When Oregon voters passed Proposition 109 in 2020, they cleared a path for greater access to the therapeutic use of psilocybin mushrooms and products that contain their active compounds. The ballot measure, which was approved with more than 55% of the vote, authorized the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to create a program to permit licensed service providers to produce and administer psilocybin-producing mushroom products to adults 21 years of age or older.
A model for progressive drug policy reform, Prop. 109 also laid the groundwork for a new industry in Oregon. The OHA’s Psilocybin Services Section is charged with drafting rules to license and regulate the manufacturing, transportation, delivery, sale, and purchase of psilocybin products as well as the provision of psilocybin services, with a mandate to have the program up and running in 2023. The agency is already accepting applications for psilocybin business licenses and savvy entrepreneurs are launching new enterprises to service a rising industry.
A New Business is Born
George Sellhorn, founder and principal scientist at Flourish Labs in Portland, is one of the business owners preparing for the launch of legal psilocybin in Oregon. He has had a personal relationship with psychedelics, including psilocybin mushrooms, since he was a teenager and acknowledges that psychedelics have had a “huge impact” on his life. He is also an avid cannabis enthusiast and, with tips and encouragement from High Times, has been growing his own plants since 1993. His interest in and passion for cannabis inspired his academic pursuits, with Sellhorn earning a Ph.D. in plant biochemistry from Washington State University in 2006.
At that time, the legal cannabis industry in the U.S. was in its infancy, and positions in professional fields were few and far between. Sellhorn turned to biotechnology to begin his career, with stints working on cancer therapeutics and an HIV vaccine. Before long, however, friends with businesses in the emerging industry encouraged him to open a cannabis testing lab. Intent on seeing where his chosen path would take, he decided against going into business for himself, although he did dabble in the industry a bit and helped a couple of friends get labs set up. It seemed right for Sellhorn at the time, but it didn’t take long for him to wish he had decided differently.
“A few years later, I kind of was kicking myself saying, ‘I probably should have started a lab, and I’d probably be a lot happier than I am right now,’” he tells me in a telephone interview.
After the passage of Prop. 109, things came full circle. Once again, friends in a soon-to-be legal industry encouraged him to open a lab. The ballot measure includes provisions directing the OHA’s regulations for testing psilocybin products for contamination. Additionally, therapists would want to know the dosage of active compounds they were administering, leading to a need for potency data throughout the supply chain.
Sellhorn remembers thinking, “I’ve been down this road before,” and decided he wouldn’t leave himself open to later regrets this time around. He began ordering the lab equipment and supplies he would need to launch the operation in September 2021, and by the beginning of 2022, Flourish Labs was ready to start taking in samples and running tests.
Sellhorn says that testing mushrooms is quite similar to lab analysis of cannabis, but with one key difference. Like many cannabis labs, Sellhorn uses high-performance liquid chromatography incorporated with ultra-violet spectroscopy (HPLC-UV) to separate the molecules of a given sample and determine its makeup. However, unlike cannabinoids, which are fat-soluble (hydrophobic), the alkaloids in mushrooms are water-soluble (hydrophilic), necessitating a change in the approach to make it work. “So, same methods as cannabis, but just the opposite chemistry,” Sellhorn summarizes.
Lab Testing for Psilocybin, and More
Much of the time Sellhorn spends in testing involves determining the amount of psychoactive alkaloids, or potency, a particular sample contains. More than 50 species of mushrooms produce psilocybin, which is expressed at different levels determined by factors including genetics and cultivation practices.
“The most potent mushroom that I’ve seen from different people is an Albino Penis Envy or an APE,” says Sellhorn. “Eve tested anywhere from 0.1% alkaloids, up to 2.3% was the highest one that I’ve tested so far. So, there’s a pretty big range. The average, I’d say, is about 0.5% to 0.7% alkaloids [by dry weight].”
Initially, Sellhorn’s business plan primarily involved analyzing mushrooms that contain psilocybin and related alkaloids, including psilocin, psilocybin, norpsilocin, baeocystin, and norbaeocystin. Since opening Flourish Labs, he has also developed testing protocols for other products made with psilocybin mushrooms that are likely to be part of Oregon’s upcoming regulated market.
“I can also do fruiting bodies and gummies, chocolates, and extracts, whether it be liquid extract or dry extract” he explains. “So, I have a protocol for all of the possible products that could be made, that I’m aware of, as of now.”
Dosage is Key
Sellhorn notes that the renewed interest in the reported health and wellness benefits of psilocybin has fostered a new culture of microdosing, which Sellhorn has been practicing for more than four years. To microdose, only a tiny fraction of a psychedelic dose of psilocybin is taken, perhaps 0.1 to 0.2 milligrams, Sellhorn suggests. With mushrooms of average potency (rounded up to 1% total alkaloids), that translates to about a tenth to two-tenths of a gram of mushroom biomass. “That’s like a really nice microdose, and you can adjust it based on body weight,” he says. “A microdose should be enough to lift your mood but not feel any of the psychedelic effects like you’re about to trip.”
At the other end of the spectrum is macrodosing, which involves taking enough psilocybin to produce a strong psychedelic effect, which can either be a heck of a fun trip or a space for life-changing spiritual or psychological breakthroughs, depending on the intention with which the drug is taken. To macrodose, Sellhorn says a dosage of 30 milligrams to 50 milligrams of psilocybin (approximately 5 grams of mushroom biomass) should be about right for an intense trip. And within the extremes of micro and macrodosing, “there’s doses in between there for whatever you’re looking for.”
In addition to potency, Sellhorn notes that the form of psilocybin taken can also influence the effects of the drug. While eating dried mushrooms is the classic method of consumption, extracted psilocybin and products made from it can modify the drug’s effects.
“It’s abundantly clear to me now that the mushroom biomass itself acts like a time-release capsule. So, if you take a mushroom that has, say, five milligrams of psilocybin in it, and you eat that, you’ll get a certain effect,” he explains. “And it’ll take a certain amount of time to hit you. But if you take five milligrams in a gummy or a chocolate, it hits you way faster, it’s much more intense, and it gets over more quickly.”
Sellhorn’s work in the lab has given him an opportunity to increase his knowledge about other psilocybin best practices, as well. He notes that proper storage is very effective at preserving the potency of psilocybin mushrooms. When a client was looking for data on potency degradation, an in-house study determined that mushrooms stored in a vacuum-sealed bag and kept in dark conditions at 60° Fahrenheit retained 98% of their potency after four months.
An Expanding Scientific Field
Although he sees a strong market for analyzing psilocybin-containing mushrooms coming to Oregon, Sellhorn realized that demand for lab testing may be limited until the industry is more established and generating revenue. Although the state’s regulations will likely eventually include requirements for testing for microbial contamination or the presence of heavy metals in addition to potency, such testing is not yet in high demand. So, to supplement his business plan, Flourish Labs has also begun lab testing of so-called functional mushrooms including cordyceps, reishi, and amanita muscaria (famous in folklore and pop culture) for compounds that could have health and wellness benefits. Additional species to be tested by the lab in the coming months include lion’s mane, chaga, maitake, tremella, and turkey tail.
When regulated production and administration of psilocybin for therapeutic purposes begins in Oregon later this year, it will launch a new industry in the state and become a milestone in the continued evolution of drug policy reform. Leading the way will be a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs, including Sellhorn and Flourish Labs.
This article was originally published in the February 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.