Illustration by Leo Clark

Cashing in on the magic

Will the legalization of psychedelic mushrooms just be another corporate gold rush?

A renaissance for psychedelic drugs seems to be on the horizon, and we are ahead of the curve here in Oregon as voters approved the legalization of psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms with Measure 109 in 2020.


Starting in 2023, the new law allows anyone age 21 or older to access the mushrooms in services for “personal development,” however, it will not have the same legal status as cannabis.


So we will not be able to—at least under this current phase of legalization—just stroll into a retail outlet and buy a few grams of magic mushrooms like we currently do with cannabis. Rather, potential users will need to submit to a screening process and then seek the services of a licensed clinic that will offer the psilocybin as an “experience.”


While potential psychonauts—explorers of altered states of consciousness—will not need a doctor’s prescription for the services, Oregon’s newly minted Psilocybin Advisory Board has been modeling the fledgling industry after those in one of the only other places psilocybin use is legal: the Netherlands.


Dutch companies provide a complete set and setting, making it a total experience, as well as a licensed facilitator to guide the user and a curated place for the experience to unfold. This concept was originally developed in the 1960s by Harvard scientists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who would become infamous in the counter-cultural milieu of the 1960s for their experiments with psilocybin and LSD until their termination from Harvard. They modeled their experiments largely after the Mexican Indigenous healer María Sabina who had cultivated them ceremonially in the Aztec, Huicholes and Mazateca traditions.


One thing notably different about these Dutch companies and their Oregon antecedents is the price tag. Some of these companies—like the Synthesis Institute—charge as much as $20,000 for the facilitator training and $1,000 a day for their three-day psychedelic retreats. One of its co-founders, Myles Katz, also moved to Oregon in 2020 to cash in on the new industry here. He has already started several Limited Liability Companies (LLCs), influenced the legislation as it moves forward and purchased a large property in Ashland to build out his psychedelic retreat center.


According to the Willamette Week, another company with big plans is Field Trip Health from Canada, which boasts a $46 million valuation and plans to open at least one psilocybin therapy center here. It charges as much as $2,000 for a single seven-hour session and offers various expensive add-ons for the experience at its various other locations.


This all seems to be setting up quite a robust boom for those with the capital and the accrued expertise to administer these experiences.


Personally, I am completely in favor of psychedelic exploration and have seen benefits from exploring these substances in various ways—from microdosing for anxiety and depression all the way to taking a larger dose and really confronting some inner turmoil head-on through the unique reframing of introspection and perception.


Michael Pollan has gone into greater depth on the beneficial aspects of psychedelics with his recent book How to Change Your Mind and his eponymous Netflix special.


That said, I cringe and recoil at the horror of seeing another beautiful and useful therapeutic substance becoming a heavily regulated and prohibitively expensive treatment. Once again, the profit motive of greedy entrepreneurs corrupts the potential of this long-maligned experience—one that is also the right of all human beings to enjoy as it is a humble fungus that can be grown just about anywhere warm, dark and damp.


The recreational marijuana market is illustrative of just how corrupt our marketplaces are. According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, “a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates.” This is in the era of marijuana reform and legalization.


Melissa Pandika writes that, according to a recent Marijuana Business Daily survey, 81% of cannabis business owners were white, with a mere 5.7% being Latinx and only 4.3% of these business owners being Black. This kind of inequity is systemic. Incarceration is heavily skewed against people of color, particularly Black people, while the industry and its profitability are skewed in favor of white people. Decriminalization has also largely ignored those imprisoned for drug offenses—a complete slap in the face as white business owners rake in profits for doing exactly what so many Black people were imprisoned for. Systemic white supremacy goes much deeper than this issue, but the fear is that these dynamics will doubtlessly also manifest in the psychedelic mushroom industry here in Oregon.


Further, these treatments are unlikely to be covered under insurance plans. Studies are ongoing, but one of the major benefits that seems to be emerging from psilocybin mushroom treatment is among cancer patients. According to the Washington Post, experiences with these mushrooms can ease anxiety, depression and the fear of death. It seems completely criminal and inhumane to allow a natural fungus with such transformative properties to be accessible only to the wealthy and privileged.


According to The Stranger, “Another factor driving up the cost for potential clients is tax liability. A federal statute bars companies that deal in Schedule I and II drugs from claiming major tax deductions, an issue also faced by the state’s cannabis retailers.”


An obvious fix to this would be President Joe Biden’s administration or the Democratic majority in Congress ending the half-century-long disastrous War on Drugs—a policy that has always targeted people of color, further criminalized poverty, failed to curb use of the prohibited substances in the first place and helped create the black market, which led to the rise of cartel violence that has devastated Mexico, South America and Central America. So far, any progress in that direction seems at a standstill in spite of an ACLU poll showing over 65% of voters in favor of ending the criminalization at the heart of the War on Drugs.


It is clear that there is great potential for material, spiritual, mental and physiological good to come out of the psychedelic renaissance we Oregonians are embarking upon. In order for that to happen, we must be mindful of the ways that the racial hierarchy of white supremacy infects the so-called justice system and the growth of markets in our local economy. We must also confront how the profit motive of greed can and will prohibit those most in need from accessing these benefits.


We can avoid these pitfalls by demanding that mushrooms not be controlled by these companies or the government administrators catering to them. Otherwise, a great opportunity will once again be squandered and DIYers will just have to continue cultivating spores in their closets for the black market and living in fear of draconian reprisals from the legal system.