously depicted an effort to use psilocybin for reasons (albeit nonsensical ones) well beyond "getting high." As recently as 1998, the Allman Brothers Band released an album titled Mycology, and in case the title wasn't clear enough, the CD cover was. In short, elements of American popular culture—particularly the rock music industry—discovered, glorified and effectively promoted illegal psilocybin mushrooms as state and federal authorities tried in vain to literally arrest their use.
Psilocybin mushroom use in the U.S. today remains so pervasive—and so illegal—that many schools' dress codes prohibit students from wearing garments that depict any mushrooms. (Plants in general are spared this generalized humiliation, presumably because unlike hallucinogenic mushrooms, everyone knows what Cannabis looks like.)
FOREGROUND (Part I)
In July 2006, there was fresh front-page news about psilocybin mushrooms. The journal Psychopharmacology published the results of a 'double-blind' clinical study conducted at Johns Hopkins University (Griffiths et al, 2006) designed to investigate the hypothesis that "tripping" on psilocybin might be therapeutic for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, as a 'spiritual awakening' is considered vital to recovery and long-term abstinence.
There were several reasons why this study was front-page news. First, it involved investigating possible medical uses for a naturally-occurring drug that is quite illegal. Second, it was the first significant 'legitimate' research into therapeutic potential since psilocybin was banned by the federal government in 1970. Third, the research essentially validated the hypothesis:
Those of us who know a bit about psilocybin got a bit of a chuckle from all this: It was, after all, a major research project designed to 'prove' what millions of Americans already knew. Without question (see next paragraph), there are risks involved with the use of psilocybin mushrooms, but it is certainly no secret that, more often than not, a medium- to high-dose hallucinogenic mushroom "trip" is a profoundly spiritual experience. As one of my colleagues puts it:
Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse), promptly issued a statement that seemed intended to distance that agency from the research (ironically, NIDA had funded the research):
FOREGROUND (Part II)
In December 2006, just five months after the Johns Hopkins study was published, the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry created psilocybin-related headlines when it published a study conducted at the University of Arizona (Moreno et al, 2006) that asserted that psilocybin should be investigated for another therapeutic value: It appears that psilocybin might be powerfully helpful for treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). This hypothesis had previously been suggested in individual case studies, both for psilocybin and for another potent hallucinogenic compound (LSD), but this was the first modern clinical research project investigating the anti-OCD potential of psilocybin.
It's important to note that the purpose of this study was not to determine whether psilocybin is an effective treatment for OCD, but rather to address the issue of whether it's worth looking into; the conclusion, essentially, is that it is worth looking into. From the abstract of the Moreno paper:
Volkow's point, however, is worth reiterating: A psilocybin trip can have a very dark side, too. "Bad trips" are not uncommon; some individuals seem predisposed toward a negative experience; and these individuals, in particular, can suffer long-term detrimental effects from psilocybin.
Moreno's paper made significant note of the more commonly sought effects of psilocybin on the study's subjects:
Considering the noteworthy risks associated with psychoactive mushrooms—and considering what a political football the medical marijuana issue has become in the U.S.—it is highly unlikely that a physician will in the near future write a prescription for psilocybin, or that a pharmacist will fill such a 'script.'
But considering the fact that Bill W. (the stockbroker who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous) tried LSD in the 1950s and was convinced that it had great potential for recovering alcoholics, as well as the fact that Moreno had previously published a case study (Moreno and Delgado, 1997) regarding a 34-year-old man who found total relief from his profoundly debilitating OCD symptoms ("when showering, he needed to lather 17 times…") by eating freeze-dried psilocybin mushrooms, it is very clear that this story hasn't reached its end.
DAVID'S PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE
I feel that my first responsibility to those whom I educate about edible wild mushrooms is to warn them of the dangers involved. Likewise, I feel that it is my responsibility to emphasize the dangers posed by psilocybin mushrooms (and for that matter LSD, which is an illegally but very easily synthesized compound) if I am going to discuss them. My atheist-turned-believer colleague offers this warning, which makes the point quite nicely:
Griffiths, R.R., et al. 2006. Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology 187:268-283.
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