Could magic mushrooms be the next marijuana?

New mothers are doing it to relieve postpartum depression. Tech CEOs are partaking to enhance productivity. Artists seek a creative boost, and chronic pain sufferers want relief. Microdosing — taking very small doses of psychedelic drugs, such as LSD or psilocybin mushrooms — has entered the cultural consciousness as the panacea of the moment.

The trend — which is also illegal — is part of a new dawning awareness of psychedelics, in particular psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms. Several cities and states, including New York, this year have introduced legislation to decriminalize natural psychedelics including psilocybin.

Not since the 1960s has there been so much interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics with multiple clinical studies on psilocybin indicating widespread benefits, from treating depression and drug addiction to relieving end-of-life anxiety. Johns Hopkins has an entire center now devoted to research on the natural compound.

But when it comes to microdosing — taking a “sub-perceptual” or infinitesimal dose, roughly one-20th to one-10th of a recreational dose, on a semi-regular basis — the jury is still out, with new research suggesting a potential placebo effect.

As psychotherapist Dee Dee Goldpaugh, LSCW, who has a practice in Woodstock and New York City, says, “People who microdose and believe they will get better, tend to do so.”

Alternatively, psychedelic therapy, in which Goldpaugh specializes, involves taking doses large enough to feel a perceptible shift in consciousness in the presence of — or followed by sessions with — a trained mental health professional.

“What we do know from the clinical literature,” said Goldpaugh, who is also the Community Support and Integration Director of the Hudson Valley Psychedelic Society (HVPS), “is in a controlled safe clinical context, with therapeutic support, high doses of psilocybin seem to produce antidepressant effects.”

From criminalization to marijuana mainstream

In the mid-20th century, therapists began to experiment with psilocybin, but after a backlash against the countercultural movement of the 1960s and its embrace of psychedelics, magic mushrooms were designated illegal and later classified as a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration, on par with heroin, but also marijuana, “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Research ground to a halt.

Visual essay: The psychedelic life in Millbrook

Dr. Timothy Leary, at Dieterich Pond on the Millbrook estate where he and his followers were lived from 1963 until early 1968.

Alvis Upitis/Getty Images

How Timothy Leary and a Millbrook mansion shaped the 1960s psychedelic movement

It wasn’t until 2000 that Johns Hopkins University obtained the first regulatory approval in the United States to reinitiate research with psychedelics. Now, following a growing tranche of studies that demonstrate psilocybin’s therapeutic benefits, the compound is gaining acceptance as a safe and potentially more effective treatment for depression than existing therapies. 

Legislative measures are emerging in response. In June 2019, Oakland, California passed a groundbreaking resolution to decriminalize natural psychedelics, including psilocybin. In November 2020, Oregon became the first state in the country to create a legal framework for the therapeutic use of psilocybin in licensed facilities under the guidance of trained professionals.

Other states look likely to follow. In Florida, a bill has been introduced that would require the state to research the medical benefits of psilocybin; in Hawaii, legislation seeks to decriminalize psilocybin and legalize its medical use. Similar bills are working their way through Pennsylvania, Texas, and Missouri. Nine cities have also enacted local government reforms.

Here in New York, multiple bills have been introduced to the state legislature to legalize and expand its medicinal use. Assemblymember Patrick Burke, representing the Buffalo region, introduced a bill on Dec. 13 to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use and create facilities where they could be grown and administered, with a focus on prioritizing access to veterans and first responders.

Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal, who represents a Manhattan district, introduced a bill in June 2021 that seeks to amend public health law to allow the creation of a public psychedelic research institute and a psychedelic substances therapeutic research program. She also sponsored an Assembly bill to decriminalize psilocybin.

Rosenthal was moved to introduce the measure after reading an account of someone with treatment resistant depression who tried 15 different medications before finding relief through a psilocybin clinical trial. 

“This isn’t meant to be something pedaled on street corners,” she said. “It’s a serious treatment option for a myriad of illnesses and mental health states. There’s so much potential, and I want to make sure New York is in on it.”

Both of her bills have been referred to the Health Committee. “Our next step is to do a lot of education.”

So could magic mushrooms be on the cusp of becoming the next marijuana — a natural therapy available in a regulated market?

“It’s not ‘counterculture.’ Mainstream medicine is coming to realize it could be very helpful to people in the grips of recalcitrant illnesses,” Rosenthal said.

The magic in the mushrooms

Woodstock psychotherapist Dee Dee Goldpaugh, LSCW, provides Psychedelic Integration Therapy, a fast-growing specialty. Rather than administer psychedelic substances within a session, they process a patient's previous experiences with psilocybin in subsequent sessions.

Woodstock psychotherapist Dee Dee Goldpaugh, LSCW, provides Psychedelic Integration Therapy, a fast-growing specialty. Rather than administer psychedelic substances within a session, they process a patient’s previous experiences with psilocybin in subsequent sessions.

Courtesy Dee Dee Goldpaugh

Most drugs that treat depression are variations on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), like Prozac. Goldpaugh, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, explains that these drugs work by “blunting certain overwhelming emotions, rather than getting to the root cause.”

Psilocybin, when taken under the instruction of clinicians or with trustworthy guides, alongside integrative therapy, can help people feel more open, tolerant and understanding, says Goldpaugh. It induces neuroplasticity, meaning the brain is able to rework entrenched thought patterns. Psilocybin also often causes mystical experiences, which, with the right support, can create meaningful change to an individual’s life or sense of self, advocates say.

“All of those things can address the root cause of some of our issues, like addiction or depression, rather than try to suppress symptoms,” said Goldpaugh, who has amassed hundreds of clinical hours providing Psychedelic Integration Therapy, now a fast-growing specialty. This involves supportive therapy to process patients’ previous psychedelic experience, rather than administering any substances within the session.

Goldpaugh came to this specialty in psychedelics through a personal journey. “I experienced trauma and had a PTSD diagnosis,” they said. “I had many forms of conventional therapy. I had achieved function, but not really healing.”

They then traveled to Peru to experience a healing ceremony in an indigenous community in the Andes involving the natural psychedelic San Pedro, found in a cactus plant and known as echinopsis pachanoi.

“I was very lucky to be able to do that. The ability to go where there was oversight, safety, trustworthy guides, and to be in a legal context that was traditional and shamanic — it was a life-changing experience. I came back with a passion for finding ways to help this movement forward, while still operating within the parameters of my license.”    

Part of that work was to join the Hudson Valley Psychedelic Society (HVPS). HVPS was founded in January 2020 by Daniel Grauer, the author of “Psychedelic Consciousness: Plant Intelligence for Healing Ourselves and Our Fragmented World.” Grauer, who lives in a homesteading community in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, held an informal outdoor meeting last year to gauge interest in the idea and was overwhelmed by the response.

Now the board of the volunteer-run nonprofit includes a journalist, a neuroscientist, a shamanic practitioner, activists, teachers, and psychotherapists.

“We wanted to provide local advocacy, education and community support to foster the safe, equitable integration of psychedelics into our region,” Grauer said. “We want to make sure it’s decriminalized, regulated, and legalized, and we also want to make sure everyone is as safe as possible out there.” 

The urgent need for new therapeutic treatments, said Grauer, has grown in response to the epidemic of opioid abuse, the pandemic and its corresponding mental health crisis, and failed drug policies, which have disproportionately impacted communities of color.

“When you collectively put together depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, we’re talking about over 55 million Americans suffering, and we don’t have great medicine in our current paradigm to help treat people,” Grauer said. “Folks are really looking for some healing.”

HVPS is working alongside the New York branch of Decriminalize Nature — the group involved in Oakland’s successful decriminalization resolution in 2019 — to reach out to multiple municipalities to propose a resolution on a city or township level that would “decriminalize the possession, cultivation, exchange and ceremonial use of psychedelic plants and fungi and take steps towards ending the war on drugs.” With support at the local level, the idea is that this would then bolster support for state level efforts.  

While a resolution adopted by a town can’t change the state or federal law, it can signal to local officials to prevent resources from being used in the investigation, arrest, or prosecution of individuals who take psilocybin. This would mark a turning point toward de facto decriminalization, with a hands-off approach to recreational or medicinal use.

Daniel Grauer founded the Hudson Valley Psychedelic Society in 2020. The volunteer-run nonprofit advocates for psychedelics including psilocybin to be decriminalized, regulated, and legalized.

Daniel Grauer founded the Hudson Valley Psychedelic Society in 2020. The volunteer-run nonprofit advocates for psychedelics including psilocybin to be decriminalized, regulated, and legalized.

Hudson Valley Psychedelic Society

Brendan Cox, retired Chief of Police for Albany and Law Enforcement Against Drugs & Violence (LEAD) activist, is one of the supporters of a local resolution. “We know through research that psychedelics can help people with PTSD … [and] folks who have substance abuse disorders,” he said in a YouTube video. He later added, “Psychedelics are not causing some rash number of public safety calls across the state.”

Beyond the use of psychedelics in a therapeutic context, advocates see decriminalization as a matter of cognitive liberty, religious freedom, and social justice. Indigenous communities have used psychoactive plants, like peyote and others, ceremonially for centuries.

“Could we have safe community-based use of psychedelic medicines that could be in some way not appropriative, but parallel to the way indigenous communities have used these medicines?” Goldpaugh questioned. 

Weighing potential for abuse

Despite talk of a psychedelic renaissance underway, there are legitimate concerns. While the drug psilocybin is widely considered safe — it is not physiologically addictive and causes no organ damage even in high doses — more research is needed on possible side effects, especially when it comes to individuals with underlying mental health disorders, who are often screened out of clinical trials.

Psilocybin researchers and experts also point to the need for consumption in a controlled setting for safety.

“If it’s accessible by a prescription and used in a controlled, clinical setting, I could see where that would be helpful,” said Christopher Dennehy, LCSW, CASAC, and the Clinical Director of Step One, a private outpatient clinic for substance abuse treatment with three locations in Ulster County.

Out of the roughly 650 clients that Step One currently serves, no one is directly seeking treatment solely because of their psychedelic use. But it’s possible that making psychedelics more readily available might encourage some people to partake without due caution.

“There’s people who have significant psychotic breaks, and not in a good way, with psychedelics,” he says.

“The same people taking grandma’s oxycontin [might] never think of doing heroin, but they are actually doing heroin, it’s just packaged in a nice little pill,” said Dennehy. “So if psychedelics are packaged in [the same] way [as medicine], that might actually open the door for some people,” and make them feel more comfortable using it.

Many already do. Psychedelic retreats in countries like Costa Rica, Mexico and Jamaica, where the substances aren’t prohibited, as well as underground across the United States, promise life-changing transformation, but guests might not be properly supervised and there’s no regulation of credentials. The New York Times recently reported on the potential dangers of this emerging “wellness” industry, from the onset of psychosis to accounts of abuse while under the influence.

A new podcast from New York magazine called “Power Trip” also explores “the dark underbelly of psychedelic therapy.” Though broadly speaking, the focus is on abuse of therapy providers rather than the psychoactive substances. 

Planting seeds of profit

With John Hopkins University, Mount Sinai and NYU Langone setting up psychedelic medicine research centers, and millions of dollars of funding pouring in, there is already a rush to commercialize the field.

Advocates fear a future in which boutique treatments are available only for the relatively wealthy — like the ketamine treatment course at the national network of wellness clinics called Field Trip Health, which starts at $4,100. Equity of access is key, so communities who historically have been disenfranchised from the medical establishment can also benefit from these medicines, says Grauer.

Other priorities include adequate training for practitioners, an ethics board, and facilitators who come from not just clinical backgrounds, but also ancestral and indigenous traditions.

“I believe in the treatment,” Goldpaugh said, “but we have to have a really critical eye on how these treatments are getting to people.”

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.