Johnston and Yurgine: Are ‘magic mushrooms’ about to hit market?

May 19, 2019

Joe: When I worked for the federal government in New York City, I once participated in an informal general discussion and debate about how we could put a dagger into the Commie menace and Russian spies. At the time, and even today, the Soviet Mission on East 67th Street was a lodestar, a known center for spying with their tentacles branching out not only encompassing Manhattan Island but vast areas west of the Hudson River. Like the Cheka used to be in the 1920s the KGB with their army of spies (there were more than 300 in the mission) attacked constitutional and social structures and employed subversion, deception and murder to steal secrets and spread disinformation to weaken the U.S., their No. 1 target. Sitting in our room with this discussion was our expert, paid to come up with imaginative stuff the CIA then often would spend years analyzing, searching for new directions. When asked what he had been looking at, his comment was “lysergic acid diethylamide, called LSD, an abracadabra, mind-altering drug.” On the upside, it had been used as a truth cocktail. “Yeah, doc” someone said, “but what about the downside?” The downside is LSD can create a lack of muscle control, impaired speech and hallucinations. “If a person woke up after taking it, short term schizophrenia could set in, and if he were in a high-rise building, he might make a running dash and dive out the window.” This story brings me to the subject of “magic mushrooms,” which contain psilocybin, a psychedelic similar to LSD, which I throw at you for discussion. Voters in Denver approved a ballot initiative that effectively decriminalizes psilocybin, making it available as a psychedelic medicine. Some doctors say this could afford new treatment for patients with addiction and depression. I like mushrooms. In my quest to eat less meat, I’ve begun to eat high protein ones. But are we ready for the “magic mushrooms”? Looks as though we are heading for easier access to recreational drugs, similar to medicinal marijuana. Digesting a potent psychedelic truffle has been described as being similar to taking off in a deck chair tied to helium balloons. Do you see any future of mushrooms as drugs?

Ken: It sounds as though the FBI has a long history of finding creative ways to mess people up.

Joe: Only with Russian spies. Imagination is the key, particularly, when their cook is a friend.

Ken: But gee whiz, I thought when you mentioned mushrooms you were talking about shroomin’ in Illinois, which means to me a walk in the woods, looking down in search of morels. Right now is high season, and the ample rain we have had bodes well. When we were in the process of buying the house we still live in, the previous owner told us every spring, a shroomer or two would show up and get permission to hunt in his favorite patch on the property. So, after looking for a few seasons, I found a spot where a small crop of morels would show up each year. I used a handbook and felt I was able to positively identify that single species. Most springs, my wife and I had one appetizer-size serving of chopped up morels fried in butter with finely sliced green onions. Yum.

My knowledge about “magic mushrooms” mostly consists of hearing or reading about a few people — some experienced shroomers — who got sick or even died from wild mushroom poisoning. Sometime in the 1980s, Psi (not real name), a weird Chicago musician friend of my wife, heard we kept a couple of horses, and he reasoned there was a pile of manure around here somewhere. Psi told her the primo mushrooms grow on poop piles, so she invited Psi to pop down and have a peek. He wasn’t thinking of a tasty appetizer. Psi showed up, and we headed for the back of the stable where there was only manure, no fungus. I was relieved because I worried if he got sick and couldn’t play his trombone, I would get sued as the purveyor of poisonous mushrooms. And guess what — a year after coming home empty-handed from Bourbonnais, Psi came close to dying after ingesting wild mushrooms.

Joe: Well, it’s difficult to overlook the number of Americans afflicted with depression, addiction and pain. The depression medications market alone is valued at about $16 billion per year. Maybe a naturally occurring substance found in mushrooms can help Americans and lower drug costs. On a recreational note, what I found interesting was an article in The Guardian citing a global drug survey that said a “study finds mushrooms (which included psilocybin hallucinogenic mushrooms) are the safest recreational drug.” Have you seen any magic mushrooms on your walks?

Ken: I have a very limited repertoire for fungus identification — morels and a couple of lookalikes to avoid. Similar to medicinal marijuana, magic mushrooms have a couple of problems to solve before being widely used clinically. First, hallucinogenic mushrooms produce a variety of psychoactive substances that interfere with brain neurotransmitters; the effects of a single purified and quantifiable chemical are more predictable. Second, the exact chemical mechanisms are yet to be worked out partly because there is no body of research to build on because marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms were criminalized by a 1970 act of Congress. Similar to the drug Prozac, used to treat depression, the magic mushrooms appear to affect brain processes mediated by serotonin. Last week, the New York Times cited two recent small studies of psilocybin with selected patient subjects that showed possible potential in treating depression. The article noted psilocybin experience is not always pleasant, unlike marijuana which consistently produces a pleasant high, making future commercialization of psilocybin any time soon unlikely.

Joe: The war on drug prices is being lost. When you add medications for pain control, multiple sclerosis, eczema and rheumatoid arthritis to antidepressants, the U.S. pharma market totals $50 billion. If you move from expensive pharma drugs to generics, 80 percent of which are made in China and India, there are trustworthy issues. Many generics have been found to be tainted. Whether it’s marijuana, magic mushrooms or something else, it makes sense to begin looking at cheaper and better alternatives.

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