The War on Drugs demonized shrooms but psilocybin is making a scientific and legal comeback
At a 1971 press conference, former President Richard Nixon famously described drug use as “public enemy number one in the United States.”
With an oppressive hand, the legal system began to target drug use under Nixon’s direction until he was forced to resign due to his own criminal behavior.
We know today that Nixon’s War on Drugs was really a smoke-and-mirrors declaration of hostility against Black Americans and hippies. Still, even 50 years later, Americans continue to pay the price for these harsh policies with long prison sentences, racial profiling, and generational poverty cycles.
There seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel, though, because the negative public opinion on drugs is slowly unraveling.
In May, psilocybin mushrooms, or shrooms, were narrowly decriminalized in Denver (50.56 percent of voters were in favor of Ordinance 301) and not long after, the city of Oakland, California, followed suit with its stance on entheogenic plants, a broader classification that includes mushrooms and other plants and fungi containing psychoactive substances.
“The decriminalization initiatives that are happening don’t change anything that is happening around research of psychedelics,” said Brad Burge, director of strategic communications for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) – a nonprofit research and educational organization that studies the benefits of psychedelics and marijuana. “They just take a very small chunk out of the War on Drugs. These initiatives are one of the first if not the first political efforts to change psychedelic legislations that have been proposed. That’s incredibly exciting from the perspective of MAPS which has been trying to change public perspective.”
These changes in policy at local government levels have inspired a renewed interest in the substance since Nixon’s War on Drugs.
“One thing that we see when substances are decriminalized like with cannabis is there’s a massive wave of people that are more willing to try it,” Burge said. “That might be a psychological thing or social thing. People believe the risks are lower and they’re less likely to get caught. But trends toward more psychedelic use has been trending upward worldwide for decades. It’ll just be less underground. In addition to possibly increasing use it’s a clear statement that our political approach to regulation is wrong. There’s ways to regulate psychedelics that won’t create social collapse. There’s some good things that are happening.”
At the Psychedelic Club of Denver, Joey Gallagher, the executive director of Psychedelic Club – a 501(c)(3) national nonprofit dedicated to providing a community for psychedelic users – said the legislation has piqued public interest in hallucinogenics.
“We’ve been pretty energized. ... Our social media followers almost doubled and our meetings went from fifteen to twenty people to twenty-five to thirty people,” Gallagher said. “This is definitely the beginning of the end of the Drug War. Pieces are being moved and dominoes are falling.”
A doorway to end addiction?When a person ingests a shroom, the psilocybin disrupts receptors in their brain that are believed to be responsible for bolstering addictive behaviors, according to the University of Alabama at Birmingham website. Psychologically, it is considered “to reduce cravings, increase a sense of one’s self-efficacy and increase motivation.”
It’s for these reasons that scientists like Peter Hendricks, an associate professor and researcher at UAB, are looking into psilocybin, the psychoactive component in mushrooms, as a treatment for drug addiction.
Hendricks, along with his research partner Sara Lappan, are working with 20 volunteers who suffer from cocaine addiction to study the effects psilocybin has on their addiction, both in the long- and short-term.
“This isn’t a dangerous substance, but it changes lives with lasting benefits,” Hendricks said. “There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm (in the 1960s) but it disappeared, and the reason it disappeared was the association with the counterculture.”
The volunteers are screened for health issues and then once a week for four weeks, Hendricks and Lappan meet with the subjects for two hours to learn more about them and help them understand what to expect during their psychedelic trip.
After four weeks, the psilocybin is administered to the person at an outpatient treatment center with a team of nurses at the ready. They meet with the subject once a week for four weeks following the treatment, and then again at the 90-day and the 180-day marks.
So far, Hendricks said the study is showing statistical support for the hypothesis that psilocybin is effective against drug addiction. He said they were enthusiastic, but they aren’t going to get too excited until the end of the study. They are scientists and must follow the data and remain objective, after all.
When asked whether they would participate in the treatment again, most participants say no, even though the event was life-changing.
“It’s not a rush. It’s not a euphoric experience,” Hendricks said. “The experience is challenging and difficult. There might be moments of fear and anxiety. In many ways, it’s years of therapy condensed into a few hours. ... I often use the analogy of Ebenezer Scrooge as an example. He changed for the better, but would he want a visit from these ghosts every Christmas Eve? No.”
Hendricks has a lot of compassion for addicts, as the justice system tends to punish those with addictions – people who have usually suffered a great deal in their life and lost everything, including a support system.
“(The Latin root for the word) addiction essentially means to be a slave to something,” Hendricks said. “This is not a good place to be. Everyone who has dealt with addiction has tried over and over and they can’t break free. Take for example the tobacco world, which is my home (research) base. We’ve spent a lot of time helping people quit tobacco. But, if I give one hundred smokers the best treatment money can buy, seventy out of one hundred will still be smoking.”
In other words? Even with a substance like tobacco that isn’t nearly as addictive as heroin and cocaine, users only have a 30 percent chance of kicking their habit.
As for the future of psilocybin?
“We’ll have to see. A lot of that will depend on our findings and if our hypothesis gains momentum,” Hendricks said. “There’s only a handful of places researching psilocybin and the public funding for that kind of work is not there. We’re relying on private donors but there’s nothing quite like the government funding to get this kind of work done. Studies are expensive – large studies can cost between two and three million. I think if we really want to gain some momentum we need public funding.”
As a scientist, all he can do is continue his research objectively and hope the results begin to sway public opinion, but interest is growing.
“People are interested at the moment,” he said. “I think a lot of people are looking back on that first wave of research that we dropped the ball on. There was a lot of promise but the association with the counterculture and sensationalized reports in the media derailed the scientific research. We saw the same sort of thing with cannabis and I think people are realizing the legal classification was class-driven and there’s a lot of benefits.”
Hallucinogenic therapyAside from its potential use as addiction treatment, therapists are also attempting to make headway with psychedelics as a means of healing.
Daniel McQueen, a co-founder of Medicinal Mindfulness in Boulder and author of “Psychedelic Cannabis: Breaking the Gate,” has been involved in the hallucinogenic community for 20 years. As therapists, McQueen and his wife, Alison, and their team offer psychedelically induced psychotherapy sessions at their Boulder clinic.
At one point much earlier in his life, McQueen worked as an apprentice to someone with a nontraditional healing practice that involved psilocybin. Eventually, he got involved with MAPS and became an MDMA therapist. After he graduated from grad school, though, cannabis became legal and though he had experienced meaningful encounters with hallucinogenics, he wanted to legally contribute to psychedelic therapy. Thus, he chose to practice using only cannabis as a psychedelic substance. He mixes a blend of indicas, sativas, and hybrids to help boost the body experience and lower client anxiety.
Psychedelics, if used in a safe and proper environment, McQueen said, can be incredibly helpful to those suffering from anxiety and depression. They can help us explore our brains in a way traditional medicines and practices can’t.
“Psychedelics allow us access to a deeper process – more often than not, an unconscious level that’s hard to access without these medicines. It gets to root of problems in some ways regular therapy can’t,” McQueen said. “There’s nothing as consistently reliable as psychedelics to elicit these states. A lot of trauma is stored in the body, so releasing this cellular tension is unique. It provides greater access to memory and recall so people can heal from injuries that might have happened in early childhood or even in the womb. ... They don’t mask problems or numb us. They get to the core root and address those issues.”
While McQueen adamantly believes adults should have the freedom to use hallucinogenics to explore their own brains, he also acknowledges that these substances can sometimes produce bad trips. If the individual isn’t using them in an environment that’s safe and supportive, the experience can be difficult and even terrible, both McQueen and Burge said.
“There’s some big differences between cannabis and psilocybin,” said Burge. “Cannabis can be used every day. Psychedelics can not. They’re used a few times for counseling sessions. The psychological risk of psychedelics are significant when not used in safe and appropriate settings. They can cause traumatic situations and draw out psychosis in people that are predisposed to it.”
Part of McQueen’s practice involves helping those who have had bad experiences with psychedelics and addressing misconceptions about them, like that they’re addictive and not safe. He also works with people to process those psychedelic experiences.
“My first mushroom trip was very inspiring, but I struggled a little bit after that. I had a positive experience but there was a lot to hold. The integration of psychology didn’t exist. I didn’t have a lot of resources. I tried to share it with people to understand what I went through. It might have been the reason I went into psychotherapy – so I could understand my experience and help others,” McQueen said.
There’s still a lot of paranoia surrounding substances like cannabis and psychedelics, and it’s a trauma that’s been ingrained in our culture, McQueen said.
“I answer a lot of questions in my sessions and help address misconceptions,” he said. “The War on Drugs was a traumatic experience and it still is. We’re helping not to just address those misconceptions but help heal that trauma. People still panic when they see a cop. People are still having those reactions to officers.”
What the hallucinogenic experience is really missing, however, is the language surrounding the trip. Many users balk when attempting to describe their sometimes life-changing experiences. Words elude the brain.
“I’m inventing language all the time,” McQueen said. “We’re seeing an evolution of cultural awareness and it requires a new language. Psychotherapy doesn’t quite fit it – it’s too big. ... So, we’re inventing language as we go.”
If magic mushrooms ever do become legal, McQueen said he hopes to incorporate them into his practice. In fact, he is already researching safety measures, potential restraints, and legalities. He has applied for expanded access to MDMA treatment, and is in the early stages of planning a psilocybin retreat in a country where it’s legal.
One might say that psychedelics, specifically shrooms, may even take the same pathway as marijuana – a slow, holy roll toward legalization, state by state.
“It’s too useful,” McQueen said. “In the right context, it’s so healing, and the more people that have those experiences, the more people are going to start to demand it when they realize how meaningful these experiences are.
“I don’t know how to describe it. Sometimes these medicines find you, but I feel like I’m a better person for these experiences – not just inside, but for the planet. It’s hard to ignore the implications of that. You see the world differently. Most of my clients are very creative and have large emotional capacities and they want meaning in their life. ... I don’t think we can imagine the next ten years right now. We’re going to be facing a deep ecological crisis while we unravel these ideas, but psychedelics are going to play an instrumental part in this. There’s already innovation and there’s going to be more innovation that is psychedelic inspired, and those innovations are going change the world.”