Researchers at Johns Hopkins University think it’s time to change the drug classification of magic mushrooms from a dangerous narcotic with no medical value, to a possible breakthrough treatment for depression.
Since 1970, authorities have considered psilocybin a Schedule I narcotic, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical use. According to the researchers—who’ve conducted myriad studies on the mushrooms—neither assertion is true.
In an article to be published in October’s issue of Neuropharmacology, four researchers—Matthew Johnson, Roland Griffiths, Peter Hendricks, and Jack Henningfield—make the case that it's time for the United States Food and Drug Administration to consider moving magic mushrooms from Schedule I to Schedule IV—meaning its a substance with low potential for abuse and few risks of dependence. If the classification changes, doctors could prescribe magic mushrooms in certain circumstances.
Researchers have been using psilocybin to successfully treat both depression and addiction in clinical trials over the past few years. In a 2016 study, the same team of Johns Hopkins University researchers administered magic mushrooms to terminal cancer patients with the goal of alleviating their end-of-life anxiety and depression.
“Studies showed that psilocybin caused significantly and clinically significant reductions in symptoms of depression and anxiety lasting at least six months after psilocybin administration,” the newly published study explained.
The 24-page paper synthesized the different research into psilocybin to give the FDA the information it would need to determine whether or not psilocybin should be rescheduled. To determine a drug’s class, authorities consider eight different factors including actual or relative potential for abuse, risk to public health, and psychic or physiological dependence liability.
The relative safety of magic mushrooms, when compared to other drugs, is incredibly high. Psilocybin comes in last place when you rank drugs in terms of their harm to the individual or society at large. “Even if you throw in alcohol or tobacco into the mix,” Johnson, a doctor of behavioral science at Johns Hopkins University, told me over the phone.
He also explained that the abuse potential for psilocybin is low. “No one is jonesing for their next [dose of] psilocybin,” he said. That doesn’t mean magic mushrooms have no abuse potential. People have taken magic mushrooms recreationally for decades and they aren’t going to stop now, but unlike cocaine or heroin, psilocybin isn’t a substance most drug users want to spend their evenings and weekends with.
“Potential harms include dangerous behavior in unprepared, unsupervised users, and exacerbation of mental illness in those with or predisposed to psychotic disorders,” the study said. “However, scope of use and associated harms are low compared to prototypical abused drugs.”
Johnson pointed to scare stories from the 1960s about people getting high on hallucinogens and falling from roofs because they think they can fly, but said those cases are rare. “Far more more people have fallen from heights on alcohol… Nonetheless, people have these accidents.”
Researchers have had success using medicinal magic mushrooms in controlled settings, where the dose is regulated and administered by a trained clinician, a psychologist or trained therapist guides the recipient through the experience, and there’s very specific goals for the therapy.
In the case of the cancer patients, terminal patients experienced guided trips with the goal of helping them confront and overcome their fear of death. A weekend trip while camping in the woods this is not.
The study is also one step in a long process. Depressed and anxious people won’t be able to walk into a clinic and experience a healing drug trip for years, or possibly decades, if at all. Johnson said reclassification could take “three to 10 years." Studies, which haven't been done yet or that are just beginning, would need to be completed and the results would need to look favorable and consistent.
Even then the path towards reclassification isn’t easy or certain. “Removal from Schedule 1 can only occur if a medicinal product containing a Schedule 1 substance is approved for therapeutic use as a drug by the FDA,” the study explained—meaning that a third party needs to manufacture psilocybin for a medical use, submit that product to the FDA, and lobby for its reclassification.
That may seem like a tall order, but Johnson is hopeful. “This is cutting edge science [and] the results are very promising on a number of disorders,” he said. While no large pharmaceutical companies are asking Johns Hopkins about magic mushrooms, some non-profits are, including the Usona Institute in Wisconsin. Usona or another group could submit a simple psilocybin pill to the FDA for approval as a treatment for depression, triggering a review of its classification. If and when that happens, Usona can draw on this study.
Correction: A previous version of this story included a photo that featured the wrong kind of mushrooms.
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