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Can Psychedelics Like Mushrooms Be Used To Treat Mental Health, Addiction Disorders?

magic mushrooms now legal in Oakland and Denver

So-called “Magic Mushrooms” are now legal in a couple major cities and this development has many in the mental health and addiction recovery fields wondering about what this means. Is the decriminalization of a previously “scheduled” drug a sign of impending harm on those who partake, or do these substances actually have utility in treating mental health conditions, such as substance abuse disorder?

At this time, it’s an interesting debate that bears further study.

In June, the Summit Estate blog had a post titled “Magic Mushrooms are Legal in Oakland – What Does That Mean?” which began with the news that Denver was the first city to legalize mushrooms, ayahuasca and peyote (for people at least 21), and that recently, Oakland, CA, had, too.

The mushrooms are entheogens, chemical substances typically of plant origin, ingested to produce a non-ordinary state of consciousness often for religious or spiritual purposes, the post explained. They’re also referred to psychoactive or psychotropic drugs, composed of “a chemical substance that changes brain function and results in alterations in perception, mood, consciousness, cognition, or behavior.”

People who had used the mushrooms spoke at the Oakland City Council meeting about how they “had helped them overcome depression, drug addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder.” They’re illegal on the federal level, and considered “Schedule 1” drugs, which show “no medical use and have the potential for abuse”.

But not everyone agrees with that categorization.

A Large Research Organization Delves Deeper

Now, Johns Hopkins University, the prestigious research organization in Baltimore is studying “psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms,” to “learn more about mind, brain and psychiatric disorders by studying the effects of the drugs,” according to the chair of psychiatry at Yale University who was quoted in a New York Times article this month.

The university has opened a new, first-of-its-kind center in the U.S. for the effort—the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. Scientists there will also study LSD, for anorexia, addiction and depression. 

According to one person who underwent a clinical trial testing psilocybin in 2017 for depression that didn’t improve with drugs or talk therapy, psilocybin helped. She was scared to try the drug, but she experienced peace when she did and no longer felt isolated.

As another example of what scientists found already: When they conducted a trial to compare the success of a nicotine patch with the use of psilocybin to help people stop smoking, 50 percent of people in the psilocybin group stopped, while 32 percent in the other group did.

There’s a similar center in London at Imperial College, and together with the one at Johns Hopkins, the two give this type of medicine “a foothold in the scientific establishment,” according to the article.  Lack of evidence that these drugs work has kept them from being widely accepted by scientists, so there’s a lot riding on the work at these centers. What’s important about psilocybin compared to other drugs used for addiction is its cross-drug efficacy, or the fact that it “has a similar effect regardless of what drug the person is addicted to.”

A big challenge the drugs have faced is that there can’t be clinical trials in the most basic sense because there won’t be one group of people who don’t take the drug; every participant knows they’re taking psilocybin. Also, the participants can exaggerate the effects, for whatever reason.

A neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins spoke of this center advancing psychedelic science “in a way that hasn’t been done before,” but the altered states can also be ineffectual and even dangerous. Interestingly, it seems that the more intense the trip, the longer the beneficial effects last.

The scientists will also be testing psilocybin “for psychological distress and cognitive impairment in early Alzheimer’s disease.” Opiate-use disorder is another condition high on their list.

Before starting a trial, participants must see a therapist and provide their medical history. The therapist will also provide information about the drug the person is about to be administered. People with psychosis may not participate in these trials, and if anyone has been on psychiatric medications, they’re usually tapered off them before participating.

The self-help author and entrepreneur Tim Ferris provided funds for the centers, saying he had treatment-resistant depression, bipolar disorder and addiction in his family, and he lost a friend to a fentanyl overdose.

It’s clear that there is no consensus on this subject and that further studies and investigation will be required by the scientific community in the coming years.