‘Magic’ mushrooms may turn smokers into quitters

"When administered after careful preparation and in a therapeutic context, psilocybin can lead to deep reflection about one's life and spark motivation to change," says Matthew W. Johnson. (Credit: Tatiana Bulyonkova/Flickr)

A small number of long-time smokers were able to quit after carefully controlled experiences with the hallucinogen found in “magic mushrooms.”

The smokers, who had failed many previous attempts to quit, used the mind-altering drug psilocybin under close supervision and in the context of a cognitive behavioral therapy treatment program.


Psilocybin may help break an addictive pattern of thoughts and behaviors that become ingrained after years of smoking. The benefits also seem to last after the drug has worn off.

“Quitting smoking isn’t a simple biological reaction to psilocybin, as with other medications that directly affect nicotine receptors,” says Matthew W. Johnson, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

“When administered after careful preparation and in a therapeutic context, psilocybin can lead to deep reflection about one’s life and spark motivation to change.”

Psilocybin is the active ingredient in some mushrooms that, when eaten, launch a user on a hallucinogenic experience (“trip”). Such fungi, sometimes called psychedelic or “magic” mushrooms, are believed to have been used in a religious or sacramental context even in prehistoric times.

80 percent success rate

A Johns Hopkins team of researchers has long had federal funding to study the psychoactive effects of psychedelic drugs. Earlier studies have shown that users of psilocybin can undergo “mystical-type experiences with enduring personal meaning and spiritual significance” and positive behavior changes, the researchers say.

In the smoking study, the abstinence rate after six months was 80 percent, substantially higher than typical success rates in smoking cessation trials.

About 35 percent experience six-month success rates when taking varenicline, widely considered to be the most effective smoking cessation drug. Nicotine replacement and behavioral therapies have success rates typically less than 30 percent, says Johnson, corresponding author of the study.

The researchers, in a report published online in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, strongly caution that their results are not an endorsement of do-it-yourself psychedelic drug use for smoking cessation. The findings are, instead, specific to controlled administration of the drug in the context of a treatment program involving cognitive behavioral therapy.

Eyeshades and earphones

In the study were 10 men and five women, all mentally and physically healthy. They were, on average, 51 and had smoked 19 cigarettes a day for 31 years; all had repeatedly tried and failed to stop.

Ten participants reported minimal past use of hallucinogens, the most recent an average of 27 years before the study. Five had never used hallucinogens.

After researchers informed subjects about what their experience with the drug might be like, the first dose of psilocybin was administered by pill the day each participant planned to quit smoking. Two subsequent sessions, with higher doses of the mind-altering drug, were held two weeks and eight weeks later.

During each psilocybin session, which lasted six to seven hours, two members of the research team closely monitored participants in a comfortable, homelike setting.

Most of the time, participants wore eyeshades and earphones that played music, and they were encouraged to relax and focus on their inner experiences.

The hallucinogenic compound was administered as part of a comprehensive cognitive behavior therapy smoking cessation program that included weekly one-on-one counseling sessions and keeping a diary before quitting to assess when and why cravings occur.

Johnson’s next study will compare smoking success rates for people who take psilocybin versus those who use nicotine patches. He will use MRI scans to study brain activity in participants.

The Beckley Foundation provided initial funding for the research, with continued funding from the Heffter Research Institute. The National Institute on Drug Abuse also provided support.

Source: Johns Hopkins University