The History of Psychedelic Mushrooms

The growing shroom boom has become popularized through media highlighting the benefits of psychedelics, such as the film Fantastic Fungi or the book How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. For far too long, mushrooms have been given a bad rap due to misinformation and fear, but why?  As more information is unveiled to the public through multiple modes, droves of people are discovering a newfound love for fungi.  Read on to discover the history of humans and mushrooms (specifically psilocybin) throughout time and where we currently are as a society when it comes to Magic Mushrooms.

several yellow-capped mushrooms growing on a cow-pie
a circular array of yellow, red, and blue dots
a singular mushroom with a thin stem and tan cap growing out of a piece of horse manure

Early Depictions of Hallucinogenic Mushrooms

One of the earliest depictions of hallucinogenic mushroom use comes from a 4000 BCE cave painting in Spain. This elaborate illustration focuses primarily on animal subject matter BUT there is also a depiction of what appear to be mushrooms, specifically Psilocybe hispanica- a species with hallucinogenic properties. The exact use of the mushrooms is unknown, but there is some thought that these fungi were used for religious rituals. Earlier cave paintings have been found as early as 10,000 BCE and scientists argue that psychedelics have been consumed by humanoids since the brain started developing (if you've seen Fantastic Fungi you're familiar with this theory).

First Written Record of Magic Mushrooms

Now, the first written record of hallucinogenic mushrooms appears in the Florentine Codex in the 1500s. This record elaborates on the use of "Flesh of the Gods", a magic mushroom used by the Aztecs. However, but the mid 1500s Europeans had rooted themselves in Mesoamerica and outlawed the use of these fungi. And so begins the first version of underground mushroom use and cultivation.

Popularization of Magic Mushrooms

Fast-forward to the 1800s and early 1900s and you can find multiple accounts of accidental ingestion of fungi that led to peculiar symptoms. While during these decades hallucinogenic mushrooms weren't illegal, they weren't widely popular among the general public UNTIL the 1950s. In 1955 Robert and Valentina Wasson traveled to Huautla de Jiménez in Oaxaca, Mexico to meet with María Sabina and partake in a traditional Mazatec healing ceremony that uses Psilocybin to experience enlightenment. In 1957 the Wasson's recounted the experience for an article in LIFE magazine. This article seemingly opened the gates for Americans and many traveled to Huautla de Jiménez in search of magic mushrooms.

Early Research of Psychedelic Mushrooms

In the research realm by 1958 Swiss Chemists Albert Hofmann and co-workers at Sandoz isolated psilocybin and psilocin, the compounds in psychedelic mushrooms that allow for hallucinogenic effects, to help better understand the scientific properties of these fungi. By 1963 that same Alfred Hofmann and Franz Troxler patented Psilocybin synthesis (the method of isolating the psilocybin compound from a Psilocybe mushroom).

By 1968 however, the US federal government criminalized the possession of psychedelics under the Staggers-Dodd bill. Come 1971 Richard Nixon declares the "War on Drugs" along with the Controlled Substances Act where the US federal government classified Psilocybin as a "Schedule I" drug, bringing medical and scientific research to a halt. Around the same time the UK also passes the Misuse of Drugs Act controlling most psychedelics.

By and large research around psychedelics moved at a crawl for the next 30 years. There were several scientist that continued research on a small scale but it wasn't until 2000 that Johns Hopkins becomes the first institution in the US to receive regulatory approval from the FDA and DEA for research on the effects of psychedelics. For the next 20 years research world-wide began to pick-up, especially in Europe and Asia which lead to the synthesis of Psilocybin on various scales. By 2019 Johns Hopkins formed the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. That same year Denver, CO became the first US city to deprioritize the prosecution of Psilocybin possession and use. By 2020 the entire state of Oregon decriminalizes all drugs and legalizes Psilocybin for medical use. Come 2021 Johns Hopkins received a $4 million federal grant from the National Institutes of Health (the first federal grant for psychedelic research in more than 50 years) for research on Psilocybin effectiveness with tobacco addiction and cessation.

Which brings us to today. Where are we today? As mentioned above there has been an astounding amount of interest surface around fungi, and with that, a lot of interest around the psychedelic realm.

Research of Psychedelic Mushrooms Today

In 2022 Johns Hopkins, Yale, and New York University received a $900,000 grant from the Heffter Research Institute to research the use of psychedelics in therapy using an evidence-based approach. As of October, 122 clinical trials are posted for studies involving Psilocybin as a treatment for multiple conditions ranging from depression, PTSD, cardiac repolarization, OCD, Parkinson's Disease, cancer, alcoholism, and more.

Along with and increase in research, several cities in select states (California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington) have either deprioritized or decriminalized the status of Psilocybin. Over 50 publicly-held companies started developing psychedelic products for medical application as of 2021.

With grants, research, and legalization on the rise we look to a promising future of psychedelic application. Recent research applying psilocybin to aid with depression and PTSD has provided hope of alleviation.  New knowledge brings new understanding, which may help to alleviate mycophobia (fear of mushrooms) and bring about more mycophiles (mushroom loving).  A growing fungal community and network has the potential to create a plethora of new connections, just like a hyphal tip reaching out to explore a vast new territory!