Tag Archives: Psilocybin

First, Marijuana. Are Magic Mushrooms Next?

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In Oregon and Denver, where marijuana is legal for recreational use, activists are now pushing toward a psychedelic frontier: “magic mushrooms.”

Groups in both states are sponsoring ballot measures that would eliminate criminal penalties for possession of the mushrooms whose active ingredient, psilocybin, can cause hallucinations, euphoria and changes in perception. They point to research showing that psilocybin might be helpful for people suffering from depression or anxiety.

“We don’t want individuals to lose their freedom over something that’s natural and has health benefits,” said Kevin Matthews, the campaign director of Denver for Psilocybin, the group working to decriminalize magic mushrooms in Colorado’s capital.

The recent failure of a nationally publicized campaign to decriminalize hallucinogenic mushrooms in California may not portend well for the psilocybin advocates in Oregon and Denver — though their initiatives are more limited than California’s.

The proposal in the Golden State would have decriminalized sales and transportation of magic mushrooms, not just possession. The proposed Denver measure would apply only to that city, while in Oregon mushroom use would be allowed only with the approval of a physician and under the supervision of a registered therapist.

None of the proposed initiatives envisions fully legalizing psilocybin mushrooms, which would allow the government to regulate and tax sales in a similar fashion to medical and recreational marijuana.

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In Oregon, advocates face a steep climb to qualify their measure for the ballot, because such statewide initiatives typically require hiring paid signature gatherers, said William Lunch, a political analyst for Oregon Public Broadcasting and a former political science professor at Oregon State University.

Still, familiarity with recreational marijuana may have “softened up” voters and opponents of drug decriminalization, he said. Oregon legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2015, Colorado in 2012.

The Oregon and Denver activists, echoing Lunch, say they hope voters who already accepted pot would now feel comfortable decriminalizing personal use of magic mushrooms as well.

Taking mushrooms can lead to nausea, panic attacks and, rarely, paranoia and psychosis. But they generally are considered safer and less addictive than other illegal street drugs.

Even so, Paul Hutson, professor of pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin who has conducted psilocybin research, says he is wary of the drive for decriminalization. Psilocybin isn’t safe for some people — particularly those with paranoia or psychosis, he said.

“I reject the idea that that this is a natural progression from medical marijuana,” Hutson said, noting that the safety of pot is much better established. Mushrooms, he added, “are very, very potent medicines that are affecting your mind. In the proper setting, they’re safe, but in an uncontrolled fashion, I have grave concerns.”

Kevin Matthews is the campaign director of Denver for Psilocybin, the group working to decriminalize magic mushrooms in Colorado’s capital. (Courtesy of Kevin Matthews)

Even psilocybin advocates share Hutson’s concerns. “It is such a powerful compound. People should take it very seriously when experimenting,” Matthews said.

These efforts to legitimize hallucinogenic mushrooms come at a time of renewed interest in the potential mental health benefits of psychedelics, including mushrooms, LSD and MDMA (known as ecstasy). Two small studies published in 2016 by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and New York University found that a single large dose of psilocybin, combined with psychotherapy, helped relieve depression and anxiety in cancer patients.

A British company backed by Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel plans clinical studies in eight European countries to test the use of psilocybin for depression. Other research has examined the effectiveness of psilocybin in treating alcohol and tobacco addiction.

In California, the campaign to decriminalize psilocybin was always a long shot — even though the famously liberal state legalized possession of recreational marijuana in November 2016 and sales starting this year.

California ballot measures typically require nearly 366,000 signatures to qualify, and supporters usually have to spend between $1 million and $2 million to pay signature gatherers. A Monterey County couple leading the decriminalization campaign managed to collect more than 90,000 signatures for their proposal with the help of volunteers, but they halted their efforts late last month.

The initiative would have exempted Californians 21 and over from criminal penalties for possessing, selling, transporting or cultivating psilocybin mushrooms.

Possessing them is generally a misdemeanor under California law, but selling them is a felony. State statistics on psilocybin offenses are scarce, but few people are jailed for such crimes, according to an analysis by the California attorney general’s office.

“It’s not a reckless community,” said Kitty Merchant of Marina, Calif., who spearheaded the California psilocybin campaign alongside her husband, Kevin Saunders. “It’s experimentation with your mind and your thoughts. There’s a safeness to it. And there’s an intelligence to it.”

Merchant said she and Saunders, both medical marijuana advocates, spent about $20,000 of their own money on the campaign.

In Denver, Matthews and his pro-psilocybin colleagues want voters to pass a city ordinance eliminating criminal penalties for possessing, using or growing magic mushrooms. City officials have cleared the measure for signature gathering. Supporters need 5,000 signatures to get it on the ballot in November. Matthews said he has already lined up dozens of volunteer signature gatherers.

He said he has used mushrooms to help alleviate depression and other mental health problems. A big part of the decriminalization campaign, he said, is promoting responsible use.

Tom and Sheri Eckert are working to decriminalize hallucinogenic mushrooms in Oregon, but only under the supervision of a therapist. (Courtesy of Tom Eckert)

Denver, a progressive city in a state that was the first to legalize recreational marijuana, “is a good testing place for this initiative nationwide,” Matthews said. Just getting it on the ballot, whether or not it passes, would be “a huge victory,” he added.

In Oregon, activists are proposing a measure for the 2020 ballot that would decriminalize psilocybin statewide for adults 21 and over who get approval from their doctors and agree to participate in a “psilocybin service.” The service would include a preparatory meeting with a therapist, one session of supervised mushroom use and a follow-up visit. Patients would be under the care of state-certified “Psilocybin Service Facilitators.”

Tom Eckert, a Portland, Ore.-based therapist who leads the psilocybin decriminalization campaign with his wife, Sheri, said the proposed limitations on psilocybin use are important.

“Psilocybin is generally safe, but it puts you in a vulnerable state of mind,” he said. “If you do it in the wrong setting, things can go sideways.”

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How A Psychedelic Drug Helps Cancer Patients Overcome Anxiety

December 3, 20167:00 AM ET

Robin Marantz Henig

 

Psychedelic drugs could provide relief for anxiety and depression among advanced cancer patients.

The brilliantly-colored shapes reminded Carol Vincent of fluorescent deep-sea creatures, and they floated past her languidly. She was overwhelmed by their beauty — and then suddenly, as if in a dream, she was out somewhere in deep space instead. “Oh, wow,” she thought, overwhelmed all over again. She had been an amateur skydiver in her youth, but this sensation didn’t come with any sense of speeding or falling or even having a body at all. She was just hovering there, gazing at the universe.

Vincent was having a psychedelic experience, taking part in one of the two studies just published that look at whether cancer patients like her could overcome their death-related anxiety and depression with a single dose of psilocybin.

It turned out they could, according to the studies, conducted at New York University and Johns Hopkins and reported this week in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. NYU and Hopkins scientists gave synthetic psilocybin, the hallucinogenic component of “magic mushrooms,” to a combined total of 80 people with advanced cancer suffering from depression, anxiety, and “existential angst.” At follow-up six months or more later, two-thirds of the subjects said their anxiety and depression had pretty much disappeared after a single dose.

And about 80 percent said the psilocybin experience was “among the most personally meaningful of their lives,” Roland Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and leader of the Hopkins team, said in an interview.

That’s how it was for Vincent, one of the volunteers in Griffiths’ study. By the time she found her way to Hopkins in 2014, Vincent, now 61, had been living for six years with a time bomb of a diagnosis: follicular non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which she was told was incurable. It was asymptomatic at the time except for a few enlarged lymph nodes, but was expected to start growing at some undefined future date; when it did, Vincent would have to start chemotherapy just to keep it in check. By 2014, still symptom-free, Vincent had grown moderately anxious, depressed, and wary, on continual high alert for signs that the cancer growth had finally begun.

“The anvil over your head, the constant surveillance of your health — it takes a toll,” says Vincent, who owns an advertising agency in Victoria, British Columbia. She found herself thinking, “What’s the point of this? All I’m doing is waiting for the lymphoma. There was no sense of being able to look forward to something.” When she wasn’t worrying about her cancer, she was worrying about her son, then in his mid-20s and going through a difficult time. What would happen to him if she died?

Participating in the psilocybin study, she says, was the first thing she’d looked forward to in years.

The experiment involved two treatments with psilocybin, roughly one month apart — one at a dose high enough to bring on a markedly altered state of consciousness, the other at a very low dose to serve as a control. It’s difficult to design an experiment like this to compare treatment with an actual placebo, since it’s obvious to everyone when a psychedelic experience is underway.

The NYU study used a design similar to Hopkins’ but with an “active placebo,” the B vitamin niacin, instead of very-low-dose psilocybin as the control. Niacin speeds up heart rate but doesn’t have any psychedelic effect. In both studies it was random whether a volunteer got the dose or the control first, but everyone got both, and the order seemed to make no difference in the outcome.

Vincent had to travel from her home in Victoria to Baltimore for the sessions; her travel costs were covered by the Heffter Research Institute, the New Mexico nonprofit that funded both studies. She spent the day before each treatment with the two Hopkins staffers who would be her “guides” during the psilocybin trip. They helped her anticipate some of the emotional issues — the kind of baggage everyone has — that might come to the fore during the experience.

The guides told Vincent that she might encounter some hallucinations that were frightening, and that she shouldn’t try to run away from them. “If you see scary stuff,” they told her, “just open up and walk right in.”

They repeated that line the following day — “just open up and walk right in” — when Vincent returned to Hopkins at 9 a.m., having eaten a light breakfast. The treatment took place in a hospital room designed to feel as homey as possible. “It felt like your first apartment after college, circa 1970,” she says, with a beige couch, a couple of armchairs and some abstract art on the wall.

Vincent was given the pill in a ceramic chalice, and in about 20 minutes she started to feel woozy. She lay down on the couch, put on some eye shades and headphones to block out exterior sights and sounds, and focused on what was happening inside her head. The headphones delivered a carefully-chosen playlist of Western classical music, from Bach and Beethoven to Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” interspersed with some sitar music and Buddhist chants. Vincent recalled the music as mostly soothing or uplifting, though occasionally there were some brooding pieces in a minor key that led her images to a darker place.

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With the music as background, Vincent started to experience a sequence of vivid hallucinations that took her from the deep sea to vast outer space. Listening to her describe it is like listening to anyone describe a dream — it’s a disjointed series of scenes, for which the intensity and meaning can be hard to convey.

She remembered seeing neon geometric shapes, a gold shield spelling out the name Jesus, a whole series of cartoon characters — a fish, a rabbit, a horse, a pirate ship, a castle, a crab, a superhero in a cape — and at some point she entered a crystal cave encrusted with prisms. “It was crazy how overwhelmed by the beauty I was,” she says, sometimes to the point of weeping. “Everything I was looking at was so spectacular.”

At one point she heard herself laughing in her son’s voice, in her brother’s voice, and in the voices of other family members. The cartoon characters kept appearing in the midst of all that spectacular beauty, especially the “comical crab” that emerged two more times. She saw a frightening black vault, which she thought might contain something terrifying. But remembering her guides’ advice to “just open up and walk right in,” she investigated, and found that the only thing inside it was herself.

When the experience was over, about six hours after it began, the guides sent Vincent back to the hotel with her son, who had accompanied her to Baltimore, and asked her to write down what she’d visualized and what she thought about it.

Griffiths had at first been worried about giving psychedelics to cancer patients like Vincent, fearing they might actually become even more afraid of death by taking “a look into the existential void.”

But even though some research participants did have moments of panic in which they thought they were losing their minds or were about to die, he said the guides were always able to settle them down, and never had to resort to the antipsychotic drugs they had on hand for emergencies. (The NYU guides never had to use theirs, either.)

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Many subjects came away feeling uplifted, Griffiths says, talking about “a sense of unity,” feeling part of “an interconnected whole.” He adds that even people who are atheists, as Vincent is, described the feeling as precious, meaningful or even sacred.

The reasons for the power and persistence of psilocybin’s impact are still “a big mystery,” according to Griffiths. “That’s what makes this research, frankly, so exciting,” he says. “There’s so much that’s unknown, and it holds the promise for really understanding the nature of human meaning-making and consciousness.”

He says he looks forward to using psilocybin in other patient populations, not just people with terminal diagnoses, to help answer larger existential questions that are “so critical to our experience as human organisms.”

Two and a half years after the psychedelic experience, Carol Vincent is still symptom-free, but she’s not as terrified of the “anvil” hanging over her, no longer waiting in dread for the cancer to show itself. “I didn’t get answers to questions like, ‘Where are you, God?’ or ‘Why did I get cancer?’ ” she says. What she got instead, she says, was the realization that all the fears and worries that “take up so much of my mental real estate” turn out to be “really insignificant” in the context of the big picture of the universe.

This insight was heightened by one small detail of her psilocybin trip, which has stayed with her all this time: that little cartoon crab that floated into her vision along with the other animated characters.

“I saw that crab three times,” Vincent says. The crab, she later realized, is the astrological sign of cancer — the disease that terrified her, and also the sign that both her son and her mother were born under. These were the three things in her life that she cared about, and worried over, most deeply, she says. “And here they were, appearing as comic relief.”

Science writer Robin Marantz Henig is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the author of nine books.

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