If you’re going to dabble in illicit substances, your safest bet — well, aside from the legal risks, of course — is psychedelic mushrooms. According to a new survey of about 120,000 adults across 50 nations, among the 12,000 who’ve tripped on ’shrooms, only 0.2 percent landed in the emergency room. By comparison, LSD, ecstasy, and cocaine sent at least five times the percentage of users to the ER. Even marijuana, highly regarded as a safe drug, is three times riskier than mushrooms by this measure.
Psilocybin, the euphoria-inducing compound in magic mushrooms, works primarily on the brain’s serotonin receptors. Trippers often feel ultra-creative, extra emotional, and more in tune with nature and their surroundings — similar to the effects of LSD, but less intense and not as long-lasting. “Although the different psilocybin mushrooms across the world vary in size, shape, and potency, they are relatively safe with few and relatively mild adverse effects reported,” says Dr. Adam Winstock, a psychiatrist, addiction specialist, and founder of the annual Global Drug Survey.
Several factors make mushrooms safe. First off, they’re not physically or psychologically addictive, says Winstock. They are a Schedule I drug in the U.S. because of their high potential for “abuse,” but you won’t become hooked on ’shrooms. However, Winstock says you can quickly build up a tolerance to their effects and may need to take higher doses to get a good trip.
But even if you do take a high dose you should just be fine. “Mushrooms are unlike depressant drugs such as heroin and alcohol, which carry a predictable increase in death risk with bigger doses due to respiratory depression,” Winstock says. “With psilocybin, a bigger dose increases the intensity and duration of the psychedelic experience, but you won't have accompanying changes in heart function or breathing.”
People also tend to use mushrooms less frequently. “While drinkers and cannabis users average 100 to 200 times a year, most people don't use magic mushrooms and other psychedelics often — maybe two or three times a year, or even over their lifetime,” Winstock says. The less often you use a drug — any drug — the less risk of harm, he adds. But even among the other psychedelics assessed in the survey, “magic mushrooms were associated with the lowest rates of negative or challenging experiences,” Winstock says. “Death from toxicity is almost unheard of.”
Still, mushrooms are not completely risk-free. “Like all drugs, magic mushrooms carry some risk when mixed with alcohol or used within risky or unfamiliar settings,” Winstock says. “The most common risks are accidental injury, panic, short-lived confusion, disorientation, and fear of losing one's mind.” In other words, a really bad trip. But, while you may be stuck in mental torment for a stretch, you’re going to come out of it eventually. And as long as you don’t do anything that could cause you or someone else physical harm (this is a great reason to never trip alone), you should emerge relatively unscathed.
One caveat: You do need to be careful not to consume the wrong kind of mushroom. “Fortunately, most mushrooms are not dangerous, but there are exceptions,” Winstock says. “If you eat a Death Cap, which can be mistaken for the common field mushroom, you’ll get kidney and liver failure and have a 50 percent chance of dying." He adds that other mushrooms that can harm you have similarly dangerous-sounding names, like the Destroying Angel. Winstock's advice: Only buy or use mushrooms from people who know what they're looking for.
As for dosages, always start low. “Because of variations in potency, I suggest test-dosing and gradual dosage increases, especially for naive users,” Winstock says. You should start to feel something within a half hour or 45 minutes, but if an hour or 90 minutes go by and you feel nothing, you probably didn’t take enough. Most trips peak around the 2.5-hour mark, last about four or five hours, and then fade out gradually, bringing you back to Earth.