From Stigma To Decriminalization: The Story Behind Magic Mushrooms

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How many times, between school assemblies and PTO groups, have you heard Marijuana being called a gateway drug? In the years of negative rhetoric that paints the legislative past of Cannabis, the narrative that calls it a substance that encourages the consumption of other drugs shines perhaps as its most influential. Now, as 10 states (and the District of Columbia) have legalized the use of the proverbial devil’s lettuce, American society and legislation seem to be moving towards an impressively understanding perception of both the drug’s recreational and medicinal purposes.  

What’s curious is that its past vocations as a gateway actor seem to find new reverb within the legislative arena. Marijuana, as a matter of fact, seems to have returned to its antics as a gateway drug, but as one that leads not to the consumption of other substances, but, rather, to their decriminalization. The first on the list of substances that might find new acceptance in the coming years is psilocybin, the psychoactive agent that gives magic mushrooms their nickname. On Jan. 7, a group known as Decriminalize Denver submitted over 8,000 signatures calling for a decriminalization measure to appear on the upcoming Elections Decisions ballot, to be released May 2019. 

Something similar is occurring in Oregon, where the state’s attorney general has, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting, “approved language for a ballot measure which would make psilocybin legal if passed”. Currently, the Drug Enforcement Administration considers Psilocybin a Schedule I drug that hence “has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”. However, it might well follow Marijuana in detaching itself from such a label, at least in certain states. That’s because, as was the case in the medicalization of Marijuana, an impressive array of scientific studies hints the famed hallucinogenic holds impressively beneficial and potentially life-changing medical uses. 

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University, for example, have recommended its category be changed from Schedule I to Schedule IV, to reflect the low risk for abuse that its neuroscientists attribute to drugs like shrooms. A tandem of studies also took place between New York University’s prestigious Langone Medical Center and the illustrious digs of Johns Hopkins University, hoping to uncover the effects of the hallucinogen on patients with life-threatening cancers and a psychiatrically diagnosed form of anxiety or depression. The patients were administered two doses, one larger and one smaller, at a distance of five weeks. The “Results” section of the paper published in The Journal of Psychopharmacology left little to the imagination: 78% of patients considered themselves less depressed, while 83% considered themselves less anxious. 

But what of that alarming specter called “comedown” that we often associate with a psychoactive drug? What are the side effects? As it turns out, neither of these studies found any serious side effects to the treatment, other than a headache and nausea experienced by around 15 percent of the subjects posthumously. If that weren’t enough, none of the other 2,000 cases of psilocybin use in clinical trials have led to reports of lasting side effects, be those medical or psychiatric. 

That means that amongst the immense clinical numbers crunched by the body of previous studies that suggested Psilocybin’s effectiveness in treating disorders like alcoholism, OCD, and depression, no long-lasting negative side effects have been shown for a restrained, responsible use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, as outlined in the brilliant TED Talk below: 

Despite the excitement, that is not to say that the drug should be taken lightly, nor to say that it cannot be dangerous. As with many drugs, its administration to subjects with certain medical or psychiatric conditions, like those suffering from Schizophrenia-like disorders, is highly dangerous and can cause extremely intense complications. In the same way, unregulated use of the drug, without an appropriate waiting period between doses also has a dauntingly high probability of resulting in unpredictable, dangerous symptoms of medical or psychiatric instability. 

For that reason, as is natural, the rhetoric surrounding psilocybin will never be one that pushes for the legalization of its recreational use. Rather, the push would be, at least initially, for the drug to become a prescribed treatment for cancer-related dread. One of the most recent developments of Psilocybin’s trippy tale is, in fact, that the FDA is actively reviewing research to accept its potential as a “breakthrough therapy” drug for the condition. If this occurs in tandem with the legislative push from the various groups that are forming in California, Colorado and Oregon, it seems that the legislative framework necessary for the initial steps of decriminalization can remarkably come to be. 

Now, though the science we report here paints an incredibly positive picture of a therapeutic consumption of psilocybin, it’s our responsibility to understand that, once more, everyone’s experiences with psychoactive drugs, particularly the one in question, are extremely varied. Unlike non-hallucinogens, the sensory stimuli provided can lead to those temporary adverse reactions which we often colloquially refer to as “bad trips”, just in the same way they can lead to the transcendental experiences many authors and individuals have sung the praises of. What that’s supposed to embody, simply, is that Psilocybin is a much more complicated drug than any other in the decriminalization arena: we do not know enough about its neuro-chemical mode of action, or about its highly individual evocative complications to scratch at the same generalized conception of experience we have matured for Marijuana.

What we need, then, is the dedication to let this body of research grow more and more prosperous. In continuing to experiment with the possible life-changing applications of a peculiarly powerful drug like the one at hand, we construct the framework necessary to establish a holistic, composite conception of its activity. From there, we can begin the process that takes us down the road of decriminalization, and towards the ultimate goal of ameliorating the lives of the thousands of patients that might benefit from it.