“Magic mushrooms” are the source of psilocybin and other hallucinogens
Numerous species of mushrooms manufacture alkaloids with hallucinogenic properties. These fungi, which are sometimes called “magic mushrooms” or simply “shrooms,” include members of the genera Conocybe, Copelandia, Panaeolus, Psilocybe, and Stropharia, which are found in many places around the world. Depending on the species, users take 1 to 5 g of dried mushrooms to obtain the desired effects. The dried material may be eaten raw, boiled in water to make tea, or cooked with other foods to cover its bitter flavor.
The major ingredients of these mushrooms are psilocybin and the related compound psilocin. After ingestion, the psilocybin is enzymatically converted to psilocin, which is the actual psychoactive agent. A different species of mushroom, Amanita muscaria (fly agaric), produces a state of delirium that also includes hallucinations, but its primary active agents are muscimol and ibotenic acid.
The use of hallucinogenic mushrooms probably goes back at least as far historically as peyote use. There are two spectacular rock cave paintings in Algeria, dated at least to 3500 B.C., depicting people holding mushrooms in their hands and dancing. The more famous of the two paintings shows a single man (possibly a shaman ) with a beelike head and mushrooms sprout-ing from his entire body. In Mexico and Central America, the Aztec and Mayan civilizations developed religious rituals around the eating of psilocybin-containing mushrooms.
After defeating the Aztecs, the Spaniards soon learned of their use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, which they called teonanâcatl, meaning “flesh of the gods.” The conquerors brutally suppressed mushroom eating along with other aspects of the Aztec religion, but they were unable to completely wipe it out. Nevertheless, the existence of hallucinogenic mushrooms in the New World was largely ignored until 1938, when Richard Schultes of the Harvard Botanical Museum traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, and collected specimens of several different types of mushrooms being used in sacred rituals by the Mazatec people of that region.
The publication of Schultes’ findings ultimately led Gordon Wasson, a wealthy investment banker and amateur mycologist (someone who studies fungi), to visit Oaxaca in 1953 and again in 1955. During the second visit, Wasson and a photographer friend became the first known Westerners to participate in a Native American mushroom eating ritual, which was led by a Mazatec curandera, or shaman, named Maria Sabina. In a 1957 Life magazine article entitled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,”1′ Wasson describes his reaction as follows:
We lay down on the mat that had been spread for us, but no one had any wish to sleep except the children, to whom mushrooms are not served. We were never more wide awake, and the visions came whether our eyes were opened or closed. They emerged from the center of the field of vision, opening up as they came, now rushing, now slowly, at the pace that our will chose. They were in vivid color, always harmonious. They began with art motifs Then they evolved into palaces with courts, arcades, gardens….
Then I saw a mythological beast drawing a regal chariot.
Later it was as though the walls of our house had dissolved, and my spirit had flown forth, and I was suspended in midair viewing landscapes of mountains, with camel caravans advancing slowly across the slopes, the mountains rising tier above tier to the very heavens…. For the first time the word ecstasy took on real meaning. For the first time it did not mean someone else’s state of mind. (Wasson, 1957, pp. 102, 103,109)
Among those who read Wasson’s account was Timothy Leary, a young clinical psychologist pursuing a mainstream academic career. But after gaining a lectureship at Harvard in late 1959, Leary began to have reservations about his chosen career path. Then while vacationing in Mexico the following summer, Leary ate a handful of “magic mushrooms” and underwent the same kind of transforming experience reported by Huxley several years earlier with mescaline. Leary returned to work, where he founded the Harvard Psychedelic Drug Research Program. In his own words, the purpose of this program was “to teach individuals how to self-administer psychoactive drugs in order to free their psyches without reliance upon doctors or institutions” (Leary, 1984, p. 35).
Over the next few years, Leary and his colleague Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass) gave psilocybin to many graduate students and faculty members, as well as to notable artists, writers, and musicians. He also began experimenting with LSD, having taken the drug for the first time in 1962. Leary and Alpert’s work became increasingly controversial, and they were dismissed from Harvard in 1963, but they continued their activities privately and went on to become leaders of the psychedelic movement.
Other naturally occurring hallucinogens include DMT and 5-MeO-DMT
DMT and 5-MeO-DMT are found in a number of plants that are indigenous to South America. Native tribes in Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela make hallucinogenic snuffs from plants containing these compounds. From the Amazonian rain forest also comes a strong reddish-brown drink called ayahuasca, which is a Quechua Indian word meaning “vine of the soul.” This potent hallucinogenic brew requires at least two different kinds of plants, typically stalks from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine as well as leaves from Psychotria viridis and/or Diplopteris cabrerena.
Psychotria and Diplopteris provide DMT, whereas the vines contribute several alkaloids called (3-carbolines, which are known to inhibit the enzyme monoamine oxidase. It is interesting to note that DMT is usually devoid of psychoactivity when taken orally, but this is not the case when people drink ayahuasca. Some researchers have hypothesized that the (3-carbolines block DMT breakdown by monoamine oxidase, thereby permitting the substance to reach the brain and exert its hallucinogenic effects. Recreational users in this country occasionally brew their own homemade version of ayahuasca, but more typically DMT is sold in powdered form and taken by smoking.
Recently, two orally active synthetic DMT analogs have been gaining in popularity. These are a-methyltryptramine (AMT) and 5-methoxy-diisopropyltryptamine. The latter compound is known on the street as “Foxy Methoxy” or simply “Foxy.”