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Copelandia and Other Psychoactive Fungi in Hawaii
by John W. Allen
Vol 4; 1993, 61
Psychedelic Illuminations
With the recent identification of a deadly agaric Amanita virosa (Fr.) Quel. , by Dr. George Wong on Oahu (Wong 1989) and Dr. Don Hemmes on Hawaii Is. (1989, Pers. Comm.), some other fungi which might be psychologically harmful, if not physically dangerous, are noted. Hallucinogenic mushrooms belonging to Psilocybe, Panaeolus, and at least 10 other genera, have been investigated since rediscovery of an hallucinogenic mushroom cult in Mesoamerica during the early 1950's (Wasson 1957). It has been reported that many of these species are now employed by many segments of society as a drug source to be used for recreational purposes rather than as a food item (Ott 1978; Singer 1978; Weil 1980).

Worldwide, there are more than 130 known species of fungi which contain psychoactive alkaloids of psilocybin, psilocin, and other indole related compounds known as tryptamines. Psilocybin and psilocin possess a chemical structure very similar to serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter that exerts powerful psychic effects through central sympathetic excitation. Most notable is an alteration of the normal functioning of the brain known as cerebral mycetism which produces visual effects, auditory hallucinations (synesthesia) and euphoria. In humans these effects are similar to those produced by mescaline and LSD (Pollock 1975; Singer 1978; Hofmann 1980).

In the Hawaiian Islands a number of these psychoactive mushroom species occur naturally, including five which have been identified. The three most common of the identified species of psychoactive fungi in the Hawaiian Islands known to contain psilocybin and/or psilocin are Copelandia cyanescens (Berk. & Br.) Singer, C. tropicalis Olah, and Panaeolus subbalteatus (Berk. & Br.) Sacc. All three of these melanosporous species belong to the family Coprinaceae and are primarily coprophilic, but have been known to occur in grassland areas where manure had previously been deposited.

Under the provisions of Public Law 91.513, psilocybin and psilocin are registered as controlled substances (#7437 and #7438) subject to a fine and/or imprisonment. While these substances are classified as chemicals, there are no existing laws pertaining to the possession of mushrooms per se.

Copelandia cyanescens, and C. tropicalis are known in Hawaii by recreational users as "magic mushrooms," "gold caps," "blue meanies," "dimple tops," and "cone heads", They are the most common species employed for recreational, albeit illicit, purposes. Such illegal use has taken place rather commonly in Hawaii for 20 years or more (Anon. 1972; Pollock 1974; Anon. 1981b;).

Copelandia cyanescens, which seems to be of Asian origin, may have been introduced into the Hawaiian Islands with cattle which were imported from the Philippines during the early 1800's. The same mode of dispersal may also explain the presence in Hawaii of C. tropicalis which was originally reported from Cambodia.

Panaeolus subbalteatus, which has a worldwide distribution, and is often referred to as "red caps" in North America, is not commonly found on 0ahu, but is abundant in some areas of Maui. Generally, J!. subbalteatus is less frequently collected for psychoactive consumption in Hawaili. This latter species is known as the "weed Panaeolus", and accidental intoxication from this species has been reported in scientific literature for centuries (Pollock 1976).

In Hawaili, the three species of hallucinogenic mushrooms referred to above are reportedly popular with members of the youth counterculture, some college students, and some in the armed forces. While possession of many of these psychoactive species is illegal in the United States, very few prosecutions result from their use. However, in Hawaili, people violating private property rights in search of such fungi are sometimes arrested for trespassing.

Those who search for these psychoactive species often identify them by observing the intense bluing reaction which occurs through oxidation when the flesh of the mushroom has been damaged by handling. This confirms to some collectors that the gilled fungi are not deadly mushrooms. While some mycologists believe that the bluing reaction in C. cyanescens is variable and often absent, others often report its occurrence in this species as common and intense.

In addition to the above mentioned Copelandia spp. and Panaeolus, two other common species in Hawaii, have been listed as poisonous or hallucinogenic. They are Panaeolina foenisecii Maire, found in lawns and pastures, and Psilocybe coprophila Guzman, a dung inhabiting species. According to Guzman (Pers. Comm.), although these two species may be toxic, neither of them is psychoactive. Except for C. tropicalis which was originally identified by Olah (1968) as occurring in Hawaii, voucher specimens of all of the above discussed species were sent to Dr. Gaston Guzman of the Instituto de Ecologia in Mexico city. Dr. Guzman, a recognized expert on psychoactive fungi, varified the identities of the specimens collected in Hawaii.

Field collection specimens to be deposited in the Bishop Museum Herbarium is now in progress.

Amanita muscaria, a powerful psychoactive mushroom with very dangerous relatives in the same genus (see Wong 1989), has been reported to Don Hemmes (1989, Pers. Comm.), UH Hilo biologist, as occurring in Hawaii, but no specimens have been verified as yet. Allen and Hemmis collected specimens of C. cyanescens and P. subbalteatus on Hawaii Is. in December of 1988.

It is also worth noting that spores belonging to so-called "Hawaiian" strains of Psilocybe cubensis have been offered for sale through advertisements in High Times Magazine, a counterculture publication. This psychoactive mushroom species, however, apparently does not occur in Hawaii, except under clandestine conditions where it is cultivated in vitro.

The number of people who seek medical attention for psychological problems associated with either accidental or deliberate ingestion of these psychoactive fungi has risen sharply in some areas of the world during the past 10 years (Southcott 1974; Harries & Evans 1981; Young et al 1982; Bennell & Watling 1983). However, during the last 15 years, only a few toxic reactions resulting from ingestion of Copelandia cyanescens have caused concern in the Hawaiian Islands. Pollock reported the death of a young man in Hawaii, which was supposedly caused by the ingestion of this species. Allen (1988) investigated this report and found that no mushrooms were involved. In 1981, a 14-year old male received a gastric lavage at Castle Hospital after taking an overdose of this species (Anon. 1981a). A similar case was reported from the same hospital in 1988 (Pers. Comm. Staff at Castle Hospital). In 1981, a teen-ager in Kona, who had previously eaten psychoactive mushrooms on several occasions with no undesirable effects, consumed a small handful of mushrooms, lost control of his senses, and inflicted himself with multiple stab wounds; subsequently, he sought treatment at a Kona hospital (Stapleton 1981).

While the fear of poisoning by toxic fungi is the main cause of mycophobia throughout the world, mycologists have recognized that some of the deadly species macroscopically resemble those fungi which might be picked for their suspected hallucinogenic properties. Although the possession of fungi containing illegal substances raises serious ethical concerns, the main medical dangers associated with psilocybian poisonings are primarily psychological in nature. Anxiety or panic states, depressive or paranoid (guilt) reactions, mood changes, disorientations and an inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy have been reported. Treatment for this kind of poisoning is generally supportive (the talk down method or a gastric lavaqe). Psychological distress resulting from consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms may induce paranoid reactions or illusions which might lead to dangerous behavior in some people, under certain conditions. Nevertheless, the inherent physical danger associated with the ingestion of wild mushrooms lies not so much in the consumption of an hallucinogenic species, but rather in the misidentification, collection and consumption of a physically poisonous species which might resemble a psilocybian species.

This is a revised edition of:

Allen, J. W. and M. D. Merlin. 1989. Copelandia and Other Psychoactive
Fungi in Hawaii. Newsletter Hawaiian Society Botanical vol. 28(2):27-30.