Shaman / Photo: rokoto / Feature photo: hkoppdelaney

Magic mushrooms are illegal in many countries around the world. But research reveals we’re losing out on a potent spiritual tool.

Magic mushrooms and other hallucinogenics have been used by cultures across the world for millennia, with early evidence (PDF) including Neolithic cave painting depictions in the Sahara that are thought to date back to 7000 BC.

As recent as 2005, the UK government legislated the use of magic mushrooms as a class A drug – possession could mean a prison term of up to 7 years, and dealing could mean life.

Many other countries, such as the US and Canada, also consider possession illegal.

Yet research from Johns Hopkins University reveals that magic mushrooms have a profound therapeutic effect: when they surveyed volunteers 14 months after they took the drug, most said they were still feeling and behaving better because of the experience.

Two-thirds of them also said the drug had produced “one of the five most spiritually significant experiences they’d ever had.”

Accepting that there are dangers involved in their use hallucinogens for some people, I ask whether governments should rethink their stance on magic mushrooms. Should we allow them to be used to enlighten under controlled circumstances with experienced guides?

Bruce Parry and Tribe

In 2005 Bruce Parry’s traveled around the world to experience cultures still living in a traditional way. The series was first aired on the BBC as Tribe, and later shown in the US under the title, Going Tribal.

Bruce Parry / Photo: BBC/Indus

Parry lived with tribes in India, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, Gabon, Mongolia and Brazil for a month each, and tried to integrate into the host societies as much as possible. The spiritual beliefs of each tribe were one of the most prominent aspects covered.

On the Venezuela/Brazil border, Parry lived with the Sanema tribe, who believe in a dream world with spirits all around them: in the animals, trees, rocks and water. Four out of five males in the tribe are shamans.

Guided by one of the shamans, Parry took part in an initiation ceremony, which included the consumption of a hallucinogenic called sakona, which is derived from the sap of the Virola tree.

In an interview about the series with Sam Wollaston in the Guardian, Parry talked about his views on hallucinogens:

“No, I don’t think we should all be taking acid. I think drugs are very dangerous. But I do think I learned from those two experiences. I really had an incredibly deep message that came to me. I’m not saying it came from some deity, but when you do lose your mind – if that’s what you want to call it – it’s a really interesting way of looking at the self.”

Wollaston summarised that Parry had talked about “having extra-ordinary revelations, seeing things in a totally different way, of becoming more connected to nature.”

Parry would continue his search in two more series of Tribe and on his journey from Andes to Amazon.

Government Clamps Down

Ironically, 2005 was also the year when the British government closed a loophole in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, making the selling and consumption of magic mushrooms a Class A crime along with heroin and cocaine.

In January that year, the National Statistician, Len Cook, had answered a question in the House of Commons with the following statistics on death from drugs in England and Wales during the previous decade: there had been one death (PDF) recorded as caused by magic mushrooms, compared to 5,737 from heroin/morphine and 582 from cocaine/crack.

Cigarettes, which are of course legal, are thought to have killed over one million people per decade in the last fifty years.

The government also liberalised the alcohol laws in 2005, allowing licensed establishments to open for 24 hours despite a growth in alcohol-related illnesses in the preceding years.

In a BBC article, critics of the ban say that the mushrooms are harmless to physical health and would only be bad for people with existing mental health problems.

“Obviously I would not suggest someone with schizophrenia took magic mushrooms but nor should they probably take alcohol,” said Chris Bovey, owner of online retailer Potseeds, based in Totnes, Devon.

The Reality Of Experience

Ultimately, there appear to be three types magic mushroom experiences:

  • Some people do not enjoy the experience and never try it again.
  • Some people take too much, either all at once or over a period of time and significantly alter their minds. This impact is rarely the case with magic mushrooms, and instead involves much stronger hallucinigens (like LSD).
  • The vast majority of people have a good experience and learn something about themselves or the world around them. It entertains or enlightens.

As the participants in the John Hopkins study confirms:

“Fourteen months after taking the drug, 64 per cent of the volunteers said they still felt at least a moderate increase in well-being or life satisfaction, in terms of things like feeling more creative, self-confident, flexible and optimistic. And 61 per cent reported at least a moderate behaviour change in what they considered positive ways.”

There is a slight risk to hallucinogenics, but it is much less than most other drugs. I believe that under controlled circumstances such as a weekend with experienced guides most people will have the positive experience that Bruce Parry had on his tribal travels.

As Parry reveals, his journey ultimately opened his mind and inspired him to search for an alternative religious reality to the Christian belief he knew as a child:

“When I came back from expeditions, I had some experiences that made me readdress all that. I’d pretty much known all along that Christianity wasn’t for me. Ever since then, I’ve been on my own quest to find another truth.

I can’t read novels, but I do read books about cosmology, about astrophysics, about genetics. I’m interested in altered states of mind, and creation myths. It’s all part of the same thing – I want to know why we think what we think. Now, I’d describe myself as pandeist, reluctantly verging on atheist.”

What do you think of magic mushrooms? Should they be legalized and used under controlled conditions? Share your thoughts in the comments!