The Commodification of Psychedelics

As mainstream medicine opens up to the healing power of tripping and plant-derived hallucinogens are decriminalized, will Big Pharma cash in on shrooms?

Last month, I persuaded another journalist to join me on a midweek mushroom trip. The occasion was a press preview for “Immersive Van Gogh,” a half-hour long show at SVN that uses musically scored digital projections to animate the Impressionist painter’s more famous works.

We did it out of winking respect for the twin traditions of gonzo journalism and taking in art while under the influence. And we did it knowing full well that while Hunter S. Thompson and Vincent Van Gogh were geniuses, each has been romanticized and commodified in ways that often obscure their depressing final chapters.

We were high and the experience was intense. The exhibit’s deliberately glitchy intro was a millimeter shy of overwhelming, but once we settled into the projected circle of light with the best acoustics, we watched the show straight through twice more. Like Hans Zimmer’s score for Blade Runner 2049, these sorts of spectacles are meant to engulf rather than please, and it’s easy to nitpick historical inaccuracies and take umbrage on behalf of actual museums. But tripping helps suspend your disbelief and silence that inner critic. And consciously choosing to go along with it all is much more fun. So we went with it, hard.

I’ve done two things more in the 12 months of this pandemic than I did cumulatively in my entire life: ride a bike and trip out on mushrooms. Part of me thinks they’re both beneficial, stabilizing my early-middle-aged body and chatter-prone mind, while another part thinks of one as justification for the other. (If I’ve biked 1,500 miles and climbed 100,000 feet in 2021 alone, then I can have a damn mushroom on a Tuesday night in March.) In all, I’ve tripped maybe 10 or 12 times over the last year. Each instance was enjoyable, often involved plenty of Tame Impala, and left me feeling residually upbeat for days afterward. COVID restrictions aside, though, this is a curious time to dive into mushrooms. As the War on Drugs recedes out to sea, it appears psilocybin may be the next bit of beach exposed to the general public.

Fungus Among Us

Ours is a planet of fungi. What we call “mushrooms” are only the tip of the iceberg, as it were. The familiar toadstool, also known as the fruiting body, is only the most visible — and often the most temporary — component, with most of the fungus existing as mycelium strands beneath the surface. The world’s single largest organism is a honey fungus in the Blue Mountains of northeast Oregon that measures several miles across and may be 2,000 years old. 

Even though taxonomy drives our understanding of the natural world, nature always defies easy categorization. Just as viruses — which don’t eat, excrete, or even grow — make us question what it means for something to be fully alive, fungi problematize the idea of what an individual organism actually is. They’re almost a mindless collective intelligence, ecological go-betweens whose job is essentially humdrum necromancy, facilitating the creation of life from death. Ubiquitous in the soils, they act as pathways to conduct nutrients out of dead matter and back into the ground to replenish other organisms. This is more like the quasi-sentient ecosystem on Pandora in Avatar than simply a terrestrial kingdom on equal footing with animals or plants. Even if the thought of your eventually lifeless body decomposing makes you queasy, it’s impossible not to marvel at their work. It’s fascinating enough that baby spiders know how to spin webs. But fungi seem possessed of an uncanny consciousness.

Occasional news items about how a strain of fungus can digest plastic or neutralize toxic heavy metals — a process known as mycoremediation — come with flashes of hope for the salvation of our depleted biosphere. Then there’s the ongoing effort to grow black Périgord truffles in the root systems of oaks in Napa. For all their trendiness, though, mushrooms-as-metaphor infiltrated our culture long ago. Alice in Wonderland, Super Mario Bros, and a Nutcracker dance in Disney’s Fantasia either anthropomorphize them or nod at their abilities. Sylvia Plath saw them as symbols of women’s quiet tenacity. Svampen (“mushroom”) is the famous meeting point in Stockholm’s most upscale neighborhood. If you’ve ever browsed the fossils at Paxton Gate on Valencia Street, you’ve no doubt been transfixed by the cover of All That the Rain Promises and More…, which depicts a demented-looking man wearing a tuxedo under a tree and holding both a very large mushroom and a trumpet.

So-called “magic mushrooms” — which is to say, the more than 100 or so species that produce psilocybin — are found all over the world, but chiefly in temperate Europe and the Americas. They show up in Pre-Columbian artifacts, and starting in the 1950s they became popular in the United States as a hallmark of the burgeoning counterculture. People repulsed by postwar America’s vacuousness began to ingest them in quasi-religious rites, with effects that range from giggling and pareidolia (seeing faces where none exist) to wearing a really unfortunate shade of purple-gray and falling in love with one’s own pompous, Zen-lite drivel. 

Psilocybe cubensis, or, magic mushrooms. Photo by Dmytro Tyshchenko/Shutterstock

A couple years ago, cities like Denver and Oakland began to decriminalize plant-derived entheogens like mushrooms, partly because they’re seen as medically beneficial and socially harmless, and partly out of the increased awareness of indigenous cultural practices. (An “entheogen” is any substance that induces changes in perception or mood that many people perceive as spiritual or sacred.) Four years after California passed Proposition 64, ushering in a consumer wonderland of edibles and CBD tinctures, everybody and their dad started using cannabis. Mushroom chocolates and teas have been around a long time. Might they pop up on dispensary shelves, too?

Spore Wars

Oakland is on the cutting edge, having decriminalized psilocybin and other plant-based drugs in June 2019. As of 2021, the decrim movement has typically clustered in left-leaning areas with large universities: Cambridge and Northampton, Mass., Washtenaw County, Mich. (home to Ann Arbor), and Santa Cruz, along with Washington, D.C. Denver voters narrowly passed an initiative that prohibits the city from spending any money to prosecute people for possession, which remains illegal under Colorado law.

Oregon is the only jurisdiction to have fully legalized mushrooms for therapeutic use in supervised settings, after voters approved Measure 109 last November. Here in California, State Sen. Scott Wiener introduced a bill (S.B. 519) that would decriminalize the use and personal possession of mushrooms, LSD, MDMA, ketamine, DMT, and other drugs. While the bill goes a lot further than Oregon’s, it managed to pass through the Senate Health Committee by a vote of 6-1 in mid-April. Still, we’re a long way from branded mushroom-chocolate collabs at Cookie’s (although Berner’s ubiquitous legal weed brand does have a new line of non-psychedelic mushroom-and-CBD capsules).

S.B. 519 could change the game for drugs like LSD. Photo by Microgen/Shutterstock

“The commodification of psychedelics is one of those things that people don’t fully understand,” according to Dave Hide, the minister of Zide Door, Oakland’s Church of Entheogenic Plants, the first house of worship in America dedicated to magic mushrooms — which Hide refers to as “sacrament.” 

“Although people want it, and there are people moving forward thinking this is something that’s going to be the next cannabis, it’s far from that. Extremely far,” he says. “There’s a big difference between decriminalization and being able to walk around with a pound of mushrooms.”

Oakland has categorized psilocybin as the lowest priority for local law enforcement, but the sale and consumption of it is still a crime in the state, as well as federally. This is not terribly dissimilar from cannabis’ quasi-legality, though. When California voters approved Proposition 215 in 1996, they established a medical marijuana program that has flourished for 25 years in spite of cannabis remaining a Schedule I drug, which the federal government defines as substances having no accepted medical application and a high potential for abuse. (The other Schedule I drugs are, somewhat bafflingly, ecstasy, heroin, LSD, methaqualone, and peyote. Cocaine, methamphetamine, and oxycodone are Schedule II.)

In theory, Prop. 64 built on Prop. 215. But Hide doesn’t see it that way. He calls that 2016 ballot measure the “Fuel the Black Market Act,” because the combination of onerous regulations on dispensaries with high taxes has rendered state-sanctioned cannabis so expensive that it’s effectively only for tourists and sporadic cannabis consumers. Everybody else gets it the same way they always did — from a pot dealer.

Further, he says that with respect to mushrooms, “we’re basically in 1994 or ’95. What we’re doing in the Church is different because it’s for a religious basis. There’s something called the Restoration of Religious Freedom Act, which has successfully been used to defend churches that use plant medicines from the federal government.”

That 1993 piece of legislation is far from settled, however. Over the years, the Supreme Court has upheld parts of it and struck down others in cases that dealt with circumstances as wide-ranging as whether a Social Security Number constitutes a Mark of the Beast, whether you can declare yourself religiously exempt from paying taxes, or whether recycling sewage water to generate artificial snow in northern Arizona infringed on Navajo sovereignty.

But it wasn’t federal marshals who raided Zide Door last summer, demanding access to its safes; it was the Oakland Police Department. In an episode of the podcast Psychedelic Timeshare, Hide recounted the experience, noting that being first “means you’re the first to have problems.”

Prior to the raid, the Church had grown solely by word-of-mouth, and typically had a cooperative relationship with OPD. The cops even used its surveillance cameras to help solve other crimes. But on Aug. 13, 2020, some 20 officers cleared the streets and entered with their guns drawn, immediately outmatching the church’s single armed guard.

“They cleared it like a cartel,” Hide said.

No one was arrested, but the officers called in a contingent of firefighters to gain access to safes that each required a significant amount of time to break into. This in turn led to a curious bureaucratic standoff in which Hide persuaded the skeptical officer in charge to let him run to the city attorney’s office to get a document attesting that Hide would happily open the safes as long as doing so merely expedited what would otherwise be a 14-hour process without admitting to anything or signing away his rights. Hide also claimed that one firefighter sustained moderate injuries from shrapnel that the safecracking ejected. As Vice reported at the time, officers eventually made off with $200,000 in cash, some cannabis, and some mushrooms, in a quasi-military asset forfeiture operation that’s clearly at odds with Oakland’s stated policy that mushrooms represent the bottom-ranking priority for the police.

The church simply got too big, Hide believes. (He claims almost 30,000 adherents, from around the Bay Area and out of state.) No sacrament was ever consumed on-site, though. Rather, he would preside over services — held Sundays at 4:20 p.m., natch — wherein he would sermonize about the origins of religion and his own experiences on extremely high doses, while members of his congregation smoked joints and planned their next shroom-fueled journeys of spiritual self-discovery.

Psychedelic Starter

“The core of what we believe is that the mushrooms are the origins of all religions. They are what let us first understand that there’s something more to this existence,” Hide says. “This is not commercialization. Psilocybin will not be the next cannabis.”

He knows because in 2009, he helped create the first cannabis club in San Jose. He made a commitment to show people that cannabis was neither lethal nor a gateway drug, so he never even experimented with mushrooms until his late 30s.

Zide Door started as “a cannabis church to fight the federal government in January 2019,” but when Oakland’s City Council voted to decriminalize all entheogenic plants five months later, he took it as a sign. Of all the other plant-derived substances that measure covered — ayahuasca, ibogaine, peyote — only mushrooms seemed safe enough for most people. Approximately one out of every 400 people die on ibogaine, often because of interactions with other substances. Peyote shows potential to eliminate heroin addiction, but trips can last for a week or even two. Ayahuasca needs a trained shaman, and it’s arguably a closed practice — plus tourism to the Amazon is environmentally destructive. And substances synthesized in factories or derived from toads were not covered under Oakland’s new law.

So mushrooms it was. Hide began experimenting with higher and higher doses. Famed mushroom enthusiast, philosopher, and psychonaut Terence McKenna had talked about five grams as a “heroic dose.” Hide got to 10 grams, and eventually 30, which he calls a “God dose.” (Objectively speaking, this is a humongous quantity, although Hide believes a lethal amount to be somewhere around 2,000 grams.) 

His own experiences aside, Hide’s belief that mushrooms will never be “the new cannabis” seems pretty indisputable because a person can consume a lot more marijuana.

“At my height, I was smoking two ounces per day, which is an insane amount of cannabis, but you can do that and function,” Hide says. “With the mushrooms, I’m one of the people who does some of the most mushrooms and these are for truly religious experiences, to try to understand where religion comes from. That’s between 15 and 30 grams in a single dose.”

That level, he says, is where you see visions and encounter entities who possess knowledge they wish to impart. It’s also more than many people ingest in a lifetime. But even for Hide, it’s hard to do that more than once a month, typically in a tea after fasting for 24 to 48 hours. 

“So when it comes to commodification, it’s not the dream that people hope it is,” Hide says. “It’s a very important thing for people to connect with God and the divine, but it’s not a large commercial market. If you do the math on microdosing — which does help some people spiritually, but it mostly has a lot of medical potential — even then you’re talking about 0.2 grams, five times a week. That’s potentially four to five grams, max, in a month.”

That’s probably not enough to sustain a boom, notwithstanding billionaire Peter Thiel’s $125 million investment ATAI Life Sciences, a German startup hoping to treat mental health disorders through psychedelics.

Even if psilocybin were regulated, standardized, and packaged, a “dose” isn’t necessarily the only salient measurement. What you bring to the experience counts, too. Hide shared an anecdote about someone who ate a quarter of a mushroom chocolate that a friend made, and it ended with him swinging a baseball bat at his wife after she did everything she could to get him not to play in traffic. People who’ve only microdosed in the past may be particularly vulnerable to the allure of, well, macrodosing. 

“These can be really dangerous if not done in the right context knowing what you’re going to experience,” Hide says. “If you’re going to consume an eighth or more, you need to understand what’s going to happen to you. You’re going to lie in bed and dive into your head. There’s going to be no chance you’re going to have ‘fun.’ A gram or two can be a recreational experience, but if you’ve got bad thoughts in your head or something that’s really been eating at you, they’re going to bring it up. One of the examples I’ve given in my sermons was from one of the first times I did two grams. I was thinking I should brush my teeth first, and during the whole trip I was tripping out over brushing my teeth. In that scenario, nobody got hurt, my teeth didn’t fall out, but the whole trip was a repeat of that.” 

This is a different risk to the mind than the moderately incapacitating paranoia that can happen if you go full Maureen Dowd and ingest too much THC, in other words. I have never had what I understand to be a bad trip — although I know they’re real — although once or twice this year, a mushroom hit me with such fervor that I was certain I would vomit in public. (I didn’t, but 20 minutes of rolling nausea is still uncomfortable.) 

Nor have I ever gazed upon the face of God. The impossibly saturated colors, the arresting sight of wind through the trees, the feeling of close connection with a friend, a hunger that isn’t as compulsive as the munchies but which spurs me to eat with great zest — these are why I enjoy mushrooms. But what characterizes the best trips is a sense of overarching peace, a conviction that everything is going to be OK which is powerful enough to overcome my awareness that I’m also really high. So I decided to ask the guy who sells me mushrooms what he thought.

Talking to My Man

I’ve interviewed politicians under cloud of scandal and undocumented refugees, but few subjects are as reticent as a drug dealer. He agreed to speak with me in person with no recording device and as long as I referred to him as Rolando and revealed nothing else about him.

Rolando is bearish about the idea of psilocybin-as-consumer-product in a different way than Hide is. He thinks it will rapidly become the province of “pill companies,” his derogatory term for Big Pharma. That decriminalization is even a topic strikes him as faintly sinister.

“I hate to steal a hipster phrase, but they’re manufacturing consent,” he says of the pill companies. “People have been eating sacraments and dancing under the moon with the tribe and having these experiences for eons.”

In his view, it was the Grateful Dead — or, more specifically, the traveling city of misfits and controlled chaos that sprouted up around their shows for decades — that operated as the delivery mechanism for psychedelics in America. If Jerry Garcia and company had to compete with pill companies, the fertile matrix of art and culture that gave rise to that endlessly romanticized version of San Francisco would not have happened. There simply would have been no counterculture, broadly defined.

Proposition 215, to Rolando, was written by people who toiled in the dirt to grow weed to make sure they got a return on that labor. Proposition 64 was the opposite, giving rise to an investor class that’s superficially savvy about the counterculture but whose intervention will necessarily lead to Roche and GlaxoSmithKline owning everything.

“It almost seems like they were being used to put this friendly face on whatever The Man wants to do with this business in a few years,” he says. “If we see each other as an extension of the largest thing on earth — mycelium, where no piece of it is bigger than any other piece of it — the message is for people to keep it small. But I’ve got bros coming to me saying ‘We’ve got investors! We need the poundage! I need somebody to grow this for me!’” 

Central to his viewpoint is the belief that the media only talks about mushrooms now because the media is only allowed to talk about mushrooms now. Consequently, more and more people expressing an interest in hallucinogenic substances are indifferent as to whether they originated in a plant (in the sense of a fungus) or in a plant (in the sense of a factory). 

“It’s the undoing of the magic of Prop 215, that allowed common people to work hard under the hot sun,” Rolando says. “Prop 215 was magical because whoever wrote it seemed to have an idea of how to keep it out of Corporate America’s hands. We’re not legalizing these things. We’re colonial-izing these things. I’ve been caged twice for pot, and suddenly they want a cut, and it’s like, ‘What?’” 

Rolando sees mushrooms during COVID as “a big chunk of cheese for the rat race.” He cites the phenomenon of affluent parents working from home while their kids are learning from home, so mom and dad start microdosing to handle the stress. It’s accessing mushrooms’ power without making any connection to the primal ritual of drum circles around the campfire (or a noodling, 25-minute guitar solo).

“They didn’t run their brain into the ground in 1990 or ’91 on shitty acid in the parking lot,” he says. “Music and psychedelics will break the human psyche down to a state where they’re ready for more, or where they’re kind of looking for something that’s not in a textbook.”

Shiny Happy People?

Indeed, psychedelics may have already left the dusty Shoreline Amphitheatre parking lot and badged into the adjacent corporate campus. A YouTube clip announcing life-sciences company Cybin’s partnership with the VC-backed firm Kernel on a “non-invasive wearable brain imaging device” seems designed to repackage psychedelics without any trace of psychedelia. It’s Rolando’s living nightmare, basically.

The clip, which features a voiceover that doesn’t quite make it across the Uncanny Valley and is chock-full gosh-wow Silicon Valley spirituality (“quantifying what was previously impossible”), it’s light on sacrament and heavy on promises of disruption:

“Molecules like psilocybin, LSD, and DMT, that have shown promise in treating psychiatric disorders, are being revisited and researched,” the female narrator explains, pitching her voice in a manner reminiscent of a mid-reverie Dolores Abernathy. Only, this time, instead of leading her fellow Westworld hosts to The Valley Beyond, she’s heading up a lobbying firm and filing for intellectual property rights. “This resurgence is leading to a paradigm shift in public policy. Cybin is at the forefront of this revolution.”

The specifics of the Cybin-Kernel partnership are also a bit vague, but it seems to have something to do with donning the chandelier hat that Doc Brown is wearing when Marty McFly meets him in 1955 and then getting dosed. But hey, if new technologies like these help, say, veterans with PTSD, maybe it’s worth it.

Dena Justice, an executive life coach and the founder of Ecstatic Collective, comes down somewhere between Rolando’s “never trust the man” cynicism and Cybin’s bright-eyed (and wide-pupiled) optimism.

They agree that you can’t just bypass everything for instant results. You need to put in the work first. Through what Justice calls neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), she focuses on “non-ordinary states of consciousness,” obtained through movement, breathwork, orgasms, and psychedelics. For her, this is about giving clients the tools to recognize patterns they might be stuck in, and how to break through them and achieve fulfillment.

“Some of our strongest language is held in modal operators, words like ‘necessity involves’ or ‘I have to,’” she says. “But if we can get into possibility language, like ‘I decide to,’ or ‘I choose to,’ it changes the way they relate to the world.”

Justice is selective about who she takes on and mainly keeps to a supportive role, but otherwise she’s reluctant to delve into the specifics of how she guides her clients’ use of psychedelic medicines. It almost doesn’t matter what someone’s specific difficulty is, she explains, because our problems are always held in language and in the way we communicate. A three-hour intake session may lead to a medicine session whose usefulness is essentially measured in terms of how a person can interrupt their own neural-network highways, whether to achieve financial success or simply figure out what they ought to do in life.

“The medicine works,” she says. “I help people get the fuck out of their [own] way.” 

To put it succinctly, Justice — who named her program “Get the F* Out of Your Way” — is primarily concerned with getting her clients past mental roadblocks. But she is also worried about regulatory roadblocks.

The way Justice sees it, the FDA’s bureaucratic process could very well stand in the way of meaningful progress in the field of psychedelic medicine — even in a future America where mushrooms have been decriminalized and legalized. Calling herself “anti-extreme regulation,” Justice is opposed to a standardized process for plant-derived medicines like psilocybin, because unlike pharmaceuticals, they’re not prescriptive in nature. 

“Oh, you’re going to have four sessions with your therapist and then you’re going to have a journey and then another four sessions and then another trip? I don’t believe that’s the way it should be done,” she says. “I’m here to support you as an individual in the time you need. Some people will feel totally safe with you and don’t need four sessions to build rapport and trust. Others will need a year.” 

Well, we’ve had a year. Now that we’re — hopefully — within sight of the end of the pandemic, the present is starting to feel almost like the future again. There were already tardigrades on the moon and lesbians in the U.S. Senate; now we’re flying helicopters on Mars and there’s a trans woman in the Cabinet. And for $50, you can melt your brain a little bit, staring at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Starry Night, and The Potato Eaters while tripping.

Californians have been accustomed to slickly packaged cannabis edibles on dispensary shelves, but something about the idea of mushroom teas next to them feels fundamentally different somehow. There’s something about the idea that feels like a betrayal of countercultural ideals, like when a gay, Black, right-wing, Gen Z’er amasses a huge following on TikTok, or someone says Mike Love is their favorite Beach Boy. 

It seems inevitable that decriminalization will spread to other states and cities. Granted, the Biden administration fired a bunch of staffers for smoking pot on their own time, so there may not be a linear path to common sense public policy around entheogens. But if the sea change in attitudes about plant-derived substances and the carceral state causes the War on Drugs to wind down further, well… capitalism is what it is, and we’ll probably be seeing packets of trippy tea on Eaze sooner or later.

And who knows? Perhaps this was the fungus’ plan all along.

Peter-Astrid Kane is a former SF Weekly editor. Twitter @peterastridkane

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