The spore you know: As research into psilocybin’s health benefits grow, Californians face slim chance to legalize magic mushrooms

Alien conspiracist’s initiative may not make it to the ballot, but the idea of recreational cannabis used to be crazy too

Andrew Howell belongs to the relatively new Psychedelic Club of Sacramento, which is a place for psychedelic drug users to share their experiences.

Andrew Howell belongs to the relatively new Psychedelic Club of Sacramento, which is a place for psychedelic drug users to share their experiences.

Photo by karlos rene ayala

Full disclosure: I use hallucinogenic mushrooms.

No, I’m not some vagabond ingesting whatever amount one must ingest to make a Phish concert bearable. Instead, I am one of the lucky 0.1 percent of the population who suffers from a neurological disorder known as cluster headaches, sometimes called suicide headaches.

A 2011 study published in the medical journal Headache found that 55 percent of sufferers contemplated suicide while 2 percent attempted suicide to alleviate their suffering.

Yes, they hurt that bad.

I started getting them when I was 19. For 14 years, I went through various misdiagnoses: migraines, sinus infections, tempromandibular joint syndrome, tooth infection, you name it. Doctors tried everything. Nothing worked. The headaches hit behind my left eye like an ice pick before digging around in my head for an hour.

Finally, a doctor at UC Davis correctly diagnosed me, which was the good news. The bad news? There is no cure.

My physician recommended a documentary, which showed a group of people in Texas who were treating their cluster headaches with “magic mushrooms.” He made it clear that he was not suggesting I ingest a Schedule I narcotic, because he could lose his license by doing so.

Then he gave me a wink.

Taking the hint would mean risking arrest and incarceration, as growing, purchasing, possessing or ingesting these mushrooms for any purpose is strictly prohibited under both state and federal law, because they contain psilocybin, the active compound that causes hallucinations.

Not taking mushrooms would mean enduring excruciating pain with no end in sight.

Soon, Californians may get the chance to save people like me from this devil’s bargain.

A proposed statewide ballot initiative would decriminalize the use of psilocybin for personal and recreational use for anyone over the age of 21.

Officially titled the “California Psilocybin Legalization Initiative,” Initiative 17-0024 will be placed on the California ballot in 2018 if it receives enough signatures.

The odds of that happening are slim. According to Ballotpedia, which tracks money spent in each state for various political causes, the 15 California initiatives that successfully became propositions in 2016 spent an average of $2.9 million to collect the requisite 365,880 signatures. If psilocybin supporters think they can ride the sticky-green coattails of marijuana’s successful Proposition 64 campaign, which legalized marijuana for recreational use in California last year, they may very well be in for a bad trip.

The Drug Policy Alliance, which coughed up $4.5 million in support of Prop. 64, appears to be sitting this one out. DPA board member George Soros, who kicked in an additional $4 million for Prop. 64, has yet to show any support for the legalization of psilocybin.

In the meantime, the activist behind the initiative, Kevin Saunders, doesn’t seem to be doing the cause any favors.

Saunders, who didn’t respond to SN&R’s request for an interview, told The Hill last August that he believes mushrooms were transported via asteroids by aliens so humans can reprogram their souls and minds. (I don’t care who you are or what you believe, but when you need to sway seven million registered voters, you probably want to keep that shit to yourself.)

While the odds of extraterrestrial fungus seem highly improbable, what is harder to dispute are the stories of those who say their lives have benefited greatly by use of the drug.

Andrew Howell is the organizer of the Psychedelic Club of Sacramento, which was formed 18 months ago as a place for users of drugs like mushrooms, LSD and Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, to share their experiences. The group also welcomes users of MDMA, even though that drug is not classified as a psychedelic.

Howell says that he continues to be surprised by the experiences individual users undergo as a result of a psychedelic trip.

“People’s lives are changing in huge ways, thanks to these drugs,” Howell told SN&R. “I’ve heard people from right here in Sacramento talk about overcoming depression, addiction, PTSD, all of whom tried traditional medicine, which didn’t work. They found relief thanks to psychedelics.”

Howell credits mushrooms and LSD for helping him overcome his own battles with depression and addiction. When he was 10 years old, following a diagnosis of clinical depression, doctors prescribed him Prozac and Zoloft. Howell says the drugs simply compounded his feelings of isolation, loneliness, boredom and sadness. When he communicated this to his parents or his doctor, they simply added an additional antidepressant. By the age of 13, he says, he was suicidal. With each passing year, his thoughts became darker and his outlook on life more bleak.

Ironically, it was a visit from the DARE anti-drug program that initiated his curiosity into illegal narcotics. “I became fascinated with the human mind and how experiencing different drugs might have different effects,” he said.

He became addicted to prescription painkillers, and eventually heroin and alcohol, as he sought to numb the depression. But he says it was the psychedelics that changed everything.

“I began having these introspective experiences that allowed me to see my life—the things I’d experienced, the things I’d done, the things that were done to me—and view it all in a way that let me forgive and love myself,” he explained. “It provided relief, for the first time since I was 10 years old.”

Howell’s experience precedes a slew of recently approved trials by the Federal Drug Administration to explore the potential medical benefits of psilocybin and MDMA.

Last year, studies by New York University and John Hopkins University found that 80 percent of terminal cancer patients had clinically significant reductions in both depression and anxiety for up to seven months following a single use of psilocybin. The results were published in the Journal of Pharmacology in December 2016.

The FDA recently approved the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies’ phase-3 testing, the final step before a drug becomes available for prescription by a physician. The MAPS nonprofit, according to its website, is also currently researching the use of marijuana and MDMA to treat PTSD in soldiers returning from Afghanistan, and has conducted the first double-blind, placebo-controlled study of LSD to treat anxiety and depression.

Not everybody, however, agrees with loosening restrictions.

Richard Mahan, director of communications for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, says that, while the nonprofit DARE takes no formal position on ballot measures, it would be strongly opposed to the legalization of psilocybin or MDMA for any purpose.

“These drugs have no medical value and have high potential for dependence and abuse,” he said. “Heroin and LSD are in the same category.”

In fact, marijuana is also still listed as a Schedule I narcotic, and data shows that it wasn’t too long ago that the idea of legalized marijuana sounded just as far-fetched as the idea of legalized psilocybin might sound to some today.

According to Pew Research from 1990, only 16 percent of Americans believed marijuana should be legalized, while 81 percent believed it should remain illegal. But in 1996, California became the first state to vote to allow marijuana for medicinal use. And by 2012, Pew Data shows that for the first time, more Americans believed the drug should be legal than believed it should be illegal.

For Theodore Dlarymple, a retired psychiatrist and prison doctor who now contributes to the National Review and is the editor of City Review, this is precisely the slippery slope he anticipated when Washington, D.C., softened its stance on marijuana and began allowing states to violate federal drug laws.

“Now that cannabis is being legalized, I thought it only a matter of time before people proposed to legalize other drugs,” Dlarymple told SN&R. “This will continue until we have drug supermarkets.”

Dlarymple says that he sees no medical use for psilocybin and warns that the damage caused by acute psychotic reactions to the drug, otherwise known as “bad trips,” has the potential to be life-altering. “It is difficult to predict the harm that will be done [if] the drugs are legalized,” he contended.

Even Howell, a supporter of the initiative, acknowledges the potential for harm should drugs like psilocybin and MDMA be used irresponsibly.

“Obviously, safeguards should be put into place to ensure the safety for use,” Howell said. He says that’s why groups like the Psychedelics Club of Sacramento are so important. “People are welcome to come learn about how these drugs are used safely, and are free to ask questions to people who’ve experienced them.”

As for me, I tried the mushrooms in February 2014 and haven’t had a cluster period since.

The decision was an easy one, despite being in recovery at the time from an addiction to fentanyl, which, ironically, is a synthetic drug stronger than heroin, with more abuse potential than mushrooms, yet readily available in every pharmacy on any corner in Anytown, USA, about 30 feet from aisles selling Cap’n Crunch and curling irons—but I digress.

I ingest psilocybin-laced mushrooms once every eight to 10 months, as the documentary showed. They taste like shit and I don’t particularly enjoy the high, but the alternative is too crippling to consider: Two cluster periods per year, each lasting five to weeks. Mentally, it’s a mind fuck. I wake up and watch the clock with a knot in my stomach. I know it’s coming and I know there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

No thanks. I’ll continue risking jail time, until Californians decide otherwise.

Crazier things have happened.