Feb 24, 2015

Magic Mushrooms

As a child of the sixties, I was entranced by Michael Pollan’s article in the New Yorker called The Trip Treatment.

It chronicles the comparatively  new efforts to work with psilocybin (a psychoactive chemical from certain mushrooms) as an experiential antidote to depression, anxiety and even the fear one experiences facing death.  Psilocybin was banned when Nixon signed the controlled substances act .  When this happened, the extensive research being done on psychoactive chemicals (the most well known being LSD) came to a halt.

Now at NYU and Johns Hopkins a small number of researchers are being allowed by the government to resume working with “these powerful and still somewhat mysterious substances.”  According to one psychiatrist, cancer patients receiving just a single dose of psilocybin experienced “immediate and dramatic reductions in anxiety and depression, improvements that were sustained for at least six months.” ( Pollan attributes the willingness of the government to allow these carefully conducted studies to the fact that the drug war is winding down.)

Psilocybin is similar in effect to LSD, but less likely to produce adverse reactions, and is not as strong or long lasting.

In the Hawaiian Islands a number of these psychoactive mushroom species occur naturally, including five which have been identified. The three most common of the identified species of psychoactive fungi in the Hawaiian Islands are known to contain psilocybin and/or psilocin .   These mushrooms are known in Hawaii by recreational users as “magic mushrooms,” “gold caps,” “blue meanies,” “dimple tops,” and “cone heads.” They are the most common species employed for recreational, albeit illicit, purposes. Such illegal use has taken place rather commonly in Hawaii for 20 years or more (Anon. 1972; Pollock 1974; Anon. 1981b;).  These mushrooms are part of a class of drugs known as psychedelics.  At least during the sixties and seventies, these mushrooms could be found on the hillsides in Hana.  (and elsewhere in Hawaii, I am sure).

I learned from the article that the term psychedelic was coined by an English psychiatrist in 1953, who described it in a letter to Aldous Huxley to mean “mind manifesting.”   When Pollan queried one of the researchers about whether there might not be another backlash, the researcher noted that much has changed since the 1960′s, noting that people then never even talked about death or cancer, and now there are hospices everywhere and cancer is front and center in the conversation.  So, too, is mindfulness.  Mindfulness is mainstream, noted the researcher and he believes this will lead to acceptances of psychedelics in treatments of many diseases.

That  researcher raises the idea of the use of psilocybin “for the betterment of well people,” saying “We are all terminal.  We’re all dealing with death.  This will be far too valuable to limit to sick people.”

But here’s a problem:  even if large trials prove that psilocybin is a successful treatment for dealing with many medical issues, and even if the government were to declassify psilocybin as a controlled substance, it would be difficult to get a pharmaceutical company to take it on because it cannot be patented.


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Gloria. Circa 1955.

Gloria. Circa 2012.

Other than working for the American Red Cross in Korea for two years, Gloria Garvey has lived in Hawai`i since 1971. Her opinion and other writing has appeared in: The American Philatelist. Honolulu Weekly, The Honolulu Advertiser, The Honolulu Star Bulletin, The Star Advertiser, Hawai`i Reporter, Pacific Business News, Island Scene, The Design Management Journal.

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