DrugsThe world of psychedelic mushrooms online
Hopes&Fears's Mike Sugarman dives into net-enabled psilocybin, exploring the agendas and online resources available for those who wish to grow magic mushrooms.
— indole hallucinogens that block the action of serotonin (the indole amine transmitter of nerve impulses) in brain tissue
Research suggests that they may have potential applications in the treatment of anxiety and in the improvement of quality of life for terminally ill patients.
Robert McPherson never felt he had anything to hide.
On Halloween in 2003, at 9:30 AM, McPherson and his wife, Margaret, stood before a Seattle judge for sentencing. Robert had plead guilty to a felony charge of growing psilocybin mushrooms, Margaret to a misdemeanor charge of possessing psilocybin mushrooms. Yet, as evidenced by a court transcript posted online by Robert, his defense attorney wasn’t too concerned with the growing charges: “When Mr. McPherson was first arrested by the agents, he completely admitted his involvement in the spore distribution scheme, admitted ownership of the few mushrooms that were found in his house. He operated the business for several years and never tried to conceal it.”
This “spore distribution scheme” which caught the eye of Johnny Law was not, in 2003, and is not currently, expressly illegal in Washington. Since the early '90s, Robert McPherson had assumed the noms de guerre, alternately, “Psylocybe Fanaticus” and “Professor Fanaticus” to sell magic mushroom spores and mushroom cultivation kits through High Times and, later, through his website fanaticus.com. The professor tag is warranted, as McPherson made major innovations in the PF Tek, or Psylocybe Fanaticus technique, a simple and popular method for cultivating mushrooms at home without any equipment more specialized than some mason jars, a stock pot, and a clear storage bin. Excepting California, Georgia, and Idaho, it is perfectly legal throughout the United States to buy and sell psilocybin mushrooms spores, as they do not themselves contain the controlled substance psilocin, or the “magic” in the mushroom. It is also legal, naturally, to spread information about how to cultivate mushrooms; it just so happens that the methods for growing shiitakes work equally well for growing, say, the popular Golden Teacher strain of psilocybe cubensis.
But the Professor's folly was indiscretion, not infraction. The story goes that law enforcement agencies throughout America started fielding calls from enraged parents that their teens were receiving grow kits in the mail from this PF character. After a period when the Postmaster General's office was tracking mail to and from the McPherson residence in Amanda Park, Washington, the couple was visited by “[the] D.E.A. swat team, the FBI, the US marshals, the olympic national park rangers, Greys harbor drug task force, a road block, a battering ram, machine guns and a "black" helicopter," as written on the Professor's personal website. What law enforcement found was a small operation growing just enough mushrooms to produce spores for the Professor's business. Directly owning up to the growing operation and pleading guilty to manufacture of a controlled substance, Robert McPherson was put under two years house arrest and fined by the courts for, essentially, all he had. In 2011, he passed away from complications related to Hepatitis C.
Yet the rise and fall of Professor Fanaticus is not so much the shadow that looms over the modern-day internet-based spore trade as much as one of the various cautionary tales which guides its survival. That trade is an arm of a wider internet community of amateur mycologists focused on hallucinogenic mushrooms and, much like shrooms growing on cow shit in an Alabama pasture, this community sprung up thanks to copacetic conditions and flourished through swift adaptability.
The Hawk’s Eye
While the recent press surrounding the deep web drug market Silk Road and the indictment of its founder Ross Ulbricht may lend the impression that the internet's status as a drug resource is a relatively recent phenomenon—and, for that matter, one relegated to the internet's dark alleys—the most venerated resources for psychedelic mycology have been easily reached by common search engines since the late '90s. Take The Hawk's Eye, a spore depot which doesn't seem to have been redesigned since it was launched in 1998; the cosmic motif and shimmering animated GIFs of a mushroom and the word “E-MAIL” should render it Geocities-era catnip for the net art set. The Hawk's Eye is the longest running spore depot on the web, yet it was the second to launch, following Robert McPherson's own fanaticus.com. The proprietor—operating under the pseudonym Ryche Hawk—learned well from PF's follies making sure his website focused exclusively on the heritage and sale of spores, with no information about or even links to cultivation methods. As far as Hawk is concerned, consumers are purchasing spores for research purposes, and he even sold microscopes for examining them.
Hawk tells me that his initial motivation to collect and disseminate psilocybin mushrooms spores, “was spiritual in nature. I find shrooms are [an] enhanced link up to God.” Talk to enough inveterate trippers and you start to realize that the type who finds real value in hallucinogens does not conform to the stereotype of a drug user getting a fix. Even though the scaremongers like to paint this picture that taking hallucinogens compels people to jump out windows or go on joy rides, such users are generally less of a threat to themselves than the Xanax user indulging on a couple extra with a little too much wine. Many an ardent hallucinator seeks a form of healing (be it spiritual or psychological), a thread picked up by institutions like Johns Hopkins University, which runs clinical trials using psilocin, LSD, and MDMA to treat afflictions like PTSD. Hawk himself notes that family members of his have used shrooms to treat depression and violent migraines, adding, “The Bible teaches us that God put everything on earth we could possibly need. That means everything we need for healing is here on earth, in the plants and fungi.”
What the Aztecs called "god's flesh"
Murals dated 9000 to 7000 BCE found in the Sahara desert in southeast Algeria depict horned beings dressed as dancers, clothed in garb decorated with geometrical designs, and holding mushroom-like objects.
Unsurprisingly, there is an evangelical bent to Hawk's work: thanks to a combination of visibility and mycological connections, Hawk has received, preserved, and domesticated for home growing a multitude of spores collected from all corners of the Earth. He asserts that, “Any good vendor keeps a spore bank of the many varieties at different generations of the strain/species,” but his bank, at least according to his site's price list, tallies more than 60 varieties. A claim that he is the original disseminator of a number of now-internationally grown spores—including the B+ Cubensis, likely the most widely cultivated and sold strain—is not altogether unlikely, given his rapports with spore collectors like John Allen and the mysterious Mr. G as well as with Amsterdam smart shops which peddle a variety of psilocybin fungus in infantile form referred to as “truffles.”
The Hawk's Eye lists spore and provides information on everything from the gigantic Oraissa India Cubensis collected off elephant dung to the UFO-shaped psilocybe Azurescen native to the Pacific Northwest. Considering the fact that shrooms have been outlawed in many of the countries they are native to—the United States, Mexico, Thailand, but notably, not Brazil—Hawk's operation of providing refuge to obscure species of mushrooms during a global prohibition brings to mind the apostles' work of spreading Jesus's gospel during the pagan era of Rome or, if you view his work less favorably, the anti-vaccination movement's success in helping the measles return from near-extinction earlier this year.
You get the impression, when looking at the scope of what Ryche Hawk does, that the focus isn't getting people high, or even getting people to “tune in, turn on, drop out,” but making sure those mushrooms continue to have a foothold in the world. Likewise, many of the prime movers in the internet's amateur mycology community are driven by something besides, simply, spreading the good vibes. Take Ythan Burnstein, who in 1997 at the age of 15, started the Shroomery, which has developed into a definitive source of information on hunting, cultivating, and experiencing shrooms on the internet. Burnstein has not tripped since 2000, but stays involved with the site because, as he told me over email, “It's fun and mentally stimulating, and I like to see people benefiting from my work.”
The Shroomery, while only boasting about 37,000 registered members on its message boards, sees somewhere between 1 and 1.25 million unique visitors a month. In Burnstein's eyes, its popularity and its status as a resource are inextricably linked. “The site is about mushrooms and mushrooms alone. This allows us to focus on providing the most comprehensive resources available about mycology. This in turn attracts people who are passionate about mushrooms and experienced with mycology, and the site benefits from their knowledge and contributions, creating a virtuous cycle.” The Shroomery even runs loose regulation of the spore market through allowing whom it considers to be the most reputable vendors to pitch in for site maintenance costs and join the widely-venerated sponsors list.
The Shroomery – detailed magic mushroom information including growing shrooms, mushroom identification, spores, psychedelic art, trip reports and an active community
While some of the so-called psychonaut forums are focused on dosage information, chemical compositions, and trip reports of various drugs—let's say the user end of things—communities like the Shroomery, the Growery, and DMT Nexus exist more so as places, for those experienced and passionate few, to congregate and pool independent research. And the benefits of pooling are plentiful. Whereas in the past, amateur mycologists would have to rely on a small selection of books for growing techniques—such as Paul Stamets' popular yet occasionally inaccurate The Mushroom Cultivator—the Shroomery's archives and forums offer not only crucial advice and immediate feedback for growers of all experience levels, but a degree of assured safety. One incredibly popular thread titled “How it should look – A NEW CULTIVATOR'S GUIDE” provides pictures of all of the possible bacterial, fungal, and mold contaminations which plague home growers, helping beginners and vets alike to avoid mistakes that could land them or their friends in the ER, or even the grave.
Twig Harper & the legacy of RoggerRabbit
This tendency to pool research, to build collective knowledge, unites psychonauts across the board. In attempt to better understand this trend, I chatted with amateur salvia divinorum researcher and operator of Baltimore's only sensory deprivation float tank, Twig Harper. In his telling, dedicated and educated amateurs can conduct research about marginalized medicines which they find crucial without all of the institutional and governmental red tape.
“I pop in and out of these conferences, talking with these people doing it on legitimate levels and they're talking about, 'In five years, in 10 years, the government's going to allow us to use MDMA, the government's going to allow us to use psilocybin, but we're only going to be able to use it on dead people maybe we'll get a phase 3 trial.' And I'm like, 'Screw that!' There's a million plants out there, why don't we start investigating these other plants that are legal and demonstrate how they work, start building a social structure around these things that's true to the plants and can actually heal people.”
While it is rare that you find a psychonaut investigating the legal substance salvia divinorum, Harper is by no means the only psychonaut working inside the law.
Consider the case of RogerRabbit, affectionately referred to as RR and treasured by the members of the Shroomery, especially notable for filming and distributing an extensive video series called Let's Grow Mushrooms. RR was something like the presiding guru on the Shroomery's “Mushroom Cultivation” sub-forum and, without fail, would reply to threads ranging from new growers' agita to near-philosophical discourses on the true effect of light on fruiting mycelium. In 2011, fellow Shroomery member TheIndoCloud collated all of RogerRabbit's notes on mushroom cultivation into a single PDF. It runs 166 pages, single-spaced.
There's a million plants out there, why don't we start investigating these other plants that are legal and demonstrate how they work, start building a social structure around these things that's true to the plants and can actually heal people.
There always seemed to be some question marks, though, around what type of mushrooms were driving Keith to such rigorous research.
In a rare move for the online mycology community, especially following Professor Fanaticus's indictment, RR forwent his anonymity by showing his face in those aforementioned Let's Grow Mushrooms videos and proudly posting his full name, Marc R. Keith, on the video distribution site. Of course, Keith never had anything to hide: the techniques he taught were applicable to all mushrooms, not just psychedelics. There always seemed to be some question marks, though, around what type of mushrooms were driving Keith to such rigorous research. A farewell thread, “A Thanks to RR,” ran on the Shroomery's Mushroom Cultivation earlier this year.
In a post from January 17, RogerRabbit explains that he “started growing medicinal mushrooms instead of psychedelic,” when he first met his wife, Vivian, 10 years ago. He was convinced he could save her from the cancer she was suffering. In the decade since, Keith made those Let's Grow Mushrooms videos and posted relentlessly on the Shroomery. Keith was unable to comment for this story, but it's likely that this burst of activity was directly correlated with the knowledge cultivated during his own mad dash to save, “the only person I've ever truly loved.”
Regardless of the fact that he enlightened thousands, potentially millions, of Shroomery visitors and did significant work in making home mycology safe and reliable for all with an internet connection, Keith saw his work as for naught. “My baby, the love of my life and my very reason for living died in my arms over the holidays.” In that same January post, he concluded, “How can I continue to answer questions about mushroom growing when the most important reason for growing them in the first place turned out to be a devastating failure?”