Common Name: Dung-loving Psilocybe – A mushroom of the genus Psilocybe aptly named in that it grows primarily on horse or cow dung. The anthropomorphic ‘dung- loving’ should more appropriately be ‘dung-consuming’ – as it is a saprophytic fungus with no known emotions.
Scientific Name: Psilocybe coprophila – The generic name is from the Greek words psilo meaning ‘bare’ and kybos meaning ‘cube’; the specific name is from the Greek kopro meaning ‘dung’ and philos meaning ‘loving.’
Potpourri: The Dung-loving Psilocybe is the epitome of the little brown mushroom (LBM); a diminutive, execrable, non-descript toadstool that almost begs to be ignored; it is characteristic of most of the species in the genus: small with a smooth, viscid cap growing saprophytically on dead plants or dung. It instantiates the mycophobic perspective of the nugatory fungi, abiding at the nether reaches of the food chain, living on the very excrement of higher life forms. The Psilocybe genus would be relegated to the dustbin of obscurity were it not for one relatively minor yet culturally significant fact: it produces the hallucinogenic chemical psilocybin. The resultant conflation of mycology and psychopharmacology has an interesting history and an uncertain future; ‘magic mushrooms’ or ‘shrooms’ are sanctified by some and vilified by others.
The DNA analysis revolution of the Kingdom Fungi resulted in a revision of the original genus Psilocybe, which had a basic problem based on Linnaean structural taxonomic principles: one group produced the hallucinogenic psilocybin and one group did not. This dichotomy was also manifest in the physiology of the two groups: the psilocybin containing mushrooms (mostly) stain blue to blue-black whereas those that lack psilocybin do not stain at all – it may be hypothesized that the bluing is the result of psilocybin oxidation, though this has been clearly established. For all of the disruption that DNA evaluations have wrought to fungal taxonomy, this is one case where clarity has prevailed – there are actually two different, monophyletic and totally unrelated genera. The non-psilocybin mushrooms have been assigned to a new genus Deconica that is in the Stropharia family and the psilocybin containing mushrooms are now the sole occupants of the original genus Psilocybe in the Cortinarius family. This seemingly simplistic change is deceptively complicated by the process: a new type species (P. semilanceata) had to be accepted by the International Botanical Congress in 2010 for the now psychedelic genus. While the formal split of the two genera may be helpful to mycologists, it further exacerbates the policy issues of associating mushrooms with drugs.
The historical use of psilocybin containing hallucinogenic mushrooms for spiritual purposes is a matter of some direct evidence and a great deal of speculation. The native tribes of Mesoamerica had a well-established culture of Psilocybe mushroom use. In addition to several archaeological depictions of mushroom shaped drawings and objects, there is direct testimony from the Spanish interactions with the Aztecs. Bernardo de Sahagun was a Franciscan missionary in New Spain from 1529 until his death in 1590. In learning the Nahuatl tongue, he studied the beliefs and customs of the Aztecs, earning the sobriquet of being the first anthropologist. In his Historia General he noted that “The first thing to be eaten at the feast were small black mushrooms that they call teonanacatl, which bring on drunkenness, hallucinations, and even lechery. They ate these before dawn with honey, and when they began to feel the effects, they began to dance. Some sang and others wept. When the drunkenness of the mushrooms had passed, they spoke with one another of the visions they had seen.” There are numerous translations of teonanacatl that that range from ‘god mushroom’ to ‘flesh of the gods’ which indicate a more profound numinous association than that suggested by the Franciscan, who describes a bacchanal. The subsequent proselytism of the Catholic Church in what became an expansive missionary effort actively sought to eradicate the pagan mushroom cults, driving the practice sub rosa, where it remained for almost four hundred years.
The fons et origio of western cultural experimentation with Psilocybe mushrooms is largely attributable to R. Gordon Wasson, a vice president at J. P. Morgan – about as unlikely a revolutionary as one might imagine. His interest in mushrooms began with his marriage to Valentina Guercken, a normative Russian mycophile who introduced him to wild edible mushrooms on their Catskill Mountain honeymoon in complete contradiction of his own inherent mycophobia. A fascination with this dichotomy led to the philosophical underpinnings of the field that is now sometimes referred to as ethnomycology – and ultimately to the back-waters of rural Mexico to successfully penetrate the rumored mushroom cults that there prevailed on the fringes of their ecclesiastical mainstream. On the night of 29 June, 1955, he prevailed on a local ritualistic shaman healer of the Mazatec Tribe named Maria Sabina (alias Eva Mendez) to allow him to participate in a ceremony in which hallucinogenic, psychoactive mushrooms were consumed. The profundity of the experience elicited a life-long crusade to legitimize and popularize the practice. On May 13, 1957, Life Magazine published Wasson’s seminal article entitled “Seeking the Magic Mushrooms” in which he provided a transcendent description that is a rather interesting admixture of the prosaic banker and the Book of Revelation: “(his visions) began with art motifs, angular such as might decorate carpets or textiles or wall paper or the drawing board of an architect. Then they evolved into palaces all laid over with semi-precious stones. Then I saw a mythological beast drawing a regal chariot.” The religiosity of the experience led him to speculate as to a mycological provenance for spirituality in general and God in particular: “could the divine mushrooms be the secret that lay behind the ancient mysteries?” Ultimately, he addresses the prosaic: “The mushrooms present a chemical problem. What is the agent in them that releases the strange hallucinations? … The problem is of great interest in the realm of science. Will it also prove of help in coping with psychic disturbances?” Very prescient ideas, as time would tell.
The “chemical problem” was resolved in fairly short order by Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist who worked for Sandoz Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company now a division of the leviathan Novartis; he is perhaps better known as the discoverer of LSD, which he first synthesized in 1938. Its discovery was as serendipitous as that of Fleming’s penicillin from the Penicillium genus, and, quite coincidentally, it also involved a fungus – Claviceps purpurea commonly called ergot. While seeking an analeptic drug for the treatment of circulatory problems like postpartum bleeding, Hofmann stumbled upon lysergic acid diethylamide which was not successful in addressing the intended application and subsequently shelved. Five years later in 1943, he returned to the project and accidentally absorbed LSD through his skin. The resultant muted psychoactive effect was sufficient to elicit a determined self-directed experiment using 250 milligrams of the chemical, (now known to be about 10 times the effect threshold). The resultant hallucinations were profoundly disturbing to the extent that Hoffman asked his assistant to take him home, which was, due to wartime restrictions, on a bicycle – the etiology of the first “bicycle day” LSD trip. It was this seminal work that made Hoffman the world’s expert in psychoactive chemistry; in 1958, he identified psilocybin and psilocin as the active agents in Psilocybin mushrooms, the chemical names being the obvious choice of provenance.
The conflation of psychoactive mushrooms and LSD that Hofmann perceived has persisted; their trajectories propelling the psychedelic sixties in a Gadarene onrush to the drug wars of later decades. Psilocin is what is known in the lexicon of chemistry as an indole alkaloid, a compound with amine (NH) molecules held together by a hydrocarbon benzene ring and a nitrogen pyrrole ring. Psilocybin is psilocin with the addition of a phosphate group. From the physiological standpoint, this is moot; on ingestion, the phosphate group is removed somewhere in the process of digestion so that only psilocin remains in the blood, ultimately to be circulated via the anastomosis of the vascular system. The hallucinogenic effect is the result of psilocin reaching the brain, where its indole-amine backbone emulates the neurotransmitter serotonin which is chemically and structurally very similar. LSD, while chemically much more complicated than psilocin, has the same indole structure and bonds to the brains receptors for the same reason. Empirically, it is known that LSD is a more powerful hallucinogen whose effects persist about twice as long as psilocybin. That is about as far as science goes at this point. What remains of the history is in part the euphoria of madcap theater and in part the dystopia of bad trips and prison.
Timothy Leary was the director of the Harvard Center for Research in Personality in 1960 when he first experimented with Psilocybe mushrooms while vacationing in Mexico, which had become a popular venue for the more adventurous readers of Wasson’s magic mushroom Life Magazine article. He described the experience three years later in The Psychedelic Review as “above all and without question the deepest religious experience of my life.” On his return to Harvard, he procured psilocybin from Hofmann at Sandoz Laboratories to conduct psychological experiments. The pansophism that the Mexican mushroom experience elicited in Leary led to his rejection of the constraints of academia to pursue the psilocybin experience on his own; He was fired by Harvard in 1963 and adopted the clarion call “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” in becoming one of the symbolic leaders of the psychedelic movement. In one notable episode, he took psilocybin with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the ensuing euphoria culminating in a game of football with a loaf of rye bread. While Leary may well have been a visionary in the field of psychoactive chemicals and psychoses, his Panglossian and unscientific experimentation in all probability contributed significantly to the perception of drugs as an existential threat to western work ethics and cultural norms. His conflation of LSD and psilocybin containing mushrooms in pursuit of solipsistic ends forever tainted the latter with the former. There can be no doubt that his activism set the science of psychoactive drug treatments back about 50 years and contributed at least in part to the legislation that declared “War on Drugs.”
On October 24, 1968, Congress passed an amendment to 21 USC 321, the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act known as the Staggers-Dodd Bill to “to increase the penalties for unlawful acts involving lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and other depressant and stimulant drugs, and for other purposes.” This essentially made psilocybin, along with LSD and many other drugs, illegal. The full force of federal jurisprudence was brought to bear with the passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act which required the pharmaceutical industry to maintain strict control over certain “controlled substances.” Title II of the law is the Controlled Substances Act, which divides all drugs into five categories according to their potential for abuse. Psilocybin and psilocin are listed, along with LSD, peyote, cannabis, heroin and various opioids as Schedule I substances that: (1) Have a high potential for abuse; (2) Have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States; and (3) For which there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.
Internationally, the law is murkier. The 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances also lists psilocybin and psilocin as Schedule I drugs, but it does not regulate psilocybin containing mushrooms; consequently they are available in some countries, notably the Netherlands, where half a million dried mushroom packets were sold in 2006. That was until December 1, 2008, when the Dutch Legislature banned psilocybin mushrooms as a result of the public outcry when a young French woman jumped to her death from a rooftop while on a mushroom-induced phantasy. It is clear that there are some justified public policy concerns about the ethics of the distribution and use of psychoactive substances, including mushrooms.
The psychological effects of psilocin in particular and psychoactive drugs like LSD in particular are based on empiricism, relying on testimonials from individuals who characterize their personal experience as everything from ineffable to awful; reactions have ranged from Hofmann’s panic in fearing a loss of sentience altogether to Wasson’s apparent rapture. In Fungi Magazine (Volume 4, Number 3, p.20), the well-known mycologist Gary Lincoff (author of the Audubon Field Guide to North American Mushrooms) relates his many personal experiences with the use of Psilocybin mushrooms. The descriptions range from the intoxicated “We spent hours sitting around mostly responding to what everyone else was saying” and “We were convulsed in laughter the whole time, incapable of controlling our movements or communicating with one another” to the wildly phantasmagorical “I looked into her eyes – they were glowing a kind of emerald green, a color that seemed to come from an ancient forest on the shores of a deep green sea” and “The grass beyond the path had tips that were glowing yellow, and in the distance there was a line of tall trees that became giant prehistoric birds … with heavy bodies moving back and forth in the wind.” His summary, in pondering whether psilocybin-induced psychedelia is “the sense of connectedness with all life, with all creatures, great and small, as well as all plants and all fungi” concludes with “in addition to being a college age (and middle age)’party drug,’ it has the untapped potential for understanding (or misunderstanding) human behavior.” The Manichaean contradictions of psilocybin’s effects are implicit.
Scientific research on the effects of Psilocybin mushrooms on psychology is necessary and sufficient to advance medical knowledge to inform public policy. The advent of medical marijuana, also a Schedule I substance, cracked the portals of legal purgatory to the extent that cannabis is now legal in two states, and, as of last December, one country (Uruguay). In 2006, researchers at Johns Hopkins completed a seminal study on the psychological effects of psilocybin. In a rigorously controlled comfort environment after extensive pre-briefing, thirty middle-aged volunteers were administered capsules of psilocybin. Their reactions were monitored during, immediately after, and two months following the sessions. While one third expressed feelings of fear and paranoia during the testing, two months later 79 percent self-reported a more positive psychological life-view, a perception that was independently corroborated by their closest relatives and friends. In 2010, independent studies at UCLA and NYU found that psilocybin lowered anxiety levels in advanced cancer patients, suggesting a psychopharmacological role. While tentative, these studies auger more advanced trials on the psychedelic and spiritual causes and effects of psilocybin. Perhaps Wasson had it right after all.