Much like the carefully orchestrated de-legalization of cannabis during the 1930’s, there was a powerful decades-long misleading campaign against psilocybin mushrooms which caused a deep-rooted fear and a subsequent public rejection of this substance.
Just as cannabis is now finally seeing an increase in public trust, several studies have been published which show extremely promising results for the use of psilocybin mushrooms in patients who suffer from anxiety and depression, or are battling addiction, and for patients who are terminally ill, helping them to alleviate their fear of death.
Psilocybin can also be exceedingly helpful for individuals who don’t have full blown depression or anxiety. The pace and structure of modern life is creating symptoms of these disorders in practically everyone, and the number of people afflicted is constantly on the rise.
Psilocybin mushrooms are currently scheduled as a Class III narcotic in Canada. What’s important to consider when we look at “hard drugs” is the level of human tampering with the substances.
Cocaine is made from the coca plant (approximately 1% of street cocaine is pure plant material), and heroin is derived from the poppy plant, but both of these natural substances undergo a series of production techniques which include adding numerous harmful chemicals, thus producing a very harmful and highly addictive narcotic.
On the other hand, substances like cannabis and mushrooms require absolutely no human alterations to have effect and they are typically used in their natural plant form.
In the same way that the THC cannabinoid in cannabis is responsible for the psychoactive effects we experience with pot (as well as being responsible for a lot of its medicinal benefits), psilocybin mushrooms have their own compound, called psilocybin.
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In the following section we will acquaint ourselves with psilocybin mushrooms a bit better, before moving on to the studies which demonstrate their extensive therapeutic potential.
What are psilocybin mushrooms?
Mushrooms are a part of the fungi kingdom, distinctly different from animals and plants. They are characterized by their flesh-like body which consists of the stem, the cap, and the gills that are located on the underside of the cap, where the mushroom creates microscopic spores that are its asexual reproductive units.
We don’t want to get too technical regarding mushrooms in general, so we’ll concentrate on the psilocybin variety from now on.
History of use
There are several prehistoric rock art drawings which show (quite probably) the importance of psychoactive psilocybin mushrooms to the artists that drew them.
One such is in Spain, near Villar del Humo, and is approximately 6000 years old, and the other is in Tassili n’Ajjer (a national park in the Sahara desert), dating from 7000 to 9000 years ago.
Terence McKenna, who was a famed psychonaut, author, and an avid advocate for the responsible use of naturally occurring psychedelic substances, studied the artwork and culture of Tassili n’Ajjer.
The rock paintings from the Neolithic era depict domesticated cattle, and McKenna concluded that psilocybin mushrooms would have grown from the dung of the animals, which is a very common occurrence.
The psychoactivity of the mushrooms would have heavily influenced and further developed the spiritual and religious systems of the Tassili n’Ajjer people, and without the domestication of cattle that would not have happened.
The “Bee-Shaman” from Tassili n’Ajjer, with mushrooms in his hands
In South America, numerous indigenous cultures use psilocybin for spiritual, religious and divination practices. This was of course halted when once the Spanish conquistadors established their rule on the continent, but in remote areas these practices endured uninterrupted.
The Aztecs word for one of the Psilocybe species was teōnanācatl, which translates to divine mushroom. The Catholic missionaries believed that the mushrooms were a means to communicate with demons and devils and forced the change from teōnanācatl to the sacrament of Eucharist.
Other religious and divinatory tools like peyote and ayahuasca were also strictly forbidden, but fortunately because of the vast rainforest and the generally rough terrain, these practices persisted.
Psilocybin mushrooms in modern times
In 1953, a New York banker by the name of Gordon Wasson first sat in a “mushroom velada”, a carefully planned psychoactive ritual, in Oaxaca Mexico.
It was led by Maria Sabina, who was a Mazatec curandera (a natural healer).
He returned for the velada in 1954 and 1955, and two years later, his article on the experiences and the importance of psilocybin mushrooms was published in Life Magazine, which was the first ever large-scale media coverage of their existence and effects.
As one of the biggest icons of the counterculture movement, Leary made an impressive impact during the 1960s.
He was a clinical psychologist working at Harvard University, after he tried (on separate occasions) both psilocybin mushrooms and synthesized isolated psilocybin in 1960, he saw fantastic curative potential from the use of these psychedelics, under controlled and safe environments.
Leary and his Harvard colleague Richard Alpert began conducting experiments with graduate students from the prestigious university, administering psilocybin in the Harvard Psilocybin Project, and the Marsh Chapel Experiment at the University of Boston (also called The Good Friday Experiment).
He and his colleagues also oversaw one study with inmates, the Concord Prison Experiment, which lasted from 1961 to 1963.
All of this was possible because psilocybin mushrooms weren’t listed as a banned substance in the US at the time, or anywhere else in the world for that matter.
The questionable methods of experimentation and student involvement subsequently got both Leary and Alpert fired from their positions at Harvard, but the results of their research can speak for itself.
The cultural and political climate in the United States was also an important factor in why their work generated so much controversy and disapproval from both the general population and the government.
The Marsh Chapel experiment
Created in 1962 by Walter Pahnke who was a graduate theology student at Harvard Divinity School at the time and supervised by Leary and other member of the Harvard Psilocybin Project, this experiment was looking to find if psilocybin would induce profound religious or mystical experiences in subjects who were already religiously inclined.
From a group of 20 volunteers (who were all divinity graduates of Harvard), 10 were given 30mg of psilocybin, while the other 10 were given niacin, which acted as an active placebo, causing physiological changes like tingling, face flushing and an increase in body temperature.
After being given psilocybin (and some the niacin placebo), the volunteers were taken to a Good Friday sermon at the chapel of Boston University, under the guidance and supervision of Pahnke, Leary and the rest of the research team.
One participant asked to be physically kept inside the chapel, while another had to be tranquilized with thorazine, because he had a panic attack. These reactions could possibly have been caused by the emotional setting for the theology students, and could perhaps have been avoided, at least to some extent, if the experiment had been conducted in a more neutral place.
In a survey after the experience, out of 10 participants, 8 expressed in their own words that this was the single most important mystical event of their lives.
In a 25-year-later follow up survey conducted by Rick Doblin (with contributions from the assistants from the original experiment, Pahnke died in 1971), all of the 8 participants who reported a deep and meaningful experience, felt this way two and a half decades later. Doblin added:
“Everyone I talked to who had the psilocybin felt after 25 years of reflection that the experience was a genuine mystical experience. It was a clear viewing of some ultimate level of reality that had a long-term positive impact on their lives”.