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Fetterman Says Magic Mushrooms Could Be ‘Economic Boom’ for PA

It’s not every day that the phrase “magic mushrooms” turns up in U.S. Senate proceedings. But leave it to Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) to make it happen. Now critics say he is high on his own supply.

During a Senate agriculture subcommittee hearing last week, Fetterman spoke favorably about psilocybin mushrooms, claiming the mind-altering fungi can provide both economic and mental health benefits to growers and users. Fetterman has also long advocated the legalization of marijuana, writing on his campaign website that weed “should be legal, nationwide.”

Psychedelics aside, mushrooms are a major part of Pennsylvania’s agricultural economy. Chester County’s Kennett Square is known as the “Mushroom Capital of the World,” and the American Mushroom Institute says more than 60 percent of all mushrooms produced in the U.S. come from the region.

Reps. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) and Dan Meuser (R-Pa.) have introduced the Protecting Mushroom Farmers Act mandating a federal study on crop insurance benefits for mushroom farmers. Fetterman and fellow Democrat Sen. Bob Casey filed companion legislation in the Senate.

According to Fetterman, the mushroom industry employs nearly 9,500 Pennsylvanians and contributes an estimated $2.7 billion to the local economy. But “magic mushrooms” are not part of the mix.

“I’ve been an advocate of psychedelics in terms of the magic mushrooms for PTSDs and for veterans especially,” the senator said during the hearing. He argued psychedelics could present an “amazing economic kind of boom” for growers in the state and “a revolution in mental health.”

Witness Chris Alonzo, a Kennett Square mushroom farmer, quickly tried to steer the conversation away from mind-altering drugs, speaking more broadly on the need to “create healthy food for the community.”

Fetterman briefly persisted, claiming the U.S. “should have more research in microdosing and other issues” before ultimately dropping the issue.

The use of psilocybin mushrooms has been hotly debated among mycologists and drug regulators. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists the drug as “a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that it has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.”

DEA literature claims that persistent substance usage can lead to “longer, more intense ‘trip’ episodes, challenging experiences (physical and emotional), psychosis, and possible death.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs did not comment directly on Fetterman’s remarks, though a spokeswoman pointed to the portion of the Pennsylvania code that lists psilocybin as a “controlled substance.” Like the DEA, Pennsylvania claims psilocybin has “a high potential for abuse; no currently accepted medical use in the United States; and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.”

In contrast, Michael Beug, professor emeritus at the Evergreen State College in Washington State, downplayed the alleged dangers of mushrooms.

“Psilocybin mushrooms are anti-addictive (abuse them, and you do not get hooked, they quit working),” he said. “There is no known LD-50 (lethal dose in 50 percent of the population).”

“At a ‘heroic dose’ (full-scale hallucinations), the therapeutic effects can last months to years, and in some cases, even one trip can change a person for a lifetime,” he claimed, though he added “guidance is essential” as “the trip can be terrifying and unguided trips can lead to very bad decisions while tripping.

“In addition to the original, intriguing studies in the 1960s,” he continued, “serious research resumed in the late 1990s, and now dozens of major research institutions (mainly in the U.S. and Europe) have programs underway.” He called the potential therapeutic quality of the mushrooms “absolutely a ‘revolution in mental health.’”

Not everyone agrees.

“When it comes to significant side effects, experts’ primary worry about ketamine, psilocybin, and other hallucinogens, like LSD or ayahuasca, is that they can trigger a psychotic or manic episode,” The New York Times reported.

LEACH: End Prohibition on ‘Magic Mushrooms’

When I first introduced what eventually became Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana law in the Senate, I struggled to find a single co-sponsor. The issue was controversial, not well understood, and my bill was considered extremely unlikely to pass. The Pennsylvania legislature is not typically in the vanguard of social change.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and my medical marijuana bill passed the Senate 43-7 and by a 3-1 margin in the House. It took a great deal of hard work on the part of a lot of people, legislators, advocates, patients, etc., to get us from pipedream to passage. But ultimately, the arguments behind our bill were simply too universal and too compelling to dismiss. The weight of medical evidence strongly indicated that cannabis helped people with a variety of illnesses, and the simple fact is that sick people, regardless of political party or ideology, just want to get better.

Now, six years after medical marijuana became legal, we face a new but related issue. One that is informed by many of the same compelling considerations as the fight for access to marijuana. It is time that we legalize the medical use of what have been called “psychedelics” (and are now referred to as “entheogenic plants and fungi”).

Entheogens that are receiving a good deal of attention from researchers include psilocybin, which is the extract of certain “magic” mushrooms, mescaline, derived from the peyote cactus, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (who names these things?), which is commonly referred to as MDMA or “ecstasy”, and Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, known as LSD.

These substances all have certain things in common. They are psycho-active, meaning they can, to varying degrees, alter your mood, thoughts or perceptions. They are all currently federally illegal (with some exceptions) and illegal in most states. And they have all shown great promise in treating a variety of ailments from depression, pain, and anxiety to PTSD and drug addiction.

The idea that these mind-altering substances can be therapeutic is not new. A lot of research was being done on these drugs in the 1950s and 60s. However, in the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon, for reasons having little to do with the merits of the specific substances involved, committed the nation to an aggressive “war on drugs”.

This war was launched in an effort to demonize and prosecute anti-war and civil rights protesters, and to use the criminal justice system as a means to control minority populations. Because mind-expansion was then (but not now) considered to be an activity of young people and the political left, every substance which could, in any way, alter someone’s consciousness was lumped together into the term “drugs” and labeled “bad” and “dangerous”. Of course, tobacco and alcohol, which were the preferred intoxicants of the ruling class, were exempt from this “war”.

Nixon’s war on drugs, adopted and expanded by Nancy Reagan, ended virtually all medical inquiry into entheogens. Only in the last 10 years did research begin again. But now, there are literally hundreds of ongoing studies and clinical trials, and the early results are extremely promising, often in cases where traditional therapies are ineffective. The results were so drastic that the federal government, always slow to rethink long-standing drug policy, has started to take notice. In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration granted psilocybin “breakthrough therapy” status for depression, which will make further research much easier. Just last week, the FDA approved a phase 2 clinical trial to study the effects of LSD on anxiety.

State and local governments have reacted as well. In 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin. In the 2022 election there will be a question on the California ballot to do the same. A number cities around the nation have legalized or decriminalized certain entheogens, including Washington, D.C., Santa Cruz, Denver, and Somerville, Massachusetts. Over 100 other municipalities are considering the same thing.

These drugs are clearly intoxicants, which must be respected with appropriate oversight and regulation. However, the irony is that most of the entheogens being studied are less dangerous and have fewer side effects than the drugs they may replace. The only reason they are stigmatized and prohibited in a way that other medicines are not is because they were deliberately incorporated into the political culture wars of the past. Like marijuana, the disapprobation these drugs have received was never rationally related to the drugs themselves.

What is clearly needed is an educational campaign for psychedelics similar to the one that successfully changed people’s minds about marijuana. As people come to fully understand the potential benefits to be had, outdated stigmas and superstitions will fade, and we will be able to give people access to truly life-changing medications.

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