In the summer of 2007, a 28-year-old French tourist was found in his van along the banks of one of Amsterdam’s scenic canals, naked, covered in his own blood, and the blood of his dog, which he had disemboweled with a knife and scissors, telling police he needed to liberate its spirit. He also told them that he had taken magic mushrooms, which could be legally purchased in the Netherlands at the time.
While it was not the first incident of alleged shroom-related violence in the Netherlands—that same month, a tripped-out Danish tourist drove his car through a campsite, while a 19 year-old Icelander pitched himself out a window and broke both of his legs—it was certainly the most sensational. By December 2008, the Dutch government had banned the sale of mushrooms containing psilocybin, the active hallucinogenic ingredient allegedly animating these headline-grabbing freak-outs. Many locals are still annoyed that tourists ruined it for the rest of them.
Cut to 2020, and a coterie of well-connected Canadians—including veteran radio jock Todd Shapiro, comedian Russell Peters, former cannabis CEO Bruce Linton, condo development tycoon Brad Lamb, and former federal health minister Tony Clement—are angling to, in the techie-entrepreneur jargon, “disrupt” this Dutch psychedelics scene by squeezing in through a legal loophole. The 2008 ban only pertained to psilocybin-contained mushrooms, fungi that germinate above the soil. This left psychedelic truffles, nutty gnarls of fungus that sprout underground, and which are thus not technically mushrooms, perfectly legal. And so, “magic truffles” (which produce milder, less intense trips) effectively replaced shrooms in Dutch “smart shops,” where psychedelics and psychedelic paraphernalia are still sold.
The Canadian company, Red Light Holland, is aiming to capitalize on the current trend of “microdosing” (taking small, sub-perceptual doses of psilocybin on a regular basis, while avoiding the full-blown hallucinatory trips) with tiny, single-gram magic truffles. “We’re presenting it differently for people,” says CEO Shapiro, over the phone from a patio in Amsterdam, where the product recently launched, “It’s very different from a tripped-out experience that you do once a year with a couple buds.”
Red Light’s approach to the ongoing “shroom boom,” which has seen legal exemptions for psilocybin usage and an expanded therapeutic and pharmacological psychedelic landscape across a number of countries, is certainly different, and for a few reasons. First off, most of the existent clinical literature touting the benefits of psilocybin in treating everything from anxiety to eating disorders, deals with high-doses of the drug, which facilitate a full-blown, hallucinogenic experience. Microdosing, while producing plenty in the way of positive anecdotal testimony speaking to the practice’s ability to boost energy and focus, has resulted in little in the way of science supporting such claims. (A recent study from McGill University demonstrated the extent to which some people can experience psychedelic-like effects despite being administered placebos.) Selling microdoses in Amsterdam—whose truffle market relies heavily on tourists wilding out on a lost weekend—also seems a bit odd. After all: it’s not like a tourist is likely to roll through town, take a few daily microdoses, and zero in on finishing some work assignment. But Shapiro insists, despite the company name being Red Light Holland, he’s not targeting tourists looking for a fun (or weird) time, but a broader local demographic, “of young professionals, CEO-types, creative arts communities,” who are curious about microdosing. (Of course, if you did want to facilitate a full-blown psychedelic experience, you could just conceivably gobble a whole bunch of microdoses.)
Red Light’s actual product, which is called “iMicrodose” and contains 15 single-use doses to a package, seems to occupy its own fuzzy grey area. It is technically a recreational drug, albeit one vaguely framed around notions of “wellness” or “awareness”—with a website listing “whole fungi medicine” as a core business skew, marketed with a logo that sees a human brain sprouting, shroom-like—despite the dearth of scientific evidence backing any specific health claims. The plan for the company’s Amsterdam launch party was to have Russell Peters, Red Light’s Chief Creative Officer and celebrity spokesperson, take some truffles and report on the effects. “I’ve never used or even microdosed,” Peters said in an email statement to VICE News. “It’s been presented to me in the past. Heck, even Dave Chappelle asked me to come hang with him and John Mayer and do some ‘shrooms!…But COVID restrictions are keeping me locked up in America.” Despite having never tried them, Peters could be for small doses of shrooms what Snoop Dogg, Tommy Chong, or Seth Rogen have become for cannabis—a household-name brand ambassador.
Red Light’s “rec-first” advance, in which recreational uses are conceived as a way of opening up the market, flies in the face of the more common approach by many of its competitors, which view health-related usages and exemptions as the way to crack open the door to widespread decriminalization. Trevor Millar, current chair of the board of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Canada, says that focussing on medicalization is often the best route towards shifting the legal landscape. “From there,” he said, “the tides turn to opening it up to recreational.” This is what happened with cannabis in Canada and many U.S. states, and what is already happening with psilocybin. “Canada didn’t want cannabis,” says Bruce Linton, a veteran of Big Pot now serving as chairman of Red Light’s Advisory Board. “They had a court challenge. And the court challenge has already happened for shrooms.”
As Linton puts it plainly, Red Light is, “monetizing markets that exist, and preparing data for when markets are ready to be pried open.” This, ultimately, is the long-term play for Red Light: establishing themselves in regions where recreational use is legal, increasing shareholder value (the company is publicly traded on the Canadian Securities Exchange), and building a brand that can be exported to other markets where psilocybin is either legal (like Brazil and Jamaica) or where legality seems inevitable (like, some conjecture, Canada). “Setting up the infrastructure like that is a wise move,” says MAPS Canada’s Trevor Millar. “As things become less regulated, more people will have access to them.”
While the availability of a daily microdose supplement may be a ways off on this continent, Red Light offers an interesting model. Not only for how to tap into existing markets, but in how new markets will be activated in part by finding new faces—comedians with little in the way of connection to the existing psychedelic subculture, big-name realtors, etc.—and new aesthetic frameworks. The branding is modern and subtle, deliberately avoiding the pinwheeling mandalas and marching teddy bears more commonly associated with the further-out reaches of psychedelia. The package itself looks like it could contain a smartphone, or a set of pricey Bluetooth earbuds. And, let’s face it, “truffle” just sounds classier than “shroom”: conjuring up images of white table-clothed restaurants in place of pot-stinky dorm rooms.
It’s a branding play that seems to fit with the changing face of psychedelics, which seems to deliberately distance these drugs from their history as mind-expanding party drugs, central to whole scenes and subcultures. For Linton, who says he once took a heroic dose of mushrooms and witnessed a nightmarish vision of blue jay heads nested inside a bucket of KFC, even the word psychedelic raises alarms. “I call them ‘neuromedicines,’” he says. “‘Psychedelics’ is like carrying around a giant goddamn suitcase of bias.”
As to the matter of Canadians gaining legal access to products like iMicrodose, whether to use as “neuromedicines" supporting daily awareness or to facilitate a more traditional psychedelic experience, Red Light Holland’s brass seems optimistic.
“I’m not sure this is a 20-year journey,” Linton speculates. “It could be three.”
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