A trip down the controversial memory lane of magic mushrooms.
( Ben Toms // Instagram )
They made Alice grow bigger in Wonderland, turned Mario into “Super Form” and flew Lucy to the sky with diamonds. From techno music to video games to niche health food blogs, magic mushrooms have seeped their way into almost every facet of pop-culture. While typically associated with the American counterculture hippie movement, there is evidence of “shroom” use amongst Indigenous groups as far back as 10,000 BCE. Specifically in the U.S., psychedelic mushrooms have had a tumultuous relationship with our governing bodies and society. However, in recent years, with the help of intensive scientific research, more and more people are realizing that this once deemed “public enemy number one” (à la Richard Nixon) is a solution standing right in front of us...and we only have ourselves to blame for missing it.
Yes, shrooms are colonized
Long before the hippies and the yippies, psychedelics were introduced to the Western world by María Sabina, a traditional Mexican healer from the Mazatec tribe. In 1955, American banker R. Gordon Wasson traveled to Sabina in Mexico and participated in a healing ceremony. While he would go on to have a famous Life magazine cover story, Sabina’s interaction with this overeager sightseer would ultimately cost her her life. From all the outsider media hype, tourists flooded her village. Her people turned on her. Feeling betrayed, they burned down her house and murdered her son. Local officials regularly raided her home and left her to die in poverty. The story of María Sabina serves as a reminder that while Western culture may research and partake in psilocybin mushrooms, we were not even close to being the first to do so.
Murals across Northern Australia, Northern Africa, Siberia, Central America and South America show ancient use of psilocybin. For these groups, shrooms were more than trippy visuals; they were sacred, healing, and deeply rooted in ritual.
Western civilizations (having derived from Western Europe/U.S.) colonizing the land and stealing the practices of cultures before them is a tale as old as time. The Westernization of psilocybin mushrooms is another instance of robbing Indigneous peoples of their natural resources, history and legacy. We must acknowledge the harm our country has brought upon Indigenous groups like the Mazatec in order to reconcile and move forward in the name of science. The introduction of psilocybin into our society brought just as much pain as it did progress.
Golden Teachers come to the states
In the U.S, psilocybin mushrooms gained mainstream traction from the ‘50s to ’60s. Institutions like Harvard were conducting in-depth experiments, and around 40,000 patients were already being treated for neurosis, schizophrenia and psychopathy. Psychedelic therapy was considered the next best thing for psychiatry. And then, at the height of this psychedelic revolution, the War on Drugs was declared. In 1970, President Nixon issued the Controlled Substances Act rendering psilocybin illegal. He halted all government-endorsed research. Seemingly overnight, psilocybin mushrooms went from being spotlighted by Western medicine to being branded as an immoral relic of the Anti-war movement.
According to the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, psilocybin mushrooms are a Schedule 1 substance, meaning they are classified as having the highest potential for abuse and dependence. However, no psychedelics (including LSD and MDMA) are considered the most addictive or dangerous of drugs by the American Addiction Center and various other medical sources. On the other hand, substances like cocaine, methamphetamine, oxycodone and fentanyl, drugs that are causing a national health crisis, are a notch lower than psychedelics at Schedule 2. To avoid going down the rabbit hole (pun intended), I’ll only encourage you to question these categorizations and policies for yourself. If we grew up in a society where drugs like psilocybin had no stigma attached, how would you feel towards them? Would you feel the same about the widely circulated and mechanically prescribed drugs that actually have a higher chance of being addictive or abused?
Mushrooms’ place in medicine
This year, a promising study conducted by the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London showed that psilocybin combined with psychological therapy is just as effective in treating depression as the antidepressant, escitalopram (sold under the name Lexapro). The six week trial including 59 patients with moderate to severe symptoms showed no significant difference between a dose of high-impact psilocybin and the escitalopram.
The co-author of the study, Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, said, “I think it is fair to say that the results signal hope that we may be looking at a promising alternative treatment for depression.”
Additionally, Johns Hopkins University launched an entire center dedicated to studying psychedelics. Scientists at Johns Hopkins plan to expand on the depression studies and explore if psilocybin is also a possible treatment for everything from Lymes Disease, to opiod addiction, to nicotine and alcohol dependency. Psychedelic studies have long been partnered with mysticism, which refers to the concept of being one with God, the Absolute, the Universe...but to some it borders on self-delusion or “voodoo.” This preconceived misconception makes it difficult for the general public to accept psilocybin studies as credible and valid.
While progress has been made, we have only merely touched the surface of medical innovation with the current studies of psilocybin. Studies are taking place all over the world with Brazil, Canada, Israel, Spain, Switzerland and the U.K. leading the field, delivering around 50 clinical trials in the last three decades. A successful depression treatment would help a tremendous amount of people (over 264 million people worldwide). Shrooms may just be one example of how plant medicine and western medicine can work together for a greater good.
Handcuffed for shrooms
In November of 2020, Oregon took a monumental step towards decriminalization with The Psilocybin Service Initiative and the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act. These measures legalized the use of psilocybin in controlled therapeutic programs and decriminalized the use and possession of limited amounts of all controlled substances. This ensures that if people are caught with small amounts of drugs (less than 12 grams of psilocybin) they cannot be arrested. Oregonians simply have the option to either pay a $100 fine or complete a health assessment. This breakthrough has already sparked the interest of lawmakers in other states like Connecticut and Florida.
While 51 years have passed since the Controlled Substances Act, the War on Drugs is not over. As a society, there is a collective trauma towards any illicit drug use. The public’s perception of psychedelics widely varies amongst ethnic and economic groups. We cannot advocate for the legalization of psilocybin while ignoring the racial disparities when it comes to other drugs like cannabis. It must be mentioned that the current studies on psilocybin have repeatedly excluded minority groups, and it is crucial that these studies contain diverse samples. Treatments need to be accessible and beneficial, especially to the communities most negatively affected by systemic inequalities. The War on Drugs was founded on aggressively criminalized and racist policies. To this day, drug policies target people of color. Specifically, Black Americans are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses than their white counterparts, despite equal substance usage rates.
Reform requires encouraging science and focusing on harm reduction. Movements like Usona Institute , The Beckley Foundation and The Center for Ethnobotanical Services work to prioritize research, raise funds and promote global awareness. Reform requires looking at the issue holistically and acknowledging that the War on Drugs looks different to every American.
To some, it means they’ll have easier access to shrooms at their next music festival; but to others, it is the light at the end of a harrowing, centuries-long tunnel of oppression.
Discussing drug use, whether medical or recreational, will always come with polarized sides. Especially in the midst of the pandemic,where we rely on our medical professionals and lawmakers to lead us and make the informed, healthy decisions needed for world safety. However, when it comes to the recent studies on psychedelics, regardless of whether all lawmakers agree, we have made progress towards embracing this remarkable force of nature that has been around for millions of years. The potential that psilocybin mushrooms have to do good is insurmountable next to the case for continued draconian criminalization. Psilocybin can open so many doors for society; in the ways of medicine, culture, and justice; but individuals can also receive a spiritual and revelatory experience where they peek deeper into the Earth and all it provides for us. These experiences open people’s minds to a more enlightened, inclusive way of living. Magic mushrooms have the power to change people’s perspective and outlook on the world, something to celebrate in a world that needs change.