Magic mushrooms have long been associated with free-loving hippies and full-blown hallucinations. But some Kiwis are shaking that perception. Katie Harris investigates the changing face of psilocybin use.
James is a high-level operator.
The former CEO, and current executive at a large private company, loves the challenge of leading others to help make a difference in society.
"Life is going fricken awesome ... great family, nice house. I've got everything I want."
But he has a secret.
Twice a week, while he's making his morning coffee before work, he mixes in .1 of a gram of magic mushrooms.
"I do feel a much more enhanced sense of wellbeing on the days that I microdose, I feel more creative at work.
"I get a lot more done in a shorter amount of time."
James - not his real name - is one of many white-collar Kiwis who are now using magic mushrooms, a type of mushroom that contains the psychedelic drug psilocybin, which they say helps with stress, work, low mood or just to have a good time.
Many are microdosing, which essentially means taking a very small amount so that you're not hallucinating, but are experiencing an elevated mood.
For years, James has dealt with anxiety that's caused him to have panic attacks and heart palpitations, treating it on and off with traditional medication which he says made some aspects of his life worse in the long run.
"I wake up on a Sunday morning and my heart's pumping like I've got people outside ready to attack me."
Frustratingly, he says there's no obvious triggers, and many of his workers have no idea what he's going through.
"People don't see [a senior leader] sitting in a car park bawling their eyes out 15 minutes before going into the office."
The former CEO doesn't believe people would think someone in his role would take magic mushrooms. No one in his work team, he says, "even suspects" it.
But in the Facebook groups he's in, where users talk about whether certain mushrooms are safe, there is a diverse range of members.
"You look at a profile of someone and you're like, oh I wouldn't expect them to be shrooming."
Despite the benefits he claims to feel, he is cautious about how it could impact people who have past trauma, saying he doesn't think the fungi is "for everyone".
"I'd like people to know it can help but it's not a magic bullet, in the alternative health area people are looking for these cure-all things, and it's not."
His biggest concern is accidentally consuming the wrong variety of mushroom and being poisoned. Some are deadly.
And an expert who studies the substance says the jury is out about whether taking hallucinogens causes positive or negative changes to the brain and warns of the risks.
It's also a crime to consume the substance, a Class A drug. Possessing it holds a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment and/or $1000 fine.
Still, James gets animated each time he discusses the positive effect the drug has had on him, and says even his wife has noticed his improved mood.
"If five years ago someone said you'll be dosing yourself with magic mushrooms on a regular basis, I would say that's not going to happen."
'I'm not an edgy person'
Adam is on the farm when I call.
I know because I can hear his staff working away in the background, and him pausing to yell out instructions when needed.
Although we've never met in person I can tell exactly who he is. He seems like your classic Kiwi guy who lives in the country. He likes a cold beer after clocking off and works long hard hours on the land.
In other words, he doesn't seem like the type of guy that would be spotted scrounging around for fungi on the floor of a Canterbury valley.
But he is.
"I'm not an edgy person, you know.
"Having a dose of mushrooms, I just become a little bit fluffy without changing at all."
Although he wants to keep his name out of this story, I can tell you he's in his 30s, owns a farming business and regularly micro-doses on magic mushrooms to help alleviate stress and boost his mood.
His first dalliance with the fungi came while he was studying. Exchange students from the US, who were legally able to consume the substance back home, took him under their wing to forage in a nearby valley.
After which they consumed mushroom-infused tea.
"It was fits of laughter, some sort of Kaleidoscope visuals. I'd never seen a little green man, you know, I've done a few drugs and I've never seen things that aren't there. I've certainly had distortions of things that are there, but I've never had anything new arrive."
The visions occurred after what people now describe as a macro-dose, causing the kind of technicolour reaction you'd expect people to have after taking magic mushrooms
Before starting microdosing at the start of this year Adam had been prescribed Benzodiazepine Clonazepam for a stress-related health issue.
He wasn't a fan, and now says he feels the same effect from microdosing, even though he doesn't do it religiously.
"You don't really know it's happening until you realise that you're not looking for a beer, you know, or you're not worried so much."
Adam says microdosing means he's able to see things in a new light and feels that it's a better alternative to other mind-altering substances like alcohol.
He's able to slow things down, relax.
"I can still function in my job and talk to the farm owner and he wouldn't have a clue.
"It's not a whole heap of people running around semi-naked being crazy people."
Frustrations over stigma surrounding the substance and it's users, as well as what he views as out-dated laws, are partly why he wants to share his story.
Even his own father, who was considered a "political hippy" in his youth and "certainly not square" doesn't know about his psilocybin use.
"I think if I told my parents that I took low doses of magic mushrooms to help anxiety they'd probably fall off their seat."
'A number of things to be aware of' - expert
Research from the US estimates just under 10 per cent of people in the country have used psilocybin during their lifetimes.
Another study found 63.6 per cent of psychedelic mushroom users did so for general mental health and wellbeing.
Last week, Canadian senator and former mayor of Vancouver, Larry W Campbell, admitted he microdoses five days a week to keep his depression at bay. The drug is illegal in Canada but end-of-life patients can apply for an exemption to take the drug to improve their quality of life.
Last week, Dr David Luke, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Greenwich, said he thought the UK should follow the country's example.
For years, University of Auckland School of Pharmacy associate professor Suresh Muthukumaraswamy has studied hallucinogens and other drugs, and is researching the reported effects of microdosing.
"A micro-dose just creates a sort of slightly stimulated feeling, it creates a low level of stimulation, people report improved mood and cognition, we don't know if that's true, but that's what the anecdotal reports are."
But these positive wellbeing responses come with caveats.
"There are a number of things to be aware of, including that those in the study have a lot of psychological support, and people 'in the wild' don't have that when difficult things might be encountered, also there might be more varied provenance in the wild."
Also in clinical trials people are screened for risks like heart issues and psychosis risk before taking the drug.
When it comes to bigger doses, he says people start experiencing what is commonly known as a "trip".
"So they lose their sense of self, they experience thoughts they might not otherwise have, they recall sometimes memories, there's a lot of visual hallucinations that happen."
Some users claim they've had long-term benefits from taking magic mushrooms but can these drugs really permanently change your brain?
They can, he says, citing studies showing that taking hallucinogens can cause long-term changes in brain function, but he says the jury isn't out over whether those are positive or negative changes.
Muthukumaraswamy thinks the current public interest in psilocybin is because there's more media coverage, more information available online and there have been changes in society.
"People have struggled through the pandemic, and struggled generally, and our mental health system is struggling."
Michael, a young Kiwi office worker based in Auckland, had never tried magic mushrooms until he enlisted in a medical trial overseas a few years back in which he was given a very low dose.
It was clinical, methodical, and produced no noticeable effects for him.
"We had to wear an EEG monitor the whole time, which is basically a helmet with all these electronic nodes in it to monitor your brain, for three weeks. We couldn't leave, you had to stay in the same room for three weeks."
After the trial wrapped up however, he continued microdosing.
Like others I spoke to, Michael believes the drug helped him with creativity and reduced anxious feelings.
"Compared to other drugs, it seems really ethical, not only because it's being seen as helping people, but because you can just get it yourself, it's not coming in submarines from Columbia, or like it's not cartels or anything pushing party pills."
Nowadays, he describes his mushroom use as "seasonal" - he only takes them on occasion if he feels like it.
And although he's enjoyed benefits from the substance, Michael hasn't noticed any long-term changes.
"People have to be a bit careful of the discourse around mushrooms, of over-representing the benefits."
'Not just hippies'
Mental health nurse Cory agrees.
While he speaks positively about his own experiences taking the substance, he's frank about the issues it can create for some people. He deals with the consequences of drug use on a daily basis in his profession.
"It doesn't work for everybody, so it's definitely not for everybody but I think it helps me understand."
The reason Cory wanted to speak to me is that he doesn't believe magic mushrooms are a panacea for all of society's ills.
"I just wanted to bring a little bit of balance to the story, because a lot of the stuff I'd been hearing was it was being paraded as some wonderful thing that is going to be great for everybody and it was the next new thing and it was going to replace antidepressants and all that kind of stuff. And I just wanted to bring a different sort of opinion."
That's not to say he doesn't think they have value or benefit for some people's mental health, but he does believe more research is needed.
He told me even a single dose, although mild, could send some people "psychotic".
For Cory, microdosing gives him feelings of clarity and an uplifted mood.
"I take them for learning, or getting into a flow state with certain things. I do a lot of cycling and that and so they can be particularly good for getting into a groove with what you're doing for art and things, that's at higher doses."
That being said, he goes through phases with the drug, sometimes he'll do it for a few months, then he'll take a break and get back into it if he feels lower in energy.
"I find that it doesn't happen right away but over a period of a few weeks you get your mojo back."
When it comes to his professional life, he feels magic mushrooms have allowed him to connect better with others.
But it goes deeper than just helping him get through the day, as last year Cory underwent chemotherapy after being diagnosed with cancer in 2020.
Taking mushrooms during this period, he recalls, helped him realise new things about death that took away the fear for him.
"It can be quite profound, the things it can do."
"I experienced a kind of death which was not at all fearful. Permanently changed my outlook to positive and constructive. I guess it might be possible to gain the same insight through some kind of psychotherapy but this was basically instant."
Cory, who is now in his 60s, thinks the interest in fungi is "incredible" compared to what it used to be. The reason behind the uptick, in his view, is a wider cultural shift surrounding the perception of the drug.
"I think there's lots of people doing it, and it's just a shame that it's a schedule drug.
"There are people out there with professional jobs doing these things, it's not just hippies."