Several organizations in the United States and worldwide are seeking to legalize or decriminalize “magic mushrooms” (the organism) and/or psilocybin (the molecule). At a high level, these two approaches represent opposite medical philosophies: Eastern medicine v. Western medicine; or Naturopathy v. Pharmaceutical. As outlined below, each approach has strengths and weaknesses. Not surprisingly, the best solution appears to be a compromise between these two extreme approaches.
- Natural Mushrooms: Decriminalizing magic mushrooms seems reasonable based solely on their natural abundance. (“How can picking this thing in my yard subject me to criminal liability?”) But, using “magic mushrooms” as a means for administering psychoactive drugs causes concerns because of the substantial variability in the chemical composition of magic mushrooms and the potential side effects caused by some magic mushrooms.
- Pure Molecules: Unlike natural mushrooms, pure psilocybin allows for administering a known amount of a known drug. However, treatments using only pure psilocybin fail to account for the polypharmacology of magic mushrooms. In other words, pure psilocybin does not produce the same effects as magic mushrooms because magic mushrooms have multiple active ingredients. Substituting pure psilocybin for the full spectrum of active ingredients in magic mushrooms does not replicate the properties of magic mushrooms.
The disadvantages of using either (A) magic mushrooms or (B) pure psilocybin can be overcome by creating formulated products containing precise amounts of the active ingredients found in magic mushrooms (aka tryptamines, psilocybin derivatives). Such formulations would provide both (a) the full spectrum of psychoactive ingredients contained in naturally occurring mushrooms and (b) precise dosing of the active ingredients.
Some traditionalists object to formulating magic mushroom products instead of simply using what Nature provides. Arguments for using all-natural, organic foods and medicines certainly have merit. And, such unmodified products will probably always have benefits over processed ones. However, for some of the practical reasons discussed below, increasing access to magic mushroom medicines will require products that have consistent amounts of known ingredients. And those products can be made in a way that preserves (or even improves on) the full spectrum of ingredients contained in natural mushrooms.
Are Magic Mushrooms as Safe as Pure Psilocybin?
Despite clear, undisputed evidence regarding the safety and efficacy of pure psilocybin, very little information is available about “magic mushrooms.”
Most journalists and organizations either (A) use the term “psilocybin” interchangeably with “magic mushrooms” or (B) refer to psilocybin as the only active ingredient in magic mushrooms. See Tips for Journalists. Accordingly, the mainstream media has inadvertently suggested that research on pure psilocybin applies equally to magic mushrooms. Not true. Psilocybin and magic mushrooms would be most accurately described as different drugs.
The scientific community unanimously agrees that (1) psilocybin has tremendous potential for helping many people and (2) psilocybin is one of the safest drugs available. Last year, John’s Hopkins University scientists recommended re-categorizing psilocybin from a Schedule I drug–one with no known medical potential–to a Schedule IV drug like prescription sleep aids. But, what scientific studies have been conducted on “magic mushrooms”? What does science really know about the pharmacology or clinical effects of naturally occurring magic mushrooms?
Here are some facts about “magic mushrooms” that raise concerns about using them as a means for administering psilocybin:
- Magic mushrooms vary wildly in their chemical composition and concentration. See Chemical Variability in Magic Mushrooms.
- Magic mushrooms contain multiple active ingredients that have yet to be studied. See What are Psilocybin Derivatives?
- For many people, consuming “magic mushrooms” leads to unwanted side effects, such as late-onset temporary paralysis reported by Paul Stamets and Michael Pollan. (Notably, this paralysis does not occur with pure psilocybin, indicating that the paralysis is due to one or more of the other molecules present in magic mushrooms.) See Wood Lover Paralysis.
- Distinguishing “magic mushrooms” from deadly lookalikes can present difficulty for inexperienced foragers. See, e.g., Stamets “Comparing two mushroom species: one magic, one deadly.”
Are Magic Mushrooms a Good Drug Delivery Vehicle?
Whether or not lawmakers decriminalize them, magic mushrooms are unlikely to serve as a mainstream means for administering psilocybin or other psychoactive molecules. Administering psilocybin via magic mushrooms introduces uncertainty regarding both (a) the identity of the drugs administered and (b) the amount of the drugs administered.
This uncertainty regarding the identity and amount of the active ingredient(s) creates a significant barrier for people advocating for increased access to psilocybin therapies. Here are a few illustrative questions that have been raised by critics of the magic mushroom movement:
- How can medical professionals recommend a medicine without knowing both (a) what it is and (b) how much they are prescribing?
- How can medical professionals evaluate the efficacy of a medicine without knowing what medicine they administered or how much?
Most medical professionals would insist that they cannot recommend or evaluate a drug treatment without knowing what’s in the drug and how much they are administering. This seems like a reasonable assessment. And it can be addressed by making products that have known amounts of known drugs.
Increasing Access to Psilocybin Therapies by Making Formulated Magic Mushroom Products
For the reasons discussed above, efforts to increase access to psilocybin therapies would benefit from methods of administering known amounts of known molecules. Opponents of his pharmaceutical approach (correctly) point out that a single molecule isolated from a natural medicine does not provide all of the benefits of that medicine. For those seeking to preserve the full spectrum of active ingredients in magic mushrooms, magic mushroom formulations could be made will multiple active ingredients instead of only psilocybin.
Recent developments in the cannabis industry illustrate that consumers can have both (a) the full spectrum of active ingredients present in a naturally occurring organism and (b) pharmaceutical precision. In the cannabis industry, both consumers and regulators benefited from a better understanding of product composition, i.e., knowing what drugs and how much. Consistent compositions provided consumers with consistent effects. Consumers could then rely on those effects for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
Focussing on the chemical composition also allowed innovators to experiment with Nature’s recipes in pursuit of designer formulations of natural molecules. These formulations leveraged the so-called “Entourage Effect.”
Notably, research and development in the cannabis industry did not restrict access to the cannabis plant. Today, traditionalists are still welcome to “smoke weed.” But, consumers also have other options. And many consumers appear to prefer consistent, reliable products. For example, Rolling Stone recently reported, The Future of Cannabis is Formulations of Cannabinoids.
As discussed above, the chemical uncertainty inherent to magic mushrooms is the strongest argument against their medicinal use. Accordingly, addressing concerns about the chemical variability of magic mushrooms would eliminate this barrier to increasing access to psilocybin therapies. Precisely dosed formulated products would remove all uncertainty regarding the identity and amount of the drug administered.
Despite our present understanding regarding the safety and enormous therapeutic potential of psilocybin, “magic mushrooms” will probably not provide a reliable means for bringing this drug to the masses. Natural mushrooms are highly variable in chemical composition. Most likely, lawmakers will conclude that increasing access to wildly variable amounts of powerful psychedelic drugs creates an unnecessary risk. Using a pure molecule (synthetic psilocybin) makes it possible to precisely administer a known amount of a known drug. But, unfortunately, pure synthetic psilocybin does not replicate the effects attained by administering the cocktail of molecules contained in magic mushrooms. Formulated magic mushroom products offer the best of both approaches. Formulated products would offer both (a) the full spectrum of psychoactive ingredients contained in naturally occurring mushrooms and (b) precise dosing of the active ingredients.