Magical and medicinal
We all know about the psychedelic 'benefits' of some types of fungus. But could they also be a miracle cure for headaches, stress and depression? David McCandless investigates
30 November 2004
Thanks to a legal loophole that allows the sale of fresh, unprepared magic mushrooms, an estimated 300 vendors have sprung up across the country. But, on 13 December, in Gloucester, the first Crown Court case opens against retailers of the mushrooms. A vendor will face charges of supplying the Class A psychedelic chemical psilocybin, found in the fungi. If found guilty, he will face seven years in jail and a lucrative cottage industry will be severely curtailed, perhaps even shut down.
But increasing evidence suggests that psilocybin mushrooms may be close to that Holy Grail of drug-takers: a harmless high - and also that they may have a role to play in medicine, psychology and spirituality. A recent scientific study at the psychiatric university hospital in Zurich concluded that psilocybin poses no hazard to health - aspirin and even caffeine are more toxic. At the same time, a growing body of users is reporting startling effects that go beyond the euphoria and hallucinations that characterise the psychedelic experience. They claim greatly enhanced imagination and creativity, profound emotional and spiritual experiences, and lasting self-transformation.
"Mushrooms have changed my life," says Anthony Goodman, a part-time BBC engineer and owner of a shop that sells mushrooms in Camden. They have given him a new perspective on life, made him less guarded, more open. "They dismantle this illusion of separateness between us, and help us to better understand our connection with each other," he says.
Mushrooms have always had mystical associations. Cults around their use go back tens of thousands of years. The Aztecs worshipped them as teonanactl, the flesh of the Gods, and reserved them for their holiest ceremonies. After a brutal suppression by the Christian conquistadors, the mushroom cult disappeared from Western view for 400 years, only to be rediscovered in the 1950s. "In parts of Mexico, they were still being used in serious rituals by shamans to heal people," says Dr Andy Letcher, who is writing a book on the history of magic mushrooms.
In the West, however, thanks to the legacy of LSD, magic mushrooms are more likely to be associated with madness than mysticism. "It was first thought that mushrooms poisoned you, then that they produced 'mind-bending' symptoms identical to insanity," Letcher says. "Only now are we starting to think that substances such as psilocybin could help people."
At Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in California, Dr Charles Grob is carrying out a study in which terminal cancer patients are given psilocybin. The goal is to relieve their anxiety about death and improve the quality of their lives. "Our subjects have done very well," says Dr Grob. "They've experienced a lessening of anxiety and an improvement in mood. One is now in less pain than before."
It's still early days. Only two patients in their fifties have been treated so far, but Dr Grob believes that psilocybin and other hallucinogens have tremendous clinical potential, especially for those suffering from addiction or post-traumatic stress disorder, or who are facing death. "Mainstream psychiatry doesn't have a lot of offer these patients," he says.
Treatments such as this can act as enhanced psychotherapy, creating conditions in which the patient may have a mystical experience. "Psilocybin opens up the membrane between the conscious and the unconscious mind," says Rick Doblin, the founder and president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (Maps) in America. "It allows unconscious material to come to people's awareness. The resulting flow and emergence, similar to dreams, can be used in a range of therapeutic situations."
In America, both Maps and the Heffter Research Institute, which focuses on the effects of "psychedelic substances", are funding research into this and other areas. Several studies are under way after accidental discoveries made by recreational users of psychedelics. Government-authorised trials are under way, for example, to see if psilocybin can treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, after users reported being relieved of symptoms.
But it's still not easy getting this type of research approved. It took Dr Grob 14 years to get approval for his cancer study. Three decades after the LSD-driven turmoil of the Sixties, much antagonism remains towards psychedelics, among governments, anti-drug authorities and doctors. Even today, in an age of antidepressants and neuropharmacology, mainstream science, although interested, keeps its distance from these mind agents. "Their reaction at this stage is mostly scepticism," says Doblin. "They're waiting for the data."
Part of the problem is that psychedelics cannot shake their long association with mental illness. "These drugs are not without their risk," says Doblin. "They affect people's train of thought. At higher doses, people who are not prepared can feel as if they are losing control, going crazy, or even dying. This is the classic bad-trip experience." Maps staff run panic tents at festivals such as Burning Man in the States for just such outcomes.
Goodman recounts his worst experience. "I thought that the more mushrooms you took, the better," he says. "I ended up plunging into a nightmare. Reality was disintegrating. I lost all track of time. Of what time meant. Of what my life meant. I ended up crying my eyes out."
What happens during a bad trip, says Doblin, is a process well documented in psychiatry - ego-dissolution. "Who you think you are is being dissolved by the psilocybin and it feels as if you have to let go of your whole sense of identity." It's resisting this process that can trigger the bad trip. "But if you can let go symbolically, you can feel this sense of unity and can connect up with life beyond your individual personality. It can be very inspiring."
There are other rarer problems associated with psychedelics, which include "flashbacks" - anxiety or psychological disturbances after the effects of the drug have worn off. These effects occur most frequently in people with existing mental problems. A second effect is "post-hallucinogen perceptual disorder": a small number of users report permanent changes to their visual field, including increased sensitivity to movement and patterning in low light.
Historically, governments have needed a strong public-health case to convince parliament to back a change in the drug laws. A death or two usually helps. But, according to the Government's own figures, not a single death has been attributed to use of magic mushrooms. This is not surprising since the lethal dose is equivalent to one's own body weight in fresh fungi.
The biochemist Dr Alexander Shulgin is an international expert on psychedelic drugs. As an expert witness and adviser to the Drug Enforcement Agency in the US, he synthesised hundreds of novel mind-altering compounds and tested them on himself. For him they are tools. "They offer a much faster method than most of the classical alternatives for the accomplishment of the goals we seek: conscious awareness of our interior workings and greater clarity as to our responsibilities toward our own species and all others with whom we share this planet," he says. "Just don't drive when you're on them," he adds. "And don't make phone calls."
Lawyers in the forthcoming prosecutions believe that a complete ban will be unlikely, and they say that they will take their case to the European court if necessary. No studies are currently under way in the UK. But privately, as thousands of anonymous trip reports on the internet testify, many continue to self-medicate with mushrooms.
"I look at life differently now," reads one testimony, posted by a long-term depressive who is also being treated with the antidepressant Prozac. "Is it possible that the shrooms changed the chemicals in my brain back to normal?"
For more information, visit: www.maps.org; www.heffter.org; www.cognitiveliberty.org/shulgin