The story changes a little bit each time it’s told, but the basic details of how Denver became the first U.S. city to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms remain mostly the same: A group of people, some of whom had taken to calling themselves the Psychedelic Club of Denver, began meeting at St. Mark’s and Hooked on Colfax coffeeshops in late 2017 and developed a plan to change city law. “It’s just one more example of a small band of rebels making something big happen,” says Kevin Matthews, who ultimately led the Decriminalize Denver campaign. “Two and a half years later, Initiative 301 passed.”
Matthews didn’t start out looking to rebel. After graduating from East High School in 2004, he went to the U.S. Military Academy and planned to make a career out of his service. That dream fell apart when the then 22-year-old was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and was discharged and retired from the service. “I came home to Colorado with a loss of a sense of self,” he says. “Then I had an experience with mushrooms in 2011 on a playground in Park Hill that told me I didn’t have to be depressed my whole life. I wasn’t healed, but I found relief.”
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Matthews speaks about what he calls his “relationship” with mushrooms in a reverent tone, employing phrases that suggest something more meaningful than getting sideways and watching The Fifth Element. He talks about “natural medicine” being a human right, using it “with intention,” and “honoring the traditional, Indigenous, and shamanic” roots of psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in many species of fungi. He is not alone in his veneration for so-called magic mushrooms, nor in his belief that they have the ability to expand consciousness, reboot the ego (which scientists call the default mode network), and, in doing so, treat a variety of mental health conditions when paired with talk therapy.
There is evidence on several continents that very early humans may have purposely ingested psychedelic mushrooms. Ditto for ancient Siberians, Greeks, and Egyptians. The Indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica have well-documented histories of using hallucinogenic mushrooms in healing rituals. But it wasn’t until the late 1950s that the U.S. medical establishment got interested in the substance. For more than a decade, psilocybin was viewed by science as a miracle drug—that is, until 1960s counterculture compelled Congress to ban it in 1968, signaling the beginning of the end for U.S. research efforts.
Recently, though, psychedelics such as psilocybin have re-entered the national conversation. After receiving Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for renewed research in the late 1990s, Johns Hopkins University released findings in 2016 that suggested people suffering from cancer-related anxiety or depression found relief for up to six months from a single large dose of psilocybin. In 2018, New York Times bestselling author Michael Pollan published How to Change Your Mind, both a treatise on and a personal exploration of the mind-expanding capabilities of psychedelics. That same year, and again in 2019, the FDA bestowed breakthrough status on psilocybin as a therapy for treatment-resistant depression and major depressive disorder.
Still, psilocybin remains illegal both in Colorado and under federal law. Denver’s landmark decriminalization of the substance, however, has sparked similar reforms in other U.S. cities and states and has rallied mile-high mycophiles who are tired of concealing their use of what they say is a safe, nonaddictive, effective medicine. They don’t want to hide anymore. If Matthews and an expanding cohort of supporters have their way, they won’t have to. With help from New Approach PAC (a group based in Washington, D.C., that has funneled money into various drug legalization efforts nationwide), Matthews and his ilk are pushing for a statewide ballot initiative this November that would immediately decriminalize psilocybin and set up legal medical access in the state by late 2024. In January, state lawmakers also put forth HB 22-1116, which aims to establish a review panel to study plant-based medicines. All of this could bring psilocybin further out of the shadows, create wider accessibility, and germinate a more public conversation about how Coloradans want to approach magic mushrooms.
Psychedelics • a class of hallucinogenic substances whose primary effect is to trigger nonordinary states of consciousness, often characterized by psychological, visual, and auditory changes. Psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, ibogaine, mescaline, and other substances fall under the umbrella of psychedelics. Ketamine (which is legal with a prescription) and MDMA (which is not) are not considered classic psychedelics by many experts, although they often deliver similar effects.
Mystical experience • a profound, potentially transformative psychological happening occasioned by psychedelics, including mushrooms, that many experts believe is central to the therapeutic benefits of the substances. According to researchers in the ’60s, as well as those in the early 2000s, so-called mystical experiences are often characterized by an inability to fully describe what’s transpired; feelings of interrelationship with all people and things; sensations of harmony, delight, and sacredness; the transcendence of time and space; and a deep-seated belief that the encounter is a fount of truth about the nature of existence. Because mystical experiences seem to encourage individuals to break out of their usual patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting, experts have surmised that it’s conceivable they could force alterations in personality.
Decriminalization • the removal of criminal penalties for drug law violations usually related to personal possession. Denver’s decriminalization of psilocybin makes possession (including cultivation and storage) by people 21 and older the lowest enforcement priority for police and prosecutors. The measure did not make psilocybin legal or permit its sale. A report recommending the expansion of decriminalization put forth by the Denver Psilocybin Review Panel in late 2021 could make the noncommercial exchange of mushrooms (e.g., sharing them with your friends) and communal use in private settings protected under the law as well.
Demoralization • an existential distress syndrome brought on by a terminal diagnosis that is often characterized by hopelessness, loss of meaning and purpose, and inability to cope. Dr. Stacy Fischer, an inpatient palliative care physician and researcher at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, says the fear of death is one of the most challenging things her patients face. “Worse, we don’t have therapies to help with demoralization,” Fischer says. “Antidepressants don’t work in this population.” That’s why she’s encouraged by the re-emergence of research into psilocybin. She’s so enthused by its potential she’s been collaborating with New York University on a funding request from the National Cancer Institute to execute a mid-stage trial with 200 patients split between Colorado and New York. The goal would be to explore psilocybin-assisted therapy on a diverse set of late-stage cancer patients. “The [original] study was all older white adults who were highly educated,” Fischer says. “That’s not what we want. We want greater representation.”
A Brief History of Psilocybin
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Psychedelic mushrooms have been used by cultures across the globe since time immemorial, but their magical ways didn’t fully arrive in the U.S. medical establishment until the 1950s. Starting there, we take an abbreviated look at psilocybin’s winding journey, which could lead to an FDA approval in the coming years.
1955: An amateur mycologist from Manhattan named R. Gordon Wasson and his wife, Valentina, visit Huautla de Jiménez, a town in Oaxaca, Mexico, where Wasson cajoles local medicine woman María Sabina into letting him (and photographer Allan Richardson and Valentina) participate in a Mazatec mushroom ritual used for healing and connecting with the divine.
1957: Life magazine publishes a photo essay by Wasson and Richardson titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” and introduces psychedelic mushrooms to a wide American audience. Although it was likely not Wasson’s intention to out Sabina, the article and subsequent reportage leads to her and the town’s identification. The coverage sets off a wave of spiritual tourism to the area that irreparably changes the community, which shuns Sabina for her role in the onslaught of visitors.
1958: Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann is the first to isolate, synthesize, and name psilocybin and psilocin, two psychedelic compounds found in magic mushrooms. His employer, Sandoz Pharmaceutical, begins selling psilocybin in pill form in 1960.
1960: Inspired by the Life article, Harvard University psychologist Timothy Leary travels to Mexico to research psilocybin, and upon his return to Cambridge he begins the Harvard Psilocybin Project, a research program that explores the use of the substance in psychology and religious studies. The project encounters controversy over its methodology, and Leary is dismissed from the institution in 1963. He goes on to become a prominent voice in the psychedelic movement and a bombastic counterculture iconoclast.
1960s to mid–1970s: For much of the ’60s and ’70s, research into psilocybin continues despite a federal ban in 1968 and its subsequent categorization as a Schedule I drug by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. By the late ’70s, residual federal grant money dries up, taxpayers aren’t eager to continue funding research into counterculture drugs, and scientists no longer want to be associated with Leary and his brethren.
1999–2000: Researchers at Johns Hopkins University design a study—approved by the FDA and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—to determine if psilocybin can elicit a transcendental experience. They administer the first legal doses of psilocybin in the United States in more than two decades. Short answer: Yes, it can.
2006: Roland Griffiths, a Johns Hopkins University researcher, publishes a paper in Psychopharmacology about the first double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study in more than 40 years that looks at the psychological effects of a psychedelic, specifically psilocybin. Participants report the experience delivers substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance and attribute positive changes in attitude and behavior to the psilocybin experience.
2016: Griffiths and his team publish findings in Psychopharmacology that say more than 80 percent of patients with terminal cancer experience a “significant decrease in depressed mood and anxiety” after combining psilocybin with psychotherapy.
2018–2019: The FDA twice designates psilocybin as a breakthrough therapy, first for treatment-resistant depression and then for major depressive disorder. The designation allows for the expedited development of promising pharmaceuticals that are intended to treat serious conditions.
2019: Denver becomes the first U.S. city to decriminalize psilocybin. Other U.S. cities—including Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Oakland and Santa Cruz in California—follow suit in the coming months and years. In November 2020, Oregon is the first state in the country to decriminalize and legalize the substance for therapeutic use.
2022: Researchers around the globe continue clinical trials with psilocybin. The FDA says that despite psilocybin’s breakthrough therapy status, there is currently no timeline for its approval.
Our How-To Guide for Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy
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To reap the therapeutic rewards, experts say treating mushrooms as medicine—not as a recreational drug—and finding the right person to guide you through the process are essential.
Step 1: Make some connections
Because psilocybin is still illegal in Colorado, there’s no such thing as an aboveboard session with a licensed therapist. Instead, the mushroom-curious will need to find those who have experience assisting people with psilocybin journeys despite the illegality of the pursuit. This is no easy task. Almost everyone involved in what the community calls “medicine work” finds clients through hush-hush methods, since decriminalization doesn’t yet allow people to share mushrooms or use them in a communal setting. That could change soon, but for now finding a facilitator means asking around in the right circles (see “Colorado’s Psychedelic Community” below).
Mental Note: “My practice is all word-of-mouth. No website, no advertising. If someone contacts me out of the blue with no referral, I ignore them. I say no to a lot of people because, really, other licensed therapists are the biggest risk [when it comes to being caught]. I also only use encrypted communication just to be safe.” —a Boulder-area licensed therapist
Step 2: Identify a Facilitator
These folks go by many names, which can mean different things. “Sitters” or “space-holders” keep watch over users to ensure basic safety and reassure those who might experience anxiety or fear. Sitters, whose rates start around $400 for a six- to eight-hour trip, usually do not provide mushrooms, in-session directives, or aftercare talk therapy, which is known as integration. They are basically high-level babysitters for those under the influence. In this scenario, it is incumbent upon users to bring their own mushrooms and find à la carte integration services.
Guides, shamans, medicine people, spiritual healers, and similar monikers are titles typically reserved for those with years of experiential knowledge of natural medicines and who take an active part in leading a person on a journey. It is not unheard of for licensed therapists to do so-called underground guiding, an activity that could cost them their licenses. It is also not atypical for guides to have some formal training through organizations such as Fort Collins–based Psychedelic Research & Training Institute. But not everyone who does medicine work has a classroom education; in many cases, guides have learned from other veteran guides, sometimes as a part of long-standing traditions in Indigenous cultures. Guides’ fees—which can run as high as $1,000 or more, cash only—might include a prep meeting; the medicine itself; a directed session that can involve music, singing, or chanting; and post-trip integration therapy.
Mental Note: “People come to me because of the ritual, the ceremony. My sessions are very nonclinical. That might not work for everyone. I play live music; I sing. We’re at my home, one-on-one. There’s low light and salt lamps and blankets, and we’re on the floor. But it’s OK if my way doesn’t work for everyone. There are other ways.” —a Fort Collins–based licensed therapist
Step 3: Prepare Yourself
Most practitioners like to get to know their clients before the psilocybin session. Learning about clients’ histories with psychedelics as well as why they’re interested in using psilocybin can inform how the session might unfold and what the facilitator needs to anticipate. First-timers, for example, might feel anxious and need more support. Other questions help sitters and guides assist clients in developing the right “set” and “setting.” “Set” refers to the mindset—including mood and expectations—a client brings to the experience.
“Setting” describes the physical and social environment surrounding the session. (Ideally, that’s lying in a safe space, not wandering around LoDo.) Further inquiry can give the guide an idea about intention, or what a client wants to work on during and after the trip. Intentions might look like this: Allow me to let go of a long-held grudge, or help me process my dad’s death, or show me how to stop smoking. Setting an intention doesn’t necessarily mean that the mind, destabilized by the medicine, will be able to solely focus on that goal, but experts say that’s OK. The intention can live in the recesses and be a mooring line.
Mental Note: “Questions I’ve used for preparation are: What do you want to change about your life? Where do you feel like you’re stuck? How does your behavior compare with your values, beliefs, and goals? What are you hoping to get out of your experience? But I’m hands-off during sessions. I believe there is natural intelligence in these substances—and in us. The wisdom doesn’t come from me. It comes from the person and the relationship with the medicine.” —a Denver-based space-holder
Step 4: Take the Trip
A psilocybin session is a daylong enterprise. The process for a large-dose journey generally includes a conversation about intention and safety; ingestion of the substance (often using dried-mushroom-steeped tea, dried mushrooms dipped in honey, or dried mushrooms infused into chocolate bars), which can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour to kick in; and up to an eight-hour trip in which the client typically lies prostrate, sometimes with an eye mask on. Few seem to have the vocabulary to explain what tripping is truly like. There’s a lot of “dissolving” and “melting” and “being one with the universe.”
If your eyes aren’t covered, coffee mugs begin to breathe. Fractal patterns emerge from houseplants. Colors become more vivid. In How to Change Your Mind, Pollan writes, “The idea that there had ever been a disagreement between matter and spirit seemed risible, and I felt as though whatever it is that usually divides me from the world out there had begun to fall away.”
Mental Note: “This is spiritual work. I work with atheists, but even for them these journeys help them connect with something larger than themselves. A high dose of mushrooms can connect you with the divine.” —a Boulder-area licensed therapist
Step 5: Do the Work
Integration is the post-trip therapy that, with the guidance of an expert, can help a person generate their own insights into and notions about the experience. These sessions are not unlike typical talk therapy, except they focus on how the journey can be harnessed to help make change.
Mental Note: “In a normal situation where I’m working with a patient on, say, self-worth, it could take three years to get anywhere. With psychedelics, it might be five weeks. Why? We build our lives around what we already believe. We reinforce our perspectives. As children, we have no rules. We’re free-forming it. As adults, things become fixed. We get stuck in what we know. Psilocybin blows that open. It makes you flexible again.”—a Denver-based licensed therapist
Behind the Medical Research
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A growing body of research suggests psilocybin could be a promising prescription for several ills.
Based on a quick scan of available research, even a layperson can deduce that psilocybin has established its merit as a remedy for a host of issues endemic to the brain. Under the influence of psychedelics, the brain’s default mode network—an assemblage of circuits and hubs that researchers say is the closest approximation of what we call the ego—appears to reset itself, allowing users to rethink who they are and who they want to be. In short, they become more open to change. Furthermore, enough studies have been done to demonstrate that the substance is well-tolerated and not habit-forming and has remarkably few side effects, especially when compared with commonly prescribed mental health drugs. Here’s a look at what some of the research has shown to date.
Health Condition: Tobacco addiction
Noteworthy Research: Results of a Johns Hopkins University pilot study published in 2014 showed that 80 percent of long-term heavy tobacco smokers abstained from smoking for six months after just two treatment sessions with psilocybin.
Keep in Mind: Quitting smoking is notoriously difficult. According to a 2013 study, the risk for relapse among individuals who had been abstinent for 12 months or less was above 50 percent.
Health Condition: Treatment-resistant depression (TRD)
Noteworthy Research: In November 2021, Compass Pathways, a U.K.-based pharmaceutical company, released results from a mid-stage trial, which revealed that nearly 37 percent of patients who took a 25-milligram dose of psilocybin showed a 50 percent or more reduction in depression symptoms at the three-week mark and again at three months, compared with the patients who took the placebo.
Keep in Mind: There are approximately 100 million people worldwide with diagnosed TRD. These patients have tried, in some cases, multiple mainstream antidepressant medications without finding relief.
Health Condition: Alcohol dependence
Noteworthy Research: In a 2019 paper in Psychopharmacology, a project by Johns Hopkins illustrated that alcohol-dependent patients significantly reduced drinking behaviors over eight months after participating in just one or two psilocybin treatment sessions.
Keep in Mind: Research shows that alcohol has one of the highest rates of relapse among abused substances, with some studies indicating a relapse rate for alcohol as high as 80 percent during the first year after substance abuse treatment.
Health Condition: Major depressive disorder (MDD)
Noteworthy Research: Published in JAMA Psychiatry in November 2020, results from a Johns Hopkins study showed that 67 percent of participants with MDD demonstrated a more than 50 percent reduction in depression symptoms at a one-week follow-up exam and 71 percent at a four-week appointment. Overall, four weeks post-treatment, 54 percent of participants were considered in remission, meaning they no longer qualified as being depressed.
Keep in Mind: According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 21 million people in the United States (and 19.5 percent of adults in Colorado) have experienced major depression, yet mainstream antidepressants don’t work for roughly 30 percent of those who try them.
The Problem With Making Magic Mushrooms More Accessible
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Making psilocybin more readily obtainable might seem like a good idea—but few agree on how to accomplish it.
Veronica Lightning Horse Perez believes every therapeutic modality, including energy work and crystals, has its purpose. The board-certified therapist—who simultaneously works as a shaman, hypnotist, spiritual coach, and medicine woman—also believes in hard science. It is this mix of knowledge that has led the 40-year-old Denverite with an Apache bloodline and Lakota medicine training to be the liaison between what she calls “the suits and the hippies” in Denver’s and Colorado’s still-nascent bids to liberate magic mushrooms.
As a designated co-representative on the statewide ballot initiative campaign for decriminalization, Perez says she has big dreams for psilocybin but also big worries. She’s concerned that Indigenous peoples’ historical wisdom and know-how will be disregarded; she’s wary of people of color being shut out of the conversation and being deprived of access to a substance that can be life-altering; and she’s disturbed by the very real possibility that a fungus that grows on six continents in the wild could be medicalized in a pricey, by-prescription-only way and turned into “just another drug someone can charge money for.”
She’s not alone in her doubts that Colorado can get psilocybin right in all the ways it got cannabis wrong. There are, for example, concerns that the underground community—rife with knowledge and open to exploration—will be lost to a regulatory process that favors a for-profit, corporate, dispensarylike setting. Some say questions about social equity, which have plagued legal cannabis in Colorado, have not yet been answered in a satisfactory way in the psychedelic space either. “We need to slow down,” says Sabrina Frometa, who has worked in the movement to uplift the Black and Indigenous diasporas through her Denver company, Yaya. “We need to get the right people in the room. We shouldn’t put an arbitrary timeline on what needs to happen and when, just so people can make money off psychedelics. Let’s not pave the way for cannabis 2.0.”
Cannabis isn’t the only model some mushroom advocates would prefer to avoid. Over the past decade, ketamine therapy for depression has gone from unheard-of to ubiquitous. Ketamine clinics—which give infusions of the legal, dissociative anesthetic that deliver about a week’s worth of relief from symptoms of depression—began popping up across the Denver metro area in recent years. The treatments (which start at around $400 per session) are not covered by insurance because providers are using it off-label, making the therapy out of reach for many people. The ketamine model also feels very clinical, something many psilocybin advocates say is counter to how mushrooms should be used and not how many people—particularly people of color leery of the American medical establishment—would feel comfortable taking the medicine. “Ketamine is a lab drug,” says one local guide, who adds it’s also highly addictive. “It has far less potential to be spiritual.”
Of course, there are those who say making psilocybin available in a doctor’s office or “healing center”—the language used on the ballot initiative—will make some feel more at ease. Cancer patients, for example, might like being treated by doctors and nurses.
In short, the consensus in the psychedelic community on how to move mushrooms from an illegal substance to one everyone can benefit from is that there’s very little consensus. Other than agreeing that statewide (and federal) decriminalization is paramount and that people of color should be included on any future regulatory bodies, common ground is difficult to find. To Perez, it’s all about control over a substance she says no one has the right to own. “Earth medicine belongs to no one,” she says. “We need to respect those who have kept the knowledge alive, but this belongs to the earth. If I had my way, psilocybin would be struck from the federal drug list and be no more regulated than button mushrooms.”
Colorado’s Psychedelic Community
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Colorado was home to a robust psychedelic community long before its largest city decriminalized psilocybin. However, the 2019 rule-loosening in Denver has produced a more nurturing environment statewide, where players old and new can thrive.
Denver Mushroom Cooperative
A collection of mile-high mushroom lovers, this two-year-old group meets frequently to talk about growing and using all kinds of fungi, even the nonmagical kind.
Psychedelic Club of Denver
This six-year-old nonprofit connects pro-psychedelic organizations (by hosting its Warehouse Party in June and December), provides harm reduction (like free checks to ensure the purity and safety of substances), and helps boost the benefits of psychedelics (through integration services).
The Fort Collins–based nonprofit nurtures the psychedelic community and gives voice to the movement. In practice, that looks like Q&A sessions, professional networking get-togethers, and, this year, its first Psychedelic Education Festival, being held in Denver on October 1.
Psychedelic Research & Training Institute Founded in 2019 in Fort Collins
PRATI provides licensed therapists and medical professionals with training on ketamine-assisted therapy and uses that model to explore the potential of other psychedelics in mental health care. The nonprofit also hosts webinars that are open and free to
Naropa recently announced a new certificate in psychedelic-assisted therapies. In March, the first cohort of students—all professionals in psychotherapy, nursing, medicine, or chaplaincy—began the 10-month course, which teaches students about psychedelic therapy modalities that use MDMA, ketamine, and psilocybin.
Altered States Integration
Since 2019, Altered States Integration has been providing integration services to help people process the thoughts and emotions associated with psychedelic trips—without being involved in the acute psychedelic experience.
Because there has long been psychedelic therapy going on outside of clinical trials, there’s a wealth of information to be collected from practitioners and patients about what works. This three-year-old Denver firm is gathering that real-world insight and charting it along with data from approved psychedelic research. The results will inform best practices for care.
McAllister Law Office
Sean McAllister, a veteran cannabis attorney, shifted his practice’s focus to psychedelics when Denver decriminalized magic mushrooms. He also serves on the Denver Psilocybin Review Panel and has his hands all over the proposed statewide ballot initiative for November.
Telluride Mushroom Festival
This popular festival attracts mycophiles of all stripes; however, the gathering also serves as a forum for those who prefer psilocybes over shiitakes. In 2021, Paul Stamets, an expert on psilocybe mushrooms, gave a keynote speech.
Helix Consulting Group
At his year-old Arvada public affairs firm, Kevin Matthews, the architect of Initiative 301, keeps pushing the psilocybin envelope. He became a lobbyist in 2021 and worked to get the Legislature to run a bill to decriminalize mushrooms statewide that year. That failed. Matthews is now leading the ballot initiative push.
Psilocybin & Dying
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Waiting for death is often more difficult than death itself. The dying say psilocybin stems the suffering.
“We all know we’re gonna die one day,” she said, “but we don’t really understand that until a person in a white coat tells you.” Sitting in a chair at Denver’s Mercury Cafe, the thirtysomething brunette maintained her composure, her voice even and strong, as she explained to the assembled audience that two years before she’d been told she had incurable cancer. Even as a licensed therapist, she didn’t know how to mentally reconcile the news that she wouldn’t get to see her children grow up. Then, she said, she remembered reading research out of Johns Hopkins University that showed psilocybin-assisted therapy helped alleviate the existential crisis that comes with being told you have, in her case, 18 months to live.
The crowd at the Merc was full of hospice and palliative care doctors, psychiatry residents, licensed therapists, guides, and others who’d registered for the presentation put on by Fort Collins’ Nowak Society. Shannon Hughes co-founded the five-year-old nonprofit that focuses on education about and access to psychedelic therapies in the wake of her 39-year-old husband’s death from colon cancer. “We looked into psilocybin for treating end-of-life anxiety and depression,” she says, “but it wasn’t accessible. He died without having had that relief, and I asked myself, Why the fuck don’t we have access to this stuff?
Her indignation led to a few small gatherings in 2017 and 2018, but recently—and despite the pandemic—hundreds of people have been showing up for the monthly meetings she says provide a space for dialogue and networking among those who “believe these medicines belong to the people.” On that night, the congregation was hushed as the thirtysomething therapist explained that she tried to find a clinical trial, but when she didn’t qualify she decided she didn’t care that it was illegal. “I have cancer; what do I have to lose?” she said. “Yes, I’m a soccer mom and I live in the suburbs, but I’m doing this.”
She connected with a guide and has used psilocybin-assisted therapy to mentally reset a few times a year. Its antidepressant effects have been life-altering for her, lifting her mood, she says, for months at a time: “It feels like I’ve done a year’s worth of good therapy in one day.” She recognizes she’s very fortunate to be able to pay $800 per session and acknowledges not everyone agrees how to make psychedelic therapy more accessible without debasing Indigenous traditions or medicalizing it in a potentially unsavory way. But she also says finding a path forward is imperative. “As a professional, I know we need better tools to fight the immense mental health crisis we’re facing,” she said. As an everyday person facing her own mortality, she says the therapy has allowed her to find some peace and acceptance. “I processed a lot of things,” she said. “Psilocybin gives me a space to explore really deep fears and confront them.”
Macrodosing Versus Microdosing
The Argument For: Macrodosing—that is, taking a large enough dose of psilocybin to trip (usually three grams or more of dried mushroom)—is the most effective therapeutic option if done with intention and with guidance. Only with large doses do people have the opportunity to experience long-lasting shifts in their beliefs and behaviors.
The Argument Against: If the set and setting are wrong, if there’s no intention, or if integration is ignored, a macrodose can be anxiety-inducing, scary, or downright traumatic. Another important note: For those with pre-existing serious mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia or acute suicidal ideation, a psilocybin trip can cause further destabilization.
The Argument For: Microdosing, or taking sub-perceptible doses (0.05 to 0.3 grams of dried mushrooms) of psilocybin on a fairly regular basis, is a relatively new notion. Proponents suggest upsides include less anxiety, better focus, more creativity, and increased open-mindedness without full-on ego dissolution. Plus, being able to get these benefits without having to block off six hours for an expensive guided trip with the right set and setting makes psilocybin more accessible to more people.
The Argument Against: Dosing can be tricky; there’s been limited research into the effectiveness, as well as into any deleterious effects; and some have suggested microdosing is akin to the gentrification of psychedelics, making their use more palatable to the mainstream while ignoring the science-backed value of macrodose journeys.
Cultivating Mushrooms At Home
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I decided to grow magic mushrooms in my Denver basement. It’s been an adventure.
Mushrooms grow in my backyard. They proliferate in the park near my house. I see them lining trails in the high country. It seemed to me that, as living things go, mushrooms must not be all that fussy about where they sprout. And that’s mostly true. Or, maybe more accurately, it’s not difficult to create the environmental conditions necessary for toadstools to fruit, even in the basement of your Denver home.
Of course, I didn’t want to grow buttons or bellas. I was hoping to nurture psilocybes, which decriminalization says I can do without worrying about going to jail. As one might imagine, though, ordering a mushroom grow kit for psychedelic mushrooms off Amazon isn’t possible, even if you have Prime. Instead, I would have to source the growing supplies separately from the spores, which, because they don’t contain psilocybin (only the mushroom flesh does), are actually legal in 47 states, including Colorado.
Finding most of the materials I needed required nothing more than a trip to Home Depot or a local nursery. But if you’d prefer something more turnkey, there are area purveyors who have all the gear, so long as you agree you are absolutely not growing psilocybes. For example, Denver’s Monster Mushroom Company, which leans hard into the trippy vibe but is very clear about the law, has a great all-in-one mushroom grow kit ($270) for cultivating, you know, whatever kind of mushroom you fancy.
Kit in hand, I then had to source my spores, the one-cell reproductive units that get busy to produce the fleshy part of a mushroom. This was the tricky part. Not because they’re difficult to find but because it’s not exactly clear which sellers are legit. (FYI: Several people in Denver’s psychedelic community mentioned Sporeworks.) Much like growing-supplies vendors, spore retailers are transparent that their products should not be germinated and may decline to sell to you if you even mention those intentions. If you play it cool, though, you can have a syringe of Psilocybe cubensis spores delivered to your door for less than $15.
At that point, it’s YouTube time. Type in “how to grow mushrooms,” and dozens of step-by-step videos pop up. Fair warning: It’s a long process and a bit of a science experiment. Your spores might not hook up. Your basement might be too chilly for optimal growth. You might not keep your tub moist enough. If all goes perfectly, you should have multiple flushes of fresh mushrooms in roughly nine weeks. If not, it might take longer—or you might have to start over. But, honestly, figuring it all out is half of the intrigue. The other half, of course, is sampling your harvest.