‘was literally everywhere […] twinkling through trees, in the ocean, in waterfalls. I had no recollection of time and I just wanted it to last for ever.’
This luminous account is typical of the experience of psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in 144 (and counting) species of mushroom. What is atypical, however, is the setting in which it occurred: on a closed ward in Hammersmith Hospital, London, as part of a recent Imperial College London medical trial into psilocybin’s potential for treating depression. Several such trials are happening globally, investigating the possible physiological and psychological benefits of psychoactive substances including psilocybin, LSD, MDMA, ketamine, ibogaine and cannabis. It is the most dramatic re-evaluation of psychedelic drugs and their effects to take place in half a century.
Driven by a generation of researchers and users for whom psychedelics are part of the cultural landscape, these changes in attitude have the potential to transform lives, communities, perhaps even societies. But beneath the wipe-clean surfaces of the new psychedelic scene is a mycelium of plays and tensions that weaves through history and poses an unanswerable question: What is the psychedelic experience—and who owns it?
Given the often awe-inspiring, consciousness-collapsing sensations that accompany the psychedelic experience, it’s understandable that religion provided the first frame for its consideration. In the early 20th century, Western ethnobotanists got wind of what they assumed were religious rites taking place amongst the Mazatec people of Oaxaca, Mexico, in which the Psilocybe cubensis mushroom was incorporated as a psychedelic sacrament. In 1955, Gordon Wasson, an amateur mycologist and senior employee of J.P. Morgan & Co. bank, was able to participate in one such ceremony, led by Maria Sabina, a curandero (healer), as part of a psilocybin mushroom hunting expedition. Years later, he learnt that the tour was funded by the CIA’s MK ULTRA mind-control research programme.
Wasson’s transcendent account of his experience, published in Life magazine in 1957, introduced America to the consciousness-altering effects ‘magic mushroom’ and changed countless lives forever. ‘The visions’, he wrote, ‘seemed more real to me than anything I had ever seen with my own eyes […] I was seeing the archetypes, the Platonic ideas, that underlie the imperfect images of everyday life.’ But the account would also devastate the Mazatec community that he identified, reframing it as a pilgrimage destination for hordes of well-intentioned but culturally obtuse curiosity seekers, with the result that mushroom use, centuries old in some parts of Mexico, became criminalised. One such seeker was Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, whose proselytising for the psychedelic experience – including testing psilocybin and LSD on students and prisoners, just as the CIA had secretly been doing for over a decade – would, by the late 1960s, lead to the outlawing of the drugs in the US and his being declared both a hero of the cognitive revolution and America’s public enemy number one.
The first wave of European and American psychedelic researchers presented themselves as a priest class for those post war, post God, Baby Boomers who were seeking something more. This echoed Wasson’s own experience with the Mazatecs and reflected his theory, shared by Aldous Huxley, Albert Hofmann and the poet Robert Graves, that hallucinogenic substances were at the root of ancient mystery religions like the Soma drinkers of ancient India or the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries. For these early psychonauts, ‘set and setting’ was everything: the hallucinogenic substance should be consumed in controlled surroundings, the mind prepared with appropriate prayers or readings and a guide, healer or priest enlisted to show you the way. While this religious route worked for some, many found that the searing gnostic intensity of the psychedelic experience had the opposite effect, divesting them of the need for formal religious frameworks and revealing instead a whirling dance of cosmic chaos that threw out questions rather than answers.
That psychedelics have played a central role in historic religious ceremonies is not in question. But psychedelics had, and have, multiple functions (both social and personal) within the communities that use them. In fact, contemporary and historical accounts suggest that the recreational, or casual, use of psychedelics is as ancient as any other. To present a fungal example: 16th century Spanish missionaries described how, while Aztec priests and rulers used hallucinogenic mushrooms (teunamacatlth, or ‘flesh of the gods’) for visionary purposes, so too were they a popular inebriant at festivities like weddings or coronations. They were also healers. As Wasson’s Mazatec mushroom muse, Sabina, herself a Catholic, is quoted as saying: ‘Before Wasson nobody took the mushrooms only to find God. They were always taken for the sick to get well.’
After a half-century-long entheogenic interlude in the long history of human psilocybin use, we have come full circle. In recent years, the gradual mainstreaming of psychedelics has seen the conversation shift from the religious to more practical matters. You may not be ready to talk to colleagues about your direct experience of the divine, but there is always time to chat about medicine and self-care. Accordingly, the organisations promoting psychedelic therapies deploy medicalised language and avoid the visual tropes of psychedelic counterculture in favour of soft and tidy tech-world minimalism. In a neat reversal of the process that initially birthed it, the psychedelic world is now macro-dosing corporate culture. (Sometimes, it feels like MK ULTRA Lite.)
The UK based mental healthcare company COMPASS Pathways is currently funding psilocybin research therapy at Kings College London, with the aim of developing a new range of clinical anti-depressants. Core funding comes from arch libertarian, Trump donor and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, while the scientific advisory board includes former government drugs adviser David Nutt and psychedelic psychopharmacologist Robin Carhart-Harris. In Canada, Mind Medicine Inc. is preparing to float on the stock exchange with planned addiction treatments based upon LSD micro-dosing and de-psychedelicised iboga, a potent root used in religious ceremonies in Gabon. The ‘Psychedelics Industry’ is growing rapidly.
While these new approaches to mental health treatments are to be welcomed, the corporate medicalisation of the psychedelic experience should be approached with caution. By reducing something so joyously multi-faceted, trans-temporal and pan-sensory to a narrowly focussed wellness product is to ignore an important truth: It is the totality of the psychedelic experience that produces the end result. It is about the highs, the lows, the in-betweens and inside-outs, not just the fact that you’ve enjoyed reduced blood flow to the amygdala.
But if the psychedelic state, however it is packaged or distilled, has such tremendously positive and transformative effects, then why is access to it still forbidden by law? When psychedelics were banned in the US and Europe in the 1960s and ’70s, it was the threat of a breakdown in the socio-political status quo that drove the decisions: the fear of dramatic personal transformation becoming dramatic social transformation. But that was over half a century ago. Capitalism won that war, and today productivity trumps politics. Thiel’s enthusiasm for psychedelic therapy should be no surprise; the current fad for sub-psychedelic LSD micro-dosing began in the neo-liberal sweat lodges of Silicon Valley. Even Arktos, the New Right media empire, is publishing books on psychedelics. Is this the future that the War on Drugs warned us about?
Ultimately, nobody can own psilocybin. Priests, doctors and psychonauts can access its mysteries, and persuade themselves that they are theirs; but mycelial cycles are long, while human cycles are short. As the mushroom mind, channelled in ethnobotanists Terence and Dennis Mckenna’s Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide (1991), reminds us: ‘I am older than thought in your species.’ For now, at least, the mycelium is everyone’s, everywhere and forever.