A bit of History
Psilocybin mushrooms can be found all over the globe and have been known to mankind for their psychoactive properties for over thousands of years. Cave paintings dated at 500BC from the Saharan desert in Algeria or from the Northern Territories of Australia depict shapeshifting mushroom figures that seem to possess magical powers. The Mayas were known too use Psilocybe Mexicana which they called “teonanacatl”, or “flesh of the gods” for ritualistic and divination purposes, but after the Spanish invasion, historians believed native psychoactive mushroom use was lost in the region. It wasn’t after the mycologist and photographer Gordon Wasson investigating medicinal mushroom use in Southern Mexico stumbled upon the indigenous healer Maria Sabina that psilocybin mushrooms use was rediscovered. His article “Seeking the Magic Mushroom”, published in 1955 in Life Magazine gave psilocybin mushroom their magic attribute, and told the story to a wide American audience of his encounter with the wise woman who was the last of her lineage to use mushrooms for healing. This rediscovery of the sacred mushrooms of the Mayas led the curious to go looking for mushrooms themselves, and in 1971, psychedelic activist Terrence McKenna and his ethnobotanist brother Dennis set a course for the Colombian Amazon, where they collected spores from Stropharia Cubensis mushrooms. By 1976, they had figured out a protocol for anyone with a pressure cooker and a love for expanded states of consciousness to grow mushrooms at home and published the Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide, giving access psilocybin mushrooms not to the hardy fews willing to take the trip to the mountains of Mexico or the jungles of Columbia, but to the many who were eager to explore their inner worlds.
Interest in magic mushrooms started to grow in the west with the flourishing counterculture of the sixties in the USA and Europe. Harvard psychology professors such as Timothy Leary and Ram Das became public figures advocating the use of psychedelics for self knowledge and spiritual growth. Meanwhile, more reserved scientists in Switzerland, Czech Republic and the US carried out a series of experiments using these novel psychedelic compounds such as LSD and psilocybin. This first wave of psychedelic research showed promising application for treatment of alcoholism and depression amongst others, allowed for testing of innovative models of brain physiology and offered new insights on what happens during altered states of consciousness. This new field of research was however put to a stop quickly at the onset of the war on drugs. In 1971, the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substance placed all psychedelic substances in Schedule I, claiming they presented a high risk of abuse and no foreseeable therapeutic benefit. Most member states subsequently adopted a new legislation criminalising the harvest, possession and use of psilocybin mushroom.
It took almost 50 years for magic mushrooms to emerge out of the underground scene again. In the last decade, thanks to the work of organisations such as MAPS or the Beckley Foundation, psychedelics are beginning to be recognised again as much needed therapeutic tools that may help us give an answer to the global mental health pandemic Western countries are facing, and plant medicines such as Ayahuasca, Peyote and mushrooms are being recognised as sacraments that can be used for spiritual purposes by native and Western communities alike.
Psilocybin mushrooms are typically ingested orally, either chewed fresh or dried, or brewed into a tea. Effects will usually be felt between 15 to 45 minutes after ingestion, reach a plateau after about an hour and last for the next 4 to 6 hours, until they slowly fade down.
Psilocybin mushroom effects will vary largely based on set, setting, setting and dose. Set meaning the mindset with which the user approaches the experience, and setting meaning the physical environment in which the experience will be had. A recreational setting such as a gathering of friends will tend to give predominantly entertaining effect like laughter, visual hallucinations, enhanced appreciation of music, and changes in thought patterns. An intentional setting, ceremonial or therapeutic, may elicit effects such as introspective exploration, reappraisal of emotional autobiographical material or personal beliefs, a sense of wonder and expansion, and, with a higher dose, may bring forth mystical-type experience, where the journeyer has feeling of transcendence of time and space, of the limitation of the ego and comes in touch with boundless feelings of love and unity.
Safety, Dependance and Legality
Psilocybin mushrooms are generally regarded as one of the safest psychoactive substances around. US-based population surveys over the last 2 decades found no evidence of association between lifetime use of any of the serotoninergic psychedelics (such as psilocybin, LSD and DMT) and increased rates of mental illness. Like all psychedelic substance, they possess very low physiological toxicity and do not present an addictive profile. Most journeyers will tell you that after a psychedelic experience, the feeling is rather one of “OK, that was great, I’ll have to let that sink in”, rather than “When can I do this again ?”. Tolerance builds up from a single dose, meaning repeated use within less than 48 hours will lead to strongly dimished effect, which further diminishes the addictive potential of psilocybin. The effects of psilocybin are also short lasting compared to LSD (10 to 12 hours), meaning any unpleasant effects will be resolved within a few hours, and side effects such as nausea and vomiting are much less common than with other plant medicines such as Ayahuasca or Peyote, making a high dose experience more physically comfortable than with any other psychedelic compound. For more information on safety, head over to the research section Here.
A common fear about first time psychedelic use is the experience a “bad trip”, meaning to go through feelings of extreme confusion, panic and paranoia with possible long lasting consequences. In fact, proper preparation and adequate set and setting reduce the risk of such experiences to near 0. And while temporary anxiety may arise during higher dose experiences in therapeutic settings, those can be resolved with the support of an experienced guide and transformed into empowering experiences of catharsis and self knowledge.
While psilocybin remain a Schedule 1 substance in most countries, its therapeutic potential is gradually being recognised, meaning that patients now have access to psilocybin under research conditions in clinical trials for conditions such as depression or anxiety. Use, cultivation and sale of psilocybin mushrooms is currently only legal in the Netherlands and in Jamaica, but several US cities have successfully led decriminalisation campaigns, giving people the right to use plant medicines such as mushrooms in Oakland and Denver.
In Portugal, all psychoactive substances have been decriminalised in 2001, allowing individuals to consume and possess small quantities of psilocybin mushroom.
Video resources on Psilocybin mushrooms
Ted Talk by Roland Griffiths, lead researcher at Johns Hopkins University giving a clear overview of over 10 years of psilocybin assisted therapy:
A documentary from 1973 showcasing the life of Maria Sabina, a Mazatec elder who used magic mushrooms for healing in her community in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. It was the encounter between photographer and Life Magazine journalist Gordon Wasson and Maria Sabina that led the West to know about the existence of psilocybin mushrooms.
An interview of scientific journalist and author of the bestseller book “How to change your mind” on psychedelics, Michael Pollan, in which he discusses the benefits of having a guide for a therapeutic psychedelic experience:
The science of psilocybin: A new understanding is a compelling documentary about the therapeutic use of psilocybin, including testimonials of participants in the Johns Hopkins clinical trials using psilocybin in palliative care: