Terence Mckenna, writer, psychonaut, conduit of the mushroom and frequent lecturer in Seattle, said, “Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behavior and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.”
His words may offend some readers, but for others, his take on psychedelics and mushrooms in particular, pique an insatiable curiosity for consciousness exploration. Indeed, in the last few years new interest using psilocybe in psychological and neurological research has started to bud. This interest has spurred the Ballard News-Tribune to investigate an underground mushroom culture right here in the Puget Sound region.
Psilocin and psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine) are the active psychedelic compounds in “magic mushrooms” that create the psychoactive effects. The compounds are similar to serotonin, an important neurotransmitter in humans that affects mood and wakefulness among other things.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, psilocybin is classified as a schedule one substance under the Controlled Substance Act, meaning “It has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision."
The National Drug Institute reports that users ingest the mushroom after drying them or brewing a tea. The effects of psilocybin appear 20 minutes after ingestion and last approximately six hours. Users describe spiritual insight, the “giggles” and a sense of euphoric complacency, as wells visual and other sensory hallucinations.
Research in the use of psilocybin specifically is scarce. The NDI says “It is difficult to gauge the extent of use of these hallucinogens because most data sources that quantify drug use exclude these drugs.” However, in a 2008 study they found that 7.8 percent of high school seniors had used hallucinogens other than LSD. Peyote, psilocybin, and others hallucinogens were lumped into that study group.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, where there is an abundance of psychedelic mushrooms growing in park turfs to the Jones’ finely manicured lawn, there is a fringe populous that shares McKenna’s enthusiasm for the fungus.
It’s no wonder that a victim in a recent robbery downtown was in union with the “shroom.” According to a Seattle Police report from October 19, four suspects attacked a victim and tried to take his backpack. Officers arrested the suspects quickly. However, when the suspects were secured they could not find the victim to return his backpack. Incidentally, the bag contained a large quantity of psychedelic mushrooms. The victim had fled the scene. Seattle Police described the incident as getting “Two birds with one stone.”
But according to Detective Drew Fowler with Seattle Police Department, officers are not actively looking for people hunting magic mushrooms. Fowler explained that although officers have intent to arrest any person possessing psilocybe containing mushrooms, there are more threatening offenders they are concerned with like those dealing types of cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin.
“We are responding to 911 calls constantly, and finding malicious drug dealers of different, more harsh drugs is a major concern, rather than arresting someone meandering in the woods,” said Fowler.
Fowler explained that it’s not drugs alone that are the problem, but more so people’s interaction with them and the peripheral problems that are associated with dealing drugs like violence, addiction and theft.
“Mushrooms are growing and occurring naturally in the northwest environment and not illegal until picked for someone to use. So it’s kind of an odd straddling of the law."
However, when SPD does encounter mushrooms they have a good idea if there is intent to sell.
“A lot of it depends on the state of the mushroom. If they have been parceled apart with baggies and there are wads of cash and a scale, it’s a clear indication a person is attempting to sell and profit from them illegally.”
So what is growing out there?
According to a mushroom picker, “Merkel” -- a Fremont resident who asked that his identity not be revealed -- four of the most common species of psilocybe containing mushrooms in the region are Pilocybe cyanescens, Psilocybe semilanceata (Liberty caps), Psilocybe stuntzii (Blue ringers or Stunzi’s) and Cortinarius azureus. However, there are more species that more versed pickers are aware of.
Merkel is around 30 and has been picking mushrooms in the region for 10 years. He reluctantly told the Ballard News-Tribune that the most popular place to find psilocybe mushrooms is the Washington Park Arboretum. However, he said mushrooms basically grow everywhere, and that “You just have to have an eye for them.”
“I can be walking down the street after a good rain and I will see them in chipped areas in front of a businesses. But you don’t want to squat down and look during the day: that’s too obvious. I go at night or in the early morning,” said Merkel.
Merkel explained that October to November is the prime time to pick, right after the first rains of the fall and up to the first frost of the winter season.
His mushroom “patches” are found throughout the city and he checks them every season. He said he has been stopped about four times by SPD, but that he has never been arrested.
“They usually just ask what I’m doing there, and the trick is to have an excuse ready – something like ‘I lost my girlfriend’s ring yesterday’ or ‘I’m in a mushroom club.’”
However, getting stopped by the police is a secondary concern for Merkel; he’s more worried about “irresponsible” pickers finding the young “button” mushrooms and picking them before they have a chance to release their spores and inoculate the area for next season. Merkel prides himself as a “sustainable psilocybe mushroom forager.” He said that he’s found some of his patches decimated by careless pickers who rip the young mushrooms out from the ground rather than cutting or pinching the stem. He said that the mushrooms people see on the surface are just the fruit of a much larger organism -- the mycelium -- living underground.
Motivation for mushrooms?
“One aspect is curiosity, I guess. I think people want to know and experience more and learn all that there is about consciousness and experience. And two, we get so distracted with out busy lives, with work and emails, that it’s nice to get a different perspective and feel like a kid again and notice the little things. … I could be out hiking and see stuff anew. It’s like a church everywhere and it turns over a new leaf.”
Merkel said that for him and his friends the experience or “trips” from the mushrooms he picks is associated with the season change, and is a way to start fresh and get a different perspective before hunkering down for a long winter.
In the past Merkel has picked more mushrooms than he can consume. He admits that he has sold them on occasion. However, he said that people are less interested in mushrooms today than they were when he first started picking 10 years ago.
Indeed, Merkel is not the only one that has seen mushroom interest wane. Marian Maxwell, President of the Puget Sound Mycological Society, said that there are fewer people asking her and her colleagues to identify psilocybe containing mushrooms at PSMS events. She said back in the 80’s there were much more people inquiring about psilocybe mushrooms.
“I remember one time someone showed up with dilated pupils, and they asked me to identify some. But obviously they knew what they were looking for because they had already eaten them and were experiencing the effects,” said Maxwell.
“Many young people in our area do try them a time or two. A certain percentage seems to enjoy them as recreational drugs. In other cultures taking them is for spiritual awakenings and realization, and it is a serious thing not to be taken lightly. They feel it is a conduit to communing with God. In our culture for many it is to escape...and for some, for a spiritual awakening as well.”
However, where interest for getting high has dropped off, psychological and neurological research is blooming. With legal approval from the FDA, some researchers are finding out that psilocybin may have benefits for addiction, post traumatic stress, anxiety and terminally ill patients reconciling with their own death.
But Maxwell said that the mushroom is much more than that.
“Psilocybin mushrooms are saprophytes, meaning they are forest recyclers. Many decay dead plants so that the nutrients (Carbon and minerals, etc.) become bio-available to other organisms. Some of them live on dung. In all they are one of the components that make our environment healthier because they fulfill an important niche in the ecosystem.”
No matter one’s perspective on psilocybin, it remains the stuff of wonder, fear and fascination, contentious in the loam of culture, yet boundless in possibility for spirituality, biology and psychology.
28 October 2014
Ballard News Tribune
Photo by Jess Mushroom.
Image: Psilocybe cyanescens found in a Seattle park. Jess Mushroom.
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