Healing Hallucinogens: Common Questions About Mushrooms, LSD and Other Psychedelic Drugs

What inquiring minds want to know about therapeutic psychedelics, including safety, legality and user experiences.

Randy Edwards
A pitcher of Ayahuasca, an Amazonian hallucinogenic brew

The use of therapeutic psychedelics raises a lot of questions. Here are answers to some of the most common inquiries.

Are psychedelics safe?

There is a lot that science doesn’t know about psychedelics and, until recently, research has been inhibited by legal concerns and the stigma attached to these drugs. At least for the “classic psychedelics,” like LSD and psilocybin, scientific research suggests there is a low risk of addiction, overdose, toxicity or other problems that can be caused by other common recreational and medicinal drugs.

There are some exceptions. Researchers warn against use of psychedelics by people who suffer from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or other mental health conditions that can lead to psychotic episodes, or if there is a family history of these disorders. Some medical professionals are concerned that a psychedelic trip could trigger a psychotic episode in those who are predisposed, although research findings have been unclear.

The drugs can lead to intense experiences, including hallucinations, mood shifts and changes in perception—all expected outcomes and believed to be part of the therapeutic value of the drugs. In some cases, however, distorted perception has led to harmful behavior, and some users report mental confusion, agitation, extreme anxiety and psychotic episodes. Clinicians and researchers alike emphasize the importance of “set and setting” when using psychedelic substances, referring to the user’s mindset and the physical surroundings where the use occurs.

Psilocybin mushrooms

Are psychedelics legal?

This depends on the substance, as well as your location. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration classifies most psychedelic drugs, including DMT (the key active ingredient in ayahuasca), LSD, MDMA and psilocybin, as Schedule 1 substances, which the DEA defines as drugs with “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.” Illegal possession is a felony, and conviction can be punishable by heavy fines and prison time.

However, the FDA has approved some substances for medical uses. MDMA and psilocybin are in advanced stages of clinical trials, and many anticipate approval for medical use within the next year or two. Ketamine, a drug approved for, and commonly used as, an anesthetic, has been approved as a nasal spray for treatment of depression and is being prescribed “off label” to treat a number of mental health disorders.

Some states, specifically Oregon and Colorado, have approved ballot measures to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms and legalize the use of psilocybin in regulated healing centers. Several U.S. cities, from Seattle to Ann Arbor to Washington, D.C., have reduced or eliminated criminal penalties for personal possession of psilocybin and, in some cases, other “naturally occurring” psychedelics.

In Ohio, it’s a felony to possess Schedule 1 drugs. The Ohio Senate approved a bill in 2020 that would have reclassified low-level felony drug possession cases as misdemeanors and encouraged treatment instead of criminal penalties. It failed to come to a vote in the House.

What is the experience like? Will I see cellophane flowers of yellow and green?

Indeed, some psychonauts describe altered perceptions that include strange shapes and vivid colors, the animation of inanimate objects, a sense that one has stepped out of one’s physical form. For Sarah, a Columbus woman who occasionally uses mushrooms, the experience offers “that feeling of connection and oneness that you feel with the earth, with the trees and other sentient life. It feels very holy and mystical and profound.” Brian Pace, a plant evolutionary ecologist who lectures on psychedelics at Ohio State, says for many, the drugs break down barriers among “our thoughts, memories, dreaming and waking state of mind, and creates a new state of consciousness.”

Each user’s experience will be their own, however, and clinicians exploring the use of psychedelics as therapy agree that integrating the experience of the trip with one’s daily life, through psychotherapy, is the key to turning a trip that lasts a few hours into a durable healing experience.

Where do magic mushrooms grow?

Mushrooms in the genus Psilocybe can be found in many parts of the world and in many habitats. Some grow on manure (ranchers often complain about ’shroom hunters trespassing to find their manure piles). Others prefer wet meadows, still others rotting logs, or even landscaping wood chips, like Psilocybe ovoideocystidiata, wood-loving mushrooms that are native to the East, including Ohio, and have been transplanted to landscaped yards from coast to coast.

Are magic mushrooms tasty?

In a word, yuck. Or so we’re told. In a clinical setting, some ingest a synthetic formulation of psilocybin in pill form, but most people who indulge in magic mushrooms actually eat the dried fungi, which have been compared to dirt or feet. Earthy. Bitter. Some people just smile and choke it down, while others chop, dice or powder their dried mushrooms and mix with everything from smoothies to pizza sauce. A recent innovation is chocolates made from mushrooms.

This story is from the January 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.