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Can A Legal Magic Mushroom Industry Avoid the Pitfalls of Recreational Weed?

The illegality of natural hallucinogens is increasingly under assault. But what are the implications?

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If you still find yourself periodically plotzed that cannabis is now not only legal in many states, but that there are actually government-licensed stores where you can buy bud, just wait until the day when you can run down the street to pick up a sack of psychedelic 'shrooms.

It will likely be a while before that happens, if it ever does, but moves are under way that look a lot like the moves that, after decades of effort, ultimately made cannabis a legal commodity. And so far, progress has been much faster. Last June, Oakland became the second city in the United States, after Denver, to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms and a range of other natural hallucinogens. Now there is an effort afoot in Oakland and elsewhere to outright legalize them. One big question overhanging the debates: can legalization, if it occurs, be shaped in such a way as to preclude the possibility of a fungi rush, akin to the "green rush" that has attracted so many financiers and entrepreneurs looking for a quick buck? And can what many advocates see as the worst-case possibility — the creation of a corporate-run "hallucinogen industry" — be prevented? Another big question, that often goes largely unaddressed, is how to account for the fact that for all their apparent benefits, mushrooms and other hallucinogens, can — unlike cannabis — really mess you up if you go about ingesting them in the wrong way.

Late last month, the Santa Cruz City Council followed Oakland's lead in passing an ordinance directing cops and prosecutors to ratchet down enforcement of laws governing mushrooms, and other entheogenic plants and fungi including ayahuasca and ibogaine. Days later, Decriminalize Nature, a group that works on such efforts across the nation, announced that it is working to put full legalization before the Oakland City Council by September. The effort has the backing of Councilmember Noel Gallo, who sponsored last year's decriminalization effort. "This will be an unprecedented, comprehensive effort with clear intention: to use as many tools available, including leading scientific research and clinical research in psychedelics and entheogenic plant and fungi use, to heal our Oakland community," Gallo said in a statement.

While legalization likely wouldn't discriminate between recreational users and those who ingest them for reasons of health or spirituality, Carlos Plazola, the chairman of Decriminalize Nature Oakland, personally opposes people taking them just for fun. "They're not for partying," he told me last year when Oakland passed the decriminalization ordinance.

How that distinction would be written into a legalization ordinance is so far unclear. So is the method by which the city would forestall the over-commercialization of entheogenic substances. In a recent op-ed in Marijuana Moment, Plazola simply said that advocates are going about their effort with "the clear intention of prioritizing healing above profits."

The fact that we're even debating the question of legalization has three main root causes: the momentum created by cannabis legalization (and the fact that it hasn't knocked Earth off its axis), new research indicating that certain hallucinogens may carry powerful therapeutic benefits, and a general push to take all drug use and possession out of the criminal-justice system entirely.

The two efforts have come together in Oregon, where signatures are being collected to get two initiatives on the ballot this year: one to legalize psilocybin for medical purposes, and one to decriminalize all currently illicit drugs.

The two proposed initiatives have one big thing in common: the backing of David Bronner, the CEO ("Cosmic Engagement Officer" — yes, really) of Dr. Bronner, the maker of soaps and personal-care products festooned with spiritual messages like "Unite Spaceship Earth." Bronner, the grandson of the company's founder, has donated $1 million to the psilocybin effort, and hundreds of thousands to the drug-decriminalization initiative. "We see this as the perfect one-two punch in Oregon, legalizing psilocybin therapy that has so much promise for treating drug addiction, at the same time Oregon shifts to a treatment-not-jail approach," he wrote on his blog in December.

There is growing evidence that psilocybin, in particular, when administered under the guidance of an expert, can help people get over addictions to nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs. It's also been shown to relieve the symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The experiments so far have included mostly low-dose treatments, administered in a controlled environment: tripping balls on 'shrooms likely isn't the best approach to relieving the symptoms of clinical depression.

As for how to prevent greedheads from wrecking the whole enterprise by turning into the circus that much of the cannabis business has become, nobody seems to have a clear answer. In his op-ed, Plazola suggested one approach would be to "transform capitalism."

"This is a tall order," he admitted. One that will likely take "a couple of centuries" to fulfill. That might be hard for the Oakland City Council to incorporate into its regulatory scheme if the measure were to pass.

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