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Denver To Decriminalize Psychedelic Mushrooms


Denver voters made history last night with the first popular vote in the U.S. to decriminalize hallucinogenic mushrooms. Final unofficial results show the measure barely passing by just a couple thousand votes. The initiative tells police to treat enforcement of laws against mushrooms as their lowest priority. The author and journalist Michael Pollan studied mushrooms and other hallucinogens for his book "How To Change Your Mind."

Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: I know that you see potential risks and benefits to using these mushrooms. First, what good do you think can come from them?

POLLAN: Well, I think the reason this is happening is - has a lot to do with this revival of research into psychedelics as a medicine. And in the last couple of years, there've been some very exciting studies coming out of places like Johns Hopkins, NYU that have found that a single psilocybin session guided by trained therapists can help relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression; help break addictions in alcoholics and cigarette smokers and cocaine addicts; and appears to have enduring positive effects on people's sense of their well-being and their openness. But it's important to note that these are still small studies - even though they've been quite rigorous - and there's a lot more research to do.

SHAPIRO: You know, with legalization of marijuana, we saw several states begin by legalizing medical uses of marijuana. And if benefits of these mushrooms are often in a medical context, whether that's for depression or PTSD or addiction, do you think it might have made more sense to begin with that step rather than wholesale legalization in Denver?

POLLAN: In some ways, yeah, I think legalization would be premature. I mean, the whole point of doing this clinical research is to really get a hold on both the benefits and the risks.

And it's worth noting that, you know, in the clinical setting, they very carefully exclude people at risk of serious mental illness, like schizophrenia. They look at drug interactions, and they also insist that people be very carefully guided.

When it is approved, if that happens, your doctor is not going to give you a prescription for psilocybin that you take to the CVS. It will be in a very carefully supervised context, where you're prepared very carefully, you're accompanied during the length of the journey, and then you're debriefed on it in an integration session.

SHAPIRO: You talk about the value - and these studies show some value - of using these mushrooms with a guide, with a therapist, with somebody to sort of steer your experience of them. So what are the risks of people using these mushrooms recreationally without somebody to kind of hold their hand and lead them through it?

POLLAN: Well, there are a couple risks. I mean, one is - if you're unsupervised in any way - your judgment is impaired. You could walk out into traffic. You could do something really reckless. Other risks are, if you are someone who, let's say, has a genetic risk for schizophrenia, there are documented cases where a psychedelic experience, you know, gives them their first psychotic break. And that's very serious.

And then you have just people who have a plain old bad trip. And these can be truly terrifying. This is not cannabis. And as much as some of the advocates would like to follow that playbook of, you know, first legalizing medical cannabis and then moving to, you know, ending prohibition, I think we have to look at this drug on its own terms. Its benefits may be greater than cannabis, but the risks are also more serious, too.

SHAPIRO: Michael Pollan, thanks so much for talking with us about this.

POLLAN: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: He's the author of "How To Change Your Mind: What The New Science Of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, And Transcendence." The book comes out in paperback next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY JEWEL'S "THE KEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.