Psilocybin is the compound that produces the psychedelic effects of “magic” mushrooms. The body breaks psilocybin down into psilocin, which enters the bloodstream, reaches the brain, and induces mind-opening effects. Psychedelic mushrooms are typically categorized as hallucinogens, which places the substance in the same class as other psychedelic drugs like cannabis, ayahuasca, ketamine, MDMA, ibogaine, DMT, peyote, LSD, and mescaline.
While indigenous civilizations have used psilocybin mushrooms for thousands of years in spiritual practices, they emerged in the West during the mid-twentieth century. In 2000, researchers turned to psychedelics as a potential therapy for many emotional and neurological conditions that lack reliable and effective treatments. Doctors are learning to harness the hallucinogenic effects of the substance to help their patients modify their behavior and reshape their neural pathways.
This article discusses current U.S. laws regarding psilocybin and potential future changes to its legality. Familiarizing yourself with the past, present, and future of psilocybin will help you make the best decisions for your health as “shrooms” may soon receive Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval and broader societal acceptance.
History of U.S. Psilocybin Legislation
After an amateur mycologist returned from Mexico with samples of psilocybe mushrooms in the 1950s, researchers in Europe and the U.S. began studying psilocybin and exploring clinical applications. Doctors conducted various studies on the substance’s mind-altering effects through the 1960s.
During the decade, psychedelics gradually became associated with the counterculture, and public opinion shifted away from possible treatments. The Nixon Administration banned psilocybin under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. This legislation classified psilocybin as a Schedule I narcotic due to the belief it carried a high risk of abuse and lacked medicinal value.
The modern understanding of psilocybin revealed that many arguments used to prohibit psilocybin sprung from urban legends and misinformation about exaggerated adverse side effects of psychedelics.
The federal ban remains today. However, psychiatrists at Johns Hopkins began petitioning the government to allow research into the compound’s therapeutic potential during the 1990s. They received permission in 2000. Advancements in neuroscience and chemistry allowed researchers to gain greater insight into the substance and its potential medical uses.
Their initial findings were so promising that the government granted broader access and permission to researchers over time. Eventually, they allowed clinical trials, which had positive results that spurred further research.
Though the possession, use, and sale of psilocybin is still illegal under federal law, some localities such as Denver, CO, Ann Arbor, MI, Detroit, MI, San Francisco, CA, Seattle, WA, Somerville, MA, Northampton, MA, Oakland, CA, Santa Cruz, CA, and Washington D.C. have relaxed their psilocybin-related drug laws.
Where is Psilocybin Legal in the United States?
As of April 2023, psilocybin is only legal in Oregon and Colorado. Voters endorsed psilocybin legalization via ballot measures in 2020 and 2022, respectively. These states permit personal possession and use. Both are also establishing the oversight and regulation needed to operate treatment centers.
While not legal, psilocybin is decriminalized in the District of Columbia and cities in Michigan, California, Massachusetts, and Washington. Residents can possess magic mushrooms even though psilocybin remains technically illegal in these localities.
Researchers and patient advocates continue championing psilocybin reform in other states. In addition, researchers at Hopkins formally urged the government to reclassify psilocybin as a Schedule IV drug in 2018 based on the success of clinical trials and evolving understanding of the risks associated with psilocybin use.
Penalties for Illegal Possession and/or Use of Psilocybin
Despite its promise as a therapeutic intervention, the Drug Enforcement Agency still classifies psilocybin as a Schedule I narcotic. This status places it in the highest class of drug offenses.
Penalties for possession depend on the state, the amount of psilocybin possessed, and other contributing factors, like proximity to schools. The charges can range from misdemeanors punished with fines to felony offenses punished with lengthy minimum prison sentences.
Crossing state lines with psilocybin exposes individuals to federal prosecution due to prohibition on the substance, even when the psilocybin was obtained in a state with legal possession and use.
How to Use Psilocybin Legally in the U.S.
For most Americans, the only legal way to use psilocybin is by participating in a clinical trial. These tightly regulated studies are also the safest way to use psilocybin. You can find opportunities across the country because many states permit psilocybin research. During a trial, you will consume the substance under the observation of researchers. The study is subject to strict ethical and safety standards.
The National Institutes of Health maintains a database of active and recruiting clinical trials throughout the U.S. These studies have eligibility criteria based on demographics and diagnosis. They are an excellent way to receive psilocybin therapy if you qualify.
Future of Psilocybin Laws in the U.S.
While nothing is a legislative certainty, societal attitudes on the applicability and value of psilocybin therapy are shifting. As researchers publish their findings and patients share their stories about the impact of psilocybin therapy, the government will likely react to the will of the people.
The legal profile of psilocybin has shifted dramatically in the last 20 years. Lawmakers in several states, including California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, are discussing bills to legalize psilocybin. Many other states, including Missouri and Texas, have formal public health panels to study the viability and value of legalizing psilocybin for therapeutic use.
Most observers believe FDA approval for psilocybin as an intervention for treatment-resistant depression is forthcoming. This action will likely fuel a broader embrace of psychedelics by patients and doctors, opening up a further national dialogue on the appropriateness and value of psychedelic therapies for those experiencing mental health issues.
The Biden Administration formally expressed its support for investigating psychedelics as a mental health treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans. While federal legislation has yet to follow, the announcement signals that psilocybin’s reputation continues to improve.
Access to psilocybin is likely to lag behind the passage of legislation. As the rollouts in Oregon and Colorado show, state governments take time to assemble regulatory apparatus and codify regulations to administer new programs. Despite the proven therapeutic benefits of psilocybin, it may be a while yet before American citizens can engage in personal use and have possession of psilocybin without having to worry about legal repercussions.
John DiBella is a medical marijuana advocate, owner of The Sanctuary Wellness Institute, and a writer. When he’s not writing blogs about medical marijuana, he enjoys hiking, camping and sailing.