[DIGEST: The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, CNN, Vice, Scientific American]
Nicotine is one of the hardest addictions to break. Despite wide exposure to health information that tells us that smoking can cause a host of killer health problems, more than 17 percent of Americans over age 18 — 40 million people — continue to smoke cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable disease and death. While many smokers say they want to quit, nicotine’s intensely powerful grip on its users means only 35 percent of people who try to quit smoking are successful.
Perhaps they should try a different drug: hallucinogenic mushrooms. More than 200 species of mushrooms contain naturally occurring hallucinogenic compounds collectively known as psilocybin. A Johns Hopkins study found that smokers who took the mushrooms in a controlled environment under supervision experienced visions or hallucinations that led to a new understanding of their situation as a smoker and gave them the willpower to quit. Of the 15 people in the study, 12 quit smoking permanently.
A 2013 Gallup poll found that 85 percent of smokers have tried unsuccessfully to quit at least once. Of that group, 45 percent tried at least three times. A multi-billion industry has sprung up around these wishful quitters; nicotine patches, gum, prescription drugs, therapy, prayer, e-cigarettes and hypnosis are popular quitting methods, but only a tiny fraction of former smokers credit those tricks with helping them quit. Willpower or the “cold turkey” method was slightly more successful; 48 percent of successful quitters found mind over matter the key to breaking free of addiction.
Professor Matthew Johnson. (Credit: Source.)
Matthew Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and the lead author of the study, was inspired to explore the potential of “magic mushrooms” when he read about a similar experiment in the 1960s in which alcoholics were cured of their addiction with the help of mushrooms. Other studies have found mushrooms helpful in easing OCD, clinical depression and anxiety experienced by cancer patients. Psilocybin may even ease the prevalence of domestic violence. A study conducted by the University of British Columbia found a connection between psychedelic drugs and reduced rates in domestic violence, possibly due to increased feelings of well-being, interconnection, and empathy.
Researchers are still trying to understand exactly why mushrooms are such a successful
treatment. Another study found that hallucinogenic drugs activate serotonin receptors in the brain. Other researchers credit psilocybin with helping patients take a broader perspective on themselves and move past the underlying issues that can facilitate addiction and negative or obsessive thinking.
"With psilocybin people feel reorganized [after therapy] and the nature of the reorganization is such that there are effects on attitudes towards addiction," said professor Roland Griffiths from Johns Hopkins.
In other words, by tripping, these patients reached a plane of higher consciousness that helped them leave their troubles behind. It’s a spiritual awakening that leads to a cure.
Humans have sought the mind-expanding and mood-altering effects of hallucinogens for thousands of years, and they are even used in religious practice among certain cultures. Native Americans have won court cases allowing hallucinogens to be used in rituals.
However, there are issues with using mushrooms to curb addiction. For one thing, it’s illegal. Mushrooms have been classified a Schedule 1 drug since 1968. It’s also difficult to gauge an individual mushroom’s particular potency. Since it’s a natural, often wild-grown product, mushrooms vary widely in the amounts of psilocybin they contain, depending on the region from which they were harvested, the size of the mushroom and the conditions in which it grew. Batches vary. Side effect include psychosis, flashbacks and increased resistance and tolerance in users who therapeutically “micro dose” using hallucinogens such as mushrooms or LSD.
However, with opioid addiction ravaging society, there’s an increasing urgency to finding a solution to addiction. Ironically, magic mushrooms may hold the answers. Michael Pollan, who revolutionized the way many people think about food with his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma is currently at work on a book about the power of psychedelic plants. On Mother Jones' food politics podcast Bite, Pollan said, "Not only do plants nourish us bodily — they nourish us psychologically."