In the United States, cannabis has gained mainstream recognition for its therapeutic value. This situation has widened the medical community’s horizons, making it more willing to consider other drugs that the federal government says have no medicinal benefits. The government’s blanket position against psilocybin, also known as magic mushrooms, is one that it has held since 1971. In that year, the U.N. Convention on Psychotropic Substances Treaty was created, and it classified both psilocybin and cannabis as Schedule I drugs. In 1978, in order to ensure compliance with the treaty, the U.S. amended its existing Controlled Substances Act with the Psychotropic Substances Act. (The amendment allows the U.N. treaty to schedule substances in the U.S., but, as a side note, it also gives the U.S. the right to influence drug scheduling at the international level.)
Western psychiatry first discovered psilocybin in the late 1950s, and up until the time it was declared illegal, the field of therapy and research involving hallucinogens grew rapidly. In recent years, researchers and citizens alike have increasingly come to the realization that the negation by the federal government of the potential medicinal value of certain substances has had more to do with expediency with regard to political policy than medical evidence. Thus certain areas of the U.S. medical community have decided to pick up where they left off some 30-plus years ago.
Dr. Stephen Ross of Midtown Manhattan’s Bluestone Center for Clinical Research is one such example. He is currently conducting a New York University study of 32 participants that examines the use of psilocybin as an anxiety treatment for those diagnosed with cancer. One of the participants is a first-year medical student who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when he was a 21-year-old pre-med student. His anxiety ratings, which were the highest the study’s authors had seen up to that point, dropped to zero after one psilocybin dosing session, and they have remained that way for seven months. The participant said magic mushrooms trump Xanax resoundingly. Rather than getting rid of one’s anxiety, he said, Xanax just numbs it until the effects wear off. At that point, another pill is required. The participant added that the beauty of psilocybin is that “you’re not taking it and it solves your problem. You take it and you solve your problem yourself.” As for the negative effects of magic mushrooms, Dr. Ross stated that though he was told in medical school that they were toxic, “from a medical perspective, psilocybin is a remarkably safe compound.”
Psychedelic mushrooms are also remarkable in that they dramatically help those suffering from cluster headaches. Dr. John Halpern, who is an MD as well as an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, defines cluster headaches as “one of the most painful conditions we know of in medicine.” This disease has only one FDA-approved medication, and opiates, steroids, and neuro-implants are minimally effective at best. The suicide rate for those suffering from this disease is 20 times the national average, yet the National Institutes of Health has not spent even $2 million over the duration of 25 years to study it.
Despite psilocybin’s incalculable value to patients, it is not likely that increased funding for research and eventual FDA approval will be forthcoming anytime soon. But it is not only the federal government’s Schedule I placement that is causing the holdup. The pharmaceutical industry is another obstacle. Medical research takes hundreds of millions of dollars, and there are only 350,000 to 450,000 people in the U.S. who suffer from cluster headaches. The grim calculus of the situation reveals an insufficient financial return on the research money that pharmaceutical companies would have to invest in order to get FDA approval.
The government and pharmaceutical companies, however, have not stopped individuals (and some researchers) from bringing to light the medicinal value of psilocybin mushrooms. ClusterBusters is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that provides cluster headache research, advocacy, and education. It was founded by a man who began getting the killer headaches when he was in his 20s. Bob Wold, now 61, says that none of the 70-plus medications he has tried over the years have worked, “but mushrooms are effective, and you can grow your own.” Wold adds that a $50-$100 investment will provide a patient with several years’ worth of medication. While those with the disease are grateful that a solution exists, many patients strongly prefer not to break the law. They feel, however, that the federal government and the pharmaceutical industry have left them no other choice.
By Donna Westlund