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.

mushrooms

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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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.