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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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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