Discover more from CrashOut by Ioan Grillo
How the CIA Promoted Magic Mushrooms
The weirdest story in the drug war connects psychedelics, a Mexican healer, Life magazine and U.S. espionage
A few miles from the home where I grew up in the southeast of England lay a field of magic mushrooms where teenagers ventured during a fortnightly season in the autumn to pick bagfuls of the psychedelic fungi. Like so much local knowledge, it’s hard to figure out who discovered it. It seemed like a secret that people always knew about, right back to when druids concocted potions and to millennia further back still when cave men painted shamanic images.
Research has found, however, that even if ancients tripped on shrooms, they had been forgotten in northern Europe by the modern period. Yet in the mountains of southern Mexico, members of the Mazatec people chomped on mushrooms in rituals to bring them closer to spirits.
How the trippy fungi burst back from this enclave to the wider world is one of the weirdest tales in the history of the drug war. It connects a mystic Mexican healer to Life magazine with a helping hand from the Central Intelligence Agency.
Many will be aware of a CIA program with the code name MK-Ultra, in which agents conducted a decade of experiments with LSD to see if it would help the dark art of mind control. Subjects, both witting and unwitting, took the powerful drug on the CIA dime, sometimes everyday for months - with traumatic effects. Amid these crazed acid tests, MK-Ultra’s boss Sidney Gottlieb wanted to bring shrooms into the mix - an effort detailed in Stephen Kinzer’s colorful 2019 biography of Gottlieb, “Poisoner In Chief.”
The CIA’s “technical services division,” which makes its Bond-style gadgets and concoctions, was first interested in mushrooms as poison. Discovering how Roman Emperor Claudius was killed by fungi that his wife Agrippina hid in his food, an officer filed a memo in the early 1950s. “Let’s get into the technology of assassinations,” he wrote. “Figure out most effective ways to kill - like Empress Agrippina.”
By 1953, a CIA officer was roaming Mexico looking for both toxic and narcotic mushrooms and learned about their shamanic use. His superior, Morse Allen, read his report and was intrigued by the potential of fungi to enhance interrogation. “Very early accounts of the ceremonies of some tribes of Mexican Indians show that mushrooms are used to produce hallucinations,” Allen wrote. “In addition, this literature shows that witch doctors or “divinators” used some type of mushrooms to produce confessions or locate stolen objects…essential that the peculiar qualities of the mushroom be explored.”
The CIA recruited a young chemist at the University of Delaware, James Moore, for the mission. While doubling as a spy was exciting and lucrative, Moore would later describe his handlers at MK-Ultra as “a small band of mad individuals.” His work was filed in MK-Ultra Subproject 58.
Moore soon found a mushroom fanatic and New York banker called Robert Gordon Wasson who had just struck jackpot. Wasson had ventured into the mountains south of the border with a photographer and tripped in a shamanic ceremony with a healer, or curandera, called María Sabina Magdalena García. They were, he would write, “the first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms, which for centuries have been a secret of certain Indian peoples.”
The Flesh of the Gods
At 57 years old, Wasson did well to find his way to the psychadelic ceremony, in the town of Huautla de Jiménez in a remote corner of Oaxaca state in 1955. The Mazatecs are one of various indigenous peoples in Mexico’s highlands who have been resilient in preserving their culture and minimizing the impact of the invading world. They mix Roman Catholicism with their older spiritualism and have a particular veneration for the brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe, who anthropologists see as a manifestation of a traditional goddess. The healers believe that mushrooms can elevate you into a spiritual plain.
Wasson joined in a ceremony with twenty people, taking the shrooms shortly before midnight. The healer Sabina, he wrote, “cleaned the mushrooms of their grosser dirt and then, with prayers, passed them through the smoke of resin incense burning on the floor. As she did this, she sat on a mat before a simple altar table adorned with Christian images, the Child Jesus and the baptism in Jordan.”
Sabina, who was then 60 years old, took 13 pairs of mushrooms for herself and gave six pairs to first-timer Wasson, who “could not have been happier.” He had a good trip.
“We were never more wide awake, and the visions came whether our eyes were opened or closed…They were in vivid color, always harmonious. They began with art motifs, angular such as might decorate carpets, or textiles or wall paper or the drawing board of an architect…Then I saw a mythological beast drawing a regal chariot. Later it was as though the walls of our house had dissolved, and my spirit had flown forth, and I was suspended in midair viewing landscapes of mountains.”
As Wasson was tripping away, he describes how the healer Sabina sung spellbinding songs. She danced and emitted sounds like a ventriloquist that bounced from different directions. She could suddenly face the four points of the compass at once. “This was the mushroom speaking through her,” Wasson wrote. “This was the oracle.”
There are over 100 species of magic mushrooms in the world that all have the active ingredient psilocybin. The ritual of singing and and burning incense and the semi-darkness increases the psilocybin effects. Who knows, maybe it really does altar sensory perception to open a portal into a spiritual realm.
Central Psychedelic Agency
When Wasson was back in New York, the CIA chemist Moore approached him and said he would like to go to the mountains. To sweeten the deal, he offered scientific funding. Wasson, not knowing it was an intel op, agreed and the CIA sent him $2,000 - worth more than $20,000 today. It was disguised as a grant from the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research.
Moore journeyed up to Huautla in 1956 and as well as collecting samples, he joined in the ritual. However, the CIA man got diarrhea, itched all over and had a bad trip. As he wrote in his MK-Ultra report, “I did feel the hallucinogenic effect, although ‘disorientation’ would be a better word to describe my reaction…all this chanting in the dialect.”
Wasson wasn’t impressed. “He had no empathy for what was going on,” he said. “He was like a landlubber at sea.” The CIA handlers were delighted though. Moore delivered a big bag of shrooms they could use for experiments, and they began seeking similar mushrooms grown in the United States.
Wasson made further voyages (and trips) on his CIA dollars calling more attention to his discovery. Finally, Life magazine approached him and he wrote a 17-page spread for a series of Great Adventures entitled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” in 1957. It reads now with a flavor of the white explorer tasting the dark exotic fruit of the “Indian.” But it was also a landmark piece of journalism. And, for good or bad, it broke magic mushrooms to the world.
The Come Down
MK-Ultra’s antics with LSD were far more extensive than with fungi and really boosted the chemical out to the public. Among those who participated in CIA acid tests were Ken Kesey, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Robert Hunter, poet and lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and “Whitey” Bulger, the infamous Boston gangster.
Yet the Life magazine story would have a massive impact on the natural high. Americans devoured the article and headed down to Mexico to experiment, coming back and telling their friends. In 1960, the Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary traveled to Cuernavaca and gobbled shrooms, which he defined as a life-changing moment. He learned more about the brain in five hours of hallucinations, he said, than in 15 years of study. He went on to conduct mushroom experiments in Harvard and introduced the drugs to beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The American psychedelic movement was born and bathed the sixties in a rainbow of colors.
The MK-Ultra program found nothing useful about mind control and lost favor after CIA director Allen Dulles was booted out in 1961, finally grinding to a halt by 1963. It might never have been exposed if Watergate didn’t happen and shone a light on what the hell the agency was up to. While officers shredded documents, MK-Ultra was discussed in the Church Committee hearings and more information has been seeping out since.
Huautla attracted shroom seekers from across Mexico, the United States and the world. They sought out Sabina, who had been named in the article as “Eva Mendez” but her true name and reputation soon spread. Famous figures including the sister of Mexican president José López Portillo would sit in her ceremonies. It’s commonly said the Beatles went there, although it’s unproven and disputed. The rock band Santa Sabina was baptized after her.
The gathering of trippers upset some of the Huautla residents. “Some people would come and not take the mushrooms properly in ceremonies, but use them like drugs and mix them with alcohol and cause problems in the town,” says Andrés García, a great great grandson of Sabina. There is a story that residents were so angry they burned down Sabina’s house. But García tells me it was a fire was that escaped from a grill. Sabina died in poverty in 1985, before Huautla even had electricity.
When I visit this month, I find Huautla has grown into its inheritance. A mural of Sabina adorns the plaza and symbols of her are everywhere, sometimes mixed with an eagle, her spirit animal. Paintings of mushrooms adorn walls and even the local taxis. Sabina’s home was recently turned into a museum.
Many in the town I talk to say they participate in rituals and know healers or have healers in their families. One says that a Catholic priest conducts rituals with mushrooms but he wasn’t sure if the bishop knew about it. Healers also host rituals for tourists, some which can be authentic, others much less so.
Voyagers don’t need to go there for mushrooms though. As word spread round the globe, the curious identified the fungi varieties in their homelands. People mostly use them for recreation, losing the spiritual aspect, although a movement has grown to incorporate them into therapy. Fields were discovered where they flourish from East Texas to Washington State, from South Africa to China, and to down the road from my old home. And it seemed like we always knew they were there.
Narco Politics by Ioan Grillo is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
All text and photos are copyright of Ioan Grillo and CrashOutMedia 2023
You have permission to reproduce the first three paragraphs with a link to the original. To syndicate the whole piece, please contact email@example.com