From Magic Mushroom to Forbidden Fungus (and Back)
In 1968, just 11 years after the international banker and amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson introduced Americans to “magic mushrooms” in a landmark Life magazine story, the federal government banned them. That was how long it took for this object of anthropological fascination, source of visions, and tool of self-discovery to become an intolerable threat to the nation’s youth.
Two years later, when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, it listed psilocybin and psilocin, the psychoactive components of the “divine” fungi that Wasson ate, under Schedule I, a category supposedly reserved for exceptionally dangerous drugs with no accepted medical use. Half a century would pass before any jurisdiction in the United States reconsidered that classification.
When Oregon voters approved Measure 109, a.k.a. the Psilocybin Services Act, by a 12-point margin in November, they repudiated decades of anti-drug propaganda that depicted psychedelics as a ticket to the mental hospital. To the contrary, the initiative said, “studies conducted by nationally and internationally recognized medical institutions indicate that psilocybin has shown efficacy, tolerability, and safety in the treatment of a variety of mental health conditions, including but not limited to addiction, depression, anxiety disorders, and end-of-life psychological distress.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018 recognized psilocybin as a “breakthrough therapy” for “treatment-resistant depression.” That designation, which meant “preliminary clinical evidence indicates that the drug may demonstrate substantial improvement over existing therapies,” signaled the agency’s intent to “expedite” development and review of psilocybin, suggesting it might eventually be approved as a prescription medicine.
Oregonians are not waiting. Measure 109 gives the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) two years to write rules for licensing and regulating “psilocybin service centers” where adults 21 or older can legally take the drug under the supervision of a “facilitator” after completing a “preparation session.” And in an important departure from the FDA’s approach, which charges doctors with guarding the doors of perception, the initiative says the OHA “may not require a client to be diagnosed with or have” any particular medical or psychiatric condition to participate in the program.
Shock and Awe
Wasson likewise had no prescription when he tripped on psilocybin, although his wife, Valentina, who accompanied him on his international hunts for mind-altering mushrooms, was a pediatrician. When those journeys took them to Mexico, their “facilitator” was Maria Sabina, a Mazatec curandera (folk healer) who let them in on a secret they could have discovered back home in New York, where several species of psilocybin mushrooms grow, although that would have required potentially dangerous experimentation.
“On the night of June 29–30, 1955,” Wasson’s 1957 account in Life began, “in a Mexican Indian village so remote from the world that most of the people still speak no Spanish, my friend Allan Richardson and I shared with a family of Indian friends a celebration of ‘holy communion’ where ‘divine’ mushrooms were first adored and then consumed.” Those mushrooms, he explained, “were of a species with hallucinogenic powers; that is, they cause the eater to see visions.”
By turns respectful and condescending, Wasson bragged that “Richardson and I were the first white men
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