The psychedelic renaissance in the US has been gradually progressing for over a decade now and it’s no surprise that we’re beginning to see policy reform around psychedelics—specifically, psilocybin mushrooms (also known colloquially as magic mushrooms).
For decades, psychedelic mushrooms were believed to be a potentially harmful hallucinogen with no medicinal benefits by modern western society. That was the case until 2000 when psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic or 'magic' mushrooms, was approved for study at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. Since then, dozens of groundbreaking studies have been published demonstrating the powerful therapeutic benefits of psilocybin mushrooms. Benefits that could potentially provide more effective relief for mental health issues than any other available healing modality.
This breakthrough research has many wondering how long it will be until psilocybin therapy will be available to the general public. Some cities and states have already set precedent for the rest of the country by decriminalizing and legalizing psilocybin for medicinal purposes.
Others question if psilocybin mushrooms will follow the same path of policy reform as cannabis. Are we close to living in a society where psilocybin mushrooms are available medicinally or even recreationally? Let this serve as your guide through the psychedelic awakening in the United States.
A Brief History of Psilocybin Mushrooms
Mushroom therapy may be a new concept to many people across the country, but it’s hardly a new medicine. In fact, some evidence suggests that we can trace the use of psilocybin-containing mushrooms as far back as 10,000 BCE (1)
Indigenous cultures in Central America have been using psilocybe mushrooms for thousands of years. Aztec people named psilocybin mushrooms Teonanácatl in the Nahutal language. This word was originally translated by Spanish chroniclers as “flesh of the gods” causing concern about their use. However, a more accurate translation may be “sacred mushroom” or “wondrous mushroom.” Teonanácatl is traditionally used in healing ceremonies to induce a trance-like state, produce visions, and communicate with the gods. (2)
Though psilocybin mushrooms grow naturally all over the world, it wasn’t introduced to the American mainstream until the 1950s. The story goes like this – a banker named R. Gordon Wasson went on a research trip in Mexico with his wife Valentina, a pediatrician and ethnomycologist. While they were there, they participated in a ritual psilocybin mushroom ceremony with a Mazatec curandera named Maria Sabina. Wasson found the experience so profound that he published an article about it in Life Magazine in 1957, subsequently sharing photos of Sabina and details of the sacred ritual without her consent. (3)
The famed story is a case study of the unintended consequences of sharing community-held knowledge with outsiders. Wasson's actions arguably caused harm and upheaval to Maria Sabina and her community. The Mazatec ritual consumption of psilocybin mushrooms that had remained hidden for centuries was shared with the world, triggering a wave of psychedelic tourism that continues to this day.
P. cyanescens growing in the wild. Wasson’s article also drew the attention of scientists and researchers across the world. One being Albert Hofmann, or better known as “The Father of LSD”, who went on to be the first to identify, isolate, and synthesize the psilocybin compound the following year. (4)
By the end of the 1960s, hundreds of research papers were written about psychedelics, including psilocybin. During this time, psychedelics had escaped the lab, inspiring the counterculture “hippie” movement.
Some people, including President Richard Nixon, began to view psychedelics and its users as a threat. In order to launch the “war on drugs," he leveraged fears based on somewhat biased research that claimed that psychedelics caused its users to become disillusioned with the government and ultimately revolt. (5)
In 1971, just as scientists were beginning to understand how psychedelics could potentially help people suffering from mental health issues, President Nixon passed the Controlled Substances Act. An initiative that made psilocybin-containing mushrooms among other drugs illegal and nearly impossible for scientists to obtain and study. Thus bringing psilocybin research to a screeching halt.
Cultivation Past and Present
Research on psilocybin in the United States ceased after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act, but interest, cultivation and use of psilocybin mushrooms continued. Seasonality limited supplies of fresh, wild Psilocybe cubensis from tropical Mexico and South America, creating a demand for a way to grow them safely at home. Enthusiasts’ prayers were answered with the release of Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide by O. N. Oeric and O. T. Oss in 1976. The guide was the first to offer a step-by-step process for home cultivation of psilocybin mushrooms and sold over a hundred thousand copies in its first four years of print. Paul Stamets and Jeff Chilton’s The Mushroom Cultivator (1983) paid particular attention to sterile technique, further fueling the home cultivation revolution. The evolution of psilocybin mushroom cultivation is a continuous one, built on a raw citizen science informed by thousands of enthusiasts willing to take risks, innovate, fail, and try again. What began in kitchens with single mason jars filled with homemade substrate mix has progressed to climate-controlled rooms lined with monotub racks full of mass-produced sterile substrates. In the 1970s and 80s growers honed their trade over the course of years reading paper manuals and articles in High Times magazine, then went online in the 1990s and 2000s trading tales and technique on forums like Shroomery and Mycotopia.
Todays enthusiasts can simply turn to a YouTube channel or Reddit thread and become a mushroom farmer overnight. Innovations came from unexpected places: internet entrepreneurs selling 'spore syringes', experimenting with climate controlled containers, and even using Martha Stewart branded storage closets repurposed as miniature greenhouses ideal for fruiting vertically-stacked racks of psilocybin mushrooms!
The PF Tek Cultivation Method*
In the early days of indoor psilocybin mushroom cultivation the mushroom inocula had to be made by first finding wild Psilocybe species and germinating spores on agar petri dishes, slants, or baby food jars for the more resourceful. These mushroom cultures would then be propagated and expanded onto rye berries. Rye was placed in the bottom third of a wide mouth Mason jar, supplemented with a nutrient broth, and then sealed, sterilized, and cooked in a pressure cooker. Cultivators used homemade 'glove boxes' that were sanitized allowing for a more sterile work environment. Glove boxes are plastic bins with a hole cut in each side allowing hands in rubber gloves to be placed through the holes. In this box the would-be grower could take slivers of Psilocybe culture and place it into the sterile grain jars. They'd allow the jars to colonize, and subsequently could grow mushrooms directly from the jars by opening the lids and exposing them to a humidified environment. This rudimentary cultivation technique was expanded in 1992 after Robert McPherson, aka Psylocybe Fanaticus, popularized a similar method on his early internet website.
Because psilocybin mushroom mycelium is illegal in most states, growers have long relied on spores for cultivation. Because psilocybin mushroom spores contain no active psilocybin compound, the spores skirt most legal rulings. The next great advancement for psilocybin cultivation came in the form of a syringe. Entrepreneurs starting putting spores into liquid solution and selling them for 'microscopy' use in the shadier corners of the internet. Growers used these spore syringes as a shortcut to finding wild specimens and germinating spores on agar. Now they were able to inject spores directly into the mushroom jars. The PF Tek (as in Psylocybe Fanaticus Technique) uses syringes to inject spore solution into a media of rice flour and vermiculite, lets it colonize, and grows mushrooms directly from the jars. Growers could germinate spores without the need of a glovebox or laboratory environment. Later, sterilized grain bags that had an injection port adhered to them made the process even easier to do outside of a laboratory. The spores germinate, fuse into a mycelium, and grow throughout the sterilized grain until it is fully colonized and ready to be used.
The Monotub Tek Cultivation Method*
Today, the vast majority of home 'shroom' cultivators rely on a tool for cultivation known colloquially as a monotub.
In brief, monotubs are made by drilling 1-2 inch holes around the circumference of any clear plastic storage tub made by the likes of Sterilite or Hefty. The holes are patched over with micropore filters purchased from mushroom supply shops or stuffed with the same polyfil used to fill pillows before being sanitized with 70% ethanol or isopropyl alcohol. The would-be grower fills the bottom few inches of the tub, just below where the holes are placed, with a sterilized or pasteurized manure substrate. This is usually a mix of horse manure and a carbon rich material that holds water efficiently, such as coco coir. Grain spawn, made either in jars or injection port bags as described in the PF Tek section above, is used to inoculate the monotubs by sprinkling or layering it with the manure substrate.
The tubs are kept sealed for the duration of the colonization period which usually lasts two to three weeks. When the tubs are white mats of myceliated horse poo they are cased with more coco coir, exposed to oxygen using a fan or by removing the lid, and spritzed daily to maintain moisture content. A mushroom monotub.
The Martha Tent Tek Cultivation Method*
Though Martha Stewart will likely never endorse the use of her famed indoor greenhouses for growing psilocybin mushrooms, the Martha technique, or tek in the slang used by some growers, is ascendant.
Instead of placing the clear plastic tents in a sunny window, the would-be grower usually chooses to erect it in a closet, garage, or basement. The tent is filled with colonized mushroom substrate 'blocks', in the aforementioned mushroom slang, or shallow trays. The tent is outfitted with an ultrasonic humidifier that is either ducted in from an external source, or placed on the top or bottom rack of the tent. A hole is cut into the plastic and an exhaust fan pulls air out of the tent, negatively pressurizing the growing chamber. A duct is attached to the other end of the fan and is usually vented out of a window or filtered to keep spores from entering whatever space the tent is located in.
By combining humidity and CO2 sensors with cycle timers, growers are able to fine-tune growing parameters in ways that are difficult with standard monotubs.
Where will these trends in cultivation, both legal and illicit, lead us? For nearly half a century a vast, dissociated network of tinkerers and enthusiasts has kept the flame of interest in psilocybin alive. As it adopts a mainstream status and its use becomes more culturally acceptable, will growers still rely on online forums and mail-order guides to perfect their technique? Will the legal loopholes allowing for the purchase of Psilocybin spores, which contain no illegal, mind-altering chemicals, be exploited by some large multinational looking to monopolize the growing interest in these ancient substances? Will this citizen scientist approach to cultivation parallel the cannabis industry by leading to even more innovations, novel strains, and additional psilocybin mushroom derived compounds? Only time will tell.
Psilocybin Mushroom Therapy Thirty years passed between the prohibition of Psilocybin manufacture and use, and the first legal psilocybin-based psychedelic research. It was almost 30 years before psychedelic research would be revived. In 2000, Johns Hopkins was the first to be granted permission to reinitiate psychedelic research in healthy adults. Reopening decades-old research that has allowed scientists to further understand how psilocybin can effectively treat depression, anxiety, addiction, and other mental health issues. Psilocybin therapy has the potential to revolutionize health care. But what would this model actually look like?
With the traditional model, you go to the doctor, you speak for 15 minutes, and they write you a prescription. From there, you might have a check-up every few months, but that’s the extent of the conversation. A patient receives psilocybin therapy with a counselor's guidance and support.
Psilocybin therapy involves intensive intervention over a short period of time. Compare this to antidepressants where you may be required to take them daily for months or even years.
A common misconception is that medically legalizing psilocybin would allow people to buy it from dispensaries and take it at home, similar to cannabis. On the contrary. The medical model would only make psilocybin available in specialized clinics administered by specially trained medical personnel.
Patients are required to spend weeks in counseling before their psilocybin-assisted session. Dr. Garcia-Romeu, a professor from Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, says he spends on average:
Eight hours preparing patients before they’re given any psilocybin mushrooms.
Eight hours with the patient while they’re on the psilocybin mushrooms.
Eight hours with the patient for each additional session.
Afterward, there are weeks to months of follow-up. Dr. Garcia-Romeu compares psilocybin therapy to a surgical procedure. In the sense that you would have to:
Prepare ahead of time.
Go to a specialized clinic.
Stay there for a period of time.
Follow-up with your doctor after.
“It's very labor-intensive up front”, says Dr. Garcia-Romeu “But then we tend to see again these lasting benefits where people are feeling relief...for a year or longer after a single dose.”
Dr. Garcia-Romeu goes on to explain that psilocybin therapy would allow people to forgo the negative side effects of antidepressants such as weight gain, and sexual dysfunction. Any side effects from psilocybin tend to wear off within the eight-hour session.
The Mental Health Benefits of Psilocybin Mushrooms The need for more effective mental health treatments has never been higher. 13.2% of American adults have taken antidepressants in the past 30 days. That’s more than one out of every ten people. (6)
Clinical data shows that psilocybin therapy has the potential to be significantly more effective for treating depression, anxiety, PTSD, and end-of-life psychological distress. Could the answer to America’s mental health crisis be psychedelics?
Research from Johns Hopkins has found that cancer patients who have been treated with psilocybin therapy found lasting relief from depression, anxiety, and end-of-life psychological distress. Dr. Garcia-Romeu commented that cancer patients found long-lasting benefits after just one dose of psilocybin. Most patients found relief for six months or longer.
Other psilocybin studies have shown rapid improvements in people with severe depression. Many patients reported a decrease in depressive symptoms that lasted three to six months or more.
Cultivated psilocybin mushrooms. “New (research) is suggesting that these drugs can help create new connections between brain cells. And so that's pointing to a way that (psilocybin) could have an antidepressant effect, which we didn't really understand before” - Dr. Albert Garcia-Romeu.
Another remarkable benefit of psilocybin therapy is its ability to help people overcome addiction. Dr. Garcia-Romeu says they’ve found high rates of success in using psilocybin to help smokers quit cigarettes. Outside of the clinical world, some recreational users have found some surprising benefits from taking psilocybin mushrooms. Kevin Matthews, Co-founder, and Director of The Society for Psychedelic Outreach, Reform, and Education (SPORE) and former leader of Decriminalize Denver, became involved in the psilocybin decriminalization movement after his own experience with mushrooms. “For me personally, psilocybin was in a single dose much more effective than you know, a protocol with an antidepressant.”
Matthews has also heard some interesting testimonials from patrons while campaigning in Denver. One of the most fascinating being that psilocybin mushrooms helped alleviate crippling cluster headaches after just one dose.
“I kept hearing folks say, ‘psilocybin has helped me stop drinking alcohol. It's helped me stop using nicotine or smoking cigarettes, and it's healed my relationships’.” Matthews goes on to say that not only do psilocybin mushrooms have the potential to heal our relationship with our minds, but they can also help us heal our relationships with each other. Studies have shown that psilocybin boosts creativity, empathy, and compassion. (7) Virtues that we could always use more of, especially right now.
How Safe Are Psilocybin Mushrooms? Over 50 years of bad publicity has created a stigma around psilocybin mushrooms. Many Americans struggle to see how a hallucinogen could be a safe treatment for mental health issues, let alone recreationally.
And in a time where drug overdoses are at an all-time high, many wonder if legalizing psilocybin mushrooms will only add to the mortality rate. Others worry about addiction.
While these are valid concerns, they don’t stand much ground. It’s a common misconception that psilocybin mushrooms are addictive, or even highly-toxic.
Dr. Albert Garcia-Romeu explains that psilocybin mushrooms are not addictive by nature. They build a rapid tolerance. This means that your brain adapts quickly to the drug and there’s not a compulsive-seeking component that you often see with other drugs such as alcohol or cocaine.
He further explains that psilocybin mushrooms build tolerance so quickly that if you tried to consume it multiple days in a row, you would feel little to no effect by day three.
Dr. Garcia-Romeu goes on to say that psilocybin mushrooms have low physiological toxicity. Which means there’s little risk for overdose and adverse physical effects. “You can drink enough alcohol to kill you. You can do that too with opioid medications that a doctor prescribed you, but you can't do that with psilocybin or LSD.”
As it relates to a person’s safety while in a hallucinogenic state, researchers emphasize the importance of set and setting. This means that the physical and social environment of a psychedelic experience plays a crucial role in the success of a “trip”. When psilocybin mushrooms are taken in a safe and calm environment, such as in psilocybin therapy, it’s easy to manage strong reactions as they arise. This significantly reduces the chance of adverse effects.
In the realm of recreational use, organizations such as SPORE are working to help educate the public about responsible psilocybin use. Matthews stresses the importance of spreading accurate information in the “underground” community to mitigate any risks.
What’s the Difference Between Decriminalization, Legalization, and FDA Approval?
Psilocybin-containing mushrooms are currently classified as a Schedule I drug – the federal government’s most severe drug classification. This means that, under the eyes of the law, psilocybin mushrooms currently don’t have any accepted medical benefits and have a high potential for abuse. Because of its scheduling status, it’s been nearly impossible for researchers to gain approval to study the effects of psilocybin. It wasn’t until 2000 when Johns Hopkins was granted permission to research psilocybin mushrooms that the scientific community began to discover all the therapeutic benefits that it has to offer.
Despite the government’s approval, researchers still face many challenges to the continued study of psilocybin. Regulatory paperwork and expensive costs are just a couple of the hoops that they have to jump through in order to research schedule I drugs. Dr. Garcia-Romeu and other researchers from Johns Hopkins are working toward FDA approval for psilocybin mushrooms. An initiative that would not only recognize psilocybin for its provided therapeutic benefits but also make it easier for researchers to obtain and study. Researchers aren’t the only ones who want easier access to psilocybin. Currently, there are decriminalization efforts popping up all over the country. Some have even been successful. In 2019, Denver, Colorado, and Oakland, California were the first two cities to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms. But what does this mean? Decriminalization means the law will not prosecute a person for possession, use, and cultivation of psilocybin mushrooms under a specified amount. It’s still illegal, but it’s a city or state’s lowest priority. Persons caught with psilocybin may face a fine, similar to a traffic ticket.
Oregon recently made headlines for being the first state to medically legalize psilocybin mushrooms. Now the state has two years to create guidelines to ensure a safe, effective psilocybin therapy program. Once regulations are in place, adults over the age of 21 can access psilocybin in a clinical setting with a trained medical professional. Many hope that these measures to decriminalize and medically legalize psilocybin will eventually lead to recreational legalization. This would allow civilians to legally possess, use, and cultivate psychedelic mushrooms. It would also open the doors to commodify it. There are disagreements about what path of policy reform psilocybin mushrooms should take. Clayton Ickes, the president of the Psychedelic Club, explains that even in the realm of activism, there are contradicting opinions. Some feel that psilocybin should be recreationally legalized to ensure accessibility to all. Others feel that it’s incompatible with commodification and therefore should only be decriminalized or available for medicinal purposes. As it relates to making psilocybin available for therapeutic purposes, Dr. Garcia-Romeu stresses the importance of accessibility and equity. Thousands of Americans don’t have the financial resources to access mental health care. Some fear that this same situation would prevent those who would benefit the most from psilocybin therapy from receiving treatment. It’s for this very reason that groups such as Decriminalize Maine are advocating for decriminalization in hopes that it leads to recreational legalization. Sarah Farrugia of Decriminalize Maine shares her concerns about inequality in our healthcare system: “The (healthcare system) tends to care only for people who have the privilege to access it. We see so much inequity in our healthcare system as it is that's not something that we want to play into.” Dr. Garcia-Romeu expresses his concerns for recreational legalization as well. He warns of “Bad Actors” or people who may pose as psychedelic experts, shamans, or coaches without any professional training. Not only could these “Bad Actors” be using psilocybin mushrooms in a way that’s potentially harmful, but it could also put people in a situation where they can be taken advantage of financially or physically. To prevent situations like this, education is key. That’s why groups such as The Psychedelic Club have created spaces for people to talk about safe psychedelic use and their psychedelic experiences. Ickes talks about how each individual’s relationship to psychedelics is personal and everyone has a right to their relationship with nature. As the debate between decriminalization, medical legalization, and recreational legalization continues, advocates and lawmakers will be looking to Oregon to set precedent for future policy.
The Future of Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Reform The future of psilocybin mushrooms looks promising. As the stigma around psilocybin mushrooms begins to unravel, it’s only a matter of time before we see other states follow similar paths as Oregon. But exactly how long will it be until we see serious policy reform around psilocybin? While it’s impossible to say for certain when laws will change, the future looks promising. As said by Clayton Ickes, “Culture holds the leash of policy”. Meaning the steps to psychedelic reform start by changing the cultural narrative at the ground level. Steps that are already well underway. Kevin Matthews explains that not only are more and more citizens organizing psilocybin reform, but hundreds of for-profit businesses are also entering the psychedelic space as well. A spore syringe containing liquid culture and a culture plate.
"This is going to create opportunity for folks. It's going to create jobs. It's going to have a significant impact on the mental health of our nation." It’s clear that psilocybin mushrooms have the potential to revolutionize healthcare and the way we connect with ourselves and our society. The next step to ensure policy reform is starting the conversation. Do your research and connect with groups such as The Psychedelic Club, SPORE, Decriminalize Maine, Chacruna, and other groups committed to responsible psychedelic education. Do you think psilocybin should be decriminalized, medically legalized, or recreationally legalized? Share your thoughts below.
By Allison Lucht with additional reporting by Will Broussard, Mary Barecka, Nate Prime and Matt McInnis. Illustrations by Brit Weatherbee
Learn more about the organizations interviewed in this article: Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research SPORE Decriminalize Maine The Psychedelic Club Chacruna Sources:
*The information provided in this article is not intended to aid or abet the manufacturing of any illicit substance and is for educational and harm reduction use only. North Spore’s products shall be used only for lawful purposes. North Spore does not condone the use or manufacture of any illicit substance including psilocybin.