Voters in Denver, a city at the forefront of marijuana legalization, narrowly approved a ballot to decriminalize yet another recreational drug: psilocybin mushrooms, commonly referred to as psychedelic mushrooms. The ballot measure did not quite legalize mushrooms that contain psilocybin, the natural active chemical responsible for the drug's psychoactive effects. Rather, the measure makes the possession, use, or cultivation of hallucinogenic mushrooms by people aged 21 or older the lowest-priority crime for law enforcement in the city and Denver county.
Advocates of more lenient criminal enforcement of psilocybin cite the therapeutic potential of the drug. Numerous scientific studies have shown that psilocybin can have positive, long-lasting effects on depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, and anxiety. In particular, ongoing research has shown that the drug could be a groundbreaking medicine for treatment-resistant depression and nicotine addiction.
But how does the drug work to treat mental illness? Similar to SSRIs, the most common class of anti-depressant drugs, psilocybin acts on the brain's serotonin system, specifically the serotonin 2A receptor. Psychologically speaking, there is evidence that the drug can promote optimism, prosociality, and can nurture well-being.
One study conducted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine reported that about 80 percent of healthy volunteers who took psilocybin in a carefully controlled lab setting rated the experience "to be among the top five most personally and spiritually significant of their lives" and many more reported greater life satisfaction and increased positive mood one month after taking the drug.
Psilocybin, among other hallucinogens such as LSD, is not addictive and "there's no direct lethal overdose" of the drug on record, said Dr. Matthew Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Emerging evidence of medical uses and low addictive potential of the drug may shift negative attitudes about psilocybin and open doors to research. The FDA has granted "breakthrough therapy" status to study psilocybin for treating depression. According to the FDA, breakthrough therapy is designed to expedite the development of a drug after scientific evidence shows that the drug demonstrates improvement over existing therapies.
Researchers who study psilocybin's effects use a synthetic version of the drug in a controlled lab setting with accompanying psychological support, said Dr. Johnson, which is much different from someone growing and ingesting mushrooms at home.
However, there are risks to widening the availability of hallucinogens. The decriminalization measure in Denver could lead to an increase in individuals driving under the influence of psilocybin and it is unclear how the drug might interact with other medications. More research on the public safety and health risks of psilocybin use needs to be done to fully understand the measure's impacts on Denver, Colorado, and the nation as a whole.
Learn about the science of psilocybin and its therapeutic use in the TED talk by Dr. Roland Griffiths, lead investigator of the Psilocybin Research Initiative and Professor at the Departments of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine below: