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Magic Mushrooms: What Are They, And Are They Legal?

Magic Mushrooms: What Are They, And Are They Legal?

Magic mushrooms. What do you think of when hearing that term? Maybe your mind envisions a college dorm featuring headshop decor. Remember those little neon-colored mushroom candles?

Maybe the term evokes images of the 60’s, when mushrooms and other psychedelics were a major part of the zeitgeist.

Or you might associate magic mushrooms with more negative phenomena. For example, the once-prevalent notion that psychedelics can cause a bad trip or fry your brain.

These thoughts aren’t unreasonable. However, scientific and cultural understanding of magic mushrooms — species that contain the psychedelic chemical psilocybin — has achieved significant progress in the past few decades.

We can now draw on a substantial body of literature that chronicles mushroom use throughout human history. We now understand some of the mechanisms by which these fungi induce psychedelic experiences. And while recreational use remains an important part of the discussion, magic mushrooms may help us in other ways.

Promising new research trials have found that psilocybin can effectively treat a number of intransigent psychiatric conditions. It’s why psychedelics for depression and other mental health issues is becoming more popular these days.

The efficacy of these treatments have helped scientists zero in on what causes them in the first place. This only enhances the understanding of the human brain as a whole.

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What Makes a Mushroom Magic?

There are around 180 species of mushroom that contain the chemical psilocybin, which is responsible for the “magical” psychedelic effects that give them their name. Most belong to the genus Psilocybe, but other genera also contain the substance.

The most common species are Psilocybe cubensis, Psilocybe mexicana, and Psilocybe semilanceata. Magic mushrooms are generally a light tan when fresh and a blotchy greyish brown when dried. They are distinct from the Amanita, another psychedelic mushroom that resembles a fairytale toadstool — red with white spots. Psilocybin mushrooms can be found in North and South America, as well as Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.

These non-descript fungi have been around for thousands of years. Cave paintings in Algeria suggest they may have been part of religious rituals as long as 9,000 years ago. Excavations in Asia, Europe, North America, and South America have shown evidence that the powerful effects of psilocybin were significant to other early cultures, too.

Psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine) is chemically classified as a tryptamine alkaloid. Once it enters the human body, it converts to psilocin through metabolic processes in the liver. This chemical is structurally similar to the neurotransmitter serotonin and thus binds to the 2A serotonin receptors in the brain. These receptors are particularly abundant in the claustrum, a thin sheet of neurons that coordinate and consolidate sensory input. Psilocin and other psychedelic drugs disrupt the functioning of this region, thus creating sensory distortions.

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What Are The Side Effects?

Psilocin has other effects on the body as well. Some are pleasurable: relaxation, disassociation, euphoria, drowsiness. Others may be negative: nausea or vomiting, headaches, lack of coordination, and even unpleasant hallucinations. A very few individuals report recurrent hallucinations after the initial trip, a phenomenon known as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD).

Typically, though, the mushroom trip takes effect an hour after consumption and the experience lasts for around three-to-six hours. Magic mushrooms are usually among the safest recreational drugs, and most users have no lasting side effects from the psychedelics.

Humans have been using psilocybin mushrooms for millennia. However, Western interest only grew on a wide scale in the late 1950s. A 1957 Life Magazine article by Robert Gordon Wasson details his experiences taking mushrooms in Oaxaca, Mexico. Aided by the enthusiasm of LSD pioneer Albert Hoffman, who received samples of psilocybin mushrooms in 1958 and later synthesized psilocybin in his lab, mushrooms soon became a cultural phenomenon. Musicians and artists evangelized the “mind opening” effects of psychedelics and a decade of uninhibited experimentation ensued. These experiences had influence on the counterculture of that time, pitting the hip and enlightened against the “squares”.

By 1970, though, the backlash was sufficient to land magic mushrooms on Schedule I of the controlled substances list in the United States, alongside heroin and marijuana. Use has nevertheless persisted and it remains legal to purchase spores. Some other countries do allow for legal use or have decriminalized possession of mushrooms.

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What’s The Future Look Like For Magic Mushrooms?

Resistance to decriminalization or legalization on the federal level in the States remains high, but decades of scholarly work and activism have resulted in a number of significant gains. More than half of the respondents to a 2020 survey expressed approval for the legalization of psilocybin mushrooms in some or all circumstances.

In November 2019, the FDA designated psilocybin as a “breakthrough therapy,” making it easier for labs to study the drug’s effects and experiment with clinical use. That year, Johns Hopkins University opened its Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research and Imperial College London launched the Center for Psychedelic Research.

Oregon legalized the use of psilocybin for therapeutic purposes and also decriminalized possession of magic mushrooms and other drugs in 2020. They have been decriminalized at the local level in cities like Ann Arbor, Denver, Oakland, and Washington D.C., as well. COMPASS Pathways, one of the companies running “breakthrough” research, is nearing completion of clinical trials and will soon be able to submit its synthetic psilocybin to the FDA for approval. For this reason, the future of psychedelics continues to remain positive.

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Feed Your Head

While users rarely report physical side effects after a mushroom trip — aside from general tiredness — mental benefits can be lasting. Recreational mushroom enthusiasts have long reported a sense of renewal and greater connection to the world. Researchers now hope to capitalize on the science behind the “shrooming afterglow”. There is evidence that the disruption that occurs in the claustrum may actually induce a physical rewiring of the brain. No other medications or surgical interventions have managed such a feat.

The COMPASS Pathways trials, along with several others, focus on treatment-resistant depression. This is depression that does not respond to traditional remedies like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Remarkably, even as few as two doses provided enduring relief per a 2018 study from Imperial College London. Psilocybin is also under consideration for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anorexia, alcoholism, and other conditions.

These pioneering applications, which address conditions that have long resisted other approaches, suggest that psilocybin may yield even further benefits as study increases.

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Sam Woolfe

View all posts by Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe is a freelance writer based in London. His main areas of interest include mental health, mystical experiences, the history of psychedelics, and the philosophy of psychedelics. He first became fascinated by psychedelics after reading Aldous Huxley's description of the mescaline experience in The Doors of Perception. Since then, he has researched and written about psychedelics for various publications, covering the legality of psychedelics, drug policy reform, and psychedelic science.

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