Could mushrooms be the next drug to be decriminalised?

Marijuana and magic mushrooms. One's a plant, one's a fungi, both are illegal - for now.

But psychedelic drug reform is already happening in the US. The city of Denver, which has already legalised recreational cannabis, is preparing to vote on whether to decriminalise magic mushrooms in May.

With New Zealand moving towards a referendum on our cannabis laws, Newshub spoke to Victoria University drug use expert Dr Fiona Hutton about whether or not we need to take a look at our laws on mushrooms.

Is the criminalisation of mushrooms doing more harm than good? Is it time to free the shroom?

Magic mushrooms.
Magic mushrooms. Photo credit: Getty

Magic mushrooms (or shrooms) contain psilocybin, which is converted in the body to the psychedelic substance psilocin. They're classified as Class A, meaning they come with the strongest penalties if you get caught with them.

Possession is a maximum of six months in prison - while the maximum penalty for supply is life in prison.

But studies by Professor David Nutt and Johns Hopkins University researchers shows that mushrooms are one of the substances with the least harm to users and the community, while they could provide extraordinary medical benefits.

A comparison of the harms caused by different drugs.
A comparison of the harms caused by different drugs. Photo credit: Professor David Nutt / The Lancet

Dr Hutton says the main risk from mushrooms comes from the punitive criminal punishments in place and mushrooms should "most definitely" be decriminalised.

"This would prevent harms to users from criminalisation under Class A, the most severe category of punishments under the current system of prohibition," she told Newshub.

"Having them placed in Class A is absolutely ludicrous, and demonstrates the arbitrary and non-evidence based nature of our drug laws - so any drug law reform should include decriminalising mushrooms."

Not only do punitive drug laws ruin the lives of those caught, they prevent research into the therapeutic uses of mushrooms.

In medical trials, patients reported improvements in anxiety and depression. Other studies found psilocybin could help users kick their drug, alcohol, and nicotine addictions.

There's also evidence to suggest micro-dosing can enhance creativity and productivity.

"One of the difficulties here in terms of research is that being in Class A limits clinical trials and research into mushrooms, so decriminalising could improve this situation and encourage more research into this promising area," Dr Hutton says.

"Given some of the preliminary findings then yes, I do think that medical use should be allowed of mushrooms."

Magic mushrooms have been used by 8 percent of the population.
Magic mushrooms have been used by 8 percent of the population. Photo credit: Drug Foundation / Website

This isn't to say that they are safe. They are a potent psychedelic and can cause bad trips - an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety - especially for inexperienced users.

"In recreational settings adverse effects include people panicking whilst 'tripping' leading to erratic behaviour, and most side effects in a clinical settings are mild, such as headaches and mild nausea," Dr Hutton told Newshub.

"Those with pre-existing mental health issues should also steer clear of magic mushrooms, in case 'tripping' exacerbates any of the symptoms related to underling mental health problems."

In the US, drug researchers, including Johns Hopkins University researcher Dr Matthew Johnson, said they were worried about the risk of bad trips and how people with psychotic disorders could be affected.

Dr Johnson argued that instead of decriminalising psilocybin it should be reclassified from a schedule 1 drug to a schedule IV drug. This would treat it as having a low potential for abuse or dependency.

But in comparison to other drugs, mushrooms are relatively less harmful.

A comparison of the harms caused by different drugs.
A comparison of the harms caused by different drugs. Photo credit: Global Drug Survey

According to the 2017 annual Global Drug Survey, which relies on self-reported drug use, the rate of users who needed emergency medical care after using mushrooms was three times lower that of cannabis.

And research by UK drug expert Prof Nutt found that mushrooms were statistically the least dangerous out of 20 drugs, including alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and LSD.

Dr Hutton is hopeful that drug law reform will continue, and New Zealand's ABC drug categories are replaced with "more evidence-based reforms and legislation".

"Knee-jerk reactions to stereotypes about drugs and drug users are largely responsible for the ludicrous situation of classifying mushrooms as Class A in our current system, and has also hindered research into a drug that is promising on several levels to treat debilitating conditions," she told Newshub.

But it appears to be an issue unlikely to be tackled in the near future.

"I think it is highly unlikely that a move to legalise cannabis could be extended to hallucinogens as well at this point in the public drug reform debate," director of the National Addiction Centre, Professor Doug Sellman, told Newshub.

"The hysteria about hallucinogens is considerably more than cannabis. Furthermore, any attempts to do so could undermine the efforts to free us from the scourges of cannabis prohibition."

And even asking about it drew negative responses from politicians. The Green Party didn't reply when asked if their spokesperson for drug law reform, Chlöe Swarbrick, would support legal change.

Meanwhile, National's drug reform spokesperson Paula Bennett had a message to New Zealanders.

"The fact that Newshub is asking about this highlights how little detail the Government has given us where it plans to go with its drug reforms," she told Newshub.

"The reality is, the Government has already said it will amend the Misuse of Drugs Act, which will give police more leniency when dealing with people buying and using hard drugs including P, heroin, mushrooms and cocaine.

"Ultimately, we will need an approach around drugs that will work for New Zealand and our specific social needs. I encourage Newshub to ask more questions of the Government, because so far, we've had very little detail."