Toronto’s magic mushroom enthusiasts gathered Sunday in a bid to make Sept. 20 (9-20) a collective day of action, modelled on the marijuana community’s 4-20.
Organized by the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) and the 920 Coalition, the event featured several speakers who led a conversation about the potential therapeutic uses of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. About 60 people were in attendance.
Held at the Centre for Social Innovation, the gathering was informative but somewhat subdued, devoid of the colourful psychedelic imagery one might expect. There was pizza, but of a non-fungal variety.
Instead, presenters and attendees — men and women, mostly young but some older, mostly white but not entirely — sought to debunk misconceptions about ‘shrooms.
Martin Zack, a scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) who also teaches the course “Drugs and Human Behaviour” at Ryerson, cautions that if people try to self-medicate with psilocybin or other psychedelics, it could result in a worsening of symptoms or “induce or promote anxiety-like symptoms in individuals who are healthy.”
“No one can be said to be immune to the potential negative effects of these drugs,” Zack said.
“Although scientists and clinicians see the potential benefits of these agents, no scientist or clinician is advocating their use. To do so would be irresponsible.”
Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann, who accidentally discovered LSD in 1943, was first person to name the mushroom compounds psilocybin and psilocin. Prior to the 1960s, psychedelic drugs were used to treat psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia; even Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson believed LSD could be used to cure alcoholism.
There are various theories as to why Canada and the United States suddenly cracked down on psychedelics in the 1960s, with lawmakers criminalizing LSD and psilocybin.
Zack believes that “unbridled enthusiasm and rash statements by advocates of hallucinogenic drugs” brought about a backlash from lawmakers.
Zoe Cormier, an author and journalist who spoke at the 9-20 event, blames counterculture figure Timothy Leary, saying he “got too excited and started grandstanding … in a manner that was irresponsible.” President Richard Nixon subsequently declared Leary “the most dangerous man in America.”
The end result was that the crackdown “made it impossible for researchers,” Cormier said.
But now, 50 years later, we are in the midst of what Cormier calls “the psychedelic renaissance.”
Teri Krebs, a scientist and co-founder of a Norway-based group advocating for increased access to quality-controlled psychedelics, spoke about what some say is a recent comeback for magic mushrooms.
“Today, prejudices from 50 years ago have faded away,” Krebs said. Mainstream and even conservative publications in the U.S., like CNN or the National Review, are reporting on the possible benefits of psychedelic drugs.
Psilocybin has a very low impact on public health, Krebs explained, and the risk of death is extremely low.
“So what is the problem here?” Krebs asked.
Associate professor Todd A. Girard, who teaches courses in psychopharmacology at Ryerson, acknowledges that mushrooms and other psychedelics “don’t have the same addictive properties as most drugs of abuse and also no identified overdose potential.”
Girard said he has read some studies that showed the long-term efficacy of an experience on psilocybin.
“My recall is that the experience was an existential one that altered for the better some of the participants’ outlook on life and for those cases it produced long-lasting (up to a year) effects such that their depression had not remitted.”
But, Girard said, the treatment didn’t work for everyone and there were “some methodological design issues with the study that raise caution not to over-interpret the findings.”
Girard emphasized that psychedelics are “highly potent chemicals for altering states of consciousness and cognitive processes, such that they can present one with potential for danger or adverse consequences while in the intoxicated state (tripping).”
“Thus, any therapeutic or spiritual use would be recommended to be highly structured with a sober guide to walk one through the existential experience.”
Evan P., who asked that his last name not be used, travelled to the 9-20 gathering from Kitchener, Ont.
A young musician with long hair and a friendly, easy demeanour, he uses mushrooms a few times a year to enhance his perception and experience of music.
He sees a divide between those who have tried mushrooms and those who haven’t.
“Really, what I would say to people is to analyze your own conditioning and think about your views about things, and if you have certain views about mushrooms, then why?”
Bethany Kowjhan, a master of immigration student at Ryerson, came to the event hoping to learn more about the therapeutic research behind psilocybins.
She believes that, if done in the right setting, mushrooms “can have the effect of giving clarity.”
“These aren’t the harmful, negative drugs that are impacting society,” Kowjhan said. “If people want to explore their consciousness, that’s our human right.”
Kiah is a Master of Journalism student at Ryerson. She has worked as a reporter at the Saudi Press Agency and recently interned at the CBC. She is particularly passionate about long-form journalism.