What Are Psilocybin Mushrooms?

Psilocybin mushrooms, also known as “shrooms” or ‘psychedelic mushrooms”, are the reproductive organs of fungi that contain a psychedelic compound called psilocybin and several related psychoactive compounds.

Hundreds of mushroom species contain psychoactive compounds. However, some species also contain potent toxins – so proper and technical verification is key. While this may seem complicated, many societies throughout history have learned to properly identify and utilize psychedelic mushrooms.

Their use as psychedelics goes back as far as 7,000 years – to ancient Mesoamerican religious rituals; to this day, “shrooms” are still one of the most popular psychedelics used in the United States and Europe.

Aside from their recreational use, psychedelic mushrooms are known to have beneficial effects in therapy settings, helping to alleviate and treat disorders like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and even addiction.


History of Psychedelic Mushrooms

Despite their vast therapeutic potential, psilocybin mushrooms are illegal in all of the United States, with the exception of two cities: Denver, Colorado; Oakland, California; and Santa Cruz, California.

Similar to cannabis, mushrooms have long been stigmatized as a dangerous substance, driven in part by the counterculture political backlash of the 1960s and 70s. This “free-thinking” movement prized shrooms for their effects, which fueled prohibition by governments and prevented necessary research to truly understand their potential.

Mushrooms are commonly known as a trippy party drug, but their history is far deeper and more spiritual than that. Scientists have found evidence of people using mushrooms as psychedelics all around the world, dating back to the earliest human civilizations. They are commonly associated with religious rituals and right-of-passage ceremonies. So, it is likely that the mushroom trips your ancestors went on affected aspects of ancient culture – from religion to the cultural values many people still honor today.

Some of the earliest records of psilocybin use took place in the Mayan and Aztec cultures of Guatemala and Mexico. After the Spanish conquered these regions in the 16th century, they forbade indigenous people from using psychedelic mushrooms. So, for the next 400 years, the indigenous communities continued to enjoy their sacred psychedelics in secret. Sometimes mixed with the Christian ceremonies trying to replace them, psilocybin mushrooms continued in some areas as a key religious ritual.

In the mid-1950s, a Mexican tribe received a visitor from the West that would kick-off a psychedelic movement in the United States.

This visitor was Gordon Wasson, former vice president of J.P. Morgan & Company. He traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico to meet a member of the indigenous Mazatec Indian tribe and a mushroom shaman to guide his experience. They introduced him to psilocybin mushrooms and led him on his first trip, which he described as feeling awestruck, like his soul had been “scooped” from his body.

Two years later, he wrote about his experience in Time Magazine, where he claims to be one of the first two white men in history to consume these mushrooms (This likely isn’t true, because psilocybin mushrooms are distributed widely across parts of Europe and Russia and several cultures use them in different ways.) Regardless, the photo essay caught the attention of two men who would come to lead the “psychedelics revolution.”

The 1960s and the “Counterculture” Movement

Wasson’s article caught the attention of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, two Harvard University researchers, who he inspired to travel to Oaxaca and experience psychedelic mushrooms for themselves. They came back from their trip ready to get to work, and started the Harvard Psilocybin Project to research psilocybin and its effects on the human body.

With the loose psychological testing guidelines and the freedom to interact with their patients in questionable ways and take the drugs themselves, the project quickly accelerated off track. They used their newfound downtime to spread the good word of mushrooms as a psychedelic drug, which started the Western world’s psychedelic boom of the 1960s.

One of the first scientists to get their hands dirty with psychedelics research was Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, the same chemist who synthesized LSD. In 1957, Hoffman isolated psilocybin in his lab using Psilocybe mexicana, a common mushroom from Central America. A year later it was synthetically produced for the very first time.

In 1971, the War on Drugs was taking hold and the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances listed psilocybin as a Schedule 1 drug in the United States. This ranking is for substances that have no medicinal value and a high risk of abuse. There is one loophole: the scheduling was only for psilocybin, not psilocybin mushrooms, which allows UN countries to regulate psilocybin shrooms however they choose.

Mushrooms that contain psilocybin are still federally illegal in the United States, just like cannabis. However, the increase in psychedelic therapy research has led to the FDA and DEA to loosen some rules on mushrooms. You can read more about the latest research on our “health benefits of psilocybin mushrooms” page.

Mushrooms in Today’s Society

Since the initial shroom boom of the 1960s, psychedelic shrooms remain a popular choice for both recreational and therapeutic users.

One study from 2013 found that there are more than 30 million psychedelic users in the United States, with the most common age range of users being between 30 and 34 years old. 20-22 million of psychedelic users opt for psilocybin, as it’s considered one of the safest psychedelics available.

Curiosity, mystical experiences, and introspection are some of the reasons why so many people opt for a psychedelic experience, which can be good or bad depending on your experience, your mental health, and, perhaps most importantly, your surroundings while you trip.

Check out our page on the effects of psychedelic mushrooms for a full breakdown of how they interact with your body and the effects you’ll feel when you “trip.” Whether you’re an experienced tripper, a first-time user, or just curious about psychedelics in general, it’s important to be your own advocate with the best possible understanding of anything you choose to consume.