Oakland may decriminalize ‘magic mushrooms.’ What are they, and will California follow?

Magic mushrooms are seen in a grow room at the Procare farm in the central Netherlands.
Magic mushrooms are seen in a grow room at the Procare farm in the central Netherlands. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Oakland leaders are meeting on Tuesday night to consider decriminalizing so-called “magic mushrooms.”

That would make the Northern California city the second in the United States to allow adults over 21 to possess psilocybin, the ingredient that gives “magic mushrooms” their hallucinogenic effects. Voters in Denver, Colorado, narrowly decided to decriminalize the drug at the polls earlier this month — meaning that, even though it’s still against federal law, it will now be a lower priority for police and prosecutors there.

The Oakland proposal would decriminalize a host of other plant- and fungi-based drugs as well, including ayahuasca, peyote and ibogaine.

But what are the uses for those drugs — and is it possible the entire state of California and other states could be next with decriminalization?

Uses for ‘magic mushrooms’

Research has shown that the drug may help nicotine addicts kick a smoking habit, combat post-traumatic stress and improve the psychological outlook of long-term AIDS patients, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

“The data are really impressive. We should be cautiously but enthusiastically pursuing these threads,” said Johns Hopkins University psychiatry professor Matthew Johnson, who carried out the smoking research, according to the Chronicle. “We want to be aware of overexuberance, but at the same time, we have to avoid falling into a kind of dogmatic skepticism.”

But, the Chronicle reports, Johnson added that decriminalization isn’t a substitute for medical guidance, saying “I don’t encourage the use of these things outside of structured settings like our research trials.”

Though psilocybin’s image has long been associated with recreational users taking it for hallucinations and mind-bending, euphoric experiences, its use to treat anxiety and depression is one factor behind the renewed push for decriminalization and legalization, Kaiser Health News reports.

“We don’t want individuals to lose their freedom over something that’s natural and has health benefits,” said Decriminalize Denver campaign director Kevin Matthews, who worked to decriminalize the drug in the Colorado city, according to Kaiser Health News.

Research has also shown that the drug doesn’t get people hooked and is linked to fewer emergency room trips than other drugs, NPR reports. And according to the radio station, the fungi are relatively easy to grow at home.

Effects of taking ‘magic mushrooms’

An advocate pushing for Oakland decriminalization described his own experiences to local news outlets.

“For those who have not experienced these, it’s kind of like jumping out of an airplane and into a rain forest somewhere momentarily,” said Carlos Plazola, co-founder of Decriminalize Nature, KGO reports. “I actually experienced a lot of childhood trauma … After a mushroom journey, I was able to get past the locked-in patterns and now I don’t get frustrated or angry.”

And there may be impacts of the drug beyond the obvious, immediate hallucinatory effects, Johnson said in a Johns Hopkins University news release in 2017.

“There may be changes in brain network patterns that persist beyond the acute effect, almost like the acute effects may be inducing plasticity and flexibility,” Johnson said.

California advocates push ballot measure to legalize psilocybin

An effort to put a measure legalizing psilocybin on California’s 2018 ballot fell short, NPR reports, so advocates are aiming for an initiative to appear during the 2020 presidential election.

Oregon advocates for legalization are pushing an initiative of their own for next year’s ballot, Forbes reports.

And in Iowa, a Republican lawmaker has floated legislation to legalize medical use of the drug and take it off the state’s controlled substance list, according to NPR.

Bags of psilocybin mushrooms, left, are seen displayed at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles on May 6, 2019. Richard Vogel AP

Law enforcement response

Sgt. Ray Kelly, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman in Alameda County, which includes Oakland, said there are maybe 12 psychedelic drug arrests in the county yearly, the Chronicle reports.

“On the scale of concerns about illicit drugs, they’re not as high up there as meth and coke and heroin and fentanyl,” Kelly said, according to the newspaper, adding that “the only thing we would be concerned about in regards to public safety is obviously someone driving under the influence of psilocybin mushrooms.”

But because psilocybin is a schedule I drug like marijuana, quaaludes and ecstasy, even if it’s decriminalized locally it would still be illegal to possess it across the country, Esquire reports.

Learn about the brain reward system and the biochemical processes that occur during marijuana use.

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