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A Fungus Among Us

By David Haldane

September 14, 2023



The experience impacted my life profoundly.

It was 1969, and I was a 20-year-old student at a hippie college in the hills of Vermont. One day I followed a friend’s long-proffered advice to ingest mescaline, a popular hallucinogenic drug of the era said to induce spiritual visions. Then took a long walk in a graveyard to commune with the dead.

Here’s how I described the aftermath in a 2015 memoir: “As I sauntered home, I felt as if an angel had landed on my shoulder. Light and breezy with a smiling heart, it made my skin tingle and my mind soar. Feeling a deep-seated joy, I stopped to lie in the grass and stare up at the pulsating mother-of-pearl sky. And that’s where my friends found me hours later, resting on green leaves, laughing hysterically that God was alive, and death was no more.”

A recent Sun Star article reminded me of that long-ago afternoon. Cebu City Councilor Pastor Alcover Jr., it seems, is concerned that “magic mushrooms,” a group of natural fungi containing psilocybin—mescaline’s main hallucinogenic ingredient—is substituting for shabu and other illegal drugs in the Philippines.

“…they boil it before drinking the liquid straight or mixed in tea or coffee,” the newspaper reports, “and get high 20 minutes after.”

At least one council member strenuously objected. “Sometimes we just like mushrooms,” Majority Floor-leader Jocelyn Pesquera insisted, “like me yesterday, I ate mushroom soup. Shall I get arrested?”

In fact, the notion pf mystic mushroom clouds blossoming in the heads of young Filipinos is not that far-fetched. Two months ago, the Sun Star reported, police confiscated 3.61 kilos of psychedelic mushrooms valued at 361,000 pesos from three suspects in Bacolod City. And headlines in several newspapers nationwide have posed the question in recent years whether “Wild mushrooms [are] replacing shabu?” (Iloilo Daily Guardian, Nov. 19, 2019).

The status of natural psychedelics has long been a matter of debate.

Initially unhampered by legal restrictions, psilocybin-based hallucinogens were banned in the US around 1970 by a government opposed to the freewheeling counterculture with which they had become inexorably intertwined. Recent years, however, have witnessed a rethinking of the drug’s legal and social status. Since 2019, several cities and states have decriminalized the possession and use of psilocybin. And a veritable, well, mushrooming of in-depth research has sprouted to probe its usefulness in treating mental illness.

“Psychedelics are having a moment,” reports Cal Matters, a nonprofit news agency in my home state of California, which just last week enacted a bill to make such drugs legal. “A nationwide push to bring magic mushrooms into the mainstream is gaining traction…”

Many attribute the decades-long suppression of psilocybin to Timothy Leary, the infamous professor-turned-drug-guru, who’s historic 1960s anthem, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out,” inspired millions of young Americans to do just that.

I saw Leary twice in my life; first as a resplendent God-like figure decked in garlands and flowing white robes sitting center stage surrounded by adoring fans at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1966.

The last time I saw him was more than 20 years later, in an ungainly attempt to resurrect his shattered public image by performing stand-up comedy. “He seemed a caricature of what he’d been,” I later wrote in a Los Angeles Times essay entitled ‘Scouring Laguna for Leary’s Legend.’ “The audience was polite but mildly embarrassed.”

In researching that piece, I’d spent days probing the onetime guru’s 1960s hometown in coastal California for vestiges of his former glory. I visited the house in which he’d lived, the site of the old head shop he’d frequented, even a handful of residents who’d known and remembered him.

The thing I couldn’t find, though, were the legendary caves above town in which the guru and his minions were said to have held court. “It dawned on me then,” I concluded in the essay, “that Leary the man doesn’t matter. What matters is Leary the myth, the figment of a generation’s imagination, a link to the exuberance and folly of our youth.”

Should that folly invade the Philippines, I pray it will be brief.





David Haldane’s latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Lazada and Amazon. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author, and radio broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where the column appears weekly in the Gold Star Daily.

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