AUMICK: Psychoactive mushrooms hold valuable medical potential
Column: The Case for Counterculture
Let us get one thing out of the way: Psychedelic drugs and the American government do not have a great history with each other.
While it is estimated that there are more than 30 million users of psychedelics in the United States, psychoactive mushrooms are still highly illegal in most of the country and are shrouded behind a veil of misinformation ranging from innocent misconceptions to blatant propaganda.
There is a wealth of misunderstanding surrounding psychedelics that must be acknowledged in order to understand why this once demonized drug is now being given to cancer patients and the mentally ill in clinical trials.
In 1971, psilocybine – the compound that makes magic mushrooms psychoactive – was declared a Schedule I drug in the United States under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Schedule I means that the drug has been determined to have a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medical use and is unsafe to use. This is the highest level of criminalization a drug can have in America.
If you take this information at face value, it is hard to see how anyone could argue to medicalize psilocybin. But, when looking into the history of drug criminalization in the United States, it is clear that these classifications are influenced more by political motives than actual science.
Similarly to how the criminalization of cannabis was rooted in racism against Mexican immigrants, psychedelics were criminalized because of their association with anti-war movements, not because of any legitimate science proving it to be dangerous.
In 1999, former President Richard Nixon’s Assistant for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman said: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar Left and Black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The strategic criminalization of cannabis referenced by Ehrlichman was the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, which criminalized drugs like LSD, psilocybine and cannabis. Evidently, the classification of psilocybine as a Schedule I drug was not based on an actual danger posed by the drug but on disrupting the communities associated with it.
While the study of magic mushrooms in a medicinal context has only recently begun to gain traction, the science we do have on it is exceptionally promising.
A study conducted by a team with the "Journal for Psychopharmacology" looked at the impact of just one dose of psilocybine in terminal cancer patients suffering from depression. Their study found that 80% of patients who received this treatment had a significant decrease in symptoms of depression and anxiety. In a follow up six months after the initial experiment, 80% of subjects reported still having an increased feeling of well-being and life satisfaction as result of the psilocybine treatment.
One of the participants in this study, Nick Fernandez, said: “For the first time in my life, I felt a force greater than myself, and that I should be kind and loving. Something inside me snapped and I experienced a profound psychic shift that made me realize all my anxieties, defenses and insecurities weren’t something to worry about.”
One of the ways psilocybine works is by connecting regions in the brain that are not normally connected. It reorganizes neural pathways in the brain, making it easier to feel happy and process emotions. These changes have been observed as long as 14 months after a psychedelic experience.
In 2018, the largest clinical trials for psilocybine in history were approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and have begun throughout Europe and North America. These trials aim to determine the potential for psilocybine as medication for treatment-resistant depression.
Slowly but surely, research continues to move forward and psilocybine mushrooms are on their way to earning a place in psychiatric medicine.
The stigma attached to magic mushrooms is beginning to fade within certain subcultures, but unfortunately, we have years of research and reeducation to go through before they are treated with the same legitimacy as medication like Prozac and Zoloft.
Psilocybine was criminalized for political gain, and it is time to shift our focus to what the science tells us.
Jess Aumick is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in history. Her column, “The Case for Counterculture,“ runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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