Seizures of psychedelic mushrooms across the nation by law enforcement officials have increased significantly in recent years as attitudes regarding their use have grown more permissive, according to a government-funded study released Tuesday.
Researchers found that law enforcement officials confiscated 844 kilos of mushrooms containing psilocybin in 2022, an increase of 273 percent from 2017. Psilocybin is the psychoactive component in the fungi commonly known as magic mushrooms.
Officials at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which commissioned the study, said that the increase in seizures of magic mushrooms reflected rising use of the drugs, rather than an indication that counternarcotics officials were pursuing the substances more aggressively than before.
The marketplace for magic mushrooms, which are illegal under federal law, has boomed in recent years as several clinical studies have shown that they may be effective as therapies to treat depression and other serious conditions. But many medical professionals say they worry that the hype surrounding psychedelics has moved faster than the science.
Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the N.I.D.A., said that preliminary clinical studies had shown that psychedelics might one day become an important tool for the treatment of psychiatric disorders, including addiction to other drugs. But she said she worried that many people were self-medicating with psychedelics.
“Psychedelic drugs have been promoted as a potential cure for many health conditions without adequate research to support these claims,” Dr. Volkow said. “There are people who are very desperate for mental health care, and there are businesses that are very eager to make money by marketing substances as treatments or cures.”
In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration gave psilocybin a special designation to accelerate research into its efficacy as a treatment for depression, which could lead to approval for clinical use.
The promising clinical studies have galvanized a movement to legalize psychedelics in some states and cities. In 2020, Oregon voters approved a measure legalizing the therapeutic use of psychedelic mushrooms, and Colorado voters backed a similar one two years later. Several cities have designated psychedelics a low priority for law enforcement, often citing their therapeutic potential.
The shifting legal landscape, along with media coverage of clinical studies, has fueled demand for psychedelic treatment, experts say.
“All of the positive coverage of psychedelics might be introducing the idea of using them to a new population that never really considered using them before,” said Joseph J. Palamar, a public health professor at New York University, the lead researcher on the study of rising seizures of magic mushrooms.
Dr. Joshua S. Siegel, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, said that patients with serious mental health conditions were increasingly seeking guidance from doctors about the value of drugs like magic mushrooms.
While psychedelics are safer than other drugs in terms of their potential for addiction and lethality, Dr. Siegel said, they can also prove destabilizing, particularly for people with serious mental health conditions.
“People can partly or completely lose touch with reality and behave in irrational and potentially dangerous ways,” he said.
As the nation grapples with an epidemic of opioid overdoses, experts say that psychedelics have become a relatively low priority for federal law enforcement officials. The Biden administration’s most recent report on its drug control strategy, issued in 2022, includes only one reference to psychedelics. There are scores of mentions of opioids.
Businesses selling psychedelics cater to people struggling with depression and anxiety, and sell products through websites and encrypted messaging platforms. Several advertise on social media, promoting products like small doses of magic mushrooms in pill form as an alternative to antidepressants.