An abridged version of this story was originally printed in DoubleBlind Issue 2.
Fellow psychonauts, the fungus is among us. Well, psilocybin mushrooms have always been among us, sprouting up in cow dung and in damp, rainy forests, settling into the digestive tracts of college students watching The Holy Mountain for the first time. But now there’s even greater potential for cosmic caps and spooky spores to be within arm’s reach, within our very homes (especially if you learn to grow your own mushrooms). On top of writing a primer that details where the country’s at in terms of psilocybin reform, I jotted down some best home cultivation practices and do’s and don’ts specifically for city dwellers (i.e. those of us growing shrooms in our closets, or underneath our shameful lofted beds). After all, there are more hazards to avoid when you’re sharing a sub-800-square-foot apartment with two roommates.
Anyone can grow mushrooms today—from psilocybin to lion’s mane—and I say this with experience: I do not possess a green thumb or whatever-color-mushrooms-are thumb. Most of my plants die, and handy, tech-y, or recipe-oriented projects tend to cause me grief. And yet I—someone who can barely keep a succulent alive—was able to cultivate juicy, edible, potent mushrooms inside my small Brooklyn bedroom with relative ease. That said, if I’m being totally transparent, I’ve also failed spectacularly during a couple grow experiments, yielding nothing but piles of moldy mushrooms resembling a mountain of burnt matches.
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But there’s a hitch: Actually growing your own mushrooms (specifically the magic kind) is decidedly illegal—at least according to the federal government—although in places like Denver, Oakland, and Santa Cruz (all jurisdictions where psilocybin has been decriminalized) local law enforcement won’t go after you if you’re growing for personal use.
So, indeed, cultivating mushrooms yourself can be a political statement. Ryan Munevar, campaign director for Decriminalize California, the campaign to decriminalize psilocybin throughout the state (which is now on hold, thanks to COVID-19), agrees and even argues that decriminalizing home grows “gives people a choice” about how and why to consume psilocybin. “Right now, people can’t even get access through a medical supplier for their own personal use,” he says. “And the medical model is bullshit being pushed by people who want to set up oligopolies.”
In other words, decrim activists believe that there needs to be an alternative to the imminent medical model: Already, synthetic psilocybin is on the fast track to become an FDA-approved medication for psychotherapy—but there’s uncertainty about whether the cost, protocols, and gated access will accommodate everyone who wants to try shrooms. Meanwhile, in this coming election, Oregon voters will decide on PSI 2020, a measure to legalize psilocybin mushrooms, but only in therapeutic contexts. It’s worth noting that they’ll also be voting on a full-scale drug decriminalization bill that will lift criminal sanctions for personal possession amounts of any drug (including psilocybin). Even so, those growing psilocybin for more than just personal use will not be covered by either of these new measures, if they pass.
Admittedly, we don’t actually know what’s going to happen—and the FDA’s stamp of approval will likely benefit patients in some ways. For one, supporters of the medical model argue that it’s essential there’s a safe pathwayfor people to try psilocybin and that, without it, an irresponsible user could threaten the whole reform movement. But no doubt, this pharmaceutical approach will cost more than growing fungus in our closets, and it won’t be covered by health insurance. (I cultivated around three ounces of juicy, psilocybin mushrooms inside my small Brooklyn bedroom in eight to 12 weeks for less than $300. Street value: approximately $600-$1200.)
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“We just want people to have the option to make their own so they don’t have to pay as much,” Munevar says in reference to the mushroom cultivation courses that Decriminalize California hosted to raise money for the campaign. After all, you don’t need a medical model to consume other intoxicating substances (remember that liquid called alcohol?), or grow aloe, ginger, kale, and other therapeutic plants and fungi in your backyard.
The pros of home cultivation don’t solely orbit around cost efficiency, either: A sales model for mushrooms, similar to that of legal cannabis, would end in “a shitshow disaster of permits, hyper-overregulation, and taxes,” Munevar believes. By pushing for home grows without endorsing sales or distribution, decrim activists hope to avoid the baggage and red tape that comes with recreational legalization.“The point of saying ‘no profit’ is that we wanted to prevent commodification and large corporations from coming in.” Or avoid “corporadelics,” if you will. These initiatives aim to steer clear of the pitfalls that have turned the cannabis legalization movement from a promising green rush to a bureaucratic green wash.
America is undergoing what could be described as a “psychoactive sea change,” with jurisdictions around the country looking to replicate the Decriminalize Nature measure that was successful in Oakland and Santa Cruz. Psilocybin sales and distribution for profit have been explicitly left out of the Decriminalize Denver and Decriminalize Nature models. At the same time, their phrasing is purposefully vague, without mention of possession or cultivation limits for personal use to allow for home grows. (Ultimately, it will be up to the discretion of law enforcement to determine when an individual has violated the new personal useguidelines.)
Beyond easier access, the incentives behind home grows are myriad. Munevar explains that if you asked 20 voters why they want to grow or consume mushrooms, based on average statistics, one will say “medical reasons”; one will say “therapeutic reasons”; one will say “it’s my religious or spiritual belief”; and the other 17 will tell you “freedom of choice.” In other words, “cognitive liberty,” says Munevar. “That they should be able to do whatever they want to their body, be it good or bad. It’s not up to the government to decide, since my body is my property.”
Kevin Matthews, who successfully led the Decriminalize Denver initiative and is now director of the Society for Psychedelic Outreach Reform and Education (S.P.O.R.E.), agrees that home cultivation is about taking your health into your hands. Growing your own mushrooms “is an exercise of mental health freedom,” he says, and can “be seen as a threat to these massive pharmaceutical corporations that are frankly making a profit off people’s depression.” Advocating for homegrows isn’t necessarily a form of civil protest, but it’s a way to ensure equitable access to psilocybin, especially for “people who actually need it and might not be able to afford medical services.”
OK, so that brings us back to attempting your first home grow. Once you’ve taken the DoubleBlind course on growing mushrooms, or decided on another tek (that’s cultivator speak for growing methodology), I want to suggest some general best practices once you get your grow gear and are ready to rock. This is not a step-by-step guide (DB has also published a comprehensive “how to harvest” feature) but rather some 101 shroom scenarios that you may encounter and should be prepared to navigate in advance.
DON’T: Let Your Pet Near the Grow
One of the easiest ways to drop the ball during a cultivation jaunt is to fuck up the innoculation process, meaning the step where you inject psilocybin mycellia into a pre-sterilized growing substrate.
During this whole rigmarole, the name of the game is KEEP IT S-T-E-R-I-L-E. The more you can reduce the chances of contamination, the better. Mold is not your friend. Getting cat hair in your mycelium jars is not ideal, either. If anything, the latter just might lead to some Cronenbergian boomers sprouting up—for example, shrooms that sport full-blown whiskers, fur, and make meowing noises at you as you pick them. Do not eat these.
Once, when I was inoculating my jars, my friend and I couldn’t get my cat to stop rubbing against our legs. We thought the lil bugger was far enough away from the set-up to avoid contamination… but alas! Nearly half the jars were D.O.A., and only moldy spores grew out of them.
To avoid contamination during the inoculation phase, take a shower, wash your hair, put on clean clothes (not kidding). Choose the cleanest room in your home, turn off all fans and AC units, and fumigate the space with as much Lysol as you can take. Slip on some rubber gloves and wipe your work surface down with isopropyl alcohol. Make sure to wipe down the mycelium jars and pretty much everything around you, as well.
Give yourself the ol’ double-pits-to-chesty Axe-style spray down with Lysol. Once you’ve done this, it is now the time to slip on a surgical mask and get down to business. Just make sure the pets are in the other room.
DON’T: Use Tap Water in Your Cultivation Rig
Many grow setups will incorporate temperature and moisture controls, necessitating a water source. Regardless of how you approach this aspect of the rig, make sure you’re using filtered water.
Think of it this way: If you live in a city where drinking out of the tap is a no-no (and we’re not just talking about Flint-level noxiousness), then don’t grow shrooms with said water. It might not ruin your yield, but you are what you eat—and drink! The very thought of sulfur-packed caps is enough to give us the bends…
This may seem like a given, but you’d be surprised how frequently a big mouth can lead to a small—or non-existent—yield. You should still probably tell your roommates that you’re growing some funky fungus, otherwise they may get freaked out by the mycelium-filled syringes in your fridge, or wonder why there’s a gurgling sound coming from your bedroom.
Generally speaking, though, the less you tell people, the better—otherwise friends, neighbors, or whoever else might ask to take a look. It’s an interesting endeavor, after all. But this will inevitably lead to someone wanting to get an even closer look, then opening up the top of your grow box, and potentially contaminating your in vitro shroomies.
Or worse, maybe that neighbor you mentioned the home grow to will tell your landlord or someone else who might not be stoked about a illicit, mini psychedelics factory operating in the vicinity. The chances that you’ll get busted by the feds are low, but extra exposure won’t benefit you or your project until it’s finished.
DO: Play Music for Your Shrooms
It’s well documented—albeit scientifically contested—that plants can benefit from hearing music as they grow. Just ask Mort Garson, or read The Secret Life of Plants. While mushrooms are fungus and not plants, there’s similar anecdotal evidence suggesting that tunes can help boomers thrive.
For example, an artist named Ernestus Chald released an album called Music to Grow Mushrooms To, described as “the culmination of countless hours of rigorous research and experimentation involving the listening habits of mycelium.” According to the record label, mushrooms that were exposed to the music under controlled conditions grew “on average, 30 percent faster than mushrooms growing in silence,” though this claim cannot be verified.
At the very least, curating a soundtrack for your home grow might make you feel more connected to the process and help you focus on it more. It can even make magic mushroom cultivation feel, well, magical…
Just be sure to play the type of music you’d actually want to listen to during a psychedelic trip. I love Slayer, but I don’t think Seasons in the Abyss will enhance anyone’s dance with the cosmic abyss. Therefore, my thrash metal collection was shelved as I watched the spores mature.
DON’T: Dry Your Mushrooms in One Big Pile
During one of my early grow trials, I nailed every single step in the cultivation process. Everything was sterilized, the mycelia was inoculated correctly, and the temperature and moisture control was on motherfucking lock. After several weeks, my grow box was chalk full of delightful, plump mushrooms. Everything was coming up Milhouse.
But when it came time to actually pluck the suckers and let them dry, I took a fatal misstep. I foolishly placed all the mushrooms in a single large bowl, covered it with a towel, and let the stash sit in the dark for 24 hours. By the time I came back, something looked horribly, horribly wrong. The succulent spores had blackened, and a strange smell emanated from the pile. By the time I placed the mushrooms on paper towels in front of a fan, the formerly inspired-looking shrooms had withered and rotted. They looked like burnt matchsticks and practically screamed, “Don’t eat me! Poisonous!”
It turns out that I had grown more than expected, and by placing them all in one location, stacked on top of each other, they collected moisture and molded from the center. All those weeks of tender loving care went down the drain in one fell swoop. Learn from my mistake, and tread lightly when you (hopefully) reach the drying stage.
Fingers crossed that you avoid the stumbling blocks detailed above and can finesse your home grow into a mind-melting success. DIY cultivation is not easy, but to quote Kevin Matthews of S.P.O.R.E., “when somebody has a personal investment, and they’re willing to take the time to cultivate at home, it signifies that there’s a reverence for the medicine, the mushrooms.”
Sure, it may be more time-efficient to simply cop an ounce from your favorite plug, but learning how to cultivate psilocybin at home (particularly in an era of social distancing) will benefit any psychonaut in the long-run. “It’s like the principle of Lao-Tzu,” explains Munevar. “Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he can eat for a lifetime.”
Zach Sokol is a writer, editor, and producer who’s based in New York. From 2017 through 2020, he worked as Features Editor and then Managing Editor of MERRY JANE, Snoop Dogg’s cannabis and culture publication. Sokol’s writing and photos have been published in a number of online and print publications, including Playboy, Penthouse, Art in America, The Paris Review, FADER, i-D, The Village Voice, and more. Visit his website www.zachsokol.com and follow him on socials @zachsokol.