Three Key Points for Journalists Reporting on “Magic Mushrooms” or Psilocybin

Three Points to Remember when Writing about Psilocybin or “Magic Mushrooms”

For good reason, the mainstream media have taken an increased interest in psychedelic sciences.  Given that many journalists are new to reporting on psychedelics, the stories populating mainstream media outlets include several understandable mistakes.  Although these errors seem technical or trivial, they are both important and easy to correct.  And, the conversation about psychedelics would benefit from using precise language.  Below are three easy facts to report correctly when writing about psilocybin science and technology.

[updated April 24, 2019] – In addition to avoiding the below described verbal errors, journalists would benefit from checking whether their images of mushrooms show examples of “magic mushrooms.” Many highly respected sources, e.g., the New York Times use photos of non-psychoactive mushrooms within articles about magic mushrooms.

1. Magic Mushrooms are NOT the same as Psilocybin

The word “mushroom” refers to the fruiting body of a fungus.  The term “magic mushroom” is used to describe fungal fruiting bodies that have psychoactive molecules.  The term “magic mushroom” is most often used to refer to mushrooms comprising the molecule psilocybin.

Magic mushrooms contain many active and inactive molecules. Psilocybin is one of those molecules. It is present as about 1% of the dry mass of magic mushrooms. (That means that those magic mushrooms are made of 99% stuff that is NOT psilocybin).

Psilocybin is one molecule present in magic mushrooms.  The amount of psilocybin varies between different species and samples of magic mushrooms.  As a general rule, psilocybin is present as about 1% of the dry mass of magic mushrooms.

Interchanging the word “magic mushrooms” with the word “psilocybin” leads to inaccuracies of about 100x when discussing the potency, cost, or dose of “the drug.”  Interchanging these terms also creates errors when discussing political movements.  For example, the Oregon Psilocybin Society is seeking to improve patient access to magic mushrooms.  By contrast, COMPASS Pathways is conducting clinical trials (for treatment-resistant depression) using psilocybin.  Additionally, certain side effects like Wood Lover Paralysis are relevant to magic mushrooms but not relevant to psilocybin.

See article in Yahoo Finance as an example of avoidable ambiguity regarding mushrooms versus psilocybin.

2. Psilocybin is a Prodrug of Psilocin, which is the Active Drug in Magic Mushrooms.

Psilocin (not psilocybin) is the major active molecule responsible for producing the majority of the effects attained from consuming “magic mushrooms.”

Nearly all reports on psilocybin or magic mushrooms describe psilocybin as the active molecule in magic mushrooms.  However, technically, psilocybin is metabolized into psilocin, which is responsible for the clinical effects (aka, the user’s experience, the “trip,” or the therapeutic benefit).

Psilocybin is often credited as “the active ingredient” in magic mushrooms.
However, technically, psilocybin is just one prodrug of psilocin, which is the active molecule. This figure shows how each of Psilocybin and O-Acetylpsilocin are prodrugs of psilocin. Each of Psilocybin and O-Acetylpsilocin is simply a means for administering psilocin.

Psilocybin is currently the molecule at the center of the research and development conversation.  For example, COMPASS Pathways has earned considerable attention by manufacturing and studying psilocybin.  And, as a prodrug of psilocin, psilocybin is a useful molecule for purposes of providing psilocin.  However, all of the interesting effects and therapeutic benefits attributed to psilocybin are technically produced by psilocin.  See Psilocin is the Active Ingredient in Magic Mushrooms.  

In sum, psilocybin is an incredible molecule because it provides a means for administering psilocin.  But, it is not the molecule responsible for all of the effects.  Rather, psilocin is the unsung hero— primarily responsible for the psychedelic effects yet always in the shadow of psilocybin, which is really just delivery mechanism for psilocin.

3. Psilocin/Psilocybin is only One of the Active Molecules is Magic Mushrooms.

Magic mushrooms contain many active ingredients — not just psilocin/psilocybin.

Nearly all reports about psilocybin or magic mushrooms in the mainstream media describe psilocybin as the active molecule in magic mushrooms.

As discussed above, psilocybin is technically not the molecule responsible for all of the interesting effects.  Rather psilocybin is one means for providing psilocin, which produces profound effects on the user. Moreover, psilocin is only one of several active psilocybin derivatives present in magic mushrooms.  Much like the cannabis plant, the clinical effects of magic mushrooms arise from an “Entourage Effect.”

Similar to the pharmacology of cannabis, the effect of “magic mushrooms” arises from combining multiple different active ingredients to arrive at an “Entourage Effect.” Psilocin is one important active ingredient found in magic mushrooms. But, it is not the only active.

To be clear, administering pure psilocybin produces profound effects that are similar in kind to those produced by consuming magic mushrooms.  Psilocybin is the most abundant psilocybin derivative found in magic mushrooms.  Because of its relative abundance, psilocybin is probably the most important molecule in magic mushrooms.  However, the other psilocybin derivatives accompanying psilocybin in naturally occurring mushrooms are also important.  Those rare psilocybin derivatives (e.g., baeocystin) are individually active.  And, when co-administered with psilocybin/psilocin, they modulate the overall effect experienced by the user.

*** Questions or Comments?  We would love to hear from you in the comments section, below.

2 thoughts on “Three Key Points for Journalists Reporting on “Magic Mushrooms” or Psilocybin

  1. Baja Reply

    Point(s) taken. Since I’ve arrived at the medicinal use(versus recreational) I am more than interested in pertinent continuing info.

  2. Eric Miller Reply

    Why no mention at all of Amanita Muscaria (sic)? Is there no research involving these, and other fungi containing psilocybin, since not all fungi are mushrooms?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *