Can 9/20 Become the 4/20 of Magic Mushrooms?
Marijuana has for decades built something that magic mushrooms still lack: a good brand.
Photo by Max Rann
When Nicholas Reville first learned that universities around the world had begun researching the medical benefits of psilocybin—the psychedelic compound found in mushrooms—he saw it as an opportunity to create a movement. He'd seen the success of medical marijuana activists in making cannabis a household name, and he began to wonder what it would take for mushrooms to earn the same cultural clout. He knew instinctively that marijuana had for decades built something that mushrooms still lacked: a good brand.
"It's hard to look at a clock that says 4:20, and no matter how hard you don't want to think about 4/20, you're going to think about 4/20," Reville told VICE. "It's actually a pretty great brand—and it's a brand that reminds you of itself frequently."
If psychedelic fungi were ever going to be taken seriously by the general population—as they have been recently by some scientists—Reville realized they, too, needed their own designated holiday. The result is 9/20, an educational "day of action" that will be celebrated for the second year in a row in cities across the globe on September 20.
Unlike marijuana, which is legal in some form in nearly half the US, psilocybin is still a Schedule I controlled substance, listed in the same category as heroin. But people like Reville say the real challenge with marketing mushrooms is how infrequently people take them.
"Even people for whom it's been transformative for their life, maybe haven't taken mushrooms in years, or maybe take it once a year," said Reville, who declined to talk about his own experience using mushrooms because he said it would detract from his advocacy. "So you don't have the same natural organic pressure and financial interest and social visibility that you have with marijuana, something that's used by some people multiple times a day, for many years."
Through his volunteer-run campaign 920 Coalition (the slogan: "mushrooms are medicine"), more than two-dozen organizations have signed up to host psychedelic-focused 9/20 events. In Dublin, for example, the Psychedelic Society of Ireland is holding a film screening in a park; in Mexico City, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy will present a talk at a cultural center; and in Brooklyn, Psymposia is throwing a psychedelic storytelling event at speakeasy. But because they're all hosted independently, there's not one clear goal.
Unlike 4/20, 9/20 events aren't intended as gatherings for people to get high together. Instead, they're mostly lectures, salons, or meetups that prioritize the goals of research and policy rather than the joys of tripping. The approach represents a reversal from the short-lived psychedelic movement of the 1960s, when LSD pioneer Timothy Leary famously told a gathering of hippies in Golden Gate Park to "turn on, tune in, drop out." The Harvard psychologist was among the first to study psychedelics in an academic setting—including in his project that used psilocybin to evaluate recidivism rates of prisoners—but the controversial research eventually cost him his career.
His son, Zach Leary, who speaks about psychedelics at events around the country, says attitudes about psilocybin have begun to change only within the last few years.
He points to formerly niche psychedelic events like Burning Man, which have since become a rite of passage not just for Burners, but for people like Paris Hilton and Elon Musk. Steve Jobs famously espoused the benefits of LSD, calling it one of the most important experiences of his life, and there have long been stories about Silicon Valley executives using micro-doses of LSD to enhance their creativity.
Zach Leary sees it as a cultural revolution that coincides with the broader push to end the drug war. "Because of the scientific research, it's given a lot of people permission to come out of the closet [as psilocybin users]," he told VICE.
One of those people is David Tripp, a professor in the liberal studies department at Antioch University in Los Angeles. He says he recently had a "psychedelic coming out experience" in an effort to be more transparent in both his personal and professional life, despite that some colleagues warned him it would be a death sentence for his career. (The psychedelics-focused philosophy course he teaches is still the only one he's ever had to get reviewed by the university lawyer, he said.) "People have a lot of fear around all of this, so there are a lot of ways to handling it, and one of those ways is to marginalize serious work around this stuff."
But the research being done at institutions like New York University, University of California, Los Angeles, and John Hopkins University has become a lightning rod for the psychedelic movement. For the first time in more than three decades, researchers are undertaking clinical trials to evaluate psilocybin as a treatment for anxiety, depression, and alcohol and smoking addiction, according to a feature in the New Yorker last year.
Activists attribute the second wave of the psychedelic renaissance partly to the work of Rick Doblin, another Harvard alum who founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in 1986. The nonprofit advocacy and research group has since funded and organized studies on MDMA and LSD-assisted psychotherapy. But because the organization doesn't receive for-profit investment or government funding, and clinical trials can run tens of millions of dollars, its efforts are limited. Prevailing stereotypes about psilocybin don't help either.
"Sometimes it's frustrating that because of the long stigma on psychedelics, people are often not willing to consider that they may also be valuable therapeutic tools for PTSD and anxiety medication," Brad Burge, a MAPS spokesperson, told VICE.
He says the 9/20 gatherings—even if they're mostly small gestures with no universal goals—are evidence of a shift in public dialogue. "Even in the 1960s when psychedelics were first entering into the Western cultural context, a lot of the events and public gatherings around them were really counter cultural," he said. But now, they're "thoroughly immersed in the mainstream."
Leary agrees, but he notes that dedicating September 20 to increase the awareness of mushrooms seems totally arbitrary. "The roots of 4/20, it's such a great urban legend," he said, referencing the often repeated lore that the misattributed police code for marijuana gained popularity in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead concert. "There's a part of [9/20] that feels a little bit like, 'Oh, are we just branding it, creating a gimmick, for the sake of it?'"
If anything, September 20 references a good time of year to pick mushrooms. It also falls in the beginning of the school year, which is helpful for organizing events and generating interest on college campuses, according to Reville.
Tripp, who is speaking at a 9/20 event called "Value Mushrooms for Mushroom Values" in Los Angeles this week, welcomes the new momentum around psychedelics, even if he's not sure exactly what will come of it. "There's no one way to do this. There's no one strategy. We need all the craziness, and some of it no doubt will be harmful," he told VICE, describing the psychedelic movement as one big circus with enough room for doctors, researchers, academics, and the people who just want to get high and trip out for a couple of hours.
"So in that context, sure 9/20, why not?" he said. "It's part of the circus."
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