Psychedelics as health and wellness aid? Not a hallucination

Nov. 15, 2020, 1:30 AM PSTBy Alicia Victoria Lozano

Melissa Lavasani never expected to grow psychedelic mushrooms in her Washington, D.C., home or become a force behind a successful measure that makes cultivation and possession of plant and fungi medicines the lowest priority for local police and prosecutors.

But the mother of two grew desperate in 2018 as her mental health suffered from a yearslong battle with postpartum depression and chronic pain. She had tried everything: antidepressants, talk therapy, meditation and even cupping. None of it seemed to work.

After listening to a podcast about the use of psilocybin, a naturally occurring chemical compound found in certain types of mushrooms, Lavasani became part of a movement she never intended to join.

“People are now coming out of the psychedelic closet, but it’s a risk you take,” she said. “There’s a stigma to it.”

Bolstered by a growing body of research and a greater acceptance of cannabis for recreation and medicine, psychedelics are experiencing a renaissance as voters and lawmakers rethink the so-called war on drugs.

When voters in Washington, D.C., passed Initiative 81 on Nov. 3, their counterparts in Oregon approved a ballot initiative to legalize the use of psychedelic mushrooms in therapeutic settings. The Canadian Minister of Health recently granted permission to four terminally ill patients to use psilocybin to treat end-of-life anxiety.

In California, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said last week that he will introduce a bill next year to decriminalize psychedelics. In New Jersey, lawmakers amended a cannabis bill on Thursday to include language that will downgrade penalties for possessing up to an ounce of mushrooms.

The cities of Denver and Oakland, California, each adopted resolutions in 2019 decriminalizing mushrooms.

Wiener said he was encouraged by developments around the country and is talking with experts about what form his proposal should take, The Associated Press reported. He said he was leaning toward Oregon’s supervised-use approach while allowing for the use of synthetic psychedelics such as LSD.

Wiener, who said he does not take psychedelics himself, noted that cultures all over the world have been using them since the beginning of time.

“Any substance can be harmful, so I’m not suggesting that anything is like nirvana,” he said. “But we know that psychedelics can be used safely. We know they appear to have significant medicinal uses.”

For Lavasani, mushrooms proved to be a revelation.

After delivering a healthy baby in 2017, Lavasani, a budget officer in the district’s Department of Energy and Environment, started to hear voices and experience panic attacks. She gradually spent less time with her husband and children. She eventually feared she would take her own life.

Concerned, a friend recommended listening to an episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast featuring mycologist Paul Stamets, who extolled the benefits of mushrooms. Looking back, Lavasani calls it her “Hail Mary” moment.

“It blew my mind a little bit,” she said. “I do try to keep my life as natural as possible. I eat well, try not to use too many chemicals at home. This made sense to me.”

Lavasani and her husband scoured the internet for tutorials on how to grow the fungus at home. They dedicated the top shelf of their bedroom closet to the experiment and waded through trial and error before the mushrooms blossomed.

At first, Lavasani, who had never used psychedelics, took only tiny doses, or microdoses, of the fungi. She said it was like “waking up after a great night’s sleep.”

As Lavasani became more comfortable with mushrooms, she decided to experiment with ayahuasca, a psychoactive tea often ingested during shamanic rituals. She attended a few guided ceremonies and returned home with a new perspective.

“Our health care system doesn’t have solutions for mental health issues,” she said. “I think people are fed up with being prescribed medications that don’t work.”

Therapeutic hallucinogens have been studied in the U.S. since the discovery of LSD’s effects in the 1940s. But research stalled when psychedelics became illegal in the 1960s. Interest renewed in the last 20 years as institutions around the world, including Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, received regulatory approval to kickstart research in the field.

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