New trials have shown the drug psilocybin to be highly effective in treating depression, with Oakland the latest US city to in effect decriminalise it last week. Some researchers say it could become ‘indefensible’ to ignore the evidence – but how would it work as a reliable treatment?
Lying on a bed in London’s Hammersmith hospital ingesting capsules of psilocybin, the active ingredient of magic mushrooms, Michael had little idea what would happen next. The 56-year-old part-time website developer from County Durham in northern England had battled depression for 30 years and had tried talking therapies and many types of antidepressant with no success. His mother’s death from cancer, followed by a friend’s suicide, had left him at one of his lowest points yet. Searching online to see if mushrooms sprouting in his yard were the hallucinogenic variety, he had come across a pioneering medical trial at Imperial College London.
Listening to music and surrounded by candles and flowers in the decorated clinical room, Michael anxiously waited for the drug to kick in. After 50 minutes, he saw bright lights leading into the distance and embarked on a five-hour journey into his own mind, where he would re-live a range of childhood memories and confront his grief. For the next three months, his depressive symptoms waned. He felt upbeat and accepting, enjoying pastimes he had come to feel apathetic about, such as walking through the Yorkshire countryside and taking photographs of nature.
“I became a different person,” says Michael. “I couldn’t wait to get dressed, get into the outside world, see people. I was supremely confident – more like I was when I was younger, before the depression started and got to its worst.”