Magic mushrooms are transitioning from illegal recreational drugs to promising mental health treatments. Numerous studies have reported positive findings using psilocybin, the main psychoactive compound of mushrooms, to treat depression as well as smoking and alcohol addiction, and to reduce anxiety in terminally ill patients. Ongoing and planned studies are testing the drug’s effects on conditions including opioid dependence, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia nervosa.
This scientific interest, coupled with growing social acceptance, is driving legal changes in U.S. cities in 2020 Oregon passes statewide legislation To legalize magic mushrooms, the state is creating a framework to regulate legal therapeutic use – becoming the first jurisdiction in the world to do so. Currently, psilocybin remains illegal in most countries and is tightly controlled at the national level, slowing research. But the international push to reclassify drugs aims to lower barriers everywhere.
After a series of studies in the 1950s and 60s, psilocybin and all other hallucinogens were suddenly banned, partly in response to the embrace of the counterculture.According to the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances, psilocybin is Classified as a Schedule I substance in the United States– Defined as “currently having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Psilocybin is produced in limited quantities, and the substantial administrative and financial burden has effectively ended decades of research. “This is the most serious research scrutiny in history,” says neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt of Imperial College London.
Despite these legal hurdles, a current renaissance in research has seen Nutt and others explore how psilocybin alters the brain’s connectivity patterns: reducing connections within the usual networks while increasing connections between less connected regions. Just this year, a study showed that treatment involving psilocybin resulted in persistent network changes that appeared to be associated with reduced symptoms of depression. Two groups are starting the final rounds of trials of psilocybin for depression, which could lead to the substance’s first FDA approval.
As news of the psilocybin promise spreads, several cities across the U.S. have passed measures to legalize magic mushrooms. This is not the same as legalization; the molecules and mushrooms themselves remain illegal, but the priority of suing people for possessing or using them is removed or discouraged.
In 2019, Denver voters passed a ballot measure that would ban the use of city funds to prosecute magic mushroom-related violations. City councils soon took similar steps in Oakland and Santa Cruz, California, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. In November 2020, voters in Washington, D.C., passed a ballot measure that would make natural hallucinogens one of law enforcement’s lowest priorities. Cities and counties in Michigan, Massachusetts, California and Washington have followed suit.
As part of the Oregon legislation, state health authorities formed a scientific advisory committee to recommend regulations for psilocybin service centers, such as designating the types of mushrooms and their intended use, and the production standards to follow. The centers, which can apply for a license from January next year, will not claim to treat depression but rather aim to improve overall well-being.
“My concern is that people don’t necessarily get that distinction … and develop horrible, hard-to-treat depression and look to a specialist to treat the condition,” said Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist Says Natalie Gukasyan, who led the recent psilocybin trial.
Oregon’s advisory board is determining how best to train coordinators and screen clients for risk factors, such as a family history of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. “All of our decisions revolve around consumer safety,” said Oregon State University mycologist Jessie Uehling, who chairs the board’s product subcommittee. “We want to know that we’re avoiding all potential risks and creating the safest environment for people.” Gukasyan noted that the centers will focus on fungi and natural agents, rather than the synthetic psilocybin currently used in clinical trials.
Regardless of local legalization, US researchers must still comply with federal Schedule I regulations. The International Therapeutic Psilocybin Reordering Initiative is a coalition of research and advocacy organizations that aims to have the evidence for reclassifying the drug reviewed by the World Health Organization. “It’s incredible that the World Health Organization can now say that psilocybin has no medical value. It can work where other drugs can’t,” Nutt said.
Various laws in some countries have facilitated research and treatment. Canada classifies magic mushrooms as Schedule III, so the penalties are lower, and exceptions are granted for certain studies and trials. A Canadian charity called TheraPsil has a fast-track process for psilocybin end-of-life treatment.
Some countries, such as Jamaica, have never outlawed magic mushrooms, although the psilocybin molecule is generally illegal. Much of the research in these places is restricted, but many have a thriving industry of “psychedelic retreats” that are not medically regulated. The Netherlands specifically bans mushrooms—but its laws say nothing about the psilocybin-containing clumps of underground material that ultimately germinate them, known as truffles. This vulnerability has paved the way for many therapeutic retreats, but few organized studies.
Portugal is known to have decriminalized all drugs. Some countries ban mushrooms instead of their spores because the latter do not contain psilocybin. Others simply don’t enforce their laws on magic mushrooms.
A 1971 United Nations treaty has a provision allowing countries to exempt traditional indigenous uses of psychedelic plants. For centuries, indigenous peoples in some South American countries have used hallucinogens and fought their governments for their right to participate in related ceremonies. There is even a religious organization in New Mexico, the Sacrament of the Mysteries, that claims its members can legally use magic mushrooms under certain circumstances.
“The idea that psilocybin helps mental health conditions is not new. It’s been treated for thousands of years; it’s just taken in a different intellectual format,” Uehling said. “We work hard in Oregon to honor that body of knowledge.”
Public perception of psilocybin is changing, and this trend appears to be accelerating as growing interest generates more evidence. “It’s an exciting time to be a mycologist,” Uehling said. Many are waiting to see what happens in Oregon, she added: “Other states will come up with changes — hopefully — things we’re doing right, and things that need to change.”