However, this is due to the mushrooms themselves, and not something inherent in psilocybin, and also may be linked to the disgusting taste of these mushrooms, which users often try to avoid by swallowing them whole or combining them with more appetizing foods like chocolate. Psilocybin itself, like other psychedelics, can lead to challenging trips, which can include confusion, anxiety, and panic, and are more likely at higher doses. Because of this, and it impairing judgment and sometimes coordination, you should not drive or do anything dangerous when under the influence of psilocybin.
It can also trigger underlying mental issues, especially in high doses, so those with a history of mental health problems should probably avoid them. Luckily, psilocybin has a very low toxicity and a relatively low harm potential, so reports of lethal doses of the drug are quite rare. And as with most illegal drugs, perhaps the most dangerous thing is getting caught with them, as possession, and especially distribution, of psilocybin can carry very stiff penalties including jail time. That’s all for the science of psilocybin, the psychoactive component of magic mushrooms. Next week Rachelle will bring you the history of the drug, talking about when people started using it, and how the laws and societal attitudes surrounding it have changed over time. How have the laws and societal attitudes about it evolved over time? And now it’s time for the drug of the month, where we dive into the background, science, history, and current trends surrounding a different drug each month. October’s drug of the month is psilocybin, and last week, Sam talked to you about the science behind psilocybin and how it interacts with the human body. Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at the history of the drug, when and why people started using it, and how its active compound was finally isolated and identified. As we know from our introductory episode on Psilocybin, hallucinogenic mushrooms grow naturally in the wild throughout the world, including in South America, Mexico, Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States.
Based on historic records, humanity has had a deep spiritual relationship with psychedelic mushrooms for thousands of years. However, very little research into the active ingredient psilocybin was pursued until the 20th century, and even then it stop-and-go for several decades. Ancient paintings discovered in caves on the Tassili plateau of Northern Algeria dating back to 5,000 B.C. depict humanoid creatures, with bugged out eyes, mushrooms sprouting up all over their bodies, and a human hand hovering above the head possibly indicating a psychedelic trip. The indigenous peoples of Central and Southern America built temples to mushroom gods and carved “mushroom stones,” believed to be religious objects. These stone carvings were either in the shape of mushrooms, or represented giant mushrooms sprouting out from the top of the head of a standing man, or from the back of a crouching person, and have been dated to as early as 1000-500 B.C. The Mixtec culture of central Mexico worshipped many gods, one known as Piltzintecuhtli, which means 7 Flower, who was the God of hallucinatory plants, especially the divine mushroom. European records from the 13th-15th century depict the ritual use of mushrooms by the Mixtec gods, showing Piltzintecuhtli and 7 other gods holding mushrooms in their hands. The Aztec people (whose term for psychedelic mushrooms, “teonanácatl,” means “flesh of the gods”) had a very similar god, Xochipilli, who oversaw sacred psychoactive plants. Xochipilli, known as the Prince of Flowers, was the divine patron of “the flowery dream,” or what the Aztecs called the ritual hallucinatory trance. The Aztecs used a number of plant hallucinogens including psilocybian mushrooms, morning glory seeds, Salvia, and Peyote. Psilocyban mushrooms were often used in ritual and ceremony, served with honey or chocolate at some of their holiest events. After 1521, when the Spanish conquistador Cortez overthrew the Aztec Empire, European conquerors began to forbid the use of any non-alcoholic intoxicants, including sacred mushrooms, and the use was driven underground. In the mid 16th century, Spanish priest Bernardino de Sahagún wrote of the ritual use of hallucinogenic mushrooms by the Aztecs that he had witnessed. He wrote: “The first thing to be eaten at the feast were small black mushrooms that they called nanacatl, which bring on drunkenness, hallucinations and even lechery; they ate these before the dawn…with honey; and when they began to feel the effects, they began to dance, some sang and others wept… When the drunkenness of the mushrooms had passed, they spoke with one another of the visions they had seen.” According to Sahagún, the psychoactive mushrooms which were ingested by the Aztec priests and their followers were always referred to as teonanácatl though the term does not appear to be used by modern indigenous people or shamans in Mesoamerica. The varieties most likely to have been used by the Aztecs are Psilocybe caerulescens and Psilocybe mexicana. Psilocybe cubensis, which is currently the most popular variety for recreational use, was not introduced to America until the arrival of the Europeans and their cattle, centuries later. During the early 20th century there was actually a dispute amongst western academics as to whether psychoactive mushrooms even existed. Though Sahagun had mentioned teonanácatl in his diaries, an American botanist William Safford argued that the Spanish priest had mistaken dried peyote buttons for mushrooms. This theory was strongly disputed by Austrian amateur botanist Dr. Reko was convinced that not only did teonanacatl refer to psychoactive mushrooms as the Spanish Priest had written, but that people were still using these mushrooms in Mexico. In the early 1930’s, Robert Weitlaner, an Austrian amateur anthropologist witnessed a Mazatec mushroom ceremony (known as a “velada”) just northeast of Oaxaca, Mexico. After hearing about the dispute between Safford and Reko, Weitlaner contacted Reko, told him that the Otomi Indians of Puebla still used mushrooms as inebriants, and sent him samples of the mushrooms. Reko forwarded the samples to Stockholm for chemical analysis, and to Harvard for botanical examination, but by the time the samples arrived they were too decayed to be properly identified. The samples had been received at Harvard by ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. Schultes quickly became a supporter of the idea that Teonanácatl did indeed refer to mushrooms and in the Harvard Botanical Museum Leaflets in 1937, he argued against Safford’s conclusions and urged that further work be done to identify the mushrooms. In 1938, Schultes and Reko went to Mexico and after hearing reports of Mazatec veladas in Huautla de Jimenéz, near northeast Oaxaca, they collected multiple specimens of various mushroom species.
Unfortunately, their testing continued to be inconclusive, and their investigations were interrupted by a little incident of the 1940’s known as World War II. Very little research into the realm of psychedlic mushrooms was done again until the early 1950s, when amateur mycologist Gordon Wasson, became interested in the traditional use of mushrooms in Mexico. In 1953, Wasson and a small group travelled to Huautla de Jimenéz, the same town where Schultes and Reko had collected their original mushroom specimens in the 1930s, and there they also observed an all night ceremony under the guidance of a shaman, a velada. One of Wasson’s colleagues, a French botanist named Roger Heim, joined him on subsequent trips to Mexico to collect specimens. Heim was later able to cultivate some of those hallucinogenic mushroom in his laboratory, and he and Wasson would send mushrooms to several chemistry laboratories for analysis. One of the labs they approached for assistance in isolating the active compound was the Sandoz Laboratories in Basle, Switzerland, where Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann was an experimental researcher, Hoffman, widely known as the discoverer of LSD, was finally able to isolate and characterize the compounds now known as psilocybin and psilocin. Wasson continued to travel to Oaxaca over the next few years, and with Roger Heim published the first widely distributed article about psychoactive mushrooms and the Mazatec Velada in a 1957 issue of Life Magazine. Popular information about the mushrooms soon spread, and experimentation with the mushrooms and the synthesized active substances began. The “magic mushrooms” had entered the mainstream culture of the United States and were soon part of the psychedelic movement.
Through the ’60s, mushrooms and their active ingredients were used recreationally, therapeutically, and as a part of new spiritual traditions. In 1968, possession of psilocybin and psilocin became illegal in the United States and in 1970 it was added to the new “Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970”, commonly known as the Controlled Substances Act, which came into force in 1971. Research into their medicinal and therapeutic uses continued until 1977. Though recreational use continued, research halted through the ’80s and ’90s due to strict govermental controls, but in recent years, psilocybin and its effect on the human mind has once again become the subject of scientific study.