..Life Repeats Itself
They say that
history repeats itself, then repeats itself again. It sure seems
to, if drug trends are any indication. Take psilocybin, for example.
centuries by Central American Indians, psilocybin mushrooms (also
known as "'shrooms" and "magic mushrooms")
enjoyed brief bursts of popularity in the 1960's and '70s --
and '80s and '90s.
But that was
then, and this is now, right? End of the psilocybin saga? Well,
no. Not exactly.
Because a recent
survey showed that 15 percent of students at two California universities
admitted using psilocybin, making it the most-used hallucinogen
And from points
as far flung as Oregon, Wisconsin, New York and Arizona (and
as distant as England and Wales), reports of increased psilocybin
use reflect a renewed interest in the drug-and a new need to
sort out facts and fiction about its actions and effects.
thing that history shows is that people seem to like finding
out about problems by banging their heads into them. And if the
past really is prologue to the future, lots of people are due
to start finding out about psilocybin that way any day now.
..Flesh of the Gods
American inhabitants of North America probably first found out
about mushrooms the hard way -- but, then again, centuries ago
everybody found out about everything the hard way.
What they found
in psilocybin was a natural drug that triggers a bewildering
array of hallucinatory effects. It made such a big impression,
in fact, that many believed the plant to be divinely-inspired,
and incorporated the plant into religious rituals as long ago
as 1,000 B.C. The Aztecs also practiced sacramental use of mushrooms,
which they called teonanactl, or "flesh of the gods."
first became interested in the properties of psilocybin when
reports of the closely-guarded mushroom ceremonies filtered out
of Mexican backlands and into American universities. Still, it
was 1936 before serious Western investigators even came within
picture-taking distance of the legendary mushrooms.
the development of synthetic psilocybin in the mid-1950's, was
sparked the first real interest in the drug as a tool in psychotherapy
and the treatment of emotional disorders. And while few conclusive
results emerged from early psilocybin research, the studies succeeded
in superimposing the mantle of "science" onto psilocybin's
ancient links with "magic."
proved irresistible to many at the time, and psilocybin remains
a much-sought-after hallucinogen today. In the American West,
Northwest, and South, where the mushrooms grow wild, many users
take annual pilgrimages to growing areas. Supplies gathered can
be dried and used -- at full psychoactive potential -- for months.
Adding to the
renewed interest in-and availability of-psilocybin has been mail-order
psilocybin kits, which combine legally-available mushroom spores
with sophisticated cultivation gear.
mushrooming is particularly prevalent in and around college campuses
since the kits take up little physical space and fit easily into
a dorm or apartment closet.
So what are
psilocybin mushrooms? Lots of things -- literally. Because despite
what most people think, "psilocybin" isn't a single
type of mushroom, at all.
In fact, "psilocybin"
actually refers to a naturally-occurring hallucinogen (known
in scientific circles as phosphorylated 4-hydroxydimethyltryptamine)
that's found in more than two dozen different species of mushrooms.
The most common
psilocybin-containing mushrooms fall in the genus Psilocybe,
and all are different in size, shape, potency, and habitat.
About 15 species
grow in the northwestern United States alone, including Psilocybe
pelliculosa, Psilocybe synaescens, and Conocybe cyanopus,
to name a few. And there are a lot more where they came from.
And the confusion
doesn't end there. Because even the term "psilocybin"
isn't entirely accurate.
is the main psychoactive ingredient found in the fungus, a smaller
but more potent compound (called psilocin) also packs a good
part of mushrooms' psychedelic punch.
that psilocybin is converted in the body to psilocin before triggering
its mind-altering effects.
And while it's
still uncertain exactly how mushrooms (or other hallucinogenic
drugs, for that matter) exert their effects, researchers think
the compounds disrupt the balance of brain chemicals that regulate
sensory perceptions and the processing of new information.
something that people who learn things the hard way learn about
psilocybin right away.
Like LSD, psilocybin
triggers a kaleidoscopic cascade of effects. And also like LSD,
estimating dose and strength is tricky since each type of mushroom
varies in potency and duration of effects.
dosage levels, psilocybin raises body temperature, pulse rate,
and blood pressure, and causes enlargement of the pupils. Nausea
and feelings of numbness are also common.
effects plateau, LSD-like perceptual and cognitive changes kick
in, resulting in massive alterations of thought and focus and
physical sensations typically seem more acute, even awe-inspiring,
and sensory input may seem to "cross over" among senses,
a condition known as synesthesia.
hallucinogens, psilocybin tilts the balance of neurotransmitters
that drive higher-order intellectual functions, making many activities
-- driving a car, for example -- tricky and dangerous.
usually produces a milder hallucinogenic experience than LSD,
which is a major reason for mushrooms' continuing popularity.
Peak effects typically occur within two hours of ingestion and
fade altogether within 3-8 hours.
to drug effects develops quickly, psilocybin does not produce
symptoms of physical overdose are rare, since a lethal dose is
estimated at more than 2,000 times the psychoactive dose.
And when they
do, they usually take the form of sudden, acute anxiety reactions.
Like other hallucinogens, psilocybin produces such vivid mental
changes and rapid mood swings that users can easily feel overwhelmed
by the flood of feelings and perceptions that psilocybin lets
staring down panic may ultimately require little more than time
and the support of a caring friend, it can be terrifying, nonetheless.
..Dancing With Angels
For all their
reputed magic, mushrooms can be more of a mystery than some people
is that mushrooms are often in high demand and low supply, which
means that unscrupulous dealers of the get-rich-quick persuasion
(is there any other kind?) have been rumored to treat supermarket
mushrooms with LSD or PCP and pass them off as the Real Deal.
And even though
some users might think it's safer to pick their own, things can
get even trickier then.
of poisonous lookalikes only compounds the risk. Experts say
toxic mushrooms outnumber psilocybin varieties by a ratio of
ten to one. And while a reliable guidebook can reduce the risks,
only laboratory analysis can provide positive proof that a particular
mushroom is edible -- and safe.
And since two
dozen mushroom species contain varying amounts of the drug, gauging
a safe dose is a lot like guessing the number of angels that
can dance on the head of a pin.
Theoretically, it can be done
(assuming there are angels who dance on the heads of pins),
but chances are you won't figure it out -- unless you get lucky
with a guess (or an angel tells you).