In the late 1950s, Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who “discovered” LSD mostly by accident, started experimenting with something even more powerful: magic mushrooms.
Indigenous people in Mexico had been observed using mushrooms in religious rituals by western visitors several years earlier. One of the interlopers sent a sample to Hofmann, who became the first western scientist to identify, isolate, and artificially synthesize the active ingredients, compounds called psilocybin and psilocin.
Recognizing the medical value of the mushrooms, Hofmann’s employer, the pharmaceutical giant Sandoz, soon packaged them into a pill and started marketing a drug called Indocybin. Therapists and researchers were thrilled. Here was a safe pharmaceutical drug, with immense potential to treat a wide range of mental-health pathologies, including depression and addiction!
But then the drug war happened. Psilocybin was classified as a Schedule I drug in 1970. Research, as well as treatment, halted. Indocybin disappeared from pharmacists’ shelves and from therapists’ arsenals. Novartis, Sandoz’s parent company, does not even mention Indocybin in its company history.
Since that point, progress in understanding psilocybin and its therapeutic potential has been mostly frozen in time. Now, the intense interest in psilocybin as a therapy tool and the popular pushes to legalize magic mushrooms are best understood as a “rediscovery,” as well as a reminder of how much research and progress was destroyed by the drug war. Psilocybin knowledge is in many ways a time capsule dating back to the 1960s.
What drugs that could “reboot the brain” might Hofmann or a protege have discovered next, if research into psychedelic treatments wasn’t halted? What would psilocybin-based drugs look like today, with 50 years of progress? For anyone currently treating PTSD or other maladies with psilocybin, in human trials at Johns Hopkins University or via the illicit market, the answer is obvious.