In 2016, New York University and Johns Hopkins Medicine both published studies in which terminal cancer patients were given doses of the chemical compound psilocybin and guided through its effects by licensed therapists (Ross et al.) (Griffiths et al.). Many of the patients reported this single psilocybin experience not only removed anxiety about their impending deaths, but was also one of the most significant experiences in their entire lives. Yet former President Richard Nixon once called an early psilocybin researcher “the most dangerous man in America” for promoting the use of psilocybin and other psychedelic substances (Slater). In 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration claimed that psilocybin was a “breakthrough therapy” (Bergland). Yet the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration claims that psilocybin has “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” Psilocybin advocate Richard Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, has said: “We are not the counterculture, we are the culture” (Schwartz). Yet in most of the United States, the mere possession of psilocybin under any circumstances carries the risk of arrest and prison.
Is psilocybin a promising medicine that might deeply change the way that depression and anxiety are treated, or is it a harmful drug that needs to be suppressed in order to protect society? Although most of the debates over this issue seem to be happening in research institutions, government agencies, and psychedelic festivals, a few cities have begun to decriminalize psilocybin possession (Kenney) (Weise and della Cava). If this movement toward legalization continues, it seems likely that many Americans will start taking positions on the issue. Therefore, potentially life-changing psychiatric treatments for millions of people seem to at least partially hinge on gauging public sentiment about psilocybin. I propose that examining newspaper coverage might be one window into that public sentiment.
Psilocybin is a chemical compound (molecular formula: C12H17N2O4P) (PubChem) found in several species of fungus. Many people consider it to be a member of a class of compounds called “psychedelics,” which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “causing effects on the mind, such as feelings of deep understanding or unusually strong experiences of color, sound, taste, and touch.” (“Entheogen” is another term occasionally used for these compounds in order to avoid the negative associations that some people might have with the word “psychedelic” [Pollan 19].)
After being ingested, psilocybin is converted by the body into another chemical compound called psilocin, which crosses the blood-brain barrier (Dinis-Oliveira 87) and binds to neuron receptors for serotonin (a neurotransmitter) (PubChem). It should be noted that psilocin also interacts with parts of the body besides the brain, but there does not seem to be much published research on its effects in non-neural areas. There are at least 14 unique receptors for serotonin on human neurons (Samuels et al.), and psilocin binds to the 2A serotonin receptors (Dinis-Oliveira 88). Since one way to write the chemical formula for serotonin is 5-HT (5-Hydroxytryptamine), these receptors are called the 5-HT2A receptors. Many researchers believe there is a correlation between the psychedelic effects that occur after ingesting psilocybin and the binding of psilocin to 5-HT2A receptors (Madsen et al.). However, most researchers seem to refer to psilocybin rather than psilocin when singling out a compound associated with therapeutic and psychedelic effects, although some psilocin is also often present in fungus along with psilocybin (PubChem).
There does not seem to be a consensus as to why the binding of psilocin to 5-HT2A receptors might be connected to therapeutic or psychedelic effects. In fact, there does not seem to be a consensus on the purpose of 5-HT2A receptors in general, with or without interaction with psilocin. 5-HT2A receptors have been correlated with medical issues ranging from depression (Celada et al.) to mitochondrial biogenesis (Fanibunda et al.). Some functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of humans who have ingested psilocybin show decreased activity in areas of the brain associated with the “default mode network” (Carhart-Harris et al. 2014), which is a set of brain regions that tends to be more active when humans are at rest and not performing focused cognitive tasks (Greicius et al.). Some researchers speculate that the default mode network regulates many other parts of the brain during normal periods of consciousness and that psilocybin might remove this regulation (Carhart-Harris et al. 2014). A 2014 paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface found that fMRI scans of psilocybin users correlated with “the emergence of strong, topologically long-range functional connections that are not present in a normal state” (Petri et al.).
“Regions where there was significantly decreased CBF [cortical blood flow] after psilocybin versus after placebo are shown in blue… Note, we observed no increases in CBF in any region.”
(Carhart-Harris et al. 2012, pg. 2139)
Psilocybin has been found in fungus species native to every continent but Antarctica, and there have been a proliferation of untestable hypotheses about its historical use by humans. Some people have claimed, with little evidence, that it was ingested by simian ancestors of modern Homo sapiens (McKenna) or by Druids (Letcher) and Stone Age Algerians (Samorini). Perhaps the earliest written records of psilocybin use on which most researchers seem to agree came from Spanish colonizers in the area that is now Mexico, who noted that mushrooms called teonanacatl were used in religious ceremonies by indigenous peoples (Nichols). The Spanish colonial government banned the eating of these mushrooms, and their use survived only in relatively isolated Mexican communities.
Other than a few possible mentions in some publications (describing unusual behavior after eating unidentified mushrooms), psilocybin mushrooms remained mostly unknown outside of these Mexican communities until a 1940 paper published by the botanist Richard Schultes (Pollan 107). In this paper, Schultes described a species of “narcotic mushrooms” used by “professional divinators,” which he encountered near the Mexican village of Huautla de Jiménez (Schultes). Schultes proposed that these mushrooms were the same as the ancient teonanacatl. He did not claim to have ingested the mushrooms himself, but based on descriptions from local people, he wrote:
In 1955, the mycologists Robert and Valentina Wasson traveled to Huautla de Jiménez (Wasson). There they met a woman named María Sabina, who used psilocybin mushrooms in religious ceremonies. In 1955, after a few visits, Sabina agreed to allow the Wassons to participate in one of her ceremonies. The Wassons wrote an article about their research and experiences for Life Magazine, which was published in 1957. This article is the earliest known description of psilocybin mushrooms in the mainstream American press (Pollan 104-105). The title of the article “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” is also possibly the first known use of the phrase “magic mushroom.” The Wassons brought several mushrooms back to their home in New York City, where they offered them to visitors (Pollan 113). The American Museum of Natural History in New York City held an exhibition about the mushrooms and the Wassons’ work. The Wassons also sent some mushrooms to the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who had been the first person to isolate the psychedelic chemical compound lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Hofmann soon isolated psilocybin as the psychedelic chemical compound in the mushrooms and developed a synthetic version.
In 1955, María Sabina (under the pseudonym Eva Mendez) gave psilocybin mushrooms to mycologist Robert Wasson in the Mexican village of Huautla de Jiménez (Wasson).
Hofmann’s employer, the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz, marketed psilocybin in many countries under the brand name Indocybin (Johnson et al.). A number of studies were subsequently conducted into the effects of psilocybin on humans (though most of the focus of psychedelic research at the time seems to have been on LSD). There were studies examining psilocybin’s effects on color perception (Hollister and Hartman), its physiological effects compared to other psychedelics (Isbell), and its effects on criminal recidivism (Romero). In one frequently cited study, psilocybin’s oft-reported spiritual experiences were studied by giving it to Christian divinity students during a Good Friday service (Martin and Hevesi). The researchers who conducted the study on divinity students were professors at Harvard named Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. Their experiments convinced them that psilocybin and other psychedelics should be available to the wider public without the rigor of clinical studies (Pollan 197). This attitude eventually led to Leary and Alpert being dismissed from Harvard in 1963 (Pollan 201-202).
After leaving Harvard, Leary began actively promoting the use of psychedelics to the general public, saying that Americans should “tune in, turn on, and drop out” (Barnes). Although Leary often became the public face of psychedelic compounds, their use was also advocated by many well-known people such as musicians and actors. As psychedelic use rose among Americans, a social backlash also developed. Stories in the mainstream media described psychedelic drug users committing suicide (Young) and having permanent genetic damage (Davidson). Amendments to the U.S. Food Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1962 and 1965 “imposed severe restrictions on distribution, possession, use, and research” (Johnson et al.) of psilocybin. In 1970, then-President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act, which listed psilocybin as a “Schedule 1” drug that had “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States” (Drug Enforcement Administration). Psilocybin remains a Schedule 1 drug today.
Even after these numerous legal restrictions, the federal government still occasionally approved tightly-controlled research of psilocybin (Johnson et al.). This research “began to accelerate by the late 1980s in preclinical laboratories, and in clinical settings by the late 1990s” (Johnson et al.). Although psychedelic research in the 1950s and 1960s had largely focused on LSD, many recent researchers have focused on psilocybin (Haberman). Some feel that psilocybin might have a better chance at being taken off the list of Schedule 1 drugs because it possibly “carries little of the baggage” of LSD (Haberman).
In the 2000s, research into psilocybin’s therapeutic potential has continued to increase (Carhart-Harris and Goodwin). As just one example, a study at the University of California in Los Angeles examined whether psilocybin could help the anxiety of patients facing end-stage cancer (Grob et al.). Another peer-reviewed study examined the effects of psilocybin in the treatment of alcohol addiction (Bogenschutz et al.). Currently (in the year 2020), Johns Hopkins Medicine is conducting studies about psilocybin’s potential to help treat depression, anorexia nervosa, nicotine addiction, and Alzheimer’s Disease (Johns Hopkins).
Roland Griffiths, of Johns Hopkins Medicine, discussed psilocybin research at a conference in 2015 (Johns Hopkins).
Within the psychedelic research community, there often seems to be a growing sense of optimism about psilocybin becoming an accepted part of American life. A book about psychedelic research called How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan was a #1 New York Times bestseller in 2018 (“Hardcover Nonfiction”). Many employees at software companies in Silicon Valley have begun taking small daily doses of psilocybin and other psychedelics (a practice called “microdosing”), believing that this will boost their creativity (Rose). Matthew Johnson et al. have written about psychedelic research that “science has the potential to facilitate innovative therapeutic breakthroughs by replacing fear and misinformation with scientifically based conclusions and facts” (166). American companies now openly market psilocybin tours of Jamaica, where possession is legal (Leonhardt).
However, as scientists in the 1960s discovered, the legal scheduling of a chemical compound by the Drug Enforcement Administration is not merely a matter of scientific research – it is also a matter of politics and public perception. If a new social backlash were to develop against psilocybin and other psychedelics, it could overwhelm the positive impact of recent scientific research. Therefore, finding ways to determine public sentiment about psilocybin would seem beneficial in understanding how to move forward with this issue.
Some studies have explored newspaper coverage as a method to gauge public opinion about particular psychoactive compounds (though there is no consensus on how much of this is correlation or causation) (McGinty et al.) (Zhang et al.). As of yet, there does not seem to be any published academic work on newspaper coverage of psilocybin. Building on studies by McGinty et al. and Zhang et al. about newspaper coverage of opioids and ketamine therapy, I read and analyzed every article mentioning psilocybin in four regional American newspapers over the period from January 1, 1989 to December 31, 2019. This could possibly provide insights about the evolving role of psilocybin in American society. I recognize the risk that newspapers might no longer be a viable way to accurately gauge media opinion, considering the growth of other media outlets such as cable news, podcasts, and YouTube channels. However, an analysis of newspapers might still provide some type of gauge, even if it is far from a perfect one.
I sought to make three measurements about newspaper coverage concerning psilocybin over the 31 years from January 1, 1989 to December 31, 2019:
1) Has sentiment about psilocybin changed?
2) Has the number of articles mentioning psilocybin changed?
3) Has there been a change in the use of different terms for psilocybin?
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