“Magic mushrooms saved my crew this summer, when everything was shut and the sun was shining,” says Ada, 31, a website developer from Walthamstow, London. “On weekends we’d go to our local ponds and hire a rowing boat. Or we’d cycle round Epping Forest, then head back to my friend’s garden where we’d laugh and talk for hours.”
This scene may sound like an extremely millennial version of The Famous Five, but it was replicated across the country this year as psilocybin – AKA magic mushrooms – defied coronavirus and became the drug du jour for many drug users and consciousness seekers in the UK. In 2019, government statistics found that number of young people using the psychedelic fungi rose to a 12-year-high (101,000 or 1.6 percent) while this year, use of mushrooms between 16 and 59 year olds remained at around 0.5 percent (or 169,000 users).
So, how did mushrooms start a quiet revolution in such an objectively terrible year?
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You could say that the starting gun for its reentry into our collective psyche was fired by new research from the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, and the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London. Over the past few years, the substance has been used to positively treat depression, death anxiety in cancer patients and smoking addiction. These studies inherit the baton from a phalanx of psychedelic research that begun in the 50s and was halted by the so-called war on drugs from 1971.
Over in North America, this new research has helped underpin recent progressive legislation: legal use for depressed and end-of-life patients in Canada; legalisation in Oregon; decriminalisation in Washington DC, Oakland, Ann Arbour and Santa Cruz.
The UK is still in the ice age, drugs legislation-wise, but that hasn’t stopped us from warming ourselves on recent media coverage of the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of psilocybin in every publication from The Daily Mail to GQ, as well as Netflix shows like The Goop Lab, in which Gwyneth Paltrow packed some underlings off to a Jamaican psilocybin retreat. In 2020, the warming reached fever pitch. In a year in which the number of adults reporting depressive symptoms doubled to 19.2 percent, mushrooms offered a chance to heal, soothe or maybe even save ourselves.
“When I used magic mushrooms… everything felt in HD, including my feelings,” says Lucy, 33, from Brighton, who took them for the first time outdoors in May. “They allow us to see the shame, the fear, the guilt, the trauma – the stuff we suppress and are programmed to suppress.” Over lockdown, a newly-sober Lucy stopped her PR work and started a business focused on female empowerment. Did mushrooms assist this transformation? “They have definitely been a tool in my journey: they unlocked something that was blocked because of my fear,” she says.
For Ada, using them on those sepia-tinted lockdown summer days in Epping Forest often left her anxiety-free afterwards – it became the perfect balm for such anxious times. “If anything, I felt a sense of relief the next day. Any anxiety seemed melted away. It was almost like a serotonin boost,” she says. This is especially prevalent when compared to other drugs: “I take cocaine when I’m out sometimes but I often look back and regret doing it. I love mushrooms at the time and never look back with regret. It’s definitely type-one fun.”
At the start of lockdown, with a population riven by boredom and global anxiety regarding death, work and illegal raves, it was alcohol use which most notably increased: 55.7 percent of respondents to an interim Global Drug Survey in June said that they were drinking more than before.
Carly Jane Myer, founder of the female-led PlantEd Collective, which advocates the use of natural therapies including psilocybin, thinks that this alcohol use was followed by a period of introspection. Carly says they experienced an approximate 40 percent increase in messages during lockdown.
“We were witness to a massive increase in alcohol consumption,” explains Carly. “PlantEd Collective saw a huge increase in people seeking information about therapeutic doses of psilocybin. There seemed to be a turning point where people stopped numbing themselves emotionally and chose instead to look in the mirror. I suspect that lockdown caused some confrontations for people used to distracting themselves from looking inward.”
Rhian, a holistic therapist who sells cannabis and psilocybin-based products to assist people with their wellbeing, also thinks psilocybin use went up this year because people were taking a closer look at their lives and minds. “There was increased demand in lockdown, but I think it is because we are having an awakening in healing consciousness. I feel the pandemic is part of that – even though many people have obviously suffered.”
One of the great benefits of magic mushrooms is that anyone can make their own fungi babies. While unlawful to purchase a grow-kit already inoculated with psilocybin, it’s perfectly legal to buy a grow-kit and some separate magic mushrooms spores – the latter sold strictly for research purposes or “microscopic study”. It costs around the same as a bag of pub grub cocaine, and you can be king and queen of your own thriving mycelium mountain within a month to six weeks.
VICE spoke to Stan*, the owner of a website selling grow-kits and magic mushroom spores. He reported an approximate 60 percent increase in business compared to last year. “We noticed a really big spike in August, then it’s been about 20 percent month-on-month since then,” he tells us.
Is it possible that a factor for people growing their own is a boredom-accelerated interest in slow hobbies? Similar in spirit, perhaps, to all those lads who got bang into baking bread in April and treated their sourdough starter with a reverence they wouldn’t summon for their own mother.
“It’s really fascinating watching everything come to life, day-by day as the mycelium expands,” says Stan. “Mushrooms are really cool, everything else aside, and it’s one of those hobbies that gets kind-of addictive.”
These days, hobbyists and first-time trippers alike can find any number of burgeoning communities online. In a VICE article published in October 2019, Facebook’s The Shroomery and Reddit’s r/shrooms had 119,999 and 152,000 followers respectively. At the time of writing – late November 2020 – these numbers have swelled to 175,000 and 280,000.
It helps that mushrooms are becoming remarkably easy to buy online. There’s obviously the darknet, but far simpler are online shops in Holland, where psychedelic truffles remain legal, stores from Denver and its flourishing mushroom industry, or from social media, where 24 percent of young people reportedly saw drugs for sale, according to a 2019 report by drugs think tank Volteface. VICE followed a few Instagram accounts with “mushroom” in their name and swiftly received an offer in our DMs.
While this roving marketplace may please Paul Stamets acolytes and a new wave of corporate psychedelic manufacturers, it might also prick the ears of harm reductionists. While mushrooms are physically safe compared to other drugs, they can provoke negative psychological reactions for people who are trying to address a serious mental issue.
In 2019, David Nutt, former chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, told VICE: “If using a significant trip for therapy, users need to have some knowledge of the dose they are taking and must always have someone close who doesn't use. But I don’t recommend this form of self-medication. However, lower doses – for example, microdosing – is probably safe and might help keep depression at bay. There is no good data, though."
Nevertheless, with research into psilocybin deepening by the day and mainstream acceptance no longer a fleeting whimsy, it seems likely that the human and mycelium worlds will become more tightly intertwined over the coming decades, with the annus horribilis of 2020 perhaps giving us this one blessed thing.
“Mushrooms give you space to think. You can be curious about your thoughts,” says Ada, who tells me she’s planning to leave London for a quieter life now she can work remotely. “Lockdown has given us a lot of time – to explore our minds and assess our lives. Days of nothing which can be filled with… this.”
*Some names have been changed