Published December 17th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Daniel Harkins was working as a cook at Café Gratitude, a groovy vegan café on Southwest Boulevard, when a group of coworkers invited him to try psychedelic mushrooms.
The 2017 trip introduced Harkins to the hallucinogenic effects of psilocybin, a naturally occurring chemical that members of the 1970s counterculture referred to as “magic” mushrooms.
Fifty years after the height of the hippie movement, Harkins calls mushrooms “life-changing.”
Although the 34-year-old former U.S. Marine sergeant did not serve in combat, he suffered a series of traumas, including the death of two roommates by suicide. Harkins counts more than a dozen people he has been close to throughout his life who took their own lives, the majority military men and women.
“I was in a pretty rough place, dealing with PTSD that I wasn’t really aware of,” he says. “I had all these things I’d been pushing away subconsciously tearing at my well-being.”
Psilocybin, he adds, “almost resets your brain. The trauma is still there — it’s not erasing anything — but it gives you a different perception, that you don’t have to keep dealing with it in the same way.”
Harkins is sharing his story for the first time with Flatland. The Blue Springs resident recently incorporated Cultured Cultures LLC in anticipation of the day Missouri legalizes psilocybin mushrooms.
Use, possession and distribution of psychedelics is a felony offense. Oregon legalized psychedelics for therapeutic use in 2020. Psilocybin Alpha’s national law tracker reports 25 states and the District of Columbia currently have psychedelic drug reform policies in play.
Earlier this year, 20-year-old Kansas Rep. Aaron Coleman, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, who ran on a platform that included legalizing cannabis, introduced HB 2288. The bill quickly died in committee.
Meanwhile, Missouri Rep. Michael Davis, a 26-year-old conservative Republican from Kansas City, sponsored HB 1176. The bill never got a committee hearing, but Davis says he plans to re-introduce it in January 2022.
Like medical marijuana, efforts to legalize psychedelics have received a boost from “Right to Try,” a movement advocating legal access for those who have been diagnosed with life-threatening diseases and exhausted FDA-approved treatment options.
“I think there is a different perspective now,” says Davis, a freshman lawmaker who represents Jackson, Cass and Bates counties. “The whole mood has shifted on the ‘War on Drugs.’ I think our generation has seen the medical benefits” psychedelics can provide.
President Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” forced psychedelic drugs underground. Diminished access meant foraging in nature for the fungi or learning how to cultivate them in basements.
In 2000, Johns Hopkins University researchers received regulatory approval to resume research in healthy volunteers with no previous psychedelic experience. In 2006, a landmark study on the safety and positive effects of psychedelic drugs in controlled settings jump-started interest in the scientific community.
Today, John Hopkins’ Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research has published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles in top scientific journals. Clinical trials have shown psychedelics may offer breakthroughs in treating PTSD, addiction, depression and anxiety in the face of a terminal illness.
Michael VanderWaal of Moss and Main Therapy in Westport represents a new generation of scientists and therapists who are working to “cautiously, methodically and carefully re-establish a framework, protocol and structure for this psychedelic framework.”
Once dismissed as dangerous, the 28-year-old licensed master social worker says “they’re not really lethal, and they don’t make people violent. Maybe there are some one offs, but you’re not going to abuse a partner or rob a bank. They don’t go together.”
Guided therapy sessions — administered in a clinical setting that includes a couch, soft music and eye shades to help focus on the mental imagery – offer a pathway for patients who are stuck in destructive patterns.
After reading University of Berkley professor Michael Pollan’s New York Times best-seller “How to Change Your Mind” (2018), VanderWaal decided to study psychedelics. In January, he will earn a certificate in Psychedelic-Assisted Therapies and Research from the California Institute for Integral Studies.
“When you have a guy like Michael Pollan that is walking a line between the intelligentsia and the underground, and connecting with research and the political, it starts to increase interest and destigmatizes this whole movement,” VanderWaal says.
Chris Tate’s high school years in Kansas City were rough, and he took “every manner of drugs” to dull the pain, eventually landing on LSD.
“The stuff is magic … and immediately my depression is lifted,” Tate says.
When he moved back to Kansas City from Texas, he created the Kansas City Psychedelic Society as a way to find like-minded people who wanted to share information.
“I had a huge interest in psychedelics, and didn’t know anybody out here, so I started trying to put a community together,” he says.
The psychedelic society has attracted 500 members in less than two years. But Tate soon discovered the group’s Facebook page was attracting some people simply looking to score drugs. He’s now looking to reframe the community to attract those interested in education and legalization.
“Marijuana had a lot more baggage … (Psychedelics) have got some advantages and challenges, but I believe (legalization) is an idea whose time has come,” Tate says.
The psychedelic drug market is expected to grow 12.4%, reaching $10.75 billion in 2027, according to U.S. News & World Report. Compass Pathways, Mind Medicine, Field Trip Health and Cybin are among the companies poised to repeat the cannabis stock boom.
Eapen Thampy is working to stimulate grassroots support by reaching out to veteran’s groups, therapists and medical professionals, while avoiding groups solely focused on facilitating recreational usage.
Thampy is a registered lobbyist behind Crossing Paths PAC, a political action committee working on introducing bills to reform drug and criminal justice policies. In 2020, he pleaded guilty to a count of intent to distribute less than 50 kilograms of marijuana, according to court records.
Thampy says psychedelics are “an emerging field with great interest from the voters. Right now, there has been a lot of data for their safety and efficacy, and there is a lot of interest politically in creating legal ways to use them.”
When Kevin (who asked Flatland not to use his last name) moved from the San Francisco area to Kansas City during the pandemic lockdown, he found himself at a loss with how to blow off steam.
“I don’t drink at home, and happy hour had gone away,” he says.
One day, while Kevin’s young children were playing in the park, he struck up a conversation with a woman whose child was also playing in the park. She hooked him up with some psychedelic mushrooms.
Kevin experimented and began taking a “barely perceptible” microdose of about 0.2 milligram. That amount is 1/20th of what some would take for a longer, deeper trip.
“I tried to hover between something and nothing,” he says. “I’ve never been spiritual or on the cusp of an out-of-body experience. For me, I’ve always felt fully in control … Smaller doses make me feel happy and provide a burst of energy.”
So far, few studies have focused on the effectiveness of self-prescribed microdosing.
“I’d proceed with caution, but personally think it is healthier than alcohol and more coherent than pot,” Kevin says.
Larger therapeutic doses tend to release the ego, allowing for deep introspection that can border on the mystical.
“There are a lot of stuck places people find themselves and having a new paradigm that is less mainstream and more like a transformation is compelling,” VanderWaal says.
Once stuck, Daniel Harkins considers himself cured of PTSD.
The next step on his psychedelic journey includes creating a safe haven where he can work with physicians and therapists to heal wounded minds.
“Set and setting is everything,” Harkins says. “If it’s like Woodstock and you see everybody tripping, that’s not going to heal you. You have to be in the right state of mind, the right environment for these things to really work.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. You can follow Silva at @jillsilvafood.