The Mushrooms Are Slowly Taking Effect

A vote to decriminalize psilocybin in Denver is fueling a national discourse on the health benefits of psychedelics.

Peter Dejong / AP

If you’re looking to be convicted of crimes, don’t go eating psychedelic mushrooms in Denver.

Today the city is expected to officially decriminalize possession of the mind-altering fungus. Based on a ballot measure decided last week, citizens of Denver can more confidently grow and eat mushrooms that contain psilocybin, the perception-altering compound found in some 200 species.

Though only 11 people have been prosecuted in Denver for psilocybin possession in the past three years, local advocates such as the Denver Psilocybin Initiative believe that decriminalization could open the door to more widespread use for various medicinal reasons. It could also be a bellwether for the nation, and the world, as people begin to reflect on why psychedelic mushrooms are among the most tightly regulated ingestible substances on the planet, even though researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently found that they pose no risk of creating physical dependence and a low risk of abuse and harm.

It’s still not legal to possess psilocybin mushrooms in Denver, or certainly to sell them. Much less to claim that you are “the lizard king” in a public park while eating pomegranate seeds out of a human head. No, certainly not. The measure says only that punishing people for having some mushrooms for personal use falls among the “lowest law-enforcement priority.”

But it comes in the context of a lumbering cultural embrace of the drug. Legalization measures are anticipated on ballots in California and Oregon in 2020, and movements are afoot in Canada and Australia. In academia, clinical research on psychedelics is surging back into vogue, with at least some data now suggesting benefits for depression, anxiety, cluster headaches, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and pain, among other conditions.

Such uses are recounted in Michael Pollan’s recent book, How to Change Your Mind, which details his own psychedelic escapades. Pollan depicts psychedelics as a promising medical treatment that was too long shunned by the medical community due to taboos and impediments to research funding. The case was convincing enough that the publisher included a disclaimer that the book is not “intended to encourage you to break the law.”

“The law” came after a post–World War II psychedelic boom. In 1947, the drug company Sandoz created lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, to treat psychosis. Then, as a shorter-acting alternative, the company made a synthetic version of psilocybin called Indocybin. It was sold until 1966, when the cultural tide turned again, in concert with a global crackdown on drugs that culminated in a 1971 meeting of the United Nations. The convention ruled that psychedelics such as MDMA, psilocybin, and LSD were to be prohibited “except for scientific and very limited medical purposes,” and that even those should be approved and closely monitored by the state.

In the United States, that meant research using these substances could be undertaken only after approval by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Mushrooms were classified as Schedule I drugs, along with heroin and other banned substances that were considered dangerous and without any medical use. This created regulatory hurdles for researchers, as well as called into question the very safety and legitimacy of doing research on a now-illegal drug in the first place. According to a history in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, making psychedelic drugs Schedule I was “not based on any consideration of their physical harms, but on the assumption that there were no medical benefits.” And how could there ever be, if research was to be so limited?

This is finally being reconsidered, in what Pollan calls a “renaissance” of scientific thought. “If I lived in Denver, I think I would vote for [decriminalization],” Pollan told Anderson Cooper last week. “I just don’t think people should go to jail for the personal use of a psychedelic mushroom.”

Cooper furrowed his eyebrow and asked about concerns that mushroom decriminalization raises the “slippery slope” argument—that Denver’s move could lead to legalization and then, eventually, to some sort of nation of drugged-out, deadbeat dropouts. Pollan said he would not support legalization. But given the ongoing “mental-health crisis,” he said, the national mind should be open to psychedelic solutions.

The argument against legalization includes warnings that the marijuana legalization now sweeping the nation also began with decriminalization in Denver. Mushrooms and marijuana have significant functional differences, but are sometimes conflated because both have medicinal values but are not pharmaceuticals in the traditional sense. At a time of mounting anti-corporate sentiment and diminishing access to affordable health care, alternative ideas about medicine are creeping into the mainstream.

If you spend even five minutes watching my inbox, you’re likely to see an unsolicited email from someone doing marketing and publicity for the marijuana industry, hawking mints or seltzers or skin-care products. The growth of cannabis is a reminder that once there is money to be made, industries form lobbies in Washington, D.C., and it becomes difficult to contain the profit-driven energies that have put CBD in every conceivable product, and that would so do with THC where legal.

Even if these products aren’t inherently dangerous, for advocates of marijuana as a source of medicine, the mass marketing actually risks a delegitimizing effect. People have difficulty conceptualizing any compound as a medically necessary drug—to be taken seriously and covered by insurance—and also as something that you do for fun, and also as something that’s in your lip gloss.

Currently, the “mushroom lobby” amounts to a microscopic spore in the fungal ecosystem that is lobbying. The American Mushroom Institute represents the country’s (currently legal) mushroom growers, and it spends an average of $40,000 a year on lobbying. For scale, makers of socially sanctioned, legal medicines—Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America—spent $28 million lobbying last year. (That’s in addition to much lobbying by individual drug corporations; Pfizer alone spent an additional $11.5 million.)

For now, Denver’s small measure is not necessarily good or bad from a health perspective, but simply a redirection of criminal-justice resources toward other issues. The substantive change would be if, down the line, powerful interests decide there is money to be made in psilocybin. Until then, as Pollan put it, “I think this is going to start a national conversation that’s long overdue.”