I Tried to Quit Smoking with Magic Mushrooms—and It Worked
A recent study concluded that giving up smoking with the help of psilocybin has an 80 percent success rate. Conveniently, "Stoptober" and mushroom-picking season perfectly intersect, so I thought I'd give it a go.
A golfer shakes his iron angrily in the air as we plough our buggy through the middle of his game. Dr. Brande*, an international expert in the field of hallucinogenic mushrooms, cackles beside me. This has become a race against metabolism: return the vehicle before the drugs kick in.
They have undeniably begun to kick in.
We have not, as you might have guessed, come to this north London golf course to admire its famously majestic thirteenth hole. Rather, we are testing an experimental cure for one of mankind's greatest curses: cigarettes.
I've tried everything: patches, gum, inhalers, faith healers; none of it seems to work. So when "Stoptober," that UK government-mandated holiday season for the lungs, rolls around, I greet it with a leathery wheeze of resentment. Surely there must be a better way?
According to Johns Hopkins University, there is: magic mushrooms. Psychedelic mushrooms have, for fairly obvious reasons, attracted human interest for millennia. Seven-thousand-year-old Saharan cave paintings suggest ancient cults worshiped them; the Aztecs carried out healings with them; the Vikings made war with them; even Jesus, some claim, was actually just a magic mushroom in disguise.
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Now, thanks to science, our fungal friends can add the imminent destruction of the tobacco industry to their many great achievements. Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, has an 80 percent success rate in the treatment of cigarette addiction, according to research carried out by the university. To put that in context, nicotine replacement therapies—such as patches or gum—hit around 20 percent. And yet, somehow, one year after that research was published, these lifesaving little shrooms are strictly forbidden.
Lucky, then, that Stoptober and magic mushroom picking season perfectly intersect. According to Dr. Brande, within London, golf courses are the best bet.
"We're looking for psilocybe semilanceata, a small, beige-brown mushroom more commonly known as the liberty cap," he says, as we nose our way around the course. "You'll see the cap sticking out of the grass. That's its really defining feature: a steep domed cap with a nipple on top. The nipples are essential."
"Look, there's one!" says Dr. Brande. "Just peeping up above the grass!"
It's a seemingly harmless little thing, but handling these mushrooms can have terrible consequences. "As soon as you pick it," says Dr. Brande, "you are guilty of possession of a class A drug." If I were to give this tiny mushroom to Brande, I could face a maximum of 14 years in prison for supply. So I don't; I eat it instead.
The original study involved years of preparation. Carrying out human trials with Schedule I drugs—substances not recognized by the establishment as having any therapeutic value—is an extremely bothersome process. The subjects had to be prepped for months before being given their first dose.
According to Dr. Matthew Johnson, one of the chief researchers on the project, much of that work involved simply preparing patients for the intensity of the psilocybin trip. "One can have these glorious, sometimes mystical, certainly intriguing effects," Dr. Johnson told VICE, "but also people can have what is sometimes described as the most frightening experience of someone's life. [The preparation] goes over a laundry list of all the kinds of things that can happen, and that's a really long list."
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A bad trip, probably the most common danger when taking hallucinogenic drugs, is, he says, simply a matter of bad perspective.
"If your dead grandmother's crawling up your leg [during a bad trip]," says Johnson, "welcome your dead grandmother up your leg and ask her what she's there to tell you. Whether it's a monster or a dead grandmother, always take the orientation that this is something to learn from. Whether it's inviting or horribly frightening, always approach and learn."
Participants in the study were carefully handled. They had comfortable settings, considerate guides and trained psychologists and medics on hand in case it all went wrong. Instead, we're driving the wrong way around a north London golf course, harvesting mushrooms as we go.
One advantage we do have is the presence of Tom Fortes-Mayer, a Harley Street hypnotherapist who has agreed to act as guide and guardian throughout this process.
"Usually when people come to give up smoking they feel like they're losing a naughty but slightly charming and faithful friend," says Tom. "Our job in the ritual we are going to perform is to change that perspective. Really, smoking is the kind of friend who, when you're not looking, goes upstairs and abuses your daughter."
Telling someone who is coming up on mushrooms that they have a pedophile living inside them is an awful thing to do. But it's exactly this sort of thought process that makes psilocybin so effective in treating addiction.
The drug, says Dr. Johnson, helps patients see their lives in perspective. It is, for many, a "mystical experience."
"In these cases, it's striking that there's typically an overwhelming sense of unity," says Dr. Johnson. "A sense of feeling like you step out of time and space; a sense of paradoxicality; experiences of the ineffable; a noetic quality; a sense that somehow the experience is more real and valid than reality."
Psilocybin may very well be the wonder drug—plenty of new research suggests that it is—but it is truly terrible for driving. My feet are at the pedals but Dr. Brande's hands seem to have taken firm control of the wheel.
"I suggest we find somewhere quiet to perform the ritual," says Tom Fortes-Mayer.
What happens next is hard to describe. We lay down in a forest. The trees pulsate. With the hypnotherapist's guidance I travel deep, deep down into the ageless, genderless, timeless core of my consciousness and kick a few things around. I meet the part of my mind responsible for smoking and have a stern word. Other things occur, most of them too personal to relate.
When I emerge, a million years later, smoking is simply something other people do. The illusion is shattered; the urge has gone. I see someone with a cigarette and feel precisely nothing.
Over the week that follows I do all of the things that would normally have me reaching for cigarettes: leave the house, wait for a bus, do work, get drunk, go to parties, have arguments, drink coffee; in fact, thinking about it now, almost every major and minor event in my life was an occasion for a cigarette. Now that they're gone, I don't even miss them. It's now been a week and a half, and the cravings are still nonexistent.
The war on drugs has claimed millions of lives over the last half century. We know all about the victims of South American narco-states; the living death of the prison system; the friends who died because they didn't know what they were being sold. But what about those who could have been saved? Tobacco causes six million deaths per year. For a good portion of those, one tiny, highly illegal mushroom might contain the cure.
*At his request, Dr. Brande's identity has been protected. Dr. Matthew Johnson has also asked me to point out that Johns Hopkins University in no way condones the use of illegal drugs. And for that matter, neither does VICE. Don't eat mushrooms you find in a golf course, dummy.
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