‘Shrooms go Upscale Amid Psychedelics Craze

(CN) — Joe Hudak struggled with his return to civilian life.

The 47-year-old veteran spent 20 years in the special forces, including around five years in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

After returning to the U.S. in 2011, he tried to kill himself twice — landing him a stint in a psychiatric hospital. Doctors tried out a range of medications and therapies in an effort to ease his symptoms. “You name it, I had pretty much done it,” Hudak said in an interview from his home in San Diego this month. 

After 18 months in care, doctors determined Hudak was no longer a danger to himself or others and released him. But “I wasn’t leading a happy, joyous, fulfilled life,” Hudak said. He still experienced a range of negative symptoms, including a “cacophony of voices in my head — like an entire committee that berated me all day long.”

Desperate and running out of options, Hudak last year connected with Veterans Exploring Treatment Options, a nonprofit that helps vets suffering from PTSD and other problems try out psychedelic therapy. The group paid for him to go to Mexico, where he tried a dose of ibogaine, a potent hallucinogen found in several tropical plants.

About 2.5 million middle-aged Americans took hallucinogens last year, up from 1.5 million the year before and more than five times the number in 2016, according to government data. The growing interest in psychedelics is changing the face of drug-taking in America, bringing in customers who might have never before considered taking controlled substances. (The terms “hallucinogens” and “psychedelics” lack standard medical definitions and are mostly used interchangeably, though both refer to drugs that dramatically alter perception and cognition.)

Some, like Hudak, are traveling out of the country to try psychedelic treatments. Meanwhile, as drugs like ketamine and psilocybin become increasingly accepted and legal across the United States, an affluent clientele is spawning a domestic drug boom for the supposed mind-expanding substances.

States and local governments are relaxing laws on psilocybin, the active drug in mushrooms. Ketamine, a dissociative, is catching on as a mainstream treatment for depression. Spravato, a nasal-spray version of the drug, was approved by the FDA in 2019. That’s on top of other and more obscure psychedelics, all of which are feeding a renewed interest in the substances amongst Americans.

David Herzberg, who studies the history of illegal drug use at the University of Buffalo, says cultural figures like best-selling author Michael Pollan are giving psychedelics an air of “approval and legitimacy.” Pollan has boosted the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, including through the book and Netflix series “How to Change Your Mind.”

“I talk to a lot of strait-laced people who have never done any drugs, period,” Herzberg said in an interview. “Suddenly, they’re all interested in using hallucinogens for therapy.”

Psilocybin has become the drug of choice for many hallucinogen-curious Americans. One reason might be a recent spate of widely publicized scientific studies suggesting that psilocybin is a promising treatment for depression and other mental health disorders. 

Now, the drug appears to be on the same trajectory as cannabis, with medical use and legalization on the horizon.

While the drug is still illegal under federal law, it’s legal for supervised use in Oregon and Colorado. It’s been decriminalized in a slate of cities, including in California and Massachusetts, and could soon be decriminalized for all 40 million citizens across the Golden State.

As with cannabis, legalization is creating a new industry that benefits from promoting the drug. “There is enormous capital investment in the fledgling hallucinogen commercial sector,” Herzberg said. “It’s not kooky anymore once billions of dollars are going into it.”

“The dominance of pro-hallucinogen views, backed by serious capital investment, marks a significant change in the messages people are getting about these drugs,” Herzberg added. Those who stand to profit from the boom are “inviting new kinds of people to try them.”

For some, the mainstreaming of psychedelics is a long-overdue continuation of a decades-old development. Despite some promising findings in the 20th century, hallucinogens were largely shut out from research and controlled trials as they became associated with counterculture and were made illegal.

For others, the renewed interest in psychedelics represents just another poorly regulated wellness hype. “Psychedelic drugs have been riding a wave of gushing uncritical media coverage,” said Keith Humphreys, a Stanford professor who was a senior drug policy advisor in the Obama administration.

“There’s also a nascent psychedelic medicine industry that has been actively promoting these drugs and not really being upfront about their potential downsides,” Humphreys said in an interview. He argues the budding industry, coupled with sympathetic scientists, have “helped drive the hype.”

The spike in psychedelic use was highlighted this year in a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which follows tens of thousands of people and surveys them every year on drug use. 

Among people aged 19-30, some 8% used hallucinogens last year, up from 5.2% in 2019. Among people aged 35-50, the figure was a remarkable 4.1% — quadruple the number from just three years ago.

The study didn’t ask older demographics about psychedelics usage, but experts say they’re tripping, too. “We’re seeing a lot of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s” doing psychedelics, said Lee Hoffer, a medical anthropologist at Case Western Reserve University who studies illegal drug use. “They’re white, middle- or upper-middle-class and work as professionals.” 

“Many studies have assumed that illegal drug users aren’t smart and don’t know what they’re doing,” Hoffer added. In fact, “these people are educated and they do research.” Nor are they just taking the drugs for fun. “They’re using them to complement or augment mental health treatments,” Hoffer said. Hallucinogens “help you think differently, and can be used for processing trauma.”

Hoffer isn’t the only one noticing an uptick in psychedelics usage even among older Americans. “I talk to quite a few people in their 70s and 80s who are interested in using them to deal with end-of-life issues,” said Ryan Dutra, a professional psilocybin facilitator in Oregon, where the drug is legally permitted with the use of licensed guides.

Dutra is part of a growing industry that is helping curious consumers navigate psychedelics for mental health and well-being. He charges $2,000 per trip for his services as a one-on-one guide, plus $1,500 for a specially prepared environment and $150 for the drug itself. 

The demand is enormous: Dutra said the referral center he works with (one of many in the state) has a waitlist of 750 people. It often takes months to get an appointment. And while the current prices are prohibitively expensive for some, Dutra believes prices will come down as more entrepreneurs like him enter the market.

“There will be more competition,” he said.

So far, Dutra’s oldest prospective client was an 87-year-old suffering from terminal cancer. That person inquired about using mushrooms to enable him to better accept his mortality.

Still, the vast majority of Dutra’s clientele have been affluent middle-aged white people who want help dealing with psychological problems such as depression, alcoholism and PTSD. Only a tiny handful are simply looking for a good time.

The typical pattern of psilocybin usage is very different from that of cannabis and opioids, because the drug is generally non-addictive and the goal of the experience for most people is to generate insights that can be integrated into their thinking over time. Even regular users don’t take psilocybin more than once every month or every two months, said Hoffer, the medical anthropologist.

Rather, Hoffer said, the boom is being driven by “self-help therapy” among well-off people who read about the psilocybin studies and then take the drug on their own. He cited one user who reported that psilocybin “is like cleaning house. It lets you get rid of mental cobwebs, move past trauma, and work on issues.”

For those who supply psychedelics to curious consumers or help guide them through their experiences, drugs like psilocybin can also be a moneymaker. The global market for legal hallucinogens is expected to reach $5.7 billion by 2027, according to a report by industry analyst BCC Research.

Compared to street drugs, substances like hallucinogenic mushrooms can be expensive — not least because guides can add hundreds of dollars more to the cost of each experience. 

Mushrooms “are rare on the street, and they aren’t sold by everyday drug dealers,” Hoffer said. He noted that many users employ guides like Dutra who promise to keep them calm and safe through their journeys.

But Jason Burdge, co-founder of the Oregon-based non-profit Psilocybin Assisted Therapy Association, said that while guides are important, it’s critical to engage in so-called “integration therapy” afterward to help process psychedelic experiences. 

Under the laws in Oregon — so far the only state to roll out legal mushrooms — anyone can become a “facilitator” of psychedelic experiences if they have a high-school diploma and complete a 120-hour training course. That doesn’t necessarily prepare them for clients with serious issues like sexual trauma, Burdge noted. Since therapists could lose their license if they sit with a patient who is taking a drug that is federally illegal, the integration therapy has to happen separately.

It’s not all self-help driving Americans’ booming interest in psychedelics. Ketamine and ‘shrooms have become more popular at nightclubs and festivals, Joseph Palamar, an NYU professor who researches the use of hallucinogens and other drugs, said in an interview. He cited one of his own recent studies, which showed that new drugs were replacing old party favorites like  MDMA.

The amount of illegal ketamine seized by law enforcement officials increased more than 1,100% between 2017 and 2022, according to another one of Palamar’s studies. 

There have also been reports of high-tech employees “micro-dosing” hallucinogens — taking a small dose that doesn’t cause tripping but can improve focus and creativity at work. But while “micro-dosing is an important development, not a lot of people are doing it,” said Hoffer, the medical anthropologist.

LSD, the iconic psychedelic at the center of the 1960s counterculture movement, hasn’t seen the same comeback.

That’s because LSD is still more stigmatized, Palamar said — and some people are still afraid of it. “Because it’s synthetic, and because many of us were exposed to a lot of horror stories about it back in the day,” he said. “Often exaggerated, but not always.”

For those who have used these drugs therapeutically, the experiences have sometimes been life-changing. One former cop in his fifties, who spoke on condition of anonymity because psilocybin is illegal, took the drug to deal with psychological issues, including on-the-job trauma. He saw different therapists and took SSRIs, but said the medications had negative side effects and felt they merely covered up his problems rather than fixing them. 

When a friend suggested psilocybin, he began reading research studies from major universities and decided to try it because “it wasn’t just hippies doing it.” He cautioned that “magic mushrooms aren’t magic” and stressed that he worked with a therapist through the process. Still, after 10 trips, he said the experience was “very much success” and gave him a deeper and more self-reflective understanding of his problems.

“It doesn’t just block anxiety — it allows you to resolve anxiety,” he said. “You can face dark truths and understand your triggers.”

For Hudak, the special forces veteran, the trip was life-changing. While he doesn’t think ibogaine is “a silver bullet,” he says the experience helped him to regain a sense of control of his life. He still experiences depression and anxiety, but he says the symptoms are now mild enough that he can handle them.

In Mexico, Hudak said he spent hours lying on a mattress while wearing an eyemask. He experienced mild hallucinations, “but it wasn’t an alternate universe-type of trip or a Pink Floyd flashback,” he said. 

Afterwards, he took a nap. When he woke up, the voices that had long tormented him were gone. They haven’t returned. Nor was his experience entirely unique: Of the four other soldiers with whom he took ibogaine, he said two of them experienced a similar improvement.

As to how the drug worked, “I have no idea,” Hudak said. His wife, a neuroscientist, “is as amazed as me.” She’d love to study the drug, but she can’t just yet. Ibogaine remains illegal in all 50 states.


Read from original source