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Psychedelics as health and wellness aid? Not a hallucination

“People are now coming out of the psychedelic closet, but it's a risk you take,” said Melissa Lavasani, who led decriminalization efforts in Washington, D.C.
Image: A minds eye sits on a therapists couch surrounded by growing magic mushrooms in the clouds.
Bolstered by a growing body of research and greater acceptance of cannabis for recreation and medicine, psychedelics are experiencing a renaissance as voters and lawmakers rethink the so-called war on drugs.Max Loeffler / for NBC News

Melissa Lavasani never expected to grow psychedelic mushrooms in her Washington, D.C., home or become a force behind a successful measure that makes cultivation and possession of plant and fungi medicines the lowest priority for local police and prosecutors.

But the mother of two grew desperate in 2018 as her mental health suffered from a yearslong battle with postpartum depression and chronic pain. She had tried everything: antidepressants, talk therapy, meditation and even cupping. None of it seemed to work.

After listening to a podcast about the use of psilocybin, a naturally occurring chemical compound found in certain types of mushrooms, Lavasani became part of a movement she never intended to join.

“People are now coming out of the psychedelic closet, but it's a risk you take,” she said. “There’s a stigma to it.”

Bolstered by a growing body of research and a greater acceptance of cannabis for recreation and medicine, psychedelics are experiencing a renaissance as voters and lawmakers rethink the so-called war on drugs.

When voters in Washington, D.C., passed Initiative 81 on Nov. 3, their counterparts in Oregon approved a ballot initiative to legalize the use of psychedelic mushrooms in therapeutic settings. The Canadian Minister of Health recently granted permission to four terminally ill patients to use psilocybin to treat end-of-life anxiety.

A Push to Legalize Psilocybin Mushrooms
Psilocybin mushrooms, including Galindoi variation of Psilocybe mexicana mushrooms, two middle, and Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms, left and right.Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post via Getty Images

In California, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said last week that he will introduce a bill next year to decriminalize psychedelics. In New Jersey, lawmakers amended a cannabis bill on Thursday to include language that will downgrade penalties for possessing up to an ounce of mushrooms.

The cities of Denver and Oakland, California, each adopted resolutions in 2019 decriminalizing mushrooms.

Wiener said he was encouraged by developments around the country and is talking with experts about what form his proposal should take, The Associated Press reported. He said he was leaning toward Oregon’s supervised-use approach while allowing for the use of synthetic psychedelics such as LSD.

Wiener, who said he does not take psychedelics himself, noted that cultures all over the world have been using them since the beginning of time.

“Any substance can be harmful, so I’m not suggesting that anything is like nirvana,” he said. “But we know that psychedelics can be used safely. We know they appear to have significant medicinal uses.”

For Lavasani, mushrooms proved to be a revelation.

After delivering a healthy baby in 2017, Lavasani, a budget officer in the district's Department of Energy and Environment, started to hear voices and experience panic attacks. She gradually spent less time with her husband and children. She eventually feared she would take her own life.

Concerned, a friend recommended listening to an episode of "The Joe Rogan Experience" podcast featuring mycologist Paul Stamets, who extolled the benefits of mushrooms. Looking back, Lavasani calls it her “Hail Mary” moment.

“It blew my mind a little bit,” she said. “I do try to keep my life as natural as possible. I eat well, try not to use too many chemicals at home. This made sense to me.”

Lavasani and her husband scoured the internet for tutorials on how to grow the fungus at home. They dedicated the top shelf of their bedroom closet to the experiment and waded through trial and error before the mushrooms blossomed.

At first, Lavasani, who had never used psychedelics, took only tiny doses, or microdoses, of the fungi. She said it was like “waking up after a great night’s sleep.”

As Lavasani became more comfortable with mushrooms, she decided to experiment with ayahuasca, a psychoactive tea often ingested during shamanic rituals. She attended a few guided ceremonies and returned home with a new perspective.

“Our health care system doesn't have solutions for mental health issues,” she said. “I think people are fed up with being prescribed medications that don’t work.”

Therapeutic hallucinogens have been studied in the U.S. since the discovery of LSD's effects in the 1940s. But research stalled when psychedelics became illegal in the 1960s. Interest renewed in the last 20 years as institutions around the world, including Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, received regulatory approval to kickstart research in the field.

Medical associations appear largely united in supporting more studies and psychedelic therapies. The American Psychiatric Association opposed Oregon's measure but only because psilocybin has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and requires more scientific understanding.

Still, advocates and researchers have started to recommend mushrooms; ketamine, a prescription pain reliever and sedative; and MDMA, sometimes called by its street name ecstasy, to treat a host of mental health disorders, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

In a recent study conducted by Johns Hopkins, researchers found that psilocybin, the active ingredient found in mushrooms, combined with psychotherapy was more effective at treating major depressive disorder than traditional antidepressants.

Participants in the study received two doses of psilocybin weeks apart between August 2017 and April 2019. The doses were administered in a comfortable, supervised setting with facilitators standing by to offer physical or emotional assistance if needed. Each treatment, which included supportive psychotherapy, lasted about 11 hours with the participants lying on a couch, wearing eye shades and listening to music on headphones.

“The magnitude of the effect we saw was about four times larger than what clinical trials have shown for traditional antidepressants on the market,” said Alan Davis, co-author of the study and a faculty member at Johns Hopkins medical school. “Because most other depression treatments take weeks or months to work and may have undesirable effects, this could be a game changer if these findings hold up in future ‘gold-standard’ placebo-controlled clinical trials.”

A Push to Legalize Psilocybin Mushrooms
Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms.The Washington Post / The Washington Post via Getty Images

In a separate Johns Hopkins study, patients received synthetic psilocybin to help with cancer-related depression and anxiety. Eighty percent said their symptoms faded, and the effects lasted six months.

Dr. Evan Wood, an addiction specialist at the University of British Columbia, said psychedelic therapy is radical because it aims to cure disorders, not just manage them.

"If you look at the existing medications to treat mental health disorders, a number of them are very addictive, others have nasty side effects," he said. "These therapies are not about symptom management. It's about approaching disorders with a curative intent."

The recent Johns Hopkins research comes less than two years after the FDA approved a nasal spray containing ketamine for treatment-resistant depression.

Jackee Stang, a Southern California resident and co-founder of Delic Corp., a wellness company focused on destigmatizing psychedelics, has been using doctor-prescribed ketamine for the last year to treat her anxiety and depression. When combined with psychotherapy, ketamine has done more for her in one year than a lifetime of traditional medications.

“It takes away the doubt monster on your shoulder and shoves it in the closet,” she said.

Psychedelics clinics started popping up around the country after the FDA approved ketamine nasal spray. Field Trip Health, a Toronto-based company, has three locations in the U.S. where patients can combine talk therapy with the drug.

The experience is more like a luxury spa than the raves and nightclubs often associated with ketamine, according to Ronan Levy, Field Trip co-founder and executive chairman. He credits the cannabis industry with the emergence of a legal psychedelic market driven by science, not activism.

“Supportive therapy is as important as the drug,” he said. “That is where the magic happens.”

Kevin Matthews, the driving force behind Denver’s decriminalization effort, described a “fog lifting” when he started using psilocybin to self-treat his depression. The former West Point cadet was forced to leave the academy in 2008, one year shy of graduating, because his mental health was crumbling.

He turned to mushrooms first for fun and then for wellness. Eventually, he weaned himself off sleep aids and antidepressants. He remembers his initial experience with psilocybin as “joyous” yet challenging. He cried, but he also “plugged back into life,” a feeling that had been erased when he was taking traditional pharmaceuticals.

“Drugs are winning the drug war right now,” he said. “Prepare to see a lot more of this.”

CORRECTION (Nov. 15, 2020, 10:45 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of California state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco. He is Scott Wiener, not Weiner.