A shroom field trip to nowhere?

A private company’s plans for revolutionizing legal hallucinogenic mushrooms are prompting skepticism from psychedelic researchers

January 17, 2020
A few shrooms
Psychedelic mushrooms such as these, Psyilocibe cubensis, are becoming the next front of recreational drug legalization [afgooey74, flickr | Creative Commons]

When Ronan Levy and his colleagues at Canadian startup Field Trip Ventures announced this summer that they planned to open a magic mushroom research center in Jamaica, they knew there would be skeptics. They were not wrong.

The venture sounds like “a farce for making shrooms legal,” says Manoj Doss, a postdoctoral researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. “This kind of comes off to me as, you know, the mushrooms told me to do this.”

And when contacted for this piece, one psychedelic researcher at New York University (NYU) Langone dismissed Field Trip’s work as “‘research’?” [sic].

But Levy insists that Field Trip isn’t rushing to legalize psychedelic mushrooms, or shrooms, even though the company is an offshoot of the Canadian cannabis industry. Instead, he says that Field Trip wants its research into shrooms to lay the groundwork for their eventual safe use. But in that still-occluded realm, established psychedelic experts are dubious about Field Trip’s plans — and question the validity of the company’s research goals.

Field Trip’s board of directors is filled with cannabis doctors and marijuana executives. Its founders, including Levy, were previously involved in two sister firms: Canadian Cannabis Clinics, a medical cannabis provider, and CanvasRx, a marijuana marketplace. CanvasRx was acquired by cannabis giant Aurora Cannabis in 2016, and not long after, the four launched their new venture.

“[Psychedelics] really intrigued us, because we saw a lot of parallels between psychedelics and cannabis,” says Levy.

Field Trip is interested in multiple drugs, including MDMA and ketamine, but its involvement in shrooms has gotten the most publicity, thanks to the company’s facility in Mona, Jamaica. Furthermore, U.S. public interest in shrooms has been driven by states and cities moving toward full legalization. The cities of Denver and Oakland, Calif. have already decriminalized shrooms in 2019, and Levy believes that 2020 might see U.S. states begin to fully legalize and regulate mushrooms. He names California and Oregon as likely candidates.

Psilocybin — a psychoactive compound found in shrooms — is already the topic of major clinical research projects at academic centers like Johns Hopkins, NYU and Imperial College London. What makes Field Trip’s facility different is that it will investigate the biologically grown mushrooms themselves, while existing research centers instead use pure psilocybin that’s been produced synthetically.

Field Trip’s goals in Jamaica are twofold, according to Levy: to find new chemicals in the mushrooms, and to establish protocols for their use in clinical therapy.

Most psilocybin mushrooms are thought to contain three hallucinogenic compounds: psilocybin, psilocin and baeocystin — although baeocystin has never been isolated and remains poorly understood. Psilocin, which is broken down from psilocybin by the digestive system, is what actually causes the high from ingesting shrooms.

Psilocin, however, is very unstable, and tends to degrade when exposed to heat or light. For that reason, academic research has focused on synthesizing psilocybin, which still has hallucinogenic effects when taken outside the digestive system — for instance, intravenously.

But Levy believes these aren’t the only things one could find inside a shroom. “There’s good reason to believe it’s not just psilocybin or psilocin,” he says, highlighting the fact that there are hundreds of known species of psychedelic mushrooms. “No one’s doing that work.”

In this, Levy says Field Trip is inspired by its founders’ backgrounds in marijuana. Cannabis research has discovered “hundreds of cannabinoids,” he says. Field Trip hopes to approach psilocybin mushrooms in the same way.

But Kelan Thomas, a clinical psychedelic researcher at Touro University in Vallejo, Calif., says that mycologists are quite convinced that psilocybin, psilocin and baeocystin are the three main compounds.

Doss, of Johns Hopkins, is also highly skeptical, stating that the effects of pure psilocybin are extremely similar to the effects of shrooms, and any additional benefit would be minimal.

On the other hand, Doss thinks that working with some mushrooms could lead to advancements. For one, he says psychedelic research has barely scratched the surface of non-psilocybin mushrooms. He points to Amanita muscaria, that whimsical-looking white-dotted red mushroom you may have seen stylized in the “Mario” video game franchise. If Field Trip looks into such mushrooms, Doss believes, then their research could prove beneficial.

Another possible benefit, Doss says, is in lowering the price of clinical research. The current process to synthesize psilocybin for laboratory use costs as much as 13 times the street price for the equivalent amount of shrooms. Doss believes Field Trip’s laboratory could help make psilocybin research less cost-prohibitive. “If there’s an easy way to extract psilocybin from the mushrooms,” he says, “then I think it’s a good idea.”

In addition to searching for novel compounds, Field Trip hopes to develop the protocols for using the mushrooms in a clinical environment — in therapy, for example. Levy hopes that this second area of work will take place with an eye for building the tightly regulated environment under which shrooms could be legalized.

But Doss questions whether the mushrooms themselves will ever be an alternative to the synthetic psilocybin that’s been tried and tested clinically for years.

What Field Trip plans “doesn’t fit into [a Food and Drug Administration] model easily,” agrees Thomas. He believes it would be difficult to apply Field Trip’s work to a larger regulatory framework.

Other firms have already begun trying with pure psilocybin. For instance, a British for-profit company named COMPASS Pathways has begun clinical trials using psilocybin to treat depression with the aim of gaining approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

COMPASS’s efforts have been met with mistrust and resistance by many psychedelic researchers — partly because COMPASS originated as a charity. Many researchers feel betrayed by something that in their eyes has turned into just another tentacle of big pharma.

“Hippies are up in arms” about COMPASS, says Doss.

Conflicts like these may only intensify as the push for psilocybin legalization accelerates throughout North America. But Levy insists that Field Trip only wants shrooms to be legalized under a science-based regulatory framework to ensure safe use. Without that framework, he says decriminalizing shrooms “just creates unnecessary risk.”

When it comes to psilocybin, Doss urges caution, especially in what he terms the “use-use-use culture” of the U.S. And if there is one place where researchers like Doss are in agreement with Levy, it is this.

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