In troubled times, it's tempting to turn to substances in order to cope.
With a pandemic killing thousands worldwide, fires immolating the West Coast, and an unstable president sending heavily armored federal agents to quash protests for racial justice, it's tempting to pour vodka on your Cheerios in the morning, drink a 12-pack for lunch, and wash down a handful of Xanax for dinner.
Some Portlanders are taking a more constructive approach and finding solace in a drug that at first glance seems purely escapist: psychedelic mushrooms. But talk to almost anyone who has begun tripping recently and you learn that most of them are confronting the end times, not running from them.
Former assistant film director and entrepreneur Carolyn Fine, 47, can testify. She struggled with depression for years, trying medication and therapy. She had done mushrooms as a teenager, and three years ago, at age 44, something called on her to try them again. She bought some and headed to Manzanita with her partner. The experience was transformative.
"I'm going to get a little woo here, but I felt very held by the universe," she says. And the effects have lasted. "I don't go to a hopeless place anymore. It doesn't feel terminal."
Mushrooms have been popular in this part of the world since the 1960s, when native Oregonian Ken Kesey spread the gospel of LSD. The cool, wet state is perfect for growing Psilocybe semilanceata, the slender little 'shroom better known as the liberty cap.
Interest rekindled in 2018 after author Michael Pollan ate mushrooms and dropped acid for the first time in his life and wrote a glowing book-length review called How to Change Your Mind. A year later, director Louis Schwartzberg released Fantastic Fungi, a feature-length film about mushrooms, many of them magic. Portlanders filled the theater—it drew 10,000 viewers to Cinema 21 and was the most-watched film at the arthouse theater in 2019.
Then, the pandemic hit, and even more people flocked to the fungi. Kayci Marie Mitchell, president of the Portland Psychedelic Society, a group that advocates for the safe, responsible use of hallucinogenics, says the group's Meetup roster grew from 4,000 at the beginning of the year to 5,200 now.
"People are referring to this as the 'Great Pause,'" Mitchell says. "They are going within and having these miraculous changes in perspective. It's amazing what they can accomplish."
The science is on Mitchell's side. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research have published more than 60 peer-reviewed articles, many of them showing that psilocybin is therapeutic for people suffering from depression, addiction, and the existential distress of living with life-threatening diseases. And this November, Oregonians will vote whether to become the first state in the country to legalize the therapeutic use of "magic mushrooms."
But proponents of psychedelic healing aren't waiting for the law to change. There is a growing number of "guides" working underground who sit with people after they take mushrooms or LSD, don headphones and eyeshades, and wait for what the compounds conjure. Their "patients" usually take double or triple the "concert dose," which is about 2 grams of mushrooms or 100 micrograms of LSD. Sometimes, subjects will take a "heroic" dose, which is three to four times what they might take recreationally. At that level, the ego often dissolves and the user feels inseparable from the rest of the universe.
The key, especially at high doses, is to "integrate" the experience into everyday life. Research shows that a single trip can lift someone suffering from depression out of a rut, but it is more likely to last if followed by sessions aimed at understanding what happened, guides say.
"Of all the things I could be doing to help people get through this time, I can't think of anything better," said one guide, who declined to be named. "Many people who come to me say, 'My psychiatrist is on board with this,' because it helps them process things."
The magic in mushrooms comes from the molecule psilocybin. When digested, psilocybin breaks down into psilocin, a compound that looks like serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, memory and the sensing of pleasure. Scientists suspect that psilocin stimulates serotonin receptors, causing parts of the brain that are normally isolated to connect. Those new connections appear to ramp up the brain in extraordinary ways.
On her first therapeutic trip, Carolyn Fine knew immediately that she had to make the same experience available to others, which is hard because mushrooms and most other psychedelic compounds are still Schedule I illegal drugs, meaning that the U.S. government considers them as addictive and dangerous as heroin.
Fine felt her white privilege acutely when she thought about how she could pick up a bag of illegal drugs and drive off to the coast without getting busted. So she started the Psychedelic Equity Project to "center BIPOC voices, and try to create some safer spaces for the exploration of life on the psychedelic path."
So much of the "psychedelic renaissance" is attributed to white men like Michael Pollan, she says, and it's important to remember that psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, ayahuasca and other natural compounds were first used by Indigenous people.
"White people didn't invent this," she says.
There has been progress, says Gabe, 23, a BIPOC grower who works with Fine and prefers to use only his first name because of the legal risks. A regular at the nightly protests for racial justice, he sells his mushrooms on a sliding scale to people in the movement and beyond. Wealthy customers pay a premium so he can give some away to people who make minimum wage or who are experiencing houselessness.
"I see this as my mock socialist economy," he says. Socialist or not, his business is booming: "Since the start of the pandemic, my sales have skyrocketed," he says.
But Gabe, like some in the psychedelic community, oppose Measure 109, which would leave out protections for small growers like him. It will favor growers with capital who can afford certification of their businesses, he says, and wall off the use of a naturally occurring compound by people outside the dominant white culture. (Sam Chapman, campaign manager for Yes on 109, says the campaign has "been working alongside local and national BIPOC community leaders to ensure that psilocybin therapy is equitable, accessible and affordable for all.")
Fine and Gabe see mushrooms as fuel for the Black Lives Matter movement and other efforts for change. Many of Gabe's customers are "microdosing" psilocybin, taking tiny amounts lift their moods and help them process the trauma of the conflict. "A lot of people don't have energy for the fight," Gabe says. "This medicine gives people a renewed sense of purpose."
Like many people who have had profound experiences with psilocybin, Fine and Gabe talk about psychedelic mushrooms with reverence. They describe them as conscious beings that may be searching us out because the world is at a tipping point.
"A lot of people think the psychedelic renaissance, is about the mushrooms trying to wake us the fuck up before we destroy the planet," Fine says. "They are incredible teachers, but they don't necessarily care about our feelings. You might have a beautiful, mystical experience, but you can have a punishing and destabilizing one, too. Go in knowing that you have a big responsibility to metabolize and integrate the experience you have, and don't go it alone."