Drugs

How the UK Fell Back in Love with Magic Mushrooms

The rate of shroom use has doubled among young people, to a 12-year high. What prompted the return of the old fashioned trip?
15 October 2019, 12:26pm
magic mushrooms glastonbury
Photo: Edd Westmacott / Alamy Stock Photo

As you'll know if you have any friends who believe they can communicate with oak trees, we're in the midst of magic mushroom season. Right now, in Britain's fields and forests, rainbow-fingered enthusiasts are pulling on their cagoules and stocking up for the year on shrooms, in their highest numbers for over a decade.

Since peaks in the late-1990s and mid-2000s, we are now seeing the green shoots of magic mushroom revival. According to Home Office data, there's been a small but significant jump in the amount of young people who have used magic mushrooms in the previous year, from 49,000 in 2016/17 (0.8 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds) to 101,000 in 2018/19 (1.6 percent) – a 12-year high. And it's not just young people; over the last five years the Global Drugs Survey has tracked a growth in UK respondents using magic mushrooms, from 13.7 percent in 2014 to 19.3 percent in 2019.

Is this the beginnings of a plant-based psychedelic renaissance going on in Britain's parks, house parties and festivals? If so, what's going on? Why – when it seemed that magic mushrooms would forever be the preserve of old crusties – are young people getting into the psychedelic fungi?

Maybe we're being influenced by drug reform in the States, where it has felt like a transformative year for magic mushrooms, with the decriminalisation of psilocybin in Denver and Oakland, plus the announcement of a groundbreaking laboratory: the $17 million (£13.4 million) Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore to rival the UK's own Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London. Magic mushroom use, alongside the use of LSD, is also edging up across the Atlantic: the proportion of people who said they had ever used shrooms increased from 8.5 percent in 2016 to 9.2 percent in 2018, a rise in actual numbers of 22 million to 25 million.

Or maybe mushrooms are just easier to grab hold of than they have been over the last decade. They're in head shops, grow-your-own online shops (which circumvent the law by selling the mushroom kits and psilocybin spores separately) and on the dark net. You can take them in edibles or vapes, and you can meet like-minded people in online groups like The Shroomery (119,000 Facebook members) or r/shrooms (152,000 Reddit users).

Photo: VICE

The last time psilocybin mushrooms infiltrated mainstream UK culture was in the mid-2000s, after some enterprising stallholders in London unearthed a loophole making it legal to sell non-dried shrooms. Word spread like the proverbial mycelium and, by 2004, the NME had declared a "third summer of love" with its own signature, short-lived musical genre: "Shroomadelica" (founding members: The Coral, The Zutons, The Bees).

Mr Champignon – possibly not his real name – ran a mushroom delivery service in Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester before the Misuse of Drugs Act 2005 closed the loophole. "People were just doing them for a giggle," he says, recounting a story – ludicrous in hindsight – about a launch party held in a "naughty Liverpool boozer" where increasingly wavy guests played games including "Pass the Magic Mushroom Parcel" and "Who Wants to Be a Shroom Millionaire"? "It was just ridiculous fun – everyone was laughing and in such a good mood."

Underpinning this resurgence, some believe, are the scientists pushing a new era of medical research. "Psilocybin mushrooms never really went away," says Andy Letcher, author of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom. "People have been taking them since the 1970s. What's changing is the amazing research that's coming out of Britain and America."

Two studies published in the Journal of Pharmacology reported that around 80 percent of cancer patients experienced decreased depression and anxiety for at least six months following a psilocybin dose, while a 2017 study in Scientific Reports found psilocybin "produced rapid and sustained antidepressant effects" for participants suffering with depression.

"There may be wider sociocultural shifts in drug use preference happening as we move from a decade of stimulants to drugs that may be considered to have more altruistic, self-exploratory function than drugs like cocaine," says Adam Winstock, founder of The Global Drug Survey. On our timelines and newsfeeds, the case for mushrooms' status as drug du jour is being made by superstar patrons like Frank Ocean, Harry Styles and Kacey Musgraves, while microdosing – once confined to Stanford graduates in Silicon Valley – is in danger of becoming a wellness fad to rival CBD and IV drips.

I reached out to a number of the internet's neo-psychonauts to find out why they're using mushrooms. With society experiencing a mental health crisis and the global wellness economy valued by the Global Wellness Institute at $4.2 trillion in 2017, it's not surprising that a number of those canvassed said psilocybin's enduring effects on their mood was a contributing factor.

"They help me confront things I push away into the back of my head, and they make me think about my life and reflect in a healthy way," says Pippa, 21, who has taken mushrooms three or four times and buys from the dark net. "I think in low doses [they] contribute positively to my mental health."

Karen, 30, agrees: "I take them with friends every few months, partially for recreational use, but mainly because it leaves us with a long-lasting sense of wellbeing."

For some users it's more about purposeful self-medication when mainstream meds have failed them.

Lee, 30, picks his own mushrooms and takes a small capsule every three days to help with the depression that's affected him for six years. "I tried antidepressants and therapy – neither on their own have been anywhere near as effective," he says. "I notice a clarity and stillness to the world that doesn't exist when I haven't been dosing."

I ask what his therapist thinks about this new DIY approach to his health. "She didn't know about the benefits of microdosing and seemed a little dismissive, but didn't recommend that I stop and admitted that I've seemed brighter since."

Photo: Alex Segre / Alamy Stock Photo

Carly Jane-Barton, 33, is the co-founder of PlantEd Collective – a female-led team that, amongst other things, advocates the use of medicinal plants like psilocybin and cannabis. She had a stroke in her twenties that has left her with intractable neuropathic pain, and now takes 0.2g of powdered Golden Teachers mushroom once a week.

"I have replaced 28 pills a day, including fentanyl and oral morphine, with cannabis and psilocybin," she says, adding: "Psilocybin Sundays are how we like to begin our week."

Professor David Nutt is the former chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. I asked him how he viewed people – especially young people – self-medicating with either smaller or larger amounts of psilocybin for depression. He was circumspect.

"If using a significant trip for therapy, they need to have some knowledge of the dose they are taking and must always have someone close who doesn't use," he said. "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."

Michael Pollen's 2018 book How to Change Your Mind documents his own journey as a psychedelic novice, alongside an exhaustive history of LSD and psilocybin. Despite describing himself as "a fairly even-keeled psychologically sturdy person", he is driven by a question: "Just how thin is my sanity?"

This desire to peel back the plaster on our conscious minds was cited among those I canvassed. Harry, 35, takes psilocybin two or three times a year in a quasi-ceremonial setting – candles, no TV – with a focus on self-improvement: "I was getting older and becoming aware of my own failings. We should be trying to become a better person until we die – calmer, kinder, less ego-driven, less selfish, more thoughtful. The more I heard and read about mushrooms, the more I realised it could be a tool for that."

I was at university during mushrooms' last peak in popularity, and can confirm that neither wellness nor mental clarity were on our minds before wolfing a 10g pack of Philosopher's Stone truffles. We took mushrooms to laugh until we cried – and for the tears to feel like warm honey on our stupid faces. So: is anyone taking mushrooms for "fun" anymore?

Absolutely, according to Billy, a 33-year-old former music journalist and DJ: "I mainly take them when abroad," he says. "We buy them off the internet from Holland and get them sent to wherever we're staying. It's always a social thing, and they're funnier than standard party drugs like ecstasy, ketamine and coke. Also: there's very little comedown."

A promoter I spoke to reports seeing mushrooms used in clubs a lot more, with some ravers now using a mushroom spray: "You use a spray three or four times a night and it's the same as getting a cocktail," he laughs. "They're great in clubs. Drugs are changing and I think people are seeing mushrooms as premium products."

One thing is clear: however you like your mushrooms, in 2019, they're definitely back on the menu.

@dhillierwrites

*Names have been changed