Research Shows Psychedelic Mushrooms Can Help Treat Depression. Is Legalization on the Horizon for Washington?

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If you've hiked or camped in the Pacific Northwest, you might have walked by a tiny, brown mushroom that some say has the capacity to change your life.

Psilocybe azurescens and Psilocybe cyanescens are two psychedelic varieties that grow in damp, wooded areas in Washington and Oregon and produce visual hallucinations when ingested. These mushrooms — while freely growing and with a centurieslong record of use among Indigenous people — are also Schedule I controlled substances: illegal drugs up there with heroin and marijuana, according to the federal government.

State Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, wants to change that in Washington, not just decriminalizing the drug but making the active ingredient in the mushrooms available for therapeutic and creative purposes. He's currently co-sponsoring SB 5660, the Washington Psilocybin Wellness and Opportunity Act, along with Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, and others. It would allow people age 21 and up to have a psychedelic experience at a registered facility with supervision. (Like marijuana, it would remain illegal under federal law.)

In a state where 1 in 5 residents lives with mental illness and thousands have seen their mental health worsen during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Salomon sees psychedelic usage — monitored by trained professionals — as a key to healing, and he rejects past negative representations of the drug.

"A lot of that was just about the cultural issues associated with magic mushrooms and fighting the cultural liberalization that you were seeing in the '60s," he said. "It's really time to separate that and use it to treat the massive mental health problems that we're facing today."

A new wave of legalization

A growing body of research shows psilocybin holds promise for individuals with treatment-resistant depression and other mental health conditions. Results of a study announced by London-based biotech company Compass Pathways in November — which involved more than 233 patients and, according to research partner Columbia University, was the largest study to date — found that a 25-milligram dose led to an immediate reduction of depressive symptoms lasting up to 12 weeks. (The study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.) Adverse effects occurred for some, including headaches and nausea.

Psilocybin therapy is not recommended for some people with mental illnesses like schizophrenia or severe depression, as it can worsen symptoms. In 2016, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine surveyed 2,000 people who had previously had a negative experience or "bad trip" while using psilocybin recreationally. They found that while a third of respondents described psilocybin use as one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives, 10% also shared they put themselves or others at risk for physical harm during their "worst bad trip," with an additional 2% stating they sought medical help.

Practitioners say that creating a safe and comfortable environment helps make a psychedelic trip a good experience, particularly for reorienting people if they do become nervous or agitated.

As research continues to show psilocybin's potential, cities have begun to show interest: Denver was the first U.S. city to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms in 2019. Local law enforcement there can no longer arrest or prosecute people for possession of the drug, and according to recent news reports, there've been no reports of serious physical harm while under the influence of mushrooms since the decriminalization. In 2020, Oregon went one step further, passing Measure 109 allowing the production, sale and administration of psilocybin at approved and licensed facilities starting next year.

The Seattle City Council similarly decriminalized so-called "magic mushrooms" in October. Seattle police say there were eight arrests involving psilocybin in 2021. Only one was for attempted distribution, and they were all connected to other crimes.

Like marijuana legalization, Washington state stands to be among the first to set up a system for regulated consumption, if the bill passes.

"The biggest challenge this year to passing it is with other legislators," Salomon said. "Focusing their attention and having them understand why it's a priority when there's all these other bills and little time to pass things."

Many items are vying for funding during this year's two-month-long session, including youth mental health and a growing workforce shortage. Still, Salomon is hopeful — and just in case, citizen activists and underground healers have a backup plan: getting voter support for a ballot initiative.

One of the people leading that movement is Leonora Russell, a licensed mental health counselor and the executive director of the Entheo Society of Washington. The organization is trying to gather 324,516 signatures to submit a psilocybin initiative to the state Legislature.

In December, the Entheo Society and ADAPT Washington, a new political action committee in favor of psilocybin legalization, held a fundraiser at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Seattle. They're early in the campaign process: ADAPT, which registered last May, has raised about $3,000 so far, according to campaign finance records, with more fundraisers scheduled in February. Supporters say they plan to file the paperwork required to start collecting signatures later this month.

Though Russell is enthusiastic about Salomon's bill, others are more skeptical, worried that it leaves out grassroots activists or prioritizes medical professionals over traditional healers like shamans or curanderos, who may not have formal education.

Russell said both the ballot initiative and Salomon's bill are based on Oregon's legislation, and regardless of whether legalization comes about from a voter initiative or a legislator's bill, "we're all in it together."

A complicated history

Psilocybin's American history traces back to pre-Columbian times, but the mushrooms grow naturally in many parts of the globe. Aztec and Mayan communities in Central America used psychedelic mushrooms in spiritual and religious ceremonies, but after Spanish colonization their use was prohibited and the practice was driven underground.

It wasn't till the 1950s that their resurgence began, after an article in Life magazine detailed the mushrooms' use in a Mazatec Indian village in Mexico — that's where the term "magic" mushrooms originated.

Researchers began using psilocybin and LSD in clinical trials, most infamously the Harvard Psilocybin Project in the early '60s where professors administered — and sometimes consumed — LSD and mescaline alongside university students to study the psychological effects of the drugs.

While the exact science of how psilocybin works is complicated and still being demystified, researchers find it affects neuroplasticity, allowing the brain to make new and stronger connections. Users often report strong spiritual feelings of connection, self-awareness and acceptance during and after the experience. This can be beneficial for the treatment of PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction, and for people facing end-of-life care, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins among others.

But mushrooms' therapeutic potential was cut short. Backlash to the counterculture, anti-war movement of the '60s and negative media portrayals of psychedelics led to the ban of drugs like psilocybin and LSD. Federal funding dried up before more research could be done, and President Richard Nixon's subsequent "war on drugs" also influenced the public perception of psychedelics.

Slowly over the past two decades, public opinion has started to shift back. Headlines have featured tech workers in Silicon Valley who microdose in order to boost creativity. Most recently Michael Pollan's 2018 book "How to Change Your Mind" was a best-seller, documenting the use of psychedelics for medicinal purposes. Researchers at the University of Washington are currently starting trials for the use of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for treating burnout and depression in front-line health care workers, and other universities are trying to do the same.

The future of psychedelics

Dr. Tony Rousmaniere, a clinical psychologist based in Seattle, said he is excited for the future of psychedelics in the Northwest and would like to be among the first legal practitioners if SB 5660 passes. He also has a running list of over two dozen mental health providers who support its passage.

"We need more treatments, and the research behind this is just really solid and it just keeps growing," Rousmaniere said. "While therapy does help a lot of clients, there's a fair amount it just doesn't reach for whatever reason. Unfortunately the same thing is true for traditional pharmaceutical medicine."

For Jessica, a Seattle mother of two and a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence, psilocybin was transformational.

"My symptoms of PTSD were so bad that I could barely function," said Jessica, who asked to only be identified by her first name while psilocybin remains illegal. "It changed my life dramatically."

Over several months, Jessica prepared with traditional talk therapy, then sessions with MDMA, another psychoactive drug, followed by psilocybin and integration therapy sessions to reflect on her psychedelic experience.

Jessica struggles to describe the process — most who've had the experience find it difficult to put it into words — and she still tears up thinking about it, but says it's akin to developing a "new consciousness."

"It was like the wounds of my soul had Band-Aids ripped off," she said. "The mushrooms really helped get me back into my body in a way that felt connected again."

Biomedical companies are betting on the future of psychedelics: Estimates place the market at a high of $10 billion by 2027. Ketamine clinics already dot the Seattle region. Companies like CaaMTech, an Issaquah based company, are researching ways to "optimize desired effects while minimizing unwanted side-effects" of psychedelics, according to its website.

Salomon also foresees a future where, as with marijuana, companies are quick to capitalize on a new market.

"This bill says that naturally grown psilocybin will be allowed and not prevented. So you can't have a patent," he said. "We give two years for local producers to get up to speed before out-of-state producers can come in and invest," he added.

But therapists and people like Jessica warn others to respect the medicine and not jump in solo.

"It's assisted therapy — the emphasis is actually on the therapy, not on the psilocybin," Rousmaniere said.

SB 5660 includes provisions that aim to clarify this point and specify that providers would screen people before administering the medicine, much like traditional antidepressants.

"It's not a magic wand," said Rousmaniere. "It's human growth, which isn't always easy. It's still work."