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As 'magic mushrooms' got more attention, drug busts of the psychedelic drug went up

Psilocybin mushrooms jarred and ready for distribution at Uptown Fungus lab in Springfield, Ore. Oregon has decriminalized the use of the psychedelic drug.
Craig Mitchelldyer
Psilocybin mushrooms jarred and ready for distribution at Uptown Fungus lab in Springfield, Ore. Oregon has decriminalized the use of the psychedelic drug.

In recent years, there's been growing interest in psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in "magic mushrooms" or "shrooms" as a potentially beneficial therapy for mental health conditions. At the same time, drug busts of mushrooms went way up between 2017 and 2022, and the amount of the psychedelic substance seized by law enforcement more than tripled, according to a new study.

"What I think the results indicate is that shroom availability has likely been increasing," says Joseph Palamar, an epidemiologist at NYU Langone Health and the main author of the new study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

The findings come at a time when there's a "psychedelic renaissance" happening in the country, says Dr. Joshua Siegelof Washington University in St. Louis, who wasn't involved in the new study.

There's growing public and scientific interest in psychedelics' potential therapeutic effects on various mental and behavioral health issues, says Siegel, who also studies how psychedelics affect the human brain. At the same time, a small number of states have already decriminalized psychedelic drugs, and many more are looking into doing the same.

The new study is "an important part of the bigger picture of where we are headed as a nation" with psychedelics, says Siegel. "It's important to understand what's happening in terms of the health care side of things. It's important to understand what's happening recreationally and legally."

The new study found that the total amount of mushrooms seized by law enforcement across the country went from nearly 500 pounds in 2017 to more than 1,800 pounds in 2022. The largest amount (42.6% of total) seized was in the West, followed closely by the Midwest (41.8%).

"The greatest overall weight in seizures was out west," says Palamar. "And I don't think it's coincidental that that's where a lot of the more liberal policies are starting to take effect."

That could be because those liberal policies might not make it legal to sell psychedelics, he explains. "So if you have a store with hundreds of pounds of shrooms, they're probably going against the law somehow. And there's also large growing operations that are being busted."

The results also suggest an "increased demand for the drug," says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), who wasn't involved in the NIDA-funded study. "The sellers are able to sell the product because more people are using it."

Recent surveys and studies have shown that use of psychedelics like psilocybin, the psychoactive component of shrooms, has been growing in recent years. One study published in 2022, found psilocybin use increased between 2002 and 2019, driven primarily by users 26 years and older. And data fromthe Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration suggests that psilocybin is the most popular plant-based psychedelic in the United States, with more than 11% of individuals aged 12 and older reporting that they have used the drug in 2022.

The increasing use of psychedelics and the wave of states decriminalizing the drugs have paralleled a growing investment in research into the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, including psilocybin.

"There's been an enormous amount of attention for the potential use of psychedelic drugs, for the treatment of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, [and] for the treatment of addictions," says Volkow.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve the use of psilocybin for therapeutic use. But clinical trials show promising results, says Volkow.

"The clinical trials, as it relates to the use of psilocybin for the treatment of depression in, for example, terminally ill patients or severe depression, are very, very interesting," she adds. "You cannot deny it."

That said, Volkow and Siegel are concerned about the growing number of people using psilocybin, whether it is recreationally or a form of self-medication for mental health symptoms.

"My concern is not about addiction because psychedelic drugs in the classical term of addiction are not addictive," says Volkow.

But, initial research suggest risk of of psychosis and even suicidal ideation.

"It can trigger a full-blown psychosis," says Volkow. "And some of these psychoses can be extremely, extremely scary." Some of the psychoses can lead to suicide or impulsive actions that result in suicide, she says.

Volkow is also concerned about the potential negative impacts of combining psilocybin with other drugs or medications, because it's something that scientists haven't studied yet.

And so, she cautions, "We need to be aware that the use of these drugs comes at a certain cost."

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Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.