The federal government has finally licensed a university to legally grow psilocybin “magic” mushrooms. It’s the first time in over 50 years—since the drug was made illegal—that such a license has been granted in the United States. The mushrooms will be grown for research purposes, to investigate potential mental health benefits of the psychedelic substance.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a license to Ohio State University in Columbus, along with its research partner Inner State Inc., a mental health and wellness research and development company, as the Columbus Dispatch reported on May 10. This permits the university to grow whole mushrooms, containing psilocybin as well as other compounds of interest.
“We believe that there is more to discover in psilocybin mushrooms than just psilocybin.”
It’s not yet known precisely what the research will focus on, though a May 12 press release offered some clues. “By combining cutting-edge techniques in genomics and metabolomics, we have the opportunity to obtain a high-resolution picture of the chemical diversity of mushrooms that have remained difficult to study for several decades,” said Ohio State researchers Dr. Jason Slot and Dr. Kou-San Ju .
“We believe that there is more to discover in psilocybin mushrooms than just psilocybin,” added Inner State CEO Ashley Walsh. “The whole mushroom is reported to have multi-dimensional healing properties that may help to cure mental health issues, relieve pain as well as improve the quality of palliative care for cancer.”
Since 1970, psilocybin has been classified as a Schedule I controlled substance (“no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”). Because of this prohibition, scientific research into psilocybin has been heavily restricted—even more than is the case with cannabis. Researchers have struggled for years to have the DEA license more research-cannabis growers; until 2022, the single approved institute was the University of Mississippi, and researchers took the DEA to court after complaining about the poor quality of the crops from Ole Miss.
In order to legally possess and study one of these drugs, an institution needs a DEA-approved Schedule I license holder. If the license is lost at any point, that immediately kills any related research project—a situation that occurred at the University of Connecticut, which was forced to shut down a pioneering MDMA-for-PTSD study in 2018.
Licensing psilocybin growers can address a need for researchers to have a reliable source. Two ongoing clinical trials are currently investigating psilocybin for depression—with COMPASS Pathways studying treatment-resistant depression in Phase 3, and Usona Institute studying major depressive disorder in Phase 2. But where researchers can actually get psilocybin has been a problem. According to Quartz, COMPASS signed an exclusive manufacturing agreement with Onyx Scientific, a company based in the United Kingdom, to produce research-grade psilocybin for their trials—which prevented Usona from getting the drug when it was ready to begin its own research. Usona then developed a new way to synthesize psilocybin and published it for free.
But synthetic psilocybin lacks the other compounds found in naturally occurring fungi. These may include, for example, psilocin, baeocystin, norbaeocystin, norpsilocin, aeruginascin and ß-carbolines.
“The entourage effect has definitely been important in cannabis policy reform.”
Relatedly, Ohio State research will focus on the “entourage effect”—a popular if sometimes controversial concept in the cannabis field. The idea is simple: The cannabis plant contains hundreds of cannabinoids, including THC and CBD, and many other “terpenes” or aromatic compounds. The posited interaction of each unique combination of compounds theoretically allows consumers to customize their own experiences thanks to countless available strains, each with their own cannabinoid or terpene profile.
The “entourage effect” concept is more than just scientific—it’s also political. Although we now have FDA-approved, prescription THC (Marinol, nablione) and CBD (Epidiolex), these drugs—which may be extracted or wholly synthetic, in the case of Marinol—don’t contain the full ranges of compounds that you’ll find in plants.
“The entourage effect has definitely been important in cannabis policy reform,” Morgan Fox, political director of NORML, told Filter. For activists, it is part of the justification for major reforms including the rights to grow cannabis at home, to consume cannabis without a doctor’s prescription, and to access whole plant and flower forms—not just cannabis in a pill.
“For many years after Marinol was approved and when many states were exploring either CBD-only, low-THC or isolated cannabinoid medical programs (which we and other advocates did not consider effective),” Fox continued, “arguing for the value of the entourage effect was a key point in expanding access and moving to where not only can people access more complex plant medicines but also [we are] facilitating additional research.”
Fox said that pharmaceutical cannabinoid drugs were never sufficient to meet consumers’ and patients’ needs—and that in the case of Marinol, people found it difficult to dose carefully and experienced unpleasant side effects.
What’s more, these prescription-only pharmaceutical drugs shut out many lower-income patients who don’t have health insurance. “Marinol is very expensive and many doctors who are unfamiliar with the endocannabinoid system are loath to prescribe it, and [others] are not interested in prescribing it because of its negative side effects, and its relatively narrow efficacy,” Fox said.
The DEA’s licensing of Ohio State University as a psilocybin grower is certainly a sign that the prohibitionist federal agency is beginning to soften its stance on psychedelic research. But for the scientific potential of this to be realized, we need to see more institutions licensed to grow psilocybin and sell it to other researchers. If not, the university could become another Ole Miss—handed a monopoly over research psilocybin, to the detriment of advancing science and human benefits.
Photograph via City of Hillsboro, Oregon