Telluride Mushroom Conference

Winter 1995 Vol. 05, No. 3 Clinical Trials and Tribulations

Download this article.

AUGUST 1994 saw the passing of the 14th Telluride Mushroom Conference/Festival. It was the scene of open forums, slide shows, political voice and pure science. The objective of this conference is to cultivate the knowledgeof psychoactive fungi as well as all aspects of edible, poisonous and wild mushrooms. Although this objective is the primary motive for this annual event, at times the "mushroom conference" serves as an information trading post for any and all ideas on psychoactive themes. Indeed, this year’s conference offered little new information on psychoactive mushrooms. Instead, we were treated to lectures on a variety of subjects ranging from psychedelic research, organic chemistry, history and religion, to gourmet mushroom preparation.


The first International Conference on Hallucinogenic Mushrooms was held in Washington in 1976, when a growing number of people, stimulated by the work of R. Gordon Wasson and others, organized to discuss hallucinogenic mushrooms in North America. That conference has long since disappeared, as have three other annual conferences addressing psychoactive fungi. The first Telluride conference was held in 1981 and has taken over as the only annual conference addressing issues concerning the taxonomy, pharmacology, ingestion and safety issues surrounding psychoactive fungi.

At 8,725 ft., nestled in an alpine valley approximately 323 miles southwest of Denver, Telluride (pop. 1,400) is known for its extreme skiing as well as its small-town family atmosphere. It is here where once a year we feel the esprit de corps of researchers embracing a field of study and philosophy sometimes regarded as criminal. For three days, a rustic theater on main street serves as a lecture hall, playing host to some of the icons in psychedelic history. There have been times when standing-room-only lectures overflowed the 213 seat provincial theater. The notable Òguest facultyÓ at this year’s conference included Gary Lincoff, mycologist of the New York Botanical Gardens, author of the Audubon Field Guide to North American Mushrooms; Jonathan Ott, chemist, author of Hallucinogenic Plants of North America and Pharmacotheon; Andrew Weil, M.D., author of The Natural Mind, Chocolate To Morphine, and The Marriage of the Sun And Moon; and Paul Stamets, mycologist, author of Psilocybe Mushrooms and their Allies and The Mushroom Cultivator.

Presentation Highlights Not Limited To… Dangerous Entheogens

In an address on the Psilocybe mushrooms of North America, Paul Stamets stated that the deficiency of reliable and accessible information, combined with the abundance of misinformation concerning psychoactive substances is extremely dangerous, frequently proving to be deadly. As with every Telluride conference, the issue of poisonous fungi was paramount. To paraphrase Stamets: Most of the scientific and legislative communities still hold the irresponsible position that risking an occasional death is better than educating the public about responsible entheogen use. It would seem that, to many, the occasional experimentation traditionally associated with individual decision-making is far worse than death itself.

While admitting that the dangers of entheogenic mushrooms extend beyond the mere misidentification of a specimen, conference organizers are committed to minimizing the risks associated with entheogenic mycology. It is at conferences such as this where we learn that the deadly Galerina autumnalis is often encountered when looking for Psilocybe baeocystis and P. stuntzii. In fact Galerina autumnalis can grow so close to Psilocybe stuntzii that they appear clustered in the same flush. On Christmas day in 1981, a woman in Washington died after she ingested poisonous mushrooms mistakenly identified as psilo-cybian (belonging to the psilocybin-containing mushroom complex; not necessarily of the genus Psilocybe). The woman and her two companions had become sick the day after eating the mushrooms, but declined to report their condition fearing arrest. Having waited until the symptoms worsened, the three reluctantly went to the hospital, where one woman soon perished.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of entheogenic substances is the media’s efforts to sensationalize their use. Entheogens are most dangerous when used with the recklessness to which most western consumers are accustomed. Andy Weil spoke of the increasing popularity of entheogenic toads and the extreme caution one must exercise when handling the unassuming and poisonous amphibians. Recently, I saw a popular cartoon series on MTV in which the protagonists "lick" toads, in search of a psychedelic experience. The toads that are capable of providing this type of experience are extremely toxic, and caustic to mucous membranes. If this practice were ever imitated, the individual would experience severe poisoning!

Psilocybe: No Dose, Low Dose or High Dose

The key forum two years ago was titled: "Psilocybe Mushrooms: No Dose, Low Dose or High Dose", and featured panelists Peter Furst, Emanuel Salzman and Andrew Weil. The results of a detailed Psilocybe questionnaire, distributed to conference attendees in 1993, are included here with the 1994 review, because few written reports exist relating dosage and other variables with eating psilocybe mushrooms.

In discussing the results of the questionnaire in 1993, Dr. Salzman offered three general categories of mushroom experimenters: those who do not partake, those who take only small doses, and those who take high doses, counting 5 grams of dried Psilocybe cubensis as a high dose. The questionnaire responses were then detailed. The survey segregated questions, noting whether the experience was with a high or low dose. Results were compiled from 67 of the 78 respondents who had ingested psilocybian mushrooms.

Of the low dosage users:

Most used the mushrooms for social reasons such as concerts, etc., not knowing the species they were using. Ninety-five percent experienced euphoria, 85% reported an increased visual acuity, 60% saw kaleidoscopic hallucinations, 75% experienced personal insight, 50% had creative as well as religious experiences, and 9% had telepathic experiences. Most users did not rate "Set and Setting" as a very important factor for their experiences.

Of the high dosage users:

Ninety percent were seeking magical or mystical experiences, 90% experienced euphoria, 60% reported increased visual acuity, 90% saw kaleidoscopic hallucinations, 90% experienced personal insight, 80% had religious experiences, and 28% had telepathic experiences. A significant 90% of this group felt that "set and the setting" were of great importance.

The more exotic experiences such as communication with aliens, divine radiance, etc. doubled with the high dosage users. A few individuals expressed triumphs over chemical addiction and some expressed life-changing experiences. Speaking from experience and observation, Dr. Weil commented that it is possibly more likely to have uncomfortable experiences with lower doses, as higher doses may propel you beyond your inimical impulses.

Paradigms in Drug Research

Interest in entheogenic drug research is steadily growing and funding is being progressively solicited, with success, from the private sector. Most of the guest faculty had comments on the past failures of researchers to generate meaningful data in most aspects of entheogenic research.

The Heffter Technique

One of the faculty buzz phrases of this conference was "the Heffter technique," in reference to Dr. Arthur Heffter, a German pharmacologist. Heffter, on November 23, 1897, deftly identified the psychoactive component of peyote, Lophophora williamsii, by methodically ingesting extractions made from dried specimens. This was the planet’s first "trip" with a purified chemical compound (mescaline). The discovery was most notable, in retrospect, because Heffter had expedited the process of identification through a unique series of ingestion assays. Although Dr. Louis Lewin, Heffter’s colleague and rival, had previously published the chemistry of the mescaline-containing cacti in 1888, he was unable to identify the active component. Lewin, who pursued the query with enthusiasm, was stymied because he waged an inconclusive regime of animal experiments. Entheogenic effects in animals are impossible to quantify due to the enduring pharmacological noise. Heffter’s decision to pursue a regime of self-experimentation proved an unexpected and powerful tool, transcending the limitations of accepted scientific paradigms.

A similar drama would unfold again in the late 1950’s, as the CIA raced to identify the unknown active component in entheogenic Psilocybe species. The CIA had hoped to be the first to identify the drug and amass a secret arsenal. Not using the "Heffter technique," the CIA relied fruitlessly on animal experiments. Dr. Albert Hofmann in Basel, Switzerland, would later successfully use the Heffter technique, and in 1958 identified the active components psilocin and psilocybin, exposing to the world their identity.

The philosophy of science continues to be used to disqualify self-experimentation or "the Heffter technique" because it violates the principal of "absolute objectivity." This general dismissal of otherwise impeccable work, based on the rejection of self-experimentation, prompted Jonathan Ott to reiterate an old byword of R. Gordon Wasson’s when he described a growing rift in the philosophy of science, stating "there are two groups [in the world of science]: those who are disqualified by their experience and those who are qualified by their ignorance."

Set and Setting

Another well-known problem with current scientific paradigms in the study of entheogens was addressed by Andy Weil, when he reminded us that the psychiatric community still denies the value of "Set and Setting." To quote from Weil’s The Natural Mind, "… without them, [Set and Setting] we are unable to explain simply why the drug [entheogen] varies so unpredictably in its psychic effects from person to person and from time to time in the same person."

The Heffter Research Institute may be an encouraging sign of new paradigms in entheogen research. Among the goals of this recently formed institute in New Mexico are: "To develop knowledge regarding, and standards of practice for, the appropriate and safe use of psychedelic agents in a medical context." The institute was founded to promote research on psychedelic drugs and to "counter the social and medical superstition that has held psychedelic drug research in limbo for over thirty years." Contact the non-profit institute at (505)-820-6557.

The Pharmacratic Inquisition

In a lecture entitled "Psilocybe Mushrooms: Ancient and Modern Use", Jonathan Ott gave an impassioned address on what he described as the Christian crusade to eliminate entheogenic religious sacraments. This "pharmacratic inquisition" began in 396 A.D. with the Christian destruction of the Eleusinian sanctuary and the disappearance of the Greek rites of passage known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. Documented by Wasson et al. in The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries (1978), the Eleusinian Mysteries were a celebrated annual entheo-genic initiation into the sacred mysteries of Eleusis at a temple near Athens. The rite was performed from the time of the Rig Veda (circa 1500 B.C.) to the end of the fourth century. In his autobiography, Albert Hofmann states, "The cultural-historical meaning of the Eleusinian Mysteries, their influence on European intellectual history, can scarcely be overestimated. Here suffering mankind found a cure for its rational, objective, cleft intellect, in a mystical totality experience, that let it believe in immortality, in an ever-lasting existence." Among those initiated were Aristotle, Sophocles and Plato, as well as many Roman emperors.

Ott articulated a systematic Christian campaign to eliminate the use of shamanistic practices around the world, stamping out all "… midwives and herbalists…" Christianity, Ott believes, is encumbered by "faith in an absurd doctrine of transubstantiation," one in which individuals must have faith in imaginary sacraments. By eliminating indigenous people’s access to entheogenic substances, the Christian establishment has eliminated "sacraments that obviate the necessity of faith itself." Thus, the real power of faith ultimately lies in the relinquishment of the individuals’ personal convictions to the whims of terrestrial religious leaders. The Christian elite may then enjoy the luxuries of having exclusive rights to interpreting the relationship of the individual to the divine.

The Ubiquity of Entheogens in Our Environment

Most of the speakers at this year’s conference seemed intent on conveying the fact that naturally occurring entheogens permeate the world with a ubiquity only dreamed of twenty years ago. As the literature accumulates, we are discovering a plethora of entheogens throughout North America, with an abundance that will eventually bewilder the authorities. To put it in Weil’s words, "…Nature is showering us with psychoactive substances… there is no end to these substances…" Although most widely distributed in the plant and fungi kingdom, we are finding a number of entheogenic substances appearing in the animal kingdom as well. For example, human beings produce endogenous amounts of DMT which may "be involved in naturally occurring ‘psychedelic’ states" (Strassman, 1994).


Recently, flocks of journalists, including the BBC, have journeyed to the Arizona desert to observe the North American desert toad, Bufo alvarius, in all its natural splendor. This naughty amphibian manufactures entheogen 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine in its skin glands (Erspamer (et al.) 1967; Daly and Witkop, 1971). Many, including Weil, have experimented with this substance by smoking the dried venom. Some report desirable effects while others speak of disturbing reactions. For an interesting discussion on toads, see Peter Furst’s Hallucinogens and Culture, (1976).

Speculating on the legal implications of toad ranching, Weil noted that an enthusiastic Tucson district attorney has recently contacted him for information, in hopes that he may be able to prosecute an individual who was caught with several of the amphibians.


Jonathan Ott touched on the fact that the shamanistic use of mushrooms has been discovered on every continent! The most recent count gave 95 species of psychoactive mushrooms and at least 54 more species listed as possibly psychoactive. It is curious to note that psilocybin is the most widely distributed fungal toxin known.


On the second day of the festival, Ott gave a graphic discourse paralleling his recent publication, Ayahuasca Analogues: Pangaean Entheogens. The book is the first to explore in detail the human pharmacology of ayahuasca. The aim of this work is to eliminate the decade-long phenomenon of "ayahuasca tourism" by providing a list of easily attainable ingredients throughout North America that will furnish thousands of possible combinations of extracts yielding ayahuasca-like potions. Ott calls these new possibilities ayahuasca borealis, or "northern ayahuasca," distinguishing them from the Amazonian ayahuasca, which he calls ayahuasca australis.

Ayahuasca is an ingenious amalgam of two plant infusions, usually administered orally. The typical mixture will combine harmine and related enzyme-inhibitors from one plant infusion, Banisteriopsis caapi (or a related species), with another possessing N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is orally inactive without the aid of MAO-inhibitors such as harmine, harmaline and leptaflorine.

In his talk, Ott showed slides of botanical specimens while he detailed the natural history of ayahuasca. The immense range of indigenous use of this Pan-Amazonian entheogenic potion spans from the east in Brazil, to the west in coastal Colombia and Ecuador, to the north in coastal Panama. Seventy two different indigenous groups have been reported to have used ayahuasca.

Calling ayahuasca an "all-purpose pharmacological vehicle," Ott elucidated the purpose of the various admixture plants frequently employed in Amazonian ayahuasca to enhance the desired effects. As many as 97 species in 39 families have been described as additives in this "queen of plant medicines." Ott divides the admixture plants into three categories: therapeutic, stimulant, and entheogenic. He breaks the entheogenic category into four subcategories: nicotine, tropane alkaloids, scopoletine and DMT.

At the time of printing (1994), Ott claims only 25 data points exist on the chemistry of ayahuasca lianas; only 15 on ayahuasca leaf admixtures, and only 16 analyses of ayahuasca potions. Thus, extreme caution is advised to those considering psychonautic exploration.

The author, a B.S. microbiologist/chemist, is currently seeking employment and/or volunteer opportunities in the field of entheo-genic research. Send information to:

W. Hurst

P.O. Box 91416

Santa Barbara, CA 93190-1416

Those interested in attending this year’s conference should contact Fungophile at: (303) 296-9359.


  • Daly, John W., and Bernard Witkop. 1971. "Chemistry and Pharmacology of Frog Venoms,"Venomous Animals and their Venoms. Vol. 2, pp. 497-519. New York and London: Academic Press.
  • Erspamer, V., T. Vitali, M. Roseghini, and J. M. Cei. 1967. "5-Methoxy and 5-Hydroxyindoles in the Skin of Bufo alvarius." Biochemical Pharmacology, Vol. 16, pp.1149-1164.
  • Furst, Peter T. 1976. Hallucinogens and Culture, San Francisco: Chandler & Sharp.
  • Oss, O.T. and O.N. Oeric, with I.T. Obscure and Kat {Pseudonyms for J.E. Bigwood, K. Harrison, D.J. McKenna and T.K. McKenna}. 1975. Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide.
  • Richardson, P. Mick. 1986. Flowering plants: magic in bloom / P. Mick Richardson, [introductory essay, Jack Mendelson and Nancy Mello]. New York: Chelsea House, Series title: Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Drugs.
  • Schultes, Richard Evans. 1973.The Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens by R.E. Schultes and A. Hofmann. Springfield, Illinois, Thomas.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. 1978. The Road to Eleusis : Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries / R.G. Wasson, A. Hofmann, Carl A.P. Ruck. 1st Harvest/HBJ ed. New York : Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. 1968. Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. The Hague, Mouton.
  • Weil, Andrew. 1972. The Natural Mind: a new way of looking at drugs and the higher consciousness. Boston, Houghton Mifflin.