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A New Look at Hallucinogenic Psilocybin Mushrooms
Q: When is an illegal "recreational" drug more than that?
A: When it is discovered to have extraordinary therapeutic potentials.

BACKGROUND

Cover art from the Allman Brothers Band's album 'Mycology: An Anthology' 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:

"When administered under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences." "…the volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance and attributed to the experience sustained positive changes in attitudes and behavior…" "Thirty-three percent of the volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as being the single most spiritually significant experience of his or her life, with an additional 38% rating it to be among the top five most spiritually significant experiences."

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:

"For me, all logic and scientific reason contradicted the very notion that there is a 'God'… but one big psilocybin mushroom trip was enough to make me suppose that there just might be one, regardless of the lack of scientific evidence, and that supposition did not terminate at the end of the trip… for me, it was a return to faith in something other than scientifically provable fact."

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):

"Psilocybin can trigger psychosis in susceptible individuals and cause other deleterious psychological effects, such as paranoia and extreme anxiety… While the investigators receiving the grant supporting this research did not initially propose to evaluate the effects of psilocybin, grantees maintain the scientific independence necessary to follow up on new areas of 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:

"In a controlled clinical environment, psilocybin was safely used in subjects with OCD and was associated with acute reductions in core OCD symptoms in several subjects."

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:

"5 of the subjects [out of 9] readily described their experiences as very psychologically and spiritually enriching. Four subjects reported during [high-dosage treatment] profound positive transcendental experiences such as exploration of other planets, visiting past-life reincarnations, and interacting with deities."

WHAT'S NEXT?

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:

Most of my 'trips' were positive experiences but there were others in which the world seemed a dark and dismal place… in which I looked both inward and outward and loathed what I saw… in which I felt depressed, hopeless and useless to the point that suicide seemed my only sensible option… I will not condemn those who choose to experiment with this potent hallucinogen, but I cannot imagine under what circumstances I would encourage a friend to do so, for the risk is just too high."
David Fischer will not assist individuals with growing, finding, identifying or ingesting psilocybin or other psychoactive mushrooms.
 
I have nothing against folks who want to, um, "expand their minds." "It's a free country," they say, and I can agree with the Libertarian argument that it's not the government's business if someone wants it to appear as if the floor is 200 feet down (and that their legs are comparably huge)… oops, wait, no—it just seems that way… we're actually so very tiny, we're talking millimeters, not feet… wowww, maaaaan…
 
But anyone who imagines that I have any interest in conspiring to commit a felony—regardless of anyone's opinion on whether it ought to be a crime of any sort—is very deeply mistaken.
 
First, as a professional musician when the chord strikes me, I have often worn a musician's hair atop my head, the split ends resting on my shoulders or gathered in a pony-tail hanging down my back (it used to be part of the uniform, but now half of my fellows are bald anyway so it no longer matters). I always hated it when someone "brilliantly" (ignorantly) "deduced" that, as a long-haired mycologist, I probably had a huge interest in fungal entheogens.
 
I really don't, and I get tired of having to explain that fact.
 
Second, I would imagine that a genuine mycologist would be a fun "bust" for any narcotics enforcement officer. Any mycologist would have to be pretty stupid to fail to keep his hands clean of such things.

REFERENCES

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.
 
Moreno, F.A. & Delgado, P.L. 1997. Hallucinogen-induced relief of obsessions and compulsions [letter]. Am. J. Psychiatry 154:1037-1038.
 
Moreno, F.A., et al. 2006. Safety, Tolerability, and Efficacy of Psilocybin in 9 Patients With Obsessive-Cumpulsive Disorder. J. Clin. Psychiatry 67(11):1735-1740.

 
Thanks to Dr. Rob Hallock for suggestions that improved this page.


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