Psilocybin 101: History, legality, experience and “bad trips”

Psilocybin, magic mushrooms, shrooms—words you’ve likely heard, and all of which refer to the same thing. “Magic mushrooms” contain the psychoactive compound psilocybin. Psilocybin is naturally occurring, hence, produced in the mushroom (making the names interchangeable), and are capable of causing hallucinations, the ability to feel the universe in its entirety, or a sense that all things are connected and death is not to be feared. You know, casual stuff. “Shrooms” is merely a shortened name for “magic mushrooms” of which there are more than 180 species containing psilocybin.

History


Humans have always sought spiritual experiences, it seems. Archaeological evidence does suggest that humans have been using psychedelic mushrooms for 7,000 years or more, although it’s impossible to say whether enlightenment was the “intention” when our ancestors used magic mushrooms and whether they contemplated their mindset and environment ahead of time. Some historians date the use of mushrooms as far back as 9000 BC, represented on rock paintings and statues in Central America, potentially serving as religious symbols used in ceremonies celebrating rites of passage. Since they can induce a transcendent state, it seems entirely possible that plant-based medicine is one of our deepest connections to our past.


Ethnobotanist and psychonaut Terence McKenna coined the “Stoned Ape Hypothesis,” which suggests that our intellectual advancements as a species were triggered by mushrooms. He posits that psychedelic mushrooms allowed us to transcend what we were in leaps and bounds, which contributed a great deal to the mind as we know it today. The scientific community, of course, isn’t all in agreement on this hypothesis, nor the history of our ancient use of mushrooms, in general. Some argue that the evidence isn’t definitive and that people are seeing what they want to see in paintings, sculptures, and manuscripts. Totally fair.

It’s not until four children accidentally got high in 1799 that the first interaction with psilocybin mushrooms in the West was recorded. They were accidentally fed the psychedelic mushroom Psilocybe semilanceata, when their father unknowingly gathered and cooked them into a stew, leading to a funny but also very confusing day in their young lives.

In the 1950s, Westerners began knowingly and willingly eating magic mushrooms, no stew required.  This surge was kicked off in 1955 by mycologist R. Gordon Wasson (former vice president of J.P. Morgan & Company) who was traveling through the Oaxaca region of southern Mexico to study mushrooms. He met mushroom shaman Maria Sabina of the Mazatec and participated in a mushroom ceremony that would change the course of psychedelics forever. He wrote an article about his experience, including the feeling that his soul had been scooped out of his body, which was published in Life Magazine in 1957. An editor, not Wasson, came up with the headline“Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” and so the colloquial name “magic mushrooms” was born and remains. So did the interest.

After reading about Wasson’s soul-scooping experience and then traveling to Oaxaca to get a taste of the action for themselves, Harvard University researchers, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert founded the rather audacious Harvard Psilocybin Project. They were fired. But instead of giving up and going underground, in 1962, they started the psychedelic movement, and soon the 1960s counterculture was swooning to the sweet serenade of psilocybin. A decade later, the movement would come to a grinding halt. In 1971, psilocybin was listed in the UN’s Convention on Psychotropic Substances as a Schedule I drug in the U.S., making it illegal for all purposes. However, the mushrooms were not. Confusing, right? To this day, this “loophole” allows countries to regulate mushrooms that naturally contain psilocybin as they please. We’ll cover more of this in ‘legalities’ below.

What is it like to be “on shrooms”?


Today, one of the most popular terms is “microdosing” where people ingest a sub-perceptual dose of the psychedelic. It’s not a trip, it’s just “a good day.”

A psychedelic trip of any kind is never one-size-fits-all, and like any authentic experience, never repeatable. While controlling your setting and being in-tune with your mindset are recommended, a large proponent of a fulfilling experience is relinquishing control. Beyond that, dosage should be taken into consideration and approached with both curiosity and caution. The medicine is meant to be respected, and it would serve you well to set an intention.

Brew your mushrooms in tea, grind them up, take them in a capsule, blend them into a smoothie, or munch them whole—whatever you choose, choose to enjoy the ride. Each modality of consumption will have a slightly different onset period. For instance, drinking your mushrooms will bring on the effects much quicker than taking them in a capsule. 


Although each trip will be different, there are a few things you can generally expect if you take a moderate dose of mushrooms (1-2.5g) — a state best described as an intermediary between wakefulness and sleep. The world takes on the quality of a dream, with soft peripherals and a certain whimsical quality to simply existing. Paintings and carpets might seem to dance before your eyes, your hands might become a particular point of interest, emotions will intensify, you might be able to taste the color blue (synesthesia), time will become altogether irrelevant (either by realizing it’s a construct, or not thinking about it at all), and as far as you’re concerned, love is all that really matters. In a mouthful of a word, this state of in-between-ness is called “hypnagogic experiences.”

Perceptual changes are also bound to occur, such as seeing halos around lights, objects, and people, as if they have suddenly taken on an otherworldly quality, colors will seem more vivid, beauty becomes arresting, you will suddenly “get” jazz, the world around you might begin to breathe (another reason why being in nature is profound), and when you close your eyes, you will experience a kaleidoscope of geometric shapes.

Emotionally, it’s probable you will feel open and connected to the people around you, language will become irrelevant in expressing your gratitude, and you might be overcome by the immersive “nowness” of the present moment. Giddiness, playfulness, and delight might rush into your body like a gentle tide, as you remember what it feels like to look at the world with wonder, like you once did as a child. You’ll think: why shouldn’t I feel like this all the time? It might seem silly to waste away your days doing things that don’t bring you joy or neglect the person you know you could be for the sake of material things. All of these thoughts will seem to fit perfectly in your mind as if always there. Avoidance will seem silly, as will fear, pain, jealousy, envy, or any other emotion that you interpret as blockages against the natural flow of the universe. Of course, none of this is guaranteed but it is all possible.

Challenging emotions might also find their way to the door of your mind. When these undesirable characters do arrive—if they arrive—it’s best to let them in and give them a seat at the table of your consciousness, as they might have something important to tell you. Behaviors that might be holding you back, whether conscious or unconscious, tend to pay us a visit in this realm, not with malicious intent but simply to help us grow from the deep, dark, fertile soil of our unresolved trauma. That which you resist, persists—and never is it more true than during a trip. Remember to breathe and remind yourself (or have a trusted friend/guide) remind you that this feeling, whatever it may be, is temporary. You are safe, you are loved, and you chose to interact with this plant medicine for a reason. As much as you’d like to plan for what that reason is, and as much as intention can set the table, you don’t know who will show up at your door until they are already knocking. However, with acceptance in your heart, there is no good or bad—there just is. 

What is a “bad trip” then?


There is no known lethal dose of psilocybin,
and long-term physical and psychological effects are few. Taking any drug, however, does have its risks. The 2017 Global Drug Survey found that psilocybin is the safest recreational drug, and is associated with five times fewer medical emergencies than MDMA, LSD, and cocaine. Still, “bad trips” are possible although overdosing is highly unlikely.

On the more extreme end of the spectrum of possible negative side-effects is something called Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD), a rare disorder which causes a person to keep reliving the visual element of an experience caused by hallucinogenic drugs without the mental intoxications, commonly known as “flashbacks.” HPPD involves interruptions in your field of vision in weeks or months following a psychedelic experience, which can be unnerving, annoying, and possibly debilitating. HPPD is not associated with any physical changes or brain damage.

On a milder side, certain physical side-effects might be felt at the onset or during a psilocybin trip, such as an upset stomach, sweating, or the feeling of going momentarily numb. Emotionally, there might be a sweeping feeling of “too much-ness” resulting in anxiety, paranoia, and fluctuating mood. 

Legality


Like cannabis years ago, the recreational use of magic mushrooms is still considered illegal in North America. Although categorized as a Schedule I controlled substance in the U.S., activists are pushing for decriminalization–meaning it’s no longer a punishable offense for adults aged 21 and older to possess psilocybin mushrooms for personal use. Citizens of Denver, Colorado, voted to decriminalize mushrooms on May 7, 2019. Decriminalization is different from legalization. If you’re caught selling, distributing, or possibly even growing them, you could still face criminal charges. Oakland, California was quick to follow. A month later, in June 2019, council members voted unanimously to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms and all “entheogenic plants” containing indoleamines, tryptamines, and phenethylamines. Oakland also pushed to deprioritize law enforcement’s intervention on the cultivation and distribution of psilocybin mushrooms and other specific plants with psychedelic properties.


With the likelihood of mainstream and widespread shroom dispensaries being a while away in the U.S, Canada might be primed to take the lead. In 2019, longtime cannabis activist Dana Larsen launched a mail-order business in Vancouver called “The Mushroom Dispensary” which provides microdoses to people with proven medical conditions.

Check out this roundup of countries where psilocybin is mostly legal, somewhat legal, and completely prohibited.

Sources:

Patrick Smith at The Third Wave + Entheonation
Psillow (comprehensive 2020 list comes from Champignons Magique).

COUNTRIES WHERE PSILOCYBIN IS MOSTLY LEGAL

These countries have made at least some form of psilocybin totally legal to possess and consume, and possibly legal to sell and transport.

BRAZIL

Although psilocybin is technically illegal in Brazil, the mushrooms containing psilocybin are not illegal to possess, consume or sell. In Brazil, illegal activities have to have specific laws to address them, and as such there are no cases of arrests related to psilocybin. Additionally, the natural psychedelic ayahuasca is legal for sacramental use in Brazil, and this law can also apply to psilocybin mushrooms, if used in a sacramental setting.

BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS

Sale and transport of psilocybin mushrooms are technically illegal, but possession and consumption are not prohibited. Having said that, many places will sell them to tourists without many consequences. Although some details are unclear, it appears that you won’t get in trouble for drinking a ‘shroom shake’ in BVI.

JAMAICA

The use of magic mushrooms in Jamaica is legal and unregulated. They are sometimes sold on the beach, and as long as you behave responsibly, there’s no need to worry. You can even book a magic mushroom retreat, and enjoy your mushrooms in a context of spiritual development.

NETHERLANDS

Due to a loophole in a law designed to prohibit the use of psilocybin, you can still purchase and consume psilocybin in the form of “magic truffles.” Truffles are just a different part of the mushroom, known as the sclerotia, which remain dormant and help the mushroom regrow after damage. Spores and growing kits are also legal. Be aware that many forms of psilocybin mushroom are still illegal to possess and sell, dry or fresh.

COUNTRIES WHERE PSILOCYBIN IS SOMEWHAT LEGAL

These countries may have different laws regarding dried/fresh mushrooms, may allow the cultivation of mushrooms or the sale of spores, or may just have safe havens where the law doesn’t really apply…

AUSTRIA

A recent law changed the legal status of psilocybin, meaning that its use is now decriminalized. You may be required to attend therapy if caught. Spores and grow kits are legal to buy, and you can even grow your own mushrooms, as long as you don’t eat them when they’re ready…

CANADA

Although dried mushrooms are illegal to possess, there are apparently no restrictions on the possession and consumption of fresh mushrooms. It’s also legal to purchase grow kits and spores. , there seems to be some uncertainty surrounding these interpretations, as psilocybin is a schedule III drug in Canada, with possession and manufacture (possibly interpreted as growing) punishable with prison terms.

COSTA RICA

Lots of magic mushrooms grow in Costa Rica, and there are many stories of people collecting them for personal use. Their legal status is uncertain, so if you want to be safe, don’t risk it. , we have heard no stories of people being arrested for possession, sale or consumption.

CZECH REPUBLIC

The cultivation of magic mushrooms has been decriminalized in the Czech Republic, as long as you are growing a “small” amount. Possession of large amounts is still illegal.

INDONESIA

Although Indonesia has ridiculously harsh drug laws that could see you in prison for a long time, a psilocybin paradise can be found on the Gili islands near Bali. Still, psilocybin mushrooms are still officially illegal, so don’t risk anything.

MEXICO

Psilocybin is officially illegal to possess, cultivate and sell in Mexico; however, authorities turn a blind eye to sacramental or traditional use and cultivation of fresh mushrooms. This is in line with the interpretation of the UNODC Bulletin allowing the sacramental use of psychotropic preparations.

PORTUGAL

Psilocybin mushrooms are decriminalized in Portugal, meaning you can possess small amounts of them without going to jail. , you’ll end up on some court-mandated rehabilitation or therapy if you get caught.

SPAIN

While mostly illegal in Spain, the personal use of psilocybin mushrooms has been decriminalized. There is a considerable amount of ambiguity surrounding the use of grow kits and spores, and the possession of small amounts of fresh mushrooms. It’s best to not take any risks.

THAILAND

Psilocybin is illegal in Thailand, and like in many Southeast Asian countries, the implications can be severe. Having said that, there are a few relatively-safe havens that offer ‘shroom shakes’. Be sensible; it’s probably not worth the risk.

US

Surprisingly, despite psilocybin being a schedule I drug in the US, it’s legal to buy spores in most states (as long as you aren’t going to use them to actually grow mushrooms). The states which also prohibit the sale of spores are California, Georgia and Idaho. Amazingly, it’s legal to grow psilocybin mushrooms in New Mexico – and there’s even a religious group devoted to their sacramental use. Furthermore, psilocybin mushrooms have been decriminalized to varying extents in the cities of Denver, CO and Oakland, CA.

COUNTRIES WHERE PSILOCYBIN IS COMPLETELY PROHIBITED

Finally, these countries don’t allow any form of psilocybin; you can’t buy growing kits or spores, you can’t possess small quantities, you can’t even pick naturally growing mushrooms in the wild. Most countries are in this category – but we believe it will change in time.

AUSTRALIA

All hallucinogens are illegal in Australia. Listen to our interview with Dr Stephen Bright to hear more about drug stigma in Australia and how it is impacting medical research.

BULGARIA

Psilocybin is illegal in all forms, to possess, consume, sell, and transport.

BELGIUM

Possession, sale, or transport, and use of psilocybin mushrooms is illegal by royal decree in Belgium.

CYPRUS

The law states that any substance or plant from which psilocybin can be extracted is illegal.

DENMARK

All aspects of psilocybin mushroom cultivation have been illegal in Denmark since 2001.

ESTONIA

Psilocybin mushrooms have been specifically prohibited for possession and sale.

FINLAND

In addition to psilocybin being illegal, growing psilocybin mushrooms has been prohibited since 2008. Punishments are based on quantity.

FRANCE

All aspects of psilocybin use, sale, and possession have been illegal for over 50 years in France.

GERMANY

In 2001, an amendment to already prohibitive drug laws made sure to totally restrict the cultivation of any psilocybin-containing plant or animal (yes, animal…).

GREECE

Psilocybin is completely illegal, as well as the cultivation of psilocybin mushrooms.

HUNGARY

Psilocybin possession, sale and cultivation are illegal.

IRELAND

Psilocybin is illegal to sell, possess and use. Since 2006, the cultivation of psilocybin mushrooms has also been illegal.

ITALY

All aspects of psilocybin cultivation and use are illegal.

JAPAN

Although a legal loophole previously allowed the use of psilocybin mushrooms in Japan, this was directly outlawed in 2002.

LATVIA

Psilocybin is illegal, although cultivation is apparently ignored if a first offense

LITHUANIA

Psilocybin is illegal to possess and sell, although cultivation is only illegal if in a “large amount.”

NEW ZEALAND

Psilocybin mushrooms are Class A drugs, and all forms of psilocybin are illegal.

NORWAY

Illegal according to the Regulations Regarding Narcotics.

POLAND

All forms of psilocybin are illegal to possess, sell, cultivate and use.

RUSSIA

All forms of psilocybin are illegal to possess, sell, cultivate and use.

SOUTH AFRICA

Although psilocybin in all forms is illegal, it appears that spores are legal to purchase.

SWEDEN

Although Sweden’s laws are oddly worded and perhaps open to interpretation, any fungi containing psilocybin are apparently illegal to cultivate.

TURKEY

Information is unclear about psilocybin’s legal status in Turkey, but can be assumed to be highly prohibited.

UK

Prior to 2005, fresh psilocybin mushrooms were entirely legal in the UK. However, since then they have been specifically prohibited by section 21 of the Drugs Act.

UNCERTAIN CASES

These countries have not agreed to the Vienna Convention, and as such have no obligation to make psilocybin illegal. They appear to have no laws on psilocybin cultivation and possession, but we haven’t been able to find any solid confirmation:

East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Haiti, Kiribati, Liberia, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands, South Sudan, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

Interested in a psilocybin retreat? Click here for details