In a national first, the people of Denver voted to decriminalize psilocybin-containing mushrooms last week. Psilocybin-containing mushrooms, also known as “shrooms” or “magic mushrooms,” have been illegal in the United States since President Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which considers the psychedelic fungi and its mindbending chemicals (psilocybin and psilocin) Schedule I drugs – substances defined by feds as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
However, the decades since Tricky Dick have shown that this federal classification is less based on research as it is rooted in an effort to marginalize political enemies.
As former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman explained for Harper’s Magazine, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities…. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
While Ehrlichman explicitly mentions cannabis, also classified as a Schedule I drug, it’s no secret that many hippies and outspoken counter-culture figures like Timothy Leary were also consuming psychedelics like LSD, peyote, and mushrooms. As psychedelics became associated with the fringe and removed from the mainstream, research into the drugs also became restricted.
This is all despite the heritage of psychedelic use throughout human history. In fact, just days before Denver’s historic vote, Jose Capriles, an anthropologist at Penn State University, made news with a discovery of a 1,000-year-old “shamanic pouch.” The fox-snout pouch, discovered in a Bolivian cave, contained traces of bufotenine (a type of DMT harvested from toads), benzoylecgonine and cocaine (from coca leaf), dimethyltryptamine (DMT), harmine, and psilocin (a chemical found in psychedelic mushrooms). DMT and harmine, when mixed together, form ayahuasca, a traditional preparation that is gaining popularity as a modern therapeutic treatment.
That’s quite a stash.
But until the 1970s it wouldn’t have been enough to send the cops a-knocking.
“A strong stigma in the West bullies our idea of drug culture,” explained Hannah Lott-Schwartz in a January National Geographic article. “But throughout the world, spiritual practitioners’ use of entheogens – psychoactive substances applied in religious or shamanic contexts – is nothing short of a learned art, unique to the people and regions who’ve studied it for centuries.”
Lott-Schwartz elaborated on the indigenous use of ayahuasca, peyote, and psychedelic mushrooms – all Schedule I substances under current federal law. While these substances were traditionally used by peoples of America, entheogens are documented across the globe, including among the people of Oceania. Kava (“‘awa” in Hawai‘i) is one example.
For example, a study from Johns Hopkins University found “Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer.” The researchers recommended removing psilocybin from Schedule I, and studies are underway to further investigate its effects on depression, anxiety, addiction, and mystical experiences.
And with prominent figures disputing worn claims about the drug’s dangers (“Magic mushrooms are one of the safest drugs in the world,” Adam Winstock, an addiction psychiatrist and founder of the Global Drug Survey, told the Guardian in 2017), it appears that states and municipalities are willing to challenge federal law in the same way they’ve led the charge in ending alcohol prohibition and expanding cannabis access. Oregon and California are expected to take up the issue of the legality of psilocybin-containing mushrooms in 2020.
While the immediate impact of decriminalization is relatively small (in the last three years there have only been 11 psilocybin cases prosecuted in Denver, Michael Pollan, the author of How to Change Your Mind, wrote for The New York Times), a lasting effect will be the conversation that the historic decriminalization of a psychedelic sparks.
But despite Maui and Hawai‘i being a vortex for psychedelic thinkers like Ram Dass (who participated in the Harvard Psilocybin Project with Timothy Leary), John C. Lilly (a dolphin researcher who also experimented with LSD), Terrence McKenna (who wrote about psychedelics and culture and spent his last days on the Big Island), and Dennis McKenna (brother of Terrence and an anthropologist in his own right, he studied ethnobotany at UH Manoa), don’t expect Maui or Hawai‘i to follow in Denver’s footsteps anytime soon.
Hawai‘i has yet to join the league of states who have decriminalized cannabis possession (though a bill on Governor David Ige’s desk would decriminalize less than three grams) and cannabis legalization efforts have died at the State Capitol for years. And, while Nikos Leverenz, the board president of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai‘i, told me the organization supports “the removal of criminal penalties for personal possession and use of psilocybin,” he added that more research is necessary, but hindered by the classification of the drug in Schedule I.
“Given its record on cannabis, action by the Drug Enforcement Administration to reschedule psilocybin is unlikely to be forthcoming,” said Leverenz.
So while it makes for fun conversation fodder (“Denver’s Flaming Skull Mayor Announces Plans To Decriminalize Magic Mushrooms,” the Onion wrote), for now expect the use of psychedelic mushrooms to remain much like the fungi’s body: mostly underground.
Photo courtesy Facebook/DecriminalizeDenver