How will Denver change if it decriminalizes magic mushrooms?
Psilocybin doesn't just make you trip; it can have lasting effects on how you see the world.
- In May, Denver will vote on whether or not to decriminalize magic mushrooms.
- In addition to their ability to combat depression and anxiety, magic mushrooms can also affect people's perspective, including their political positions.
- If Denverites begin to use more magic mushrooms, how will this change their community?
The Mile-High City might be about to get a bit higher. In May, the citizens of Denver, Colorado, will vote on whether or not to decriminalize magic mushrooms, the colloquial name given to a group of mushroom species that contain the psychoactive compound psilocybin.
In the US, psilocybin is classified as a Schedule I drug, taking a place alongside heroin and ecstasy, ostensibly as one of the most dangerous drugs around. However, this classification doesn't seem to jibe with the scientific consensus on magic mushrooms.
Drugs get placed in different schedules according to their potential for abuse, whether they have any medical applications, and the drug's safety and addictiveness. Magic mushrooms were scheduled in the early 1970s, and the dearth of research at the time resulted in their misclassification. Instead, modern assessments suggest that magic mushrooms should be Schedule IV drugs, alongside Ambien, Ativan, and Xanax.
Psilocybin is typically not abused and is not addictive (in fact, some research has shown it to reduce addiction to other drugs). Furthermore, it does indeed have some medical purposes. Research has shown that its impact on depression, anxiety, and other psychological conditions is profound.
But Denverites aren't talking about legalizing magic mushrooms purely for their medicinal properties; rather, they will be voting on whether or not to decriminalize the drug. First, decriminalization does not mean legalization—buying and selling the drug will still be illegal, but using and possessing it will simply not be prosecuted. Since this means the infrastructure to support its medical use won't exist, we can assume that more Denverites will be using the drug recreationally.
If decriminalization and eventual legalization go ahead in Denver, what will this mean? Well, in addition to hallucinations, a distortion of time, and a sense of connectedness to the universe, magic mushrooms also have some more interesting long-term effects. First, some studies show that psilocybin usage can make people experience greater personal meaning, spiritual significance, and life satisfaction even six months after their initial dose.
Flickr user kooikkari
So, let's assume that magic mushroom usage increases as a result of decriminalization. Visitors to the Mile-High City might expect to see young adults in sunglasses having difficulty navigating a staircase or staring blankly up into the trees. Instead, they might see happier, friendlier, more satisfied people.
What's even more interesting is how magic mushrooms affect one's world view. It's a stereotype to imagine magic mushroom users as tree-hugging hippies; as it turns out, magic mushrooms actually make people more invested in nature and more anti-authoritarian over the long term. While right-wing politics are more often associated with authoritarianism in American politics, it's important to remember that authoritarian tendencies can show up in both right-wing and left-wing politics. But regardless of the dominant political party in Colorado, authoritarians might find that their biggest critics are those who use psychedelic mushrooms.
In today's political climate, a broader acceptance of magic mushroom usage may encourage more activism and political engagement. In a state like Colorado, famous for its natural beauty, sweeping environmental deregulation may sit poorly with any Denverites who've suddenly developed an appreciation for nature from taking psilocybin. Aspects of American politics, too, have become increasingly authoritarian for decades now—perhaps the citizens of Denver will also become more inclined to combat that tendency.
The unfortunate truth is that there is simply not enough research out there on the effects of magic mushrooms. It's always difficult to research illegal drugs, and what research has been done has focused on psilocybin's medicinal benefits. This is important, to be sure, but few studies have focused on how psilocybin's activity in a social sense, which is strange considering that the drug has predominantly played a social role throughout humanity's thousands of years using magic mushrooms. Now is a good time to start paying attention to Denver; if the drug is decriminalized and later legalized, how will it affect Denver as a whole?
Gerald Heard on the value of psychedelics
"To do this in two minutes, eternity in an hour; it's almost impossible of course, as all the patients say, to describe it. You can only say, 'It isn't, it isn't, it isn't,' trying to tell people what it is.
Well, of course, I don't know any of our friends that have taken it but haven't said this one thing in common: 'Well. I never knew anything like that in the whole of my life.' And one or two people have said to me, and I've said it to myself, 'That's what death is going to be like; and oh what fun it will be...' There are the colors and the beauties, the designs, the beautiful way things appear; people themselves, dull people – that I thought dull – appeared fascinating, interesting, mysterious – wonderful. But that's only the beginning.
A man was saying it this afternoon, who was taking it: Suddenly you notice that there aren't these separations, that we're not on a separate island shouting across to somebody else and trying to hear what they're saying and misunderstanding. You know. You used the word yourself: empathy. These things flowing underneath. We're parts of a single continent, that meets underneath the waters. And with that goes such delight. The sober certainty of waking bliss." – Gerald Heard
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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
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