Magic mushrooms have been used by humans since the beginning of recorded history—but for most Americans, a Life magazine article published in 1957 was their first exposure to the concept of hallucinogenic fungi.
R. Gordon Wasson, a J. P. Morgan executive, was a mycological enthusiast who had read about a supposed “divine mushroom” found only in distant corners of the world. In 1955 he tried these mushrooms for the first time in the mountainous Oaxaca region of southern Mexico. The ceremony was conducted by Maria Sabina, a curandera, or a traditional female folk healer of the Mazatec people.
The experience did not end well for Sabina and her community. After Life published Wasson’s account of his experience, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” foreigners flooded the village searching for these so-called magic fungi. Sabina was blamed, ostracized and arrested by police for drug dealing. Wasson later expressed regret for exposing her name, image and location to the wider world without her consent—but his essay had opened Pandora’s proverbial box, and word of this hallucinogenic substance spread swiftly in the West.
Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary read Wasson's essay and decided to seek out these magic mushrooms for himself. Of his psychedelic journey in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Leary said he learned “more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than ... in the preceding 15 years of studying and doing research in psychology.” He returned on a mission to evangelize these mushrooms and founded the Harvard Psilocybin Project.
It didn’t take long before the popular conception of magic mushrooms went from cultural curiosity and consciousness-expansion tool to dangerous drug that threatened to destroy America’s youth. Harvard fired Leary and his associate Richard Alpert, later known as Ram Dass. (Prior to Leary’s sacking, the last person fired from Harvard had been Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was banned from campus for 30 years after delivering an incendiary commencement speech in 1838 that critiqued Christianity).
At a 1967 Human Be-In, a gathering of 30,000 people in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Leary told the crowd to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Horror stories were percolating through the mainstream media about terrible psychedelic trips, LSD “victims” and the supposed permanent brain damage and psychosis that psychedelic substances like mushrooms could inflict. Everyone heard lurid tales of the college students who went blind after staring at the sun, or threw themselves out windows during trips—even though those stories were demonstrably false.
This vilification of psychedelics terrified the public and emboldened then-President Nixon to declare Leary “the most dangerous man in America” as well as signing the Controlled Substances Act. Passed by Congress in 1970, the new law classified all hallucinogens, including magic mushrooms, as Schedule I substances with a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.
Mushrooms never left the counterculture, but the new laws effectively ended all research into their properties. By the late 1990s, however, some researchers had made new assessments of early psychedelic research, and re-opened the idea of examining psychedelics’ potential to treat depression, addiction and anxiety. The first clinical study of psilocybin (the psychoactive component of magic mushrooms) in humans was published in 2006, and modern research reported that magic mushrooms were not hazardous to physical health. A 2011 study of psilocybin treatment for anxiety in patients with late-stage cancer made headlines, and later studies confirmed that many patients reported “substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety.”
Much like cannabis, magic mushrooms gained clinical and popular support when they became seen as medicine. Even the most conservative, anti-drug Americans tend to agree that veterans with intractable PTSD deserve effective therapies, especially when recommended by their doctors. Legislators and activists even in deep red states are making the case that our national mental health crisis requires new treatments, and that people suffering from serious depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and addiction should not be denied the chance at relief because of laws passed and propaganda spread 50 years ago.
Rick Doblin’s Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) played a key role in legitimizing scientific research, education, and advocacy around psychedelics. Michael Pollan’s bestselling 2018 book How to Change Your Mind was a great leap forward for psychedelics in the mainstream, as was the 2019 Netflix documentary Fantastic Fungi. Imperial College London and Johns Hopkins University both opened research centers dedicated exclusively to the study of psychedelics in 2019. But perhaps Hollywood has done the most to increase public awareness of and interest in magic mushrooms. From Joe Rogan, Harry Styles and Lamar Odom to Gwyneth Paltrow, Prince Harry and Kristen Bell, a wide range of famous people have spoken out about how magic mushrooms have helped them navigate anxiety, depression, trauma and loss.
The re-assessment of mainstream American attitudes towards magic mushrooms and psychedelics in general couldn’t come at a better time. The pandemic was destructive to our collective mental health—but because of changing attitudes about mental illness and trauma, we’re increasingly seeking solutions for struggling people, instead of blaming them for not just pulling it together. There’s plenty of misinformation to undo, but science, education and experience have pushed magic mushrooms into the mainstream. Our federal government may still categorize them with heroin—but the West Coast states are heading towards legalization, and I predict the rest of the country will eventually follow.
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I'm a seasoned cannabis and hemp industry veteran, startup founder, product developer, business consultant, CEO of supplement manufacturer Custom Capsule Consultants and founder of Mycroboost, a functional mushroom product line.
I've written about my work in mushroom product development and the burgeoning psychedelic industry for Rolling Stone, Natural Products Insider, Nutraceuticals World, and I've been a speaker and panelist at the California Psychedelic Conference and the Oakland Psychedelic Conference.
I've also written about the business opportunities in hemp, cannabinoids, kratom, mushrooms and supplements for Cannabis Industry Journal, MG Magazine, Green Entrepreneur and Nutraceuticals World.
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