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Liberating the Liberty Caps: Psilosybin Mushrooms and the Battle for Western Legalisation

Writing by Elli Efird. Artwork by Mary Buchanan.

“The rejection of any source of evidence is always treason to that ultimate rationalism which urges forward science and philosophy alike.” – Alfred North Whitehead

“What’s the hubris of humans to think that they can outlaw a species?” – Paul Stamets

February-May, 1971: The Convention on Psychotropic Substances, Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and Misuse of Drugs Act are passed by the United Nations, the United States federal government under President Nixon, and British Parliament respectively. The Convention and CSA declared psilocybin mushrooms, colloquially known as “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms,” a Schedule I drug, defined as substances having “a high potential for abuse or drugs that have no recognized medical uses”. The Misuse of Drugs Act declared psilocybin mushrooms a Class A drug in the United Kingdom, a category which also includes heroin, cocaine, and crystal meth. To this day, possession of magic mushrooms and other Class A drugs in the UK is punishable by up to seven years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both, and supply and production are punishable by up to a lifetime sentence.

October 2022: Alberta becomes the first Canadian province to announce that it will regulate the use of psychedelics in therapy settings – ironic, considering it is generally the most politically conservative province. “For the first time anywhere, people will have access to legal, doctor-supervised psychedelics and psychedelic-assisted therapies across just about all classic psychedelics,” says Ron Levy, CEO of Field Trip Health and Wellness - a company that provides ketamine therapy to treat depression and anxiety at clinics in Canada and US. Drugs such as psilocybin, psilocin, MDMA, LSD, mescaline, DMT, and ketamine will be regulated as a treatment for a myriad of psychiatric disorders; namely PTSD, treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, and substance misuse disorders. Though the drugs themselves are still illegal for recreational use in Canada, the new legislation serves as an incredible leap in terms of harnessing the medical potential of psychedelics and challenging their classification as Schedule I drugs. New regulations are scheduled to go into effect on January 16, 2023.

Alberta’s breakthrough isn’t the first attempt to legalise the use of psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs in a medical research context – it is far from it. Ever since its popularisation in Western society, psilocybin has been the subject of a battle between its impassioned supporters and the bureaucracy. Are we finally seeing a glimmer of hope in the darkened room of psychedelic research? How have we gone from psilocybin’s Western discovery and popularisation to its Schedule I classification and penalisation?

If we’re seeking the full painted picture of humans and their interaction with psilocybin (well, that is, if American ethnobotanist mystic Terrence McKenna’s “Stoned Ape Theory” remains unproven…), we’d have to take a trip back to 10,000 BCE – the archaeologically estimated time of creation of an Australian mural depicting what are believed to be psychedelic mushrooms. But if that evidence ever falls through, then we’ve got some funky rock paintings from Spain suggesting the circulation of shrooms around 4,000 BCE. Mayan and Aztec indigenous peoples used the fungus, which in their Nahuatl name translated to “flesh of the gods,” in spiritual ceremonies for healing, divination, and celebratory purposes, tracing as far back as 1,500 BCE. The point is, the mystical powers of genus Psilocybe have been known and appreciated amongst humans far before the Western world began commercialising and regulating its use.

Now, let’s take our trip back in time to when recreational drug use was a bona fide frenzy, when hair grew long and armpit hair grew longer, when the Beatles and Bob Dylan blared on every radio: the sixties. At this point in psychedelic history, the synthesis of LSD by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman was two decades’ worth of old news and the synthetic psychedelic had become a fuel of choice for the flower power. “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” a photo essay by amateur mycologist Gordon Wasson chronicling his experience in an ancient Mazatec ritual involving psychedelics in Oaxaca, Mexico, had been circulating the shelves for a few years, largely sparking curiosity amongst Westerners surrounding psilocybin (though Wasson’s pilgrimage to and publication of ancient Mazatec rituals are highly controversial, as they resulted in the ostracism of heralded healer Maria Sabina). Throughout the decade, medical studies on the effects of psychedelics on patients diagnosed with terminal mental illnesses as well as cancer patients were being conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health, Spring Grove Clinic State Hospital (the ‘Mecca’ of psychedelic research of the time), and numerous other clinics across North America. However, all clinical research was halted come 1971, when Nixon and the War on Drugs stamped out any aboveground remnant of psilocybin and psychedelics, halting what was a potential revolution in the fields of psychology and medicine.

So why were magic mushrooms and other psychedelics cracked down on so heavily in the seventies after decades of valuable medical research had been conducted suggesting their immense medical potential? In short, their criminalisation had much less public health motivations than political. If the federal government could get the people to associate mushrooms and marijuana with the anti-war left, they could then marginalise and criminalise those who fed the fire of public unrest surrounding Vietnam and other counterculture focuses. Having fun in hell, Nixon?

Despite the legislation passed in the early seventies, research on psilocybin and other psychedelics continued, but under wraps. Over time, reform advocates continued their efforts in expanding the pool of knowledge surrounding the magical mycelial medicine and lobbying for the right to conduct clinical studies, but advocacy really took off at the turn of the century when psilocybin enthusiasts brought their efforts to a more public stage. Paul Stamets, American mycologist and author, published books on mushrooms and their properties –magical and nonmagical—throughout the eighties and nineties, but gained his rising influence with his 2008 TED talk on the healing properties of fungi, as well as his discovery of four new Psilocybe genus species. Another twenty-first century figure of the reform is Robert Griffiths, who is largely credited with reviving the sleeping dragon of psychedelic clinical research in the late 2000s. Griffiths is the director of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine – the first research group since the seventies to obtain federal approval to reinitiate psychedelic research (under watchful regulation). In 2006, the Center published the positive findings of their single-dose psilocybin clinical trials, reigniting psychedelic research worldwide.

And the traction doesn’t stop gaining there. In 2018, the United States Food and Drug Administration granted psilocybin therapy with “breakthrough therapy status,” accelerating the process of assessment of the potentially therapeutic drugs. To complement this leap in the medical field was the first decriminalization of magic mushrooms in North America, which took place in Denver, Colorado in 2019, followed shortly by Oakland and Santa Cruz in California. Additionally, the publication of Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics and its Netflix adaptation, along with other educational documentaries such as “Fantastic Fungi” and “Have a Good Trip,” have brought the world of magic mushrooms to the screens of many, the facts no longer able to be ignored.

While the momentum of legislative changes and bestselling books and their Netflix adaptations are encouraging, we must be wary of the direction in which our relationship to genus Psilocybe evolves. The potential insurgence of legalisations in America and Canada, as well as in other countries around the world, will inevitably foster the mass commercialisation of the fungi and its psychedelic sisters, if you will. On Alberta’s recent announcement, Ron Levy comments: “This is a tectonic shift in the cultural relevance and awareness of psychedelics and is almost certainly a major catalyst for both legal and regulatory change in the industry. Almost certainly other jurisdictions will follow suit.” Though I’m tempted to ride Levy’s wave and proclaim something cliché such as “we’re on the verge of something big,” I must refrain, for as we’ve noted, human civilisations have been using psilocybin in medicinal contexts for centuries. The fact that Western civilisation is finally catching up is somewhat embarrassing, but nonetheless encouraging. Help may soon be available for those struggling with a lifetime of PTSD, substance abuse, OCD, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and cancer patients approaching difficult periods

Magic mushrooms have just crested the peak of their season in the UK. The open, grazed fields that teem with clusters upon clusters of the nipple-shaped caps will soon be barren, fungi-less plains. No longer will foragers be tempted by the promise of portals to spiritual realms in their very backyards, which become Class A drugs at their moment of picking. Perhaps the effects of Alberta’s renewed relationship with the fungus will trickle down into the UK in a few years or a few decades, but until then, it’s just another end of another illegal mushroom season. The magic fruits of the mystical underground mycelial network bow their heads to the coming autumn frost.

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