The Poisonous Underbelly of the Psychedelic Renaissance: Amanita Muscaria’s Toxic Menace Is Materialising

The world is in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance, and natural psychedelics are firing up the imagination like never before. Among them, the Amanita muscaria – the famous red-and-white toadstool of storybooks – has taken on a kind of cult status. This little mushroom has long been rumoured to be the star of ancient sacramental rituals, and it purports to offer a new frontier for psychoactive discovery. But, as a study published this July reveals, there might just be a dark secret under its technicolour kindergarten exterior: the Amanita appears to be more than 10 times more toxic than the 50 times stronger opioid fentanyl.

The Rising SURGE in Psychedelic Exploration

As society continues to open itself to alternative forms of therapy, the rollercoaster of psychedelics’ popularity has hit a new high. Psilocybin mushrooms have been at the vanguard of this second wave of renewed popularity, thanks to research supported by philanthropic grants and media coverage claiming it to be a potential treatment for depression, anxiety and PTSD. Its increasing mainstream popularity has inadvertently brought attention to a very different mushroom, Amanita muscaria. Both are hallucinogenic fungi but, apart from sharing the same biological taxonomy, they are worlds apart in how they work and their risks.

The Allure and Risk of Amanita Muscaria

Traditionally, it had been celebrated as a recognisably and distinctly psychedelic mushroom, but its entry into the contemporary psychedelic experience is also one that comes with a ton of warning labels. Research led by the University of California San Diego Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science emphasises the grave danger of ingesting it. Amanita muscaria does have the psychoactive compounds psilocybin and psilocin, but it also has muscimol and ibotenic acid. These latter two are recognised as deadly neurotoxins and have little redeeming value in the realm of so-called benign psychedelics.

A Comparative SURGE in Toxicity

The study notes, with sobering clarity, that Amanita muscaria’s primary compounds are more toxic than fentanyl, PCP, cocaine or most other psychoactive drugs – including many that, as we’ve seen in recent years, have led to numerous hospitalisations and even deaths. In contrast to the rather minor risks presented by psilocybin mushrooms – which are relatively non-toxic, with a low prevalence of fatalities caused by an overdose – Amanita muscaria is a public health risk, a dangerous entity and a far more terrifying poison for society, if not for these intoxicated hunters heading into the woods armed with nothing but a wobbly compass of trust.

The Regulatory Vacuum

Beyond the real dangers of acute and chronic toxicity, the biggest problem with Amanita muscaria’s current popularity boom is that it’s not regulated. With a free pass from the Controlled Substances list of the federal government, it has become part of the market for dietary supplements, often deceptively positioned alongside ‘magic mushroom gummies’ that conflate it with far safer psilocybin-containing mushrooms.

The Call for Urgent Action

Their call to action urged increased regulatory and disclosure efforts in the psychedelic supplement landscape. Their proposal included Listing Amanita muscaria as a controlled substance (or, at the very least, slapping age-restrictions on products containing it and packaging them in a blatantly childproof manner) so that consumers would be spared the dangers of the ‘wild west’ of shady and unregulated markets. This is a tale of a clash between public health and profit.

Toward a Safer Psychedelic Future

The history of Amanita muscaria serves as a cautionary tale in an environment of new psychedelic enthusiasm for the critical importance of safety, research and regulation of psychedelic therapeutics. The search for alternatives to treat suffering and alleviate distress is righteous, worthy and important. But we mustn’t allow it to turn into a situation in which the harm of using high-risk drugs outweighs the possible benefits.

Understanding the SURGE Phenomenon

When I say surge, I really mean a spike, or uptick, in interest and use of psychedelics, and especially of natural psychedelics like mushrooms, as a result of increasing acceptance in the last few years, scientific research corroboration of therapeutic benefits (and, yes, that positive perception helped rather than hindered research success), and a desire for an alternative modality to years of pharmaceutical response to our increasingly divided and chaotic mental health crisis. As is the case with Amanita muscaria, what goes up also exposes some of the frailties of the psychedelic surge. It’s not all desirable or necessary, and many of the unregulated aspects of it can actually be, well, toxic.

Ultimately, while the pull to use psychedelics as windows into consciousness is strong, the path forward must also be navigated with humility and concern. Amanita muscaria gives us an opportunity to consider a defining moment within the renaissance of psychedelics, when the prospects for exploration must be balanced against the goals of public health and safety. As the tide of psychedelics rises, there would be nothing more tragic than for it to ebb away, leaving only injury and pain in its wake.

Jun 12, 2024
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