The acclaimed food writer Michael Pollan (who coined the now ubiquitous sustainable eating mantra, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) locked his sights on psychedelics—particularly psilocybin, a mind-altering compound found in over 200 species of fungi (or, magic mushrooms)—in his 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind.
Though Pollan was, by far, not the first writer to look into the potential health benefits of psychedelics, it came at a time when more states and municipalities were starting to take a look at their laws governing psilocybin, in particular. And his experiences detailed in the book created a strong case to explore the world of psychedelics more, painting a picture of what happens on a trip that was much more colorful than the studies thereto. Too, to have someone who had gained authority in the sustainable food movement write a thoughtful book on a previously stigmatized consumable lent extra credence to the movement.
He told NPR, in part:
“I found myself in this place where I could no longer control my perceptions at all, and I felt my sense of self scatter to the wind—almost as if a pile of Post-its had been released to the wind—but I was fine with it. I didn’t feel any desire to pile the papers back together into my customary self…
“Then I looked out and saw myself spread over the landscape like a coat of paint or butter. I was outside myself, beside myself, literally, and the consciousness that beheld this … was not my normal consciousness, it was completely unperturbed.”
Pollan told me in 2018, while promoting the book, that he took from the experience a sense that he was “not identical to my ego, that there’s another perspective with which to view life and what happens to me that’s a little less reactive and less defensive.”
How to Change Your Mind included research on the health benefits of psilocybin—that it might be effective in treating a host of mental and physical ailments including depression, anxiety, addiction and end-of-life distress. Though there are plenty of conventional drugs on the market to treat those issues, the number of people suffering from them remains stubbornly high. That indicates an alternative might be worth exploring, and though Pollan cautioned that we don’t know everything about psilocybin yet, or how best to use it to improve health outcomes, it’s worth looking into now.
“We have a mental health care system that is really in crisis, that is only reaching about half the people [that need] to be helped,” he said. “We’ve got soaring rates of depression and addiction and suicide, and the mental health community is looking for new tools and this may be an important new tool; we don’t know yet for sure.”
In 2019, Denver became the first city in the U.S. to decriminalize psilocybin; since, a dozen other municipalities have either decriminalized it or deprioritized it from their criminal enforcement policies. In 2020, Oregon became the first state to allow medical psilocybin—the first applications from manufacturers and providers are scheduled to be considered in January 2023.
And now, New Jersey might be making its own push to legalize psilocybin—in fact, a new bill proposed by Senate President Nicholas Scutari would make NJ the most psilocybin friendly state in the country.
The “Psilocybin Behavioral Health Access and Services Act,” introduced on June 23, would allow for the manufacturing of psilocybin and the creation of psilocybin centers, where people over 21 can have a guided, safe psilocybin experience, and receive the proper pre-trip orientation to maximize better outcomes. It would also allow residents to grow psilocybin mushrooms at home, a remarkable proposition given that cannabis home-grow is currently outlawed.
“In establishing this act, the Legislature seeks to improve the physical, mental and social well-being of all residents of New Jersey, and to prevent and reduce the prevalence of behavioral health disorders in adults, by providing for supported adult use of psilocybin under the supervision of trained and licensed psilocybin service facilitators,” the bill reads.
In addition to naming the immediate health problems psilocybin might combat, the bill also notes that people might just, like Pollan and countless others, grow as people as a result of psilocybin: The proposed centers will help create “psilocybin experiences to alleviate distress, provide preventative behavioral health care, and foster wellness and personal growth.”
The bill would also let those with prior psilocybin charges appeal for expungement. And, like the cannabis bill, it includes a stipulation that those in economically distressed areas will receive assistance in setting up their businesses.
If ultimately passed (and, to be clear, there’s a long way to go on this), the bill would require the composition of an advisory board made of state health officials, 12 members of the public and the Attorney General. The board would be tasked with implementing the bill over the course of 18 months.
Though the push to integrate their use into legal society is recent, psychedelics are not new. Psilocybin, mescaline (peyote) and others have been used in religious ceremonies for millennia. Research into psychedelics began, formally, in the 1940s with LSD, but their abundance in (and connotation with) the subcultures of the ’60s and ’70s created a stigma about their use, and laws prohibiting their use effectively shut down research at the time.
But in the 2000s, momentum surged again to study psychedelics. UCLA began studying the effects of psilocybin on depression and anxiety in cancer patients. Johns Hopkins University started a psychedelic research project, which led to the construction of a formal research center in 2006. As a result of the renewed research, companies started to get involved, opening research facilities for psilocybin, ketamine and more for use in specific medical conditions. And psilocybin mushrooms are legal in Jamaica, ushering in research and tourism opportunities for the island nation.
Too, the public perception of psychedelics is changing; how many celebrities have come out in recent years to talk about their ayahuasca trips? A social, medical and political revolution around psychedelics is happening right now, and New Jersey could be at the forefront.
To be fair, there are risks. People with existing medical issues, like schizophrenia, are more likely to have a negative experience. And, there’s the possibility of consuming toxic mushrooms, having too many or otherwise having a bad trip that leads to bodily harm. But a legal, regulated market with patient screenings reduces those risks dramatically.
Psilocybin is generally considered the safest psychedelic to consume, according to a 2021 study published in the National Library of Medicine. And though the overall research into psychedelics is only blooming now, the early returns are positive. Johns Hopkins researchers found that psilocybin treatment for major depressive disorder worked for up to a year in some patients, when combined with regular therapy. In a study of 24 patients, depression was alleviated in 75% of patients, and over half experienced symptom remission.
“Compared to standard antidepressants, which must be taken for long stretches of time, psilocybin has the potential to enduringly relieve the symptoms of depression with one or two treatments,” wrote Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., founding director of Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.
In another Johns Hopkins study, 67% of smokers had quit smoking for the year after psilocybin treatment, and 85% ranked it as one of the top five experiences of their lives. Granted, many of these studies include a small sample size, but the success rate is nonetheless remarkable.
So more research is needed on the opportunities and drawbacks of psychedelic treatment, but with early research showing it could help everything from eating disorders to PTSD, anxiety, addiction and depression, there’s no time to waste in allowing that research to progress. If NJ’s bill passes, much of the work might be done here.