Mycelium: Mapping the Mind with Mushrooms

Taylor Crane Rodrigues

On September 24th, the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy hosted Mycelium: Mapping the Mind with Mushrooms, a psychedelics conference focusing on psilocybin mushrooms, in Toronto. The event was held as part of the 9/20 Day of Action which tries “to bring the discussion of psychedelic compounds into public discourse.”

Psilocybin mushrooms, commonly referred to as “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms,” are naturally occurring mushrooms that contain the psychedelic compounds psilocybin or psilocin. The effects of consuming psilocybin mushrooms vary greatly by user. However, common effects  include the amplification of a user’s existing mood, euphoria, distorted perceptions of space and time, and altered self-perception. Visual and auditory hallucinations, mystical experiences, and magical or grandiose thinking are often reported from users taking high dosages.

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Psilocybin mushrooms alone have virtually “zero potential to cause addiction,” and they pose few physical risks to users. Psychological discomfort is more common and may include anxiety, paranoia, a psychological loss of self, and psychotic reactions, but most negative psychological effects can be prevented or treated with psychological support.

In 1971, psilocybin and psilocin were classified as Schedule 1 drugs under the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances, which means they are deemed to pose a serious risk to the public, and to have no medicinal use. Although they are currently illegal in Canada and most of the world, psychedelic activists are trying to change this.

The 920 Coalition is a global collaboration of non-profit organizations, established in 2015, that hosts events around September 20th to promote awareness about the medicinal applications of psilocybin mushrooms, and to make the case to end their prohibition. 9/20 is a play on 4/20, an annual celebration of marijuana culture on April 20th, during which people gather to use marijuana and, on occasion, to advocate for its legalization.

The Mycelium: Mapping the Mind with Mushrooms conference featured workshops on growing non-psychedelic mushrooms, academic presentations on psychedelics, and a screening of A New Understanding: The Science of Psilocybin.

None of the presenters gave a hard sell on legalizing psilocybin mushrooms, but two legalization arguments implicitly flowed throughout the conference: the harm argument and the medicinal argument.

The harm argument is an appeal to John Stuart Mill’s harm principle which holds that society is only justified in restricting individuals’ freedom in order to prevent harm to other individuals. Recreational psilocybin mushroom consumption does not directly produce negative externalities (as in the case of cigarettes and second-hand smoke) and is not linked to violent behaviour (as is the case with other drugs including alcohol). A frequently cited study in the Lancet, a United Kingdom medical journal, asked drug harm experts to rank 20 drugs on their harm to users and society, and found psilocybin mushrooms to be the least harmful drug on both accounts. So, the argument concludes that prohibition cannot be justified under the harm principle—or even from the perspective of paternalism—as long as society accepts the harms of more harmful drugs such as alcohol or tobacco.

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The medicinal argument argues that psilocybin mushrooms ought to be legal in order to accelerate research on them, and to make them accessible to patients. It argues that psilocybin mushrooms have  shown incredibly promising medicinal effects and prohibition makes it very difficult for academics to study their effects and for needy patients to use them.

Kenneth Tupper, Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health, and John Vervaeke, Director of the University of Toronto’s Cognitive Science Program, both cited numerous studies in their presentations which described the strong medicinal benefits of psychedelic drug-assisted psychotherapy.

They referenced American studies which found that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for alcoholism reduced subjects’ number of drinking days roughly in half, and 80 per cent of subjects who took psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to quit smoking were observed to have quit six months following treatment. Across the pond, a United Kingdom study on psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy showed markedly reduced depressive symptoms in subjects after one week in 67 per cent of cases, and three months in 57 per cent of cases. There is even some clinical evidence that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can improve healthy subjects’ (i.e. individuals with no physical or mental illnesses) ability to think creatively and be more open-minded to new ideas and experiences.

All of these studies had a very small numbers of participants (typically 12-20), and it is uncertain whether these results are generalizable to the general population. But it is difficult to argue, in light of these results, that psilocybin should be a Schedule 1 drug because it has “no medical uses.” The thin academic literature shows that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can be more efficacious than current prescription drugs in treating addiction, depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.

Many of the conference presenters claimed that we are in the dawn of a psychedelic renaissance. The Canadian Medical Association Journal featured an article on psychedelic drugs on its cover last year, Canada is expected to legalize marijuana this spring, and public opinion polls show that the majority of Canadians think the “war on drugs” has failed. Conference presenters encouraged participants to continue to take cues from the marijuana legalization movement’s playbook: get people talking about psilocybin mushrooms, stress their medicinal benefits, and show, by example, that psilocybin mushroom users can—and do—lead productive meaningful lives in their communities.

Taylor Crane Rodrigues is a 2017 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds an Honors Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and a Certificate in Ethics with Distinction from the University of Western Ontario. His professional interests include fiscal policy, health policy, environmental policy and libertarian paternalism.

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