Oregon launches legal psilocybin access amid high demand and hopes for improved mental health care
Gared Hansen shows psilocybin mushrooms that are ready for distribution in his Uptown Fungus lab in Springfield, Ore., Monday, Aug. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
Andrew Selsky, The Associated Press
Published Friday, September 15, 2023 4:21PM EDT
EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Psilocybin tea, wind chimes and a tie-dye mattress await those coming to an office suite in Eugene to trip on magic mushrooms. For roughly six hours, adults over 21 can experience what many users describe as vivid geometric shapes, a loss of identity and a oneness with the universe.
Epic Healing Eugene — America’s first licensed psilocybin service center — opened in June, marking Oregon's unprecedented step in offering the mind-bending drug to the public. The center now has a waitlist of more than 3,000 names, including people with depression, PTSD or end-of-life dread.
No prescription or referral is needed, but proponents hope Oregon's legalization will spark a revolution in mental health care.
Colorado voters last year passed a measure allowing regulated use of magic mushrooms starting in 2024, and California’s Legislature this month approved a measure that would allow possession and use of certain plant- and mushroom-based psychedelics, including psilocybin and mescaline, with plans for health officials to develop guidelines for therapeutic use.
The Oregon Psilocybin Services Section, charged with regulating the state's industry, has received “hundreds of thousands of inquiries from all over the world," Angela Allbee, the agency's manager, said in an interview.
“So far, what we’re hearing is that clients have had positive experiences,” she said.
While psilocybin remains illegal in most of the United States, the Food and Drug Administration in 2018 designated it a “breakthrough therapy.” This summer, the FDA published draft guidance for researchers designing clinical trials for psychedelic drugs.
Researchers believe psilocybin changes the way the brain organizes itself, helping a user adopt new attitudes and overcome mental health issues.
The Oregon Psychiatric Physicians Association, however, opposed Oregon's 2020 ballot measure legalizing psilocybin, saying it “is unsafe and makes misleading promises to those Oregonians who are struggling with mental illness.”
Allbee noted that psychedelic mushrooms have been a part of tribal spiritual and healing practices for thousands of years. Her agency is focused on safety, she said.
First, customers must have a preparation session with a licensed facilitator who stays with clients as they experience the drug. The facilitator can deny access to those who have active psychosis, thoughts of harming anyone, or who have taken lithium, which is used to treat mania, in the past month.
The clients can't buy mushrooms to go, and they must stay at the service center until the drug wears off.
Besides approving psilocybin, Oregon voters in 2020 decriminalized possession of hard drugs, cementing the state’s reputation as a leader in drug-law reform. Oregon was the first state to decriminalize marijuana possession and one of the first to legalize its recreational use.
But these days, the regulated marijuana industry is struggling with massive oversupply. And drug decriminalization has not greatly expanded addiction treatment or reduced overdoses as hoped. According to AP VoteCast, 58% of Oregon voters in the 2022 midterm elections thought Oregon’s drug decriminalization effort had been a bad thing.
It’s too early to assess Oregon’s mushroom legalization.
Oregon Psilocybin Services spent two years establishing regulations and began accepting license applications in January. There are now 10 licensed service centers, four growers, two testing labs and dozens of facilitators.
While Epic Healing Eugene has a long waitlist thanks in part to early media attention, other service centers say business is picking up as awareness spreads.
Omnia Group Ashland, which opened this month in southern Oregon, has a prospective client list of 150, said co-founder Brian Lindley. Jeanette Small, the owner of Lucid Cradle in Bend, said she intends to see only one client per week to give close attention to each and is already booked through December.
The law allows local jurisdictions to ban psilocybin operations, and several rural counties have done so.
There are complaints the cost is too high, but those in the industry expect prices to fall as more businesses are established. A client can wind up paying over $2,000, which helps cover service center expenses, a facilitator and lab-tested psilocybin. Annual licenses for service centers and growers cost $10,000, with a half-price discount for veterans.
Allbee said her agency requires every licensee to work toward social equity goals, with some already providing sliding-scale price models. She expects Oregon’s psilocybin program, currently receiving millions in taxpayer dollars, to be fully supported by licensing fees by mid-2025. She promised to then boost efforts to lower prices.
Cathy Jonas, Epic Healing Eugene’s owner, said she doesn't expect her service center to start making money for a while. Providing legal access to psychedelic mushrooms is a calling, she said: “The plant medicines have communicated to me that I’m supposed to be doing this thing."
State regulations allow doses of up to 50 milligrams, but when Jonas tested a 35-milligram sample of pure psilocybin — typically equal to about 6 grams of dried mushrooms — she found it so powerful that she decided it would be the most her facility would offer.
One of Jonas' first clients took 35 milligrams and described seeing a “kind of infinite-dimension fractal that just kept turning and twisting."
“It was kind of mesmerizing to watch, but it got so intense,” said the client, who didn’t want to be identified to protect his privacy. “I started to have this experience of dying and being reborn. And then I would kind of see large portions of my life going by in a very rapid way.”
He said the session “was not particularly pleasant,” but that it beneficially transformed how he views painful memories and provided a sought-after mystical experience.
Licensed grower Gared Hansen has come full circle from the 16 years he spent as a police officer in San Francisco. He once busted a psilocybin dealer in Golden Gate Park.
Today, he runs Uptown Fungus, a one-person psilocybin-growing operation in a nondescript building set among towering cedar trees near Springfield, Oregon. He tends mushroom varieties with names like Golden Teacher, Blue Meanies and Pink Buffalo. A 25-milligram dose costs $125.
Hansen said he sometimes meditates with the mushrooms, hoping to imbue them with healing energy.
Little, brown psychedelic mushrooms can be found growing in fields or in the woods, but they can closely resemble poisonous varieties. Hansen and others caution against obtaining psilocybin cheaper on the black market or tripping alone. Service centers provide measured — and often strong — doses in a controlled environment.
“Sometimes part of the healing could be a negative experience someone has to go through, to kind of flush negative emotions out or reexperience some trauma in a healthier way," Hansen said. “I’d hate to have someone that’s never tried it before take it home, have a bad trip and hurt themselves.”