Stodgy Johns Hopkins wants FDA to clear psilocybin mushrooms for depression. Here’s what you need to know (or recall) about the differences between magic shrooms and, say, LSD.

ekamelev / Pixabay

The News:

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore) have recommended that psilocybin, the active compound in hallucinogenic mushrooms, be reclassified for medical use, potentially paving the way for the psychedelic drug to one day treat depression and anxiety and help people stop smoking.

The New York Times reports that the suggestion to reclassify psilocybin from a Schedule I drug, with no known medical benefit, to a Schedule IV drug, which is akin to prescription sleeping pills, was part of a review to assess the safety and abuse of medically administered psilocybin. Before the Food and Drug Administration can be petitioned to reclassify the drug, though, it has to clear extensive study and trials, which can take more than five years, the researchers wrote.

The analysis was published in the October print issue of Neuropharmacology, a medical journal focused on neuroscience.

The study comes as many Americans shift their attitudes toward the use of some illegal drugs. The widespread legalization of marijuana has helped demystify drug use, with many people now recognizing the medicinal benefits for those with anxiety, arthritis and other physical ailments. Psychedelics, like LSD and psilocybin, are illegal and not approved for medical or recreational use. But in recent years scientists and consumers have begun rethinking their use to combat depression and anxiety.

“We are seeing a demographic shift, particularly among women,” said Matthew Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins and one of the study’s authors. Among the research he has conducted, he said, “we’ve had more females in our studies.”

Microdosing, or the use of psychedelics in small, managed doses, has become a popular way to try to increase productivity and creative thinking, “particularly among the technorati in Silicon Valley,” says The Times. It’s even a plot point in the CBS show “The Good Fight.”

Steve’s Take:

A new study out of straitlaced Johns Hopkins University seeks to reclassify psilocybin mushrooms since they have low potential for abuse and few risks of dependence. Put simply, Hopkins researchers think it’s time to change the drug classification of magic mushrooms from a dangerous narcotic with no medical value, to a possible breakthrough treatment for depression.

Since 1970, authorities have considered psilocybin a Schedule I narcotic, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical use. According to the researchers–who’ve conducted myriad studies on the mushrooms—-neither assertion is true.

Four researchers–Matthew Johnson, Roland Griffiths, Peter Hendricks, and Jack Henningfield–make the case that it’s time for the US Food and Drug Administration to consider moving magic mushrooms from Schedule I to Schedule IV. If the classification changes, doctors could prescribe magic mushrooms in certain circumstances.

Researchers have been using psilocybin to successfully treat both depression and addiction in clinical trials over the past few years. In a 2016 study, the same team of Johns Hopkins researchers administered magic mushrooms to terminal cancer patients with the goal of alleviating their end-of-life anxiety and depression.

“Studies showed that psilocybin caused significantly and clinically significant reductions in symptoms of depression and anxiety lasting at least six months after psilocybin administration,” the newly published study explained.

The 24-page paper synthesized the different research into psilocybin to give the FDA the information it would need to determine whether or not psilocybin should be rescheduled. To determine a drug’s class, authorities consider eight different factors including actual or relative potential for abuse, risk to public health, and psychic or physiological dependence liability.

The relative safety of magic mushrooms, when compared to other drugs, is incredibly high. Psilocybin comes in last place when you rank drugs in terms of their harm to the individual or society at large.

“Even if you throw in alcohol or tobacco into the mix,” Johnson, a doctor of behavioral science at Johns Hopkins University, said, according to Motherboard. He also explained that the abuse potential for psilocybin is low. “No one is jonesing for their next [dose of] psilocybin,” he said.

That doesn’t mean magic mushrooms have no abuse potential. People have taken magic mushrooms recreationally for decades and they aren’t going to stop now, but unlike cocaine or heroin, psilocybin isn’t a substance most drug users want to spend their evenings and weekends with.

“Potential harms include dangerous behavior in unprepared, unsupervised users, and exacerbation of mental illness in those with or predisposed to psychotic disorders,” the study said. “However, scope of use and associated harms are low compared to prototypical abused drugs.”

Johnson pointed to scare stories from the 1960s about people getting high on hallucinogens and falling from roofs because they thought they could fly, but said those cases are rare.

“Far more people have fallen from heights on alcohol. Nonetheless, people have these accidents” Johnson said.

Researchers have had success using medicinal magic mushrooms in controlled settings, where the dose is regulated and administered by a trained clinician, a psychologist or trained therapist guides the recipient through the experience, and there’s very specific goals for the therapy. In the case of the cancer patients, terminal patients experienced guided trips with the goal of helping them confront and overcome their fear of death. A weekend trip while camping in the woods this is not.

The study is also one step in a long process. Depressed and anxious people won’t be able to walk into a clinic and experience a healing drug trip for years, or possibly decades, if at all. Johnson said reclassification could take “three to 10 years.” Studies, which haven’t been done yet or that are just beginning, would need to be completed and the results would need to look favorable and consistent.

Even then the path towards reclassification isn’t easy or certain.

“Removal from Schedule I can only occur if a medicinal product containing a Schedule I substance is approved for therapeutic use as a drug by the FDA,” the study explained–meaning that a third party needs to manufacture psilocybin for a medical use, submit that product to the FDA, and lobby for its reclassification.

That may seem like a tall order, but Johnson is hopeful.

“This is cutting edge science [and] the results are very promising on a number of disorders,” he said.

While no large pharmaceutical companies are asking Johns Hopkins about magic mushrooms, some nonprofits are, including the Usona Institute in Wisconsin. Usona or another group could submit a simple psilocybin pill to the FDA for approval as a treatment for depression, triggering a review of its classification. If and when that happens, Usona can draw on this study.

Differences between LSD and Psilocybin mushrooms

1) LSD

  • Psychoactive in micrograms (millionths of a gram)
  • Invented in 1938, first used in 1943
  • Derived from ergot, a fungus which grows on rye
  • Typical dose is between 100 and 250 micrograms
  • Trip lasts between 8-12 hours
  • No potential for physical addiction

2) Psilocybin Mushrooms

  • Used by traditional societies since 1,000 BC
  • Typical dose of psilocybin is between 10 mg to 40 mg–this equates to roughly 1-4 g of dried mushrooms
  • Dozens of different types of mushrooms containing psilocybin
  • Trip lasts between 6-8 hours
  • No potential for physical addiction
  • Available to purchase legally in the form of psilocybin truffles

Here’s a brief list of famous people who claim to have used magic mushrooms.

  • Susan Sarandon, accomplished actress whose career has spanned decades.
  • Frances McDormand, the award-winning Fargo actress has experienced both synthetic and natural psychedelics and only wishes they were more properly appreciated.
  • Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist best known for creating “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.”
  • Anthony Bourdain, whose forays into the culinary world (both foreign and domestic) are a staple in any lifestyle channel. The late, award-winning American chef, author, and TV personality made his mark in pop culture as well.
  • Sarah Silverman, the Emmy award-winning actress, stand-up comedian, actress, and producer.
  • Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean-French filmmaker known for the cult classic Tusk and other films.
  • Doug Stanhope, the American stand-up comedian who links magic mushrooms with religion and spirituality.
  • David Carradine, the celebrated American actor and martial artist. His autobiography Endless Highwaydiscusses his use of peyote and psychedelic mushrooms.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email