As well as casting votes in a pivotal presidential race, some Americans will next week decide whether or not to make fungus great again. Psilocybin—magic mushrooms, as you might know them—which once was just the stuff of vivid hippie dreams, already has been decriminalized in four U.S. cities, as well as countries such as Canada and Portugal (while in Holland, they’re fully legal in “magic truffle” form). On November 3, Oregon and Washington, D.C., may join the mushroom movement.
The nation’s capital simply wants to decriminalize the drug. Oregon goes a step further: It proposes legalizing it for medical purposes and establishing an infrastructure for administering mushrooms in clinical settings by trained professionals. Though psychedelic experts agree psilocybin can help overcome mental health issues, these frameworks are proving more contentious, as are claims that the measures will curb drug arrests and incarceration.
Psilocybin is currently categorized by the government as a psychedelic drug, along with LSD and MDMA (“Molly”). Users on trips often see moving shapes, vivid colors, and distortion of objects—not to be confused with hallucinations, or spotting objects that aren’t there, says Albert Garcia-Romeu, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, and a member of that institution’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. It’s more akin to seeing a pattern on a carpet that’s “moving or waving or shimmering like the ocean,” he says.
It’s kind of unheard of to give somebody a drug on one day, and then for them to continue to reap the benefits in a long-lasting way.”
That Johns Hopkins center is one of the primary psychedelic research institutes in the world, along with NYU, Imperial College London, and the University of Zurich, all of which are reigniting psilocybin research, after it effectively stopped in 1970, after the passage of the Controlled Substance Act in the U.S., which made mushrooms a Schedule I substance, tightening research regulations. The universities are finding that the same shrooms people enjoy recreationally can help provide enduring remedies for illnesses including depression, anxiety, addiction, and end-of-life distress. “It’s kind of unheard of to give somebody a drug on one day, and then for them to continue to reap the benefits in a long-lasting way,” Garcia-Romeu says, “particularly with some of these more intractable mental health conditions.”
In Washington, D.C., government employee Melissa Lavasani found firsthand the health benefits of mushrooms, after exhausting all other treatment options for her postpartum depression and suicidal ideation. With larger doses of shrooms and other entheogens, or plant-based psychoactive substances, she was able to revisit past trauma “and deal with it head-on.” Similarly, Garcia-Romeu has talked to people whose entheogen experiences were “like a highlight reel of all the shitty things [they] ever did in their life that they regretted,” he says. “Going through that was not fun or pleasant, but in a way, it was helpful for them to let go and to forgive themselves.”
The personal discovery led Lavasani, who’d started growing shrooms at home, to propose Initiative 81: Entheogenic Plant and Fungus Policy Act of 2020, which would decriminalize mushrooms and other entheogens, such as ayahuasca, peyote, and San Pedro cactus. It would not legalize these substances; rather, they’d become lowest in priority for police, and the attorney general would not prosecute anyone caught growing or using them. Psilocybin is already decriminalized in Denver, Ann Arbor, Oakland, and Santa Cruz—and Lavasani wants this measure to pass in order to start a movement on the “more buttoned-up” East Coast. “We don’t want the floodgates to be open for psychedelic use,” she says. “We want this to be a thoughtful process.”
She views it as a police reform measure, to “end part of the War on Drugs.” While this argument holds up for decriminalizing marijuana, Garcia-Romeu says, it’s “kind of a weird red herring” with psychedelics, because they’re mainly used by white people, and arrest rates for use and possession aren’t comparatively high. Still, Lavasani argues that if it’s already a low police priority, this is a chance to modernize the law to reflect it. She’s encouraged by two internal polls on the measure and is expecting 70% to vote in favor next week.
Oregon’s approach is very different. One of the first states to legalize marijuana, Oregon aims to legalize the medical use of magic mushrooms with Measure 109, the Psilocybin Mushroom Services Program Initiative, which has been endorsed by the Democratic Party of Oregon. If passed, it would allow administration of the drug only at specially established health clinics, administered only by licensed individuals. Growing or taking shrooms at home would still not be permitted. They would strictly be for medical use, with the text stating explicitly that the reason is Oregon’s high prevalence of mental health illness, which Governor Kate Brown declared a public health crisis in 2018.
We don’t want the floodgates to be open for psychedelic use. We want this to be a thoughtful process.”
A 71-page document details the course of action if the law were to pass. There would be a two-year development period, during which the governor would appoint an Oregon Psilocybin Board, overseen by the Oregon Health Authority (OHA). That board would “ensure that the program maximizes safety and is affordable, accessible, and equitable for all who stand to benefit from psilocybin therapy,” says Sam Chapman, campaign manager for Yes on 109. Only in January 2023 would the board start receiving applications for manufacturers, clinic operators, and drug administrators. It would then distribute licenses based on to-be-determined testing standards.
Garcia-Romeu has concerns about the proposal. “I think they may be putting the cart before the horse,” he says. He foresees that unqualified so-called “shamans and life coaches” might apply as drug administrators, which is a real danger when powerful substances and vulnerable people are involved. Chapman confirms that administrators won’t need to be licensed physicians, and at this point, training and certification requirements are to be decided. The American Psychiatric Association and the Oregon Psychiatric Physicians Association both released statements opposing the measure, echoing those arguments, and also commenting on a perceived lack of due diligence. “The OPPA agrees with the FDA, that early limited trials have shown promise,” the OPPA’s statement reads. “This status does not establish the safety and efficacy of this treatment, it merely establishes the process by which to further study the treatment.”
While Johns Hopkins’s long-term aim is to allow mushrooms for medical treatment, Garcia-Romeu worries a failed first project could have permanent effects on the progress of the movement. (He also does not recommend a dispensary model, such as Oregon has for cannabis, because of the stronger nature of psilocybin and its greater potential for unexpected reactions.) He recommends a longer process of research universities collecting and releasing their data, achieving FDA approval, and implementing an infrastructure on a national level. Still, he recognizes that many people who urgently need mental health treatment have little time to waste.
Lavasani, on the other hand, commends Oregon for what she views as a safe model, and says she’s “really rooting” for the measure to pass. “I’m a normal person, and I struggled in a normal way that not very many people were talking about,” she says. “I came out of it, and I used psychedelics to come out of it. That’s okay. And that should be okay for everybody.”