It was the summer of shrooms

The pandemic closed us off. Psychedelics set us free.

Michelle Lhooq/Maxine McCrann
Good Trip
ByMichelle Lhooq
Updated: 
Originally Published: 

The very first party my friends and I threw during our strange second pandemic summer was a shroom rave in a forest in Los Angeles. Thanks to the vaccine, a window of paranoid-free partying had cracked open in late spring, and the social whiplash was disorienting. Despite the media’s frothy forecast that it would be the horniest summer of our lives, the possibility of a drunken bacchanalia felt hollow when our bodies still held so much grief.

We needed a new nightlife paradigm centered on community healing instead of meaningless hedonism — so we conceptualized this rave as a ritual of remembrance for everyone we’ve lost. Shrooms evoke death and rebirth as they spring from dirt and decay, and their therapeutic benefits are undisputed: Recent studies by leading psychedelic researchers at Imperial College London, NYU Langone, and The John Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research have found psilocybin mushrooms to be demonstrably effective at treating depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Seventy-one percent of patients suffering from major depression in a recent study reported experiencing a “clinically significant” improvement after treatment.

The pandemic’s unprecedented suffering has made mental health mainstream, and rather than popping pharmaceutical pills, munching on shrooms has become many people’s preferred medicine. Yet, most of us experimented with psychedelics alone during the pandemic, and bringing them into a party space felt like an experiment: Could the same fungi that provided so much solace in quarantine now help us to reintegrate back into the world? In other words, can partying on shrooms — instead of alcohol and cocaine — foster deeper social connections and empathy as we recover from the pandemic’s wreckage?

Could the same fungi that provided so much solace in quarantine now help us to reintegrate back into the world?

One night in early June, we texted a GPS location to a few close friends. A dozen of us met at a public park and hiked up a long winding path, carrying speakers on our shoulders until we reached a secret forest grove. The full moon glowed orange as we nibbled shroom chocolates, stood in a circle, and spoke the names of those we’d lost while sprinkling wildflower seeds into the dirt. More friends emerged from the shadows, and under the spidery trellises of the trees, we danced to psychedelic techno, bodies moving ecstatically in the dark.

As the veil of pandemic lockdowns lifted, and social gatherings came back in full swing, it seemed like shrooms were everywhere in L.A. and New York this summer, bifurcating all social stratospheres as they were passed around on silver platters at corporate dinner parties, handed out like candy at indie concerts, even infused into cocktails at underground raves.

“It's unreal how prevalent mushrooms have become — I can’t really remember a night out this summer where someone didn't offer them to me,” a glamorous Los Angeles party girl who works in the weed industry told me. (She requested anonymity because of the reality that magic mushrooms are still a Schedule 1 substance with penalties for use ranging from probation, fines, and incarceration.) Shrooms used to be saved for special occasions, like a trip to Joshua Tree or Coachella, the weed party girl explained, but now, even people who don’t drink or “do drugs” will nibble half squares of shroom chocolates at parties. “All around, the stigma is being lifted,” she noted, pointing to Michael Pollan’s best-selling books and Netflix documentary Fantastic Fungi as driving this mainstream mushroom momentum. “It almost feels like it’s become a more health-conscious and socially acceptable way of partying.”

The party girl was right. Shrooms are the new weed, especially in cities like Los Angeles where legal cannabis has lost its countercultural edge. As the summer heated up, I noticed more local event organizers throwing parties in parks, gardens, and other outdoor locations — a welcome change from cramped nightclubs and dusty warehouses, especially since these lush environments were more conducive to doing psychedelics, and encouraged a healthier approach to hedonism.

A few weeks after our shroom rave, a friend invited me to his music label’s concert series in a popular L.A. park where famous musicians often drop by to play intimate acoustic sets. A chilled-out crowd of New Age families, stylish neo-hippies, and experimental artists sat on picnic blankets under the trees. Near the back, a long-haired man perched on a hill, offering organic vegan dark chocolates infused with seven types of mushrooms: psilocybin shrooms, as well as lion’s mane, cordyceps, reishi, chaga, shiitake, and maitake, non-psychedelic varieties believed to have healing benefits. “Thank you for sharing your art with us today,” he said to the synth musicians who’d just finished performing, gifting them bars of chocolates. “Let me show you mine.”

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Of course, partying on shrooms is nothing new. This time-tested, hippie-approved practice can be traced back to the last Summer of Love in 1969, Goa beach raves in the 1980s, Thailand’s full moon parties in the 2000s, and beyond. What’s different these days is how quickly shrooms have shifted from the margins to the mainstream; transformed by the brain-breaking pressure cooker of COVID, these substances have shed their decades-old stigma as illicit “drugs” to become socially accepted supplements for wellness and self-optimization.

I wondered if the prevalence of shrooms extended beyond the (admittedly) twee, hipster social circles I was revolving in. So I turned to several underground drug dealers across the U.S., who all confirmed that sales of psychedelics have continued to trend upwards. “The market has grown since COVID,” said one upscale dealer in Hollywood who slings luxury shroom chocolates to corporate bigwigs at HBO, Netflix, and Amazon. “These executives all started doing shrooms during COVID — and now, they realized that the internal work they did [during lockdowns] needs to continue.”

While psychedelic decriminalization and groundbreaking research have been instrumental to psilocybin’s widespread legitimization as a therapeutic substance, legalizing shrooms for recreational use is still a distant possibility in most states. Still, the cultural zeitgeist is moving much faster than federal legislation — and as cool kids wear their love shrooms on their sleeves. “Sporewear” has become a runway trend. “The last year has been one of isolation and separation,” said Dutch avant-garde designer Iris van Herpen, who explained to me how her fungi couture was inspired by the mushroom mycelium network. “It’s really beautiful to look at how nature connects in a very similar way to how we communicate.”

It’s true: Shrooms can be a powerful catalyst for connection, as our shroomy social experiment in the forest earlier this summer ended up proving. We were initially afraid that the experience could be overwhelming — while planning the party, our biggest fear was that less-experienced guests would do too much and freak out. In the end, it was the opposite: Everyone wanted to go deeper, and even the newbies were asking for more chocolate. In comparison to parties powered by alcohol, the vibe felt much more intense and intimate — we had to hold on to each other for support while exploring this unpredictable psychic terrain. The social frontier of shrooms is still largely uncharted, but one thing is for sure: They will be essential to helping us process the pandemic collectively, through the fall and beyond.

Shrooms are the new weed, especially in cities like Los Angeles where legal cannabis has lost its countercultural edge.

Later in June, I flew to New York to document the official reopening of nightclubs, which were operating in full swing for the first time since the pandemic. During Pride weekend, I found myself at a popular nightclub around 9 a.m. Everyone had been partying all night on a cocktail of drugs including MDMA, LSD, GHB, cocaine, and ketamine; I wondered if shrooms had similarly pierced the social zeitgeist in New York, or if the rise of shroom parties was more of a West Coast thing.

Then, in the crisp morning light, I met a club kid named LeLe carrying a plastic baggie of Penis Envy, a highly potent strain of shrooms that he told me he’d grown himself. LeLe said COVID had transformed his relationship to shrooms. After quitting his corporate job, he’d been focusing entirely on mushroom cultivation. Is this the summer of shrooms in New York? I asked him. Or have shrooms been overshadowed by the post-vax drug free-for-all?

Last summer was extremely shrooms,” Lele replied. “Club drugs like molly, k, and coke seemed incongruous with hiking in the woods or hanging on the beach, so shrooms became an all-purpose drug.” Now that clubs and bars are open again, the public’s party drug palettes have expanded, he agreed — but the popularity of psychedelics has remained relevant. “We learned to use the mushrooms for more than tripping out,” he said. “In times of such uncertainty and upheaval, it really helped in so many different ways: an uncontrolled laugh or cry, deep introspection, a microdose to just take the edge off … ” He paused and sprinkled some shrooms into the palm of my friend’s hand.

“This was deeply needed last summer, this summer, and every summer ahead.”

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