Not So Far Out

Researchers reopen their minds to the healing potential of psychedelic drugs

  • not-so-far-out

    Dongyun Lee /

  • not-so-far-out

Mike is hunched over a pile of soggy wood chips at the bottom of a glade in Golden Gate Park. It’s a clear winter afternoon and sunlight filters through the eucalyptus trees, landing on grass still damp from a recent storm. Mike sifts through the wood chips, slowly and deliberately examining the soil beneath. Two paper bags fill a pocket of his Patagonia fleece jacket.

A 28-year-old engineer at a prominent software company in San Francisco, Mike is soft-spoken and self-possessed; on weekends he drives his Subaru Forester to his time-share in Tahoe to ski. He donates to public radio, and he has made himself into an aficionado of the city’s Indian restaurants. He is, or seems like, a well-adjusted member of society.

But what Mike is doing is a felony. He is searching for psilocybin, the psychedelic mushrooms that grow wild in San Francisco and neighboring Marin County from fall to spring. If he finds any, he’ll stuff them in the bags, put the bags in his backpack, and backstreet home on his bike.

Mike doesn’t do mushrooms very often—maybe once or twice a year—but when he does, it’s for a reason. “When I take them, it may be because I have a decision to make, or maybe I suspect that my outlook toward something is not as healthy or as loving as I would like it to be,” he says. “Psilocybin allows me to see things with a fresh point of view. When I’m on them, [I’m] not as burdened by cynicism or other self-protective layers in my psychology.”

Is Mike delusional or is he onto something?

In the past decade, research into the effects of psychedelic drugs on consciousness has become a growing field of study in American academia. Psychologists at UCLA, Johns Hopkins Medical School, and NYU, among other places, have published research showing that psychedelics can promote happiness in ordinary people, as well as alleviate depression and anxiety among the terminally ill. The positive effects of taking psilocybin that Mike describes resemble many of the case descriptions contained in these studies (though no doubt none of the researchers involved would endorse his actions).

steve eatenson
8/28/2011 11:30:03 AM

It's good that there is some effort going on to be grown up enough to allow research into what might actually be of benefit in easing the suffering of many people. On the other hand, don't go running out and look for these mushrooms on your own or trust your local drug dealer to find you some. The mushrooms in question look very much like a deady variety of mushroom that if ingested in very small amounts will end all your depression and anxiety as well as everything else for you forever. Even experts sometimes have difficulty differientiating between the deadly variety and the safe ones without laboratory testing so don't be stupid!

8/26/2011 10:49:36 AM

interesting article. Psilocybin, because it's naturally occurring rather than a synthesized substance, is unlikely to cause the dreaded "bad trip" that LSD could sometimes cause by being cooked up in "a bathtub". Prior to the demonization of psychedelics, there was an interesting periodical published at Harvard by the likes of Tim Leary, Richard Alpert, et alia titled "The Psychedelic Review" which published articles, research, prose & poetry, and related items of interest. Worth exploring.

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