The ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily represent those of The New Courier.
By Christopher Waide
February 25, 2020
In May of 2019, Denver became the first US city to decriminalize magic mushrooms. Oakland followed suit in June, and decriminalized mushrooms, certain iboga, and visionary cacti. “Decriminalize Nature” is a group that has been pushing for the decriminalization of entheogens across the country, with Santa Cruz and NYC looking to be the next cities to decriminalize psychedelic compounds.
But what exactly are these compounds? Psychedelic substances bind themselves to serotonin receptors in the brain and have been used for spiritual and healing purposes for thousands of years. Aldous Huxley, philosopher and author of works such as “The Doors of Perception”, believed that the human mind acted as a “reducing valve” that constricts conscious awareness. He proposed that hallucinogenic compounds work by inhibiting the filter, which produces psychedelic effects. Studies conducted decades later seem to validate his hypothesis, as brain scans of people under the drug’s effects showed reduced neuron activity in the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortex. In other words, psychedelics open the mind up to experiencing things the conscious brain would normally disregard.
Psychedelic compounds were banned in America with the Controlled Substance Act of 1970. Recreational use was made a crime, and research on the compounds came to a halt, not to be continued for decades. Advocates for the drugs insisted they were safe and claimed that they were banned for their ability to cause civil unrest. Many of the people who “turned on” during the psychedelic revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s became deeply skeptical of government. Terence McKenna, author, lecturer, and perhaps the most well-known advocate for the responsible use of psychedelics was openly critical of the move, stating that psychedelics were only illegal because “they opened you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.”
Recent studies on psychedelics published by universities probably helped fuel the current push for decriminalization. In fact, it is widely accepted that we are currently in a “psychedelic renaissance.” Much of the misinformation surrounding the compounds has been corrected, taking with it much of the stigma that had been applied to users. Earlier observations by the government during Project MK Ultra showed that the compounds were psychomimetic, and that using them made a person temporarily psychotic. However, the observations were made under extremely unfavorable circumstances which were designed to induce “bad trips.” Nearly all the evidence provided by medical professionals directly contradicted the government’s findings, but they were largely disregarded and ignored.
There are some risks. First, and probably the most serious, is the risk of misidentifying your drug. Many mushrooms have look-a-likes and discerning between edible and toxic mushrooms often takes an expert. Poisonous mushroom reactions aren’t always lethal, but some types of mushrooms go beyond gastric distress, and shut down your internal organs. There has long been talk of blotters laced with harder drugs, and research chemicals that mimic LSD are often passed off as the real thing and can cause fatal reactions. Short of purchasing a test kit, there is no way of knowing that you have LSD and not nbome 25i.
Second is the risk of a bad trip. Bad trips can manifest themselves in a variety of ways, from terrifying hallucinations to feelings of imminent death. The experience is psychological, and the user is typically no worse for wear when the effects of the drug wear off. That said a user experiencing a bad trip is often unpredictable and could pose a serious risk to themselves and others. Bad trips can have lasting psychological impacts on the user, particularly if they are mentally ill. While rare, some users have committed suicide under the influence, though death on these substances is more likely to be accidental. Users are often disoriented and on larger doses may do things they don’t recognize as being dangerous.
Tracking the path of decriminalized and legalized marijuana, and assuming NYC is successful, we should expect to start seeing talk about decriminalizing entheogens in our area within the next couple of years. Even though the research has shown the compounds to be relatively harmless in terms of physical damage to the body, psychedelics have unique and serious risks associated with use, and being aware of them could help to reduce harm in our community.
I think the Decriminalize Nature movement is a step in the right direction. I think that by opening the conversation on mushrooms we can challenge our preconceptions about drug use and addiction. Perhaps we’re on the verge of reshaping our current punitive drug policies into something more socially and economically viable.