Magic mushrooms can’t cure cancer, but they can alleviate the anxiety and existential dread that come along with the disease.
At least, that’s the apparent conclusion from a pair of studies published in late 2016, wherein participants who had been diagnosed with both cancer and clinical depression or anxiety were administered psilocybin mushrooms within a controlled, living room-esque environment.
The psychological effects of psilocybin were not only positive, but enduring. Most participants ranked the experience among the most meaningful of their lives, and six months after taking the dose, 65 percent had almost fully recovered from their depression, and 57 percent from their anxiety. In contrast, antidepressants have been observed to help only 40 percent of terminal cancer patients in past studies—making them about as effective as a placebo.
However, as with other psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin remains a Schedule I drug, deemed by the federal government to have a high potential for abuse and no medical value whatsoever. Yet that hasn’t stopped researchers from administering more than 2,000 doses of the much-touted magic mushrooms in clinical settings since the early ‘90s, during which time no participants have reported any lasting medical or psychiatric issues.
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Instead, most studies seem to confirm what recreational users have suspected for some time now—that psychedelic drugs can help us, at least if taken under the right circumstances, and with this new wave of advanced psychedelic research, we’re beginning to understand why.
Both mushrooms and LSD, or acid, can reliably inspire religious or otherwise transcendental experiences in users, often resulting in a detachment from worldly concerns and a loss of self-identity called “ego death.” Another 2016 study suggests LSD accomplishes this by increasing global connectivity in the brain, thus removing perceived boundaries between one’s inner and outer world.
Additional studies provide evidence for the drug’s effectiveness in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder, alcoholism and other addictions, though the effects don’t typically last more than six months after dosing. Perhaps more impressive are the findings that psilocybin can actually alter people’s personalities—usually thought to be set in stone during adulthood—by making them more open, a trait associated with broad-mindedness and creativity.
“There’s a sacredness or a reverence to [the] experience,” noted Roland Griffiths, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who authored one of the studies. “Although the effects of the drugs are gone by the end of the day, the memories of these experiences and the attributions made to them endure.”
Indeed, the lasting effects of psilocybin and LSD, as observed in Griffiths’ study and others, can help anyone, not just those struggling with cancer or clinical depression. Neither drug has much potential for addiction, and the only significant associated risks are from accidents or anxiety attacks, which can be particularly damaging for users with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Researchers screened participants for such risk factors and provided a safe, encouraging environment for their trips.
Thanks to an increased understanding of these controversial hallucinogens and a groundswell movement of pro-psychedelic advocacy groups, it isn’t farfetched to imagine a future where mental health patients can drop acid or mushrooms outside of a research setting, perhaps under the supervision of a doctor or other trained professional.
It will no doubt take time for government policy to catch up with these illuminating findings, meaning legal psychedelics will still take years—or even decades—to hit shelves. But if the research keeps progressing, how long can we ignore the science? Under this administration, that may remain to be seen.