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From Magic to Money: The Legal History of Psilocybin

A bunch of mushrooms standing tall and proud

(Editor’s Note: Welcome to the second installment of “From Magic to Money,” a Bold series on the rising psilocybin industry. The first article explored the health benefits of psilocybin. Don’t miss any of these stories–sign up for The Bold Wire newsletter and have them sent directly to your inbox!)

For thousands of years, ancient civilizations have used psychedelic mushrooms. Tribes in South America, Central America and even North Africa recognized the potential health benefits of magic mushrooms. In fact, Americans first discovered the use of these substances in Mexico in the late 1950s. But despite this history, magic mushrooms and its underlying compound psilocybin have not been well received in the U.S. In fact, it has been considered illegal since nearly its first introduction into the country. Based on recent psilocybin facts, however, this may be changing.

Thanks to recent research findings, many cities and even some states are reconsidering the legality of psilocybin. Increasing evidence supports that clear health benefits of magic mushrooms exist. Notably, this process of legalization of psilocybin has been slow and will take some time for broad acceptance to occur. But a more objective look at psilocybin facts is worthwhile based on its potential in managing many conditions. Of course, this is nothing new, given psilocybin’s rocky road of legal support over the decades. By taking a look at the legal history of this substance, it will be easier to appreciate the legal hurdles it may face ahead.

From a Promising Drug to Illegality

The first discovery of magic mushrooms in the U.S. came by way of a banker named R. Gordon Wasson. During a trip to Mexico with his wife, the couple discovered tribes using mushrooms as part of their spiritual rituals. Intrigued by their effects, Wasson introduced them to Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, who’d been working with LSD. Hoffman then isolated psilocybin from the mushrooms and synthetically reproduced it with the help of Sandoz Pharmaceuticals. As additional psilocybin facts emerged, it was suspected that there were health benefits of magic mushrooms. This led to a boom in pharmaceutical research in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Unfortunately, the opportunities would not last. In 1971, psilocybin was listed as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. This meant it had no known medicinal use and had a high addiction potential. The increasing recreational use of magic mushrooms prompted this determination, and all research effectively halted. Despite many scientists and mental health professionals believing health benefits of magic mushrooms existed, the DEA prohibited their experimental use. As a result, psilocybin has been banned since that time in the U.S. until very recently.

“Our goal was to move psilocybin out of the medical framework so we could provide access to anyone who might safely benefit.” – Tom Eckert, Co-Author of the Oregon Psilocybin Therapy Ballot Measure

A Framework for Legalization

Despite its illegality, some experimentation into the health benefits of magic mushrooms began to take place again in 2006. Promising psilocybin facts emerged, which has since led several cities and states to reconsider its legal use. Notably, in recent years, a number of major cities have decriminalized its use. Specifically, Denver, Oakland, Ann Arbor, and Washington D.C. have adopted less aggressive legislation against these substances. Naturally, this poses some problems since legalized use of psilocybin is not recognized at the state or federal level in these cities. But they are moving ahead with decriminalizing efforts because psilocybin facts support it. Like the path to marijuana legalization, they hope to use science to justify their actions. (Read more about the future of the cannabis industry in this Bold story.)

This past year, Oregon became the first state to legalize the use of psilocybin based on the health benefits of magic mushrooms. Roughly, fifty-five percent of the state’s voters approved the legal use of psilocybin in combination with psychological therapy. In essence, Oregon provided the first clear framework for reintroducing the use of magic mushrooms. Its use is only allowed by a licensed professional, and individuals must be at least 21 years of age. In addition, the substance may only be used within a treatment facility. While state consultants are still evaluating psilocybin facts, it is expected actual therapeutic use will begin within two years.

“What is different about psilocybin, compared to other mood-altering drugs or pharmaceuticals, is the enduring meaning and belief changes that can occur. People feel ‘reorganized’ in a way they don’t with other drugs.” – Roland Griffiths, Neuropharmacologist and Researcher, Johns Hopkins University

Psilocybin Facts Supporting Legalization

A week after Oregon passed legalized psilocybin use, additional evidence was published supporting the health benefits of magic mushrooms. Johns Hopkins University released a study that showed significant effects of psilocybin in treatment-resistant depression. In the study, seventy-one percent had a substantial response to treatment, and over half had remission at 4 weeks. The psilocybin facts of the study provided strong evidence of the health benefits of magic mushrooms. And this was not the only study doing so. In the last several years, several researchers have demonstrated the health benefits of magic mushrooms in numerous conditions.

Some magic mushrooms growing under a UV light
The health benefits of psilocybin are important, but equally so are the legal questions surrounding it.

The range of health benefits from magic mushrooms could be quite extensive. Active research involving psilocybin are exploring effects in not only depression but a wide variety of mental health conditions. These include anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, addictions, and schizophrenia. The psilocybin facts surrounding these investigations have also led to some important changes at the federal level. In 2019, the FDA granted breakthrough status to psilocybin and psychological therapy use for treatment-resistant depression. This suggests the landscape has become more favorable for its eventual legalization more broadly.

“I welcome the broadening of the indications, because I think psilocybin is likely to be effective in a range of disorders.” – David Nutt, Director of the Neuropsychopharmacology, Brain Sciences Unit, Imperial College, London

Proceeding with Caution

For those who believe in the health benefits of magic mushrooms, the plan is to proceed with caution. Having learned lessons from the past, researchers and therapists alike wish to see psilocybin eventually attain legal status. Psilocybin facts support this, but there remains stigma associated with the use of magic mushrooms and other hallucinogens. This is why states like Oregon are moving slowly through the process. It’s been a rocky road for psilocybin since its introduction into the U.S. But hopefully, evidence and facts will win out eventually and allow the use of these substance in an appropriate manner.


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