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Everything You Need to Know About Magic Mushrooms

The definitive VICE guide to what magic mushrooms are, where they came from, and how best to prepare for a psychedelic experience.
You want to learn. The VICE Guide can teach you.

Like the endless mycelial networks that thread through our planet’s ecosystems, magic mushrooms are now thoroughly entangled in 21st century culture.  Shrooms—defined by their main psychedelic compound, psilocybin—are the new weed, and the act of taking consistent, sub-perceptible doses of them (microdosing) is now a common way to dip your toes in psychedelic waters. Meanwhile, the benefits of embarking on a full-dose mushroom journey is fast becoming a hot topic among therapists, researchers, and laymen alike, as anecdotal and scientific evidence increasingly suggest that psilocybin can do wonders for depression, anxiety, and trauma.


Indeed, as a journalist and the co-founder of psychedelic magazine DoubleBlind, I've been reporting on psilocybin for over half a decade, and experimented with my own first hand experiences for even longer. I've interviewed scientists, researchers, therapists, policy wonks, attorneys, and shamans about the history of magic mushrooms, how to use them safely, and what the potential benefits and risks are. 

So, as we step further into a future in which psilocybin gummies will most probably become a normal fixture on the shelves of health food stores, we decided to create a definitive guide to what magic mushrooms are, how they affect us and the best way to prepare for a mystical psychedelic experience.  

What are magic mushrooms? 

There are thousands of fungi varieties out there—poisonous and precious, medicinal and magical. Those that feature psychedelic properties are often called magic mushrooms or shrooms, and usually contain the psychedelic substance psilocybin. There are more than 180 types of magic mushrooms, and at least 60 of those are within the Psilocybe genus. Other types of psychedelic fungi include Panaeolus and Claviceps (e.g. Ergot, the type of fungi from which LSD is synthesized—but that's another story). Every variety varies in potency and effect; a gram of one might result in a very different trip as the same amount of another. 


Where did they come from? 

Magic mushrooms came to be used sacramentally and medicinally among cultures around the world, from Central America to Siberia, for centuries if not millenia. The Nahuatl language used by the Aztecs referred to these mushrooms as teonanacatl, meaning "flesh of the gods." 

As far as modern history goes, the Oaxacan curandera (or medicine woman) Maria Sabina is credited with introducing magic mushrooms to the West, although this was not her intention. In 1955, she allowed the amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson to take part in a sacred healing ceremony, which he then wrote about in a seminal article for TIME magazine, thus triggering a wave of pilgrimages from scientists, philosophers and pleasure seekers in search of similar experiences. Recent academia on this topic has attached a damaging legacy to this moment: “From an Indigenous perspective, psilocybin research and drug development tells a story of extraction, cultural appropriation, bioprospecting, and colonization,” read one research paper.

By 1971, the burgeoning field of psychedelic research in the US was deemed to have gone too far. President Richard Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’ included the outlawing of psilocybin by placing it on Schedule 1 of the  United States Controlled Substances Act, alongside heroin, weed, and LSD. Only in the past decade has research been resurrected. Psilocybin is now being used in research at institutions like Johns Hopkins and NYU, where scientists are looking at its efficacy in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for treating conditions like depression, end-of-life anxiety (among terminally ill patients), eating disorders, addiction, and more. Meanwhile, jurisdictions around the country (such as Denver, Oakland, and other localities with successful "Decriminalize Nature" campaigns) have begun to decriminalize psilocybin.


How do you actually take magic mushrooms?

A standard dose of psilocybin is about 3.5 grams, colloquially known as "an eighth" (of an ounce). That said, it's possible to feel the psychoactive effects of psilocybin with as little as half a gram. A standard microdose—intended to be just sub-perceptible—is about a quarter gram, while a standard macrodose—better known as a "heroic dose"—begins at about five grams. Some beginners like to start with something between a microdose and a gram to get a feel for the psychedelic experience, while others choose to go straight in with a heroic dose in order to truly understand what it means to trip.

Do you just eat them?

Psilocybin can be ingested in various ways, but essentially: yes. If you're talking about organic material—that is, dried mushrooms—one might typically eat them whole or grind them up and brew them into a tea. Some people swear by soaking them in lemon juice to increase their potency (known as “lemon tekking”), but there’s little scientific proof for this method. If you're intending to make microdosable pills, then the mushrooms can be ground into powder and put into capsules. There’s also plenty of boutique shroom companies crafting them into artisan chocolates, gummies, and other types of edibles. 


What about all this ‘set and setting’ stuff?

Set and setting refers to a person's mental/emotional state going into a trip, as well as the context and environment surrounding it. There's no "right way" to do shrooms, but there are best practices. You can do them recreationally at a concert or camping trip, ceremonially in a spiritual setting, or in a more clinical way, usually lying on your back the whole time with eye shades, headphones (with curated music for the experience), and someone on hand who isn’t tripping. 

If you're new to magic mushrooms, then a guide or ‘trip-sitter’ (whether that be a professional underground therapist or a close and trusted friend) is a great idea. That way, if you get to a challenging point in the trip, they can help you re-ground, remind you to breathe, and reassure you that everything is okay. It's also helpful to set an intention: Is there something about yourself you wish to learn, or a dilemma you need new perspective on? Don't expect full healing from one mushroom trip, but know that it can teach you things to integrate into your daily life that may help you grow and change habits.

A note of caution: If you struggle with mental unwellness (or if schizophrenia in particular runs in your family) then consider consulting a therapist before you trip. Psychedelics can trigger or exacerbate mental health problems, especially for early 20-somethings in whom certain psychiatric conditions may have yet to surface. 


How long will the trip last and what will happen?

A typical mushroom trip can last between four to eight hours, depending on the person's tolerance, size, metabolism, form of consumption, and the set and setting. It'll take about 45 minutes for the effects to begin, and the peak usually comes around two to three hours into the trip. 

What’ll happen? Every trip is radically different. During the experience, you may feel a range of emotions, in waves or even all at once. Tripping can be blissful or terrifying, euphoric or paranoid, energetic or calm. I can recall a single trip where I experienced all of the above at different points over the course of six hours. The important part to remember—through the highs and lows—is that you took "a drug" and its effects will wear off. So if it's unpleasant then don’t worry, it will not last forever.

Visual and auditory hallucinations are normal, so don't freak out if you start seeing colorful patterns or hearing echoes. It's also possible to feel a variety of bodily sensations (heaviness, lightness, tingling, and especially nausea at the beginning of the trip). Some even undergo what's known as "ego death"—a process whereby activity is diminished in the brain's default mode network. During this, you might feel an incredible sense of empathy, and a deep connection to nature or the universe. Once again, I’ll stress the value of a guide to trip-sitter here, as ego death can sometimes feel incredibly disorienting and alarming.


The most key thing during a trip is to overcome your fear, surrender to the experience, and welcome whatever comes up as an opportunity to grow, learn, and heal. Some guides describe this as "staying behind the medicine"; in other words, don't try to control the experience and let the shrooms take you where they may.

Are magic mushrooms addictive?

Let’s quash this: No. "It's not compulsory like with weed or alcohol," says mushroom expert Michelle Janikian, author of Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion. "Especially in a big dose, you don't crave it. The last thing you want to do is go into another big experience like that." In fact, as Janikian points out, there are even pro-psychedelic recovery groups for people who want to use mushrooms to ween off addictive substances, from adderall to cigarettes, and everything in between.

And finally, can you go and pick your own magic mushrooms in the wild?

Yes, but with extreme caution. It’s really easy to mistake other poisonous mushrooms for the ones you’re after—so, if you’re a novice, you might want to consult with an expert before you consume anything you find in the wild. That said, magic mushrooms grow all over the world, and usually appear during wet seasons. Refer here for more info on foraging.