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Weed Plus: The Healing Mystique of Magic Mushrooms

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The winter sun was beating down through the open windows of my older sister’s Porsche as we cruised down Pico Boulevard toward the beach, bumper to bumper with other cars in the westward traffic of a warm Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles.

“That smells good,” she hollered to the guys in the next car over, pot smoke filling the space between lanes. They motioned to pass a joint through the open windows, my two best pals and I giggling in the back seat. I was 18 and by this point familiar with the terrain of a cannabis high, but I wanted to keep my head clear for later — for what my sister described as “weed plus.”

I’d spent my first semester of college smoking weed out of a hookah with friends, my nights ablaze, as one does in Berkeley. In the daytime, I’d burrow into a pile of books about psychedelic counterculture for an upcoming research paper. I had become obsessed with Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, and as if I’d read the guidebook to Paris before a trip, I decided that all my academic probing into psychedelics better culminate in lived experience. So, I bought a half ounce of shrooms and headed to Venice Beach with a few friends for our first time “tripping.” My older sister — a dedicated stoner and a cannabis attorney 14 years my senior — along with a family friend, who was a medical marijuana doctor and a seasoned psychonaut, were there to guide us in case things got too weird.

Unlike acid (which I still hadn’t tried at that point), mushrooms felt like the next level up from cannabis — that is, “weed plus” in the words of my sister. The psychedelic experience, or “trip,” would be longer than a regular weed high, but shorter than 12 hours of LSD. After that first time tripping, I soon learned that, for me, mushrooms and cannabis bring on similar visuals of swirling floral patterns and paisleys in a pink Technicolor palette.

My first time taking mushrooms was easily one of the best, most significant days of my life: playful, exploratory, spiritual. I felt like I was reborn, discovering the world and its wonders for the first time. The shrooms had turned down the volume on the anxiety that defined my day-to-day and turned up the volume on my appreciation for life. For the first time, the phrase “be here now” meant something to me on an embodied level — but like Ram Dass, who ventured to India after coming up and down on countless psychedelic trips during his tenure as a psychiatry professor at Harvard in the 1960s, I too wondered why it seemed I needed mushrooms to feel the way I did. I asked myself, “Would I be able to get there on my own one day?”

Psych 101

It’s a common adage that one can accomplish the same degree of healing in a single psychedelic trip that might otherwise require years of therapy. By the same token, in the psychedelic community it’s often said that “the journey is the medicine.” In other words, such as in the case of mushrooms, it’s not just the psilocybin, the main psychoactive compound, that spurs a neurological reset — it’s the experience of the trip itself. This can come with insights, challenges and joys that consequently foster lessons and memories that nourish the soul and last a lifetime. Science can only attempt to describe this alternative headspace.

Many well-known research institutions such as Johns Hopkins and UCLA are exploring how psilocybin is being used for mental health treatments and can occasion a “mystical experience,” defined by “scale scores” of seven criteria. What scientists are finding is that the degree to which a patient undergoes a mystical experience often correlates to the degree of healing they experience for whatever condition they are treating, be it anxiety, depression, or something else.

“When you optimally screen, facilitate and integrate these [psychedelic] experiences, you can almost reliably facilitate a mystical level kind of encounter, which may be predictive of positive therapeutic outcomes,” said Dr. Charles Grob, psychedelic researcher and UCLA professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

To put it bluntly, the promise of psychedelic therapy is forcing researchers to grapple with notions of God or mysticism that have otherwise been absent from Western science and medicine. Indigenous cultures, on the other hand, are well-known for structured spiritual-medicinal approaches and traditions that incorporate psychedelic plant medicine, such as ayahuasca, magic mushrooms or peyote.

Grob notes that clinicians have much to learn from indigenous practices, which “were entirely dependent on a harmonious relationship with the world of nature for shelter, for food, for continuity, and for societal groups.”

He goes on to say that the psychedelic experience may be symbolic of a death and rebirth ritual. That could be thanks to the experience of “ego death” — a psychedelic-induced dampening of the brain’s default mode network (DMN), where the ego resides. Ego death, or “ego dissolution,” can act as a reset for the DMN, helping to rewire thought patterns that were otherwise constrained by the ego, and facilitating an increase in personality traits like openness or empathy.

In breaking out of old thought patterns, a person who experiences ego death may also obtain a degree of healing from habits that previously kept them in a loop, particularly in addiction. Turning down the volume on the ego can also help engender a sense of oneness with the surrounding world, people or nature.

“The ego is looking after us,” Grob says. “There’s good reason to be compassionate toward the ego: It’s trying to do its best, but it’s not useful, and it overshoots in what it does and disconnects us. What psychedelics do is turn down the defenses.”

The ego’s defenses can manifest in addictions, such as eating disorders, compulsions and obsessions. “They’re all a maladaptive defense response to adversity,” says Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, Head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London.

Through psychedelic therapy, Grob says, we can engineer a context in which it’s safe to let the ego go off duty and allow us to be vulnerable in a caring, nurturing environment. “It’s about going backwards to go forward,” he said. “Being vulnerable to be stronger, more flexible, more capacious.”

Safe Travels

Finding the right setting for a psychedelic experience is up to the beholder; it could be in a therapist’s office, a spiritual ceremony, with friends at a music concert, or decidedly alone in the woods. Once that ideal setting is found, one can relax and focus his or her mindset on whatever kind of healing or intention they set out to explore with the help of psychedelic medicine.

Even back in the ’60s, Grob says, pioneer researchers “found that those who had a mystical level experience had improved quality of life.” 

With psilocybin in particular, he said, “the replicability and degree to which the trip might happen, and the depth is more apparent”— than perhaps with other psychedelics such as LSD — because the six to eight-hour trip is “easier to control” than something that could otherwise be twice as long.

Despite the growing amount of research, psychedelic scientists have yet to fully comprehend how substances such as psilocybin work in the brain. Psilocybin definitely stimulates the serotonin 2A receptor in the brain and can occasion ego death by dampening the default mode network. Even so, the compound remains a mystery.

That said, there’s mounting evidence that psilocybin — much like cannabis — can facilitate healing from a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, addiction, and eating disorders, among others. It can also increase the personality trait of openness, allowing the afflicted to become more amenable to new patterns and solutions, and enhancing general well-being for those who are otherwise already well.

While people who use cannabis medicinally can get a great deal of relief from chronic pain or mood disturbance, Grob says it’s more of a lifestyle drug. “The effects of cannabis are dwarfed in comparison with the potential that psilocybin or LSD might have in evoking a powerful altered state of consciousness that allows individuals to see themselves and the world around them and their lives in a novel manner,” he said.

In other words, psilocybin offers more bang for your buck if you compare it to regular cannabis use.

#TBT

Around the peak of that Venice Beach mushroom trip so long ago, my friends and I decided to venture out of our apartment and head to the ocean. As the sun set and temps started to cool, the winds picked up. 

“I’m shivering, but it’s not me,” I said through chattering teeth. I looked down at my hand with curiosity, flipping my palm over and under, upside and down, as if it was someone else’s hand.

I plopped down on the shore, near the sunset drum circle that takes place every Sunday. It smelled like weed, but I wondered how many others were also on shrooms. I remembered what my sister had said about psilocybin feeling like “weed plus,” but this was so much better. So. Much. Better.

“There’s no competition,” Grob said, when comparing psilocybin and cannabis. “The psilocybin experience has the potential of facilitating a life-changing kind of event.” Precisely how I felt about one of the best, most significant days of my life.

A huge smile crept across my face, and I was feeling more in touch with my essence than ever before. “Ohh, be here now,” I giggled, referencing the phrase and title of Ram Dass’ famous book which my parents had introduced me to as a child. “I get it,” I thought.

It was the first time I felt that sacred sense of time and space, of being in the moment — in my body — without feeling an attachment to the chronological series of events that took me here. I just was, feeling a sense of “is-ness.” I was simply being, and my nervous system, with all its anxieties and temporal attachments, was for once at rest.

My memory of that mind-bending Venice Beach experience remains vivid. The spiritual nourishment and sense of mystique from that day are still with me, infusing my life with the magic of those mushrooms. “These are like waking dreams,” Grob said. “Sometimes it’s important to just sit back and look objectively at the scene playing in front of you, and how that relates to your life.”

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New York Expands Medical Marijuana Eligibility

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This week, New York expanded eligibility for the state’s medical cannabis program to include more patients, according to an announcement from state regulators. New York’s Office of Cannabis Management said on Monday that the state had launched a new medical marijuana certification and registration system that is “easier to use and expands the eligibility criteria for patients who can benefit from medical cannabis.”

Under the new eligibility criteria, practitioners will be allowed to issue medical marijuana certifications to any patient they believe may benefit from the medicinal use of cannabis. Previously, the use of medical cannabis was restricted to patients with one or more qualifying medical conditions. The Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) noted that the change is consistent with the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) passed by lawmakers last year.

In addition to legalizing the recreational use of marijuana and establishing a framework for adult-use cannabis sales, the MRTA shifted the regulation of New York’s medical marijuana program from the state Department of Health to the OCM. Tremaine Wright, the chair of the state Cannabis Control Board, applauded the progress made by state marijuana regulators.

“It is terrific to see the Medical Cannabis Program expand so vastly with the launch of the new certification and registration program and the ability of practitioners to determine qualifying conditions as included in the MRTA,” Wright said in a statement from the OCM. 

Previously, the OCM announced additional changes to the state’s medical marijuana program, including allowing the sale of cannabis flower and a permanent waiver of registration fees for patients and caregivers. Regulators also expanded the list of caregivers qualified to certify patients for medical marijuana to include any practitioner who is licensed to prescribe controlled substances in New York, such as dentists, podiatrists and midwives. 

Other changes to New York’s medical marijuana program made by the OCM include increasing the amount of cannabis that may be dispensed at one time from a 30-day supply to a 60-day supply and streamlining the approval for institutions such as hospitals, residential facilities and schools to become designated caregiver facilities to hold and dispense products for patients. Additionally, the state Cannabis Control Board has accepted public comments on proposed regulations to govern the home cultivation of cannabis by medical cannabis patients and is currently completing an assessment of the comments submitted for publication in the state register.

“The new cannabis industry is taking shape as we continue to implement the MRTA and provide greater access for New Yorkers to a medicine that we’re learning more about every day,” Wright said. “We’re continuing to move forward swiftly and today’s system launch follows our achievements that already include adding whole flower medical product sales, permanently waiving $50 patient fees, and advancing home cultivation regulations, among others.”

Patients certified through the new certification and registration system will be issued their certification from the OCM. Certifications previously issued by the Department of Health will continue to remain valid through their expiration date, when new certifications will be issued by the OCM.

Cannabis Community Applauds Expansion of Medical Marijuana Program

Dr. Rebecca Siegel, a clinical psychiatrist and the author of The Brain on Cannabis: What You Should Know About Recreational and Medical Marijuana, said that expanding access to medical cannabis is appropriate, because cannabis can be beneficial for a wide range of medical conditions.

“I think this gives practitioners in all types of medicine just one more tool to add to their belt in order to effectively treat patients,” Siegal wrote in an email to High Times. “Most importantly, I think this broadens the opportunity for more patients to have access to cannabis from their own personal trusted physicians who can better monitor their conditions and use of marijuana. This is way better than patients trying to manage it on their own.”

Sharon Ali, the Mid-Atlantic regional general manager for cannabis multi-state operator Acreage Holdings, said that expanding access to medical marijuana is a significant advancement for New York, where the company operates four The Botanist retail locations.

“New York has the opportunity to implement lessons learned from earlier adopters of legalization, and we’ve seen from other states that one of the most important foundations for a successful adult-use program is a robust medical program,” Ali wrote in an email, adding that it is “an exciting time for New York as the cannabis program continues to evolve in a positive direction.”


Author

A.J. Herrington is a San Diego-based freelance writer covering cannabis news, business, and culture.


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Mississippi Lawmakers Finally Agree on Medical Cannabis Bill

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After more than a year of disagreement, back-and-forth and false dawns, Mississippi lawmakers may have finally produced a medical cannabis bill that will become law.

The Clarion Ledger reported that “members of the Mississippi House and Senate on Tuesday announced a final agreement on a bill to create a medical marijuana program in the state.”

Crucially, versions of the bill that passed out of both chambers did so with veto-proof majorities. 

As expected, the central area of compromise centered “around how often and how much cannabis a medical marijuana patient can purchase,” according to the Clarion Ledger.

Under the bill that passed Tuesday, patients would be allowed “to purchase 3.5 grams of cannabis up to six times a week, or about 3 ounces a month,” the Clarion Ledger reported, which represents a “a decrease from the 3.5 ounces a month the Senate originally passed and the 5 ounces a month voters approved in November 2020.”

The purchasing limits represented the primary area of dispute between Mississippi lawmakers and the state’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, who had said that his preference was for the limit to be set at 2.7 grams.

Reeves has threatened to veto a bill he deems unsatisfactory, but he may have been dealt a checkmate by members of the GOP-dominated legislature.

As Misssissippi Today explained, should the bill be passed on to Reeves, he “could sign the bill into law, veto it, or let it become law without his signature—a symbolic move governors sometimes do to show they disagree with a measure but will not block it.”

“I think the governor is going to sign it,” Ken Newburger, director of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association, told Mississippi Today, adding that the bill will provide patients with a “better quality of life” and that the program will serve as an economic boon for the state as well.

The announcement of the agreement came from the two lawmakers who have taken the lead on the effort to get medical cannabis over the line in Mississippi, who are state Senator Kevin Blackwell and state House Representative Lee Yancey, both Republicans.

“This has been a long journey,” Yancey said at a Tuesday press conference, as quoted by Mississippi Today. “It looks like we will finally be able to provide relief for the chronically ill patients who suffer so badly and need this alternative. I congratulate Sen. Blackwell—he’s carried this bill most of the way by himself.”

Yancey’s bill easily passed the state House last week, a week after the state Senate passed its own version, setting the stage for lawmakers from both chambers to negotiate a compromise.

An overwhelming majority of Mississippi voters approved a ballot initiative in 2020 to legalize medical cannabis, but that triumph quickly gave way to a long series of setbacks for advocates in the state.

The Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the ballot initiative last year, citing a technicality that rendered it in violation of the state constitution. The decision by the court prompted lawmakers to begin work on drafting a bill to replace the defunct law. 

They offered up a bill in the fall, when the legislature was out of session, but Reeves continually balked at calling a special session. 

“I am confident we will have a special session of the Legislature if we get the specifics of a couple of items that are left outstanding,” Reeves said at a press conference in October. “Again, we have made great progress working with our legislative leaders.”

Reeves was against the ballot initiative, but he said last year that he supports “the will of voters” and encouraged lawmakers to produce a bill to replace the one struck down by the Supreme Court.

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Colorado Springs Group Launches Bid to Legalize Recreational Pot Sales

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A group of business and community leaders in Colorado Springs, Colorado has launched a bid to legalize sales of recreational cannabis in the city, arguing that tax revenue generated by purchases of legal cannabis by local residents should stay in the community.

Colorado voters legalized sales of recreational cannabis with the passage of Amendment 64 in 2012, and regulated sales began in the state two years later. But Colorado Springs banned recreational cannabis sales in 2013, although the city is home to more than 100 medical cannabis dispensaries. 

Colorado Springs Ballot Measure Filed

On Monday, the group Your Choice Colorado Springs filed ballot language for a proposed voter initiative that would allow the city’s existing medical marijuana dispensaries to apply for licenses to sell adult-use cannabis. In a statement from the group, the coalition of community and business leaders said that Colorado Springs residents are forced to travel to nearby cities that allow recreational sales. As a result, the city is leaving millions of dollars in potential sales tax revenue on the table, according to Your Choice Colorado Springs.

“It’s hard to believe just how much tax revenue politicians have robbed our city of over the past decade,” said Cliff Black, an attorney and the lead elector petitioning the city for adult-use cannabis sales. “Recreational marijuana is 100 percent legal for every single adult living in the city. Yet the city gets none of the benefits. Instead, residents drive and spend their hard-earned money in Manitou, Pueblo, and even Denver, and then bring their marijuana right back home to Colorado Springs. With this initiative, we are asking voters if they want to keep their tax dollars local.”

The group noted that Manitou Springs is the only city in El Paso County that permits recreational cannabis sales. Thanks to limited competition and high local demand, the two dispensaries in Manitou Springs are among the most profitable in the state.

Voters in Colorado Springs approved Amendment 64 by a margin of about 3,000 votes, according to Westword. Activists have made previous bids to legalize recreational cannabis sales, but have failed to gain the support of a majority of the city council. Additionally, Colorado Springs Mayor Mayor John Suthers, who once served as state attorney general, has been a vocal opponent of recreational marijuana sales since taking office in 2015.

“When Colorado began adult-use sales of cannabis in 2014, we anticipated that our local officials would respect the will of the voters and craft a regulatory structure allowing recreational sales,” said Karlie Van Arnam, a mother, small business owner and former candidate for city council. “But instead, year after year, politicians have declined to provide a regulatory structure to collect precious tax revenue for our city. Today, Colorado Springs residents are taking this decision back into our own hands to finally give ourselves the choice to vote on allowing recreational sales in our community.”

Organizers Hope for November 2022 Vote

If the proposed ballot language submitted this week by Your Choice Colorado Springs is approved by the City Initiative Review Committee, the group will have 90 days to collect the approximately 33,000 signatures needed to place the initiative on the ballot for the November 2022 general election.

To comply with the city’s cap on retailers, the ballot measure would only permit existing medical marijuana dispensaries to sell recreational cannabis with state approval. The proposal would not allow new cannabis dispensaries to open in Colorado Springs.

Sales tax revenue generated by recreational cannabis sales in Colorado Springs would help fund public safety improvements, an expansion of mental health services and support for military veterans, according to the Your Choice Colorado Springs website. Recreational cannabis revenue would be subject to an annual audit by a citizen committee “to ensure that money is being spent where voters approved,” according to the group.

“It’s time for Colorado Springs to catch up with the times and make sure we’re keeping the tax revenues that rightfully belong to the people of Colorado Springs,” Jimmy Garrison, a veteran and founder of a PTSD retreat and camp for veterans Lost Creek Ranch said in a statement for Your Choice Colorado Springs. “As a veteran, I’m thrilled to see that a portion of these tax revenues will support our American heroes and my fellow veterans who paid a price for their service and now struggle with PTSD.”

An informal survey conducted by a local television news station last year found that a majority of respondents favored legalizing recreational marijuana sales in Colorado Springs. And Black said that organizers of the ballot initiative have also collected data that shows support for the issue.

“We’ve done the polling, and believe the voters are in favor of allowing recreational sales in Colorado Springs,” he said.


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A.J. Herrington is a San Diego-based freelance writer covering cannabis news, business, and culture.


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