What are mushrooms/psilocybin?

Quick Answer
The drug substances in “magic” mushrooms, psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine) and psilocin (4-hydroxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine), are hallucinogenic. They have properties similar to LSD, or acid, and produce alterations of digestive and cardiac function, motor reflexes, behavior, and perception.
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History of Use

Hallucinogenic mushrooms containing psilocybin are thought to have existed as long or longer than the human race. Historically, artwork such as pictures, statues, and carvings depicting the mushrooms have been seen near tribal settlements. In Central and South America, psilocybin-containing mushrooms were commonly used in religious ceremonies until Spanish settlers spread Catholicism and banned their use. Mushrooms are sacred to indigenous peoples and are considered entheogens, psychoactive substances that guide their religious path through the spirit world.

In the early twentieth century ethnobotanists Richard Evans Schultes and Blas Pablo Reko traveled to Mexico and sought out these mushrooms. Schultes published a report of his findings in 1939. After hearing of this work, ethnomycologists Roger Heim and R. Gordon Wasson and pediatrician Valentina Wasson traveled to Central America to investigate the use and effects of the mushrooms. In 1957 the Wassons published the article “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” in Life magazine.

Mushrooms symbolized hippie counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s and were commonly used in the United States and Great Britain. The mushrooms led to the discovery of LSD, a synthetic hallucinogen.

It is difficult to determine the level of use of psilocybin-containing mushrooms because most studies of drug use neglect to include this drug. The Monitoring the Future survey published in 2008 reported that 7.8 percent of high school seniors had used hallucinogens other than LSD. This group of drugs includes peyote and psilocybin. Use in the previous year by participants was reported as 5 percent.

Effects and Potential Risks

Psilocybin and its active form, psilocin, are not inactivated by heating or freezing. To mask its bitter flavor, the mushroom is brewed into tea or cooked with other foods. Digestion and absorption of the psilocybin take about twenty minutes, and the effects last from four to six hours.

Psilocybin can produce relaxation or weakness of the muscles, lack of coordination, excessive pupil dilation, nausea, vomiting, and drowsiness. Mushroom abusers are at risk of poisoning if poisonous mushrooms are accidentally ingested with psilocybin mushrooms.

The psychological effects of psilocybin use include hallucinations, an altered perception of the passage of time, and confusion between fantasy and reality. Panic and psychosis also may occur, especially with high doses. Persistent use comes with flashbacks, risk of psychiatric disease, memory impairment, and tolerance.


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