Magic mushrooms: harmful hallucinogen or helpful depression medication?

Magic mushrooms

Psilocybin mushrooms—commonly called “magic mushrooms”—are a hot topic in light of recent research. Magic mushrooms are small, tan-colored mushrooms that can be likened to a milder form of LSD. A magic mushroom “trip” will often make users relaxed and happy while distorting colors, sounds, and vision. A typical trip will last 4-5 hours, although it can also last up to 10. Current laws classify magic mushrooms as “Class A” drugs.

Recent research has found that these “magic” mushrooms may produce more than just a pleasant experience and could additionally be used in a medical context. Evidence exists that the mushrooms can help with obsessive-compulsive disorder, cluster headaches, and make a patient more susceptible to psychotherapy.

However, magic mushrooms have their harmful side that have given them a “Class A” status. Magic mushroom-induced “trips” can sometimes be frightening and unsettling for users, and the distortion of world perception can make users a danger to themselves and others. Headlines were made this summer when a US man ripped off part of his own penis after taking magic mushrooms. Additionally, fresh magic mushrooms were made illegal in the Netherlands after a 17-year-old French girl took the drugs and then jumped to her death from an Amsterdam bridge.

However, a worker from a Netherlands coffee shop that sells the mushrooms maintains that it is tourists who are causing the problems by coming to the country and abusing the drug the same way they do with alcohol in their home countries. He states that because of the drug’s formally legal status, most locals and regular users are knowledgeable about the mushrooms and do not misuse them; they will eat them or even brew them in tea in moderation to produce mild effects.

In the midst of the debate, British scientists have been granted £550,000 from the Medical Research Council and are attempting to secure permission to use a small quantity of magic mushrooms in a study on treating depression. The drug in magic mushrooms, psilocybin, has shown in research to reduce activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and default mode networks, areas of the brain that are overactive in patients with depression. This has the effect of helping patients to stop dwelling on themselves and being happier for weeks afterward. However, research has hit a road block due to impositions by the government and European Union, which require companies to have a special and rather difficult to obtain license in order to produce the drug. Due to interference researchers would have to spend £100,000 to obtain a supply of drugs that should only cost a couple hundred pounds, and would then have insufficient funding for the rest of the study.

David Nutt, a psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist, is the researcher who discovered the effect of psilocybin on the brain. After serving as the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (until 2009 when he was fired for repeated conflicts with government ministers over the dangers and classification of illegal drugs), he now is a primary researcher in the study of psilocybin and depression, and states that he will continue to fight against what he describes as “inappropriate and harmful” regulations in order to continue with his study.