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What makes ‘magic mushrooms’ different from other mushrooms?

“My friends have really got into ‘shrooms’ at the moment. What’s in them that makes them different from other mushrooms?”

Magic mushrooms, or rather a substance they produce called psilocybin, fit into a group of drugs called hallucinogens. They’re also often referred to as ‘psychedelics’ and they cause a person to see, hear, feel and think in a different way. Some of these are synthetic or ‘man-made’, like LSD, while others are naturally-occurring and are found in a range of plants, fungi and even animals.

Of all the naturally occurring hallucinogens, magic mushrooms are the most likely to be used in Australia. There are believed to be more than 200 species of mushroom that produce psilocybin, with around 20–30 species found in Australia. Also known as ‘shrooms’, ‘mushies’ and ‘gold tops’, they are usually dried, sometimes powdered or chopped and then drunk as a tea or eaten with other food to disguise the taste.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between mushrooms that contain psilocybin and others that are poisonous. Even experts admit that they can sometimes find it difficult to distinguish one from another and one of the main risks associated with the use of magic mushrooms is misidentification and the subsequent poisoning of users.

Exactly how psilocybin produces its effects are still not known but it appears that the drug disables what scientists call our brain’s ‘main information highway’. This temporarily prevents the brain connecting with other parts of itself as it usually would. It’s then forced to connect in other ways, communicating with parts it doesn’t normally ‘talk’ to. New connections are formed in the brain resulting in the subsequent changes in perception …

Some people believe that because magic mushrooms are ‘natural’ they must be ‘safe’ to use. A drug is a drug, whether it’s natural or man-made, and there are always some risks associated with its use. Most importantly, those risks are going to be different for every person using the drug, each time they use it, no matter whether it’s natural or not. Things can and do go wrong!

Published: June 2023

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