Colorado Lab Explores the Science Behind Magic Mushrooms | Westword

Louisville Lab Analyzes the Science Behind Magic Mushrooms

Medical mushroom therapy hasn't started yet, but labs are already hard at work.
Psilocybin gets all the shine, but psilocin is a major contributor to most psychedelic mushroom experiences, as well.
Psilocybin gets all the shine, but psilocin is a major contributor to most psychedelic mushroom experiences, as well. Evan Semón
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There is a lot of science behind magic mushrooms, and Noah Novello wants to share the knowledge.

At Friday Ventures, a cannabis and psilocybin laboratory and consultant service in Louisville, Novello diligently analyzes the results of tests on potent gummies, chocolates and drinks. Most of these treats are infused with cannabis, but lately he and his staff have been testing more and more products made with psilocybin.

As Colorado anticipates rolling out a medical psilocybin program in late 2024 or early 2025, lawmakers and state regulators have been meeting to discuss what that should look like. Government officials and most psychedelics advocates have been steadfast in their opposition to retail sales similar to those at cannabis dispensaries, but there will be carve-outs for psilocybin edibles and other infused products in the medical program.

Since Novello isn't producing these mushrooms or infused products himself, he's free to study them without worry — not that he hadn't been conducting research before that. "I've been trying psychedelics for twenty-something years. Now I have potency information to match up what I've observed. It provides very helpful information," he says.

Very helpful, indeed.

We tracked down Novello to see if he would answer common questions about mushrooms and psilocybin, from the caps-versus-stems debate to avoiding shroom sickness during digestion.

How strong are most psilocybin mushrooms?

Novello is able to gauge a mushroom's potency with liquid chromatography technology similar to that used to test THC potency in cannabis. As with cannabis and THC, the psilocybin potency of the same species of mushroom varies heavily depending on the growing tactics and environment.

At the Denver Psychedelic Cup earlier this year, the highest entries reached psilocybin levels of around 2.5 percent, but these entries came from experienced cultivators, according to cup organizers. Novello says he routinely tests mushrooms that reach 1 percent psilocybin, while mushrooms from less experienced growers come in around 0.5 percent. However, no one reacts to psilocybin uniformly, he notes, and there are methods for psilocybin extraction that lead to products with much higher potency levels.

Are caps really stronger than stems?

The caps and stems debate is one of the oldest among mushroom users, with most favoring caps. And while the cap majority is largely correct, that's not always the case, Novello says.

"The potency can be very different within the same mushroom," he explains. "I've seen caps 75 percent more potent than stems, I've seen the cap and stems be the same, and I've seen the stem be stronger. In most cases, the cap is stronger, but I've seen it go all directions."

Psilocybin production can be homogenized within mushrooms, he adds, but the boomers you find on the street aren't all the same. Extracted products, such as capsules and edibles, are more consistent: "It's not impossible [with raw mushrooms], but there are certain steps that need to be done. Raw mushrooms, even though they're the easiest to produce, have the most variability. With a capsule, chocolate bar or gummy, it's a little easier to more evenly distribute, which is how most drugs are."
click to enlarge Man in a lab coat holds a magic mushroom
Noah Novello's cannabis expertise helped him start a path toward psilocybin analysis.
Noah Novello

Similar to cannabis, are all magic mushroom "strains" different?

"There are many cannabis strains that provide very specific relief for certain symptoms, and it's the same thing for mushrooms," Novello says. "Some strains, like psilocybe natalensis, may have anti-inflammatory properties."

Penis Envy, basically the Blue Dream of the mushroom world, is prized by amateurs and professionals alike for several reasons. "It's the most common and easy to grow. It kind of hits all the bottom lines. It has a good yield, it has a good potency, and it's resilient," Novello says. "Then you have strains like Golden Teacher, for example, which is a little more mild. So for those who are new to psychedelic mushrooms or want more of an inner-self look as opposed to looking out to the universe, the Golden Teacher seems to be a popular choice."

The Colorado Natural Medicine Division, created to oversee licensed mushroom production and facilitation, is currently considering restricting licensed cultivation to the most common species of mushrooms, psilocybin cubensis, which worries Novello.

"It's a restriction of access," he argues. "I think they're doing a good job overall, but that would be like only allowing Blue Dream in the cannabis world."

Is psilocybin the only important compound in magic mushrooms?

Psilocybin gets all the shine, but psilocin is a major contributor to psychedelic experiences, as well. Although psilocybin is psychoactive, the majority of it is converted into psilocin in our digestive tracts. Psilocin, also psychoactive, is primarily responsible for our psychedelic trips, because most of us are orally ingesting mushrooms.

"When you consume raw mushrooms, the psilocybin converts into psilocin, and that goes into your brain, which gives you the psychedelic effect," Novello details.

And it's not just psilocybin and psilocin that impact mushroom effects. There are other tryptamines, or hallucinogenic compounds, in mushrooms, Novello adds, as well as natural fungi alkaloids that impact how our bodies react to mushrooms, similar to how terpenes are believed to influence cannabis highs.

Can orange juice increase or decrease a magic mushroom experience?

Drinking orange juice is an old method to speed up a trip or snap out of a bad experience, but there's little evidence to support the claim. Lemons, however, can impact our reaction to psilocybin.

Certain psychedelic mushrooms respond to the acid in lemon juice by allowing psilocybin to convert into psilocin. This could lead to effects with faster onset and shorter duration, as well as fewer stomach issues during digestion. The increasingly common at-home tactic, known as "lemon tek," is utilized to speed up the psilocybin ingestion process. This occurs partly because the conversion burns off around 30 percent of the weight of the psilocybin, according to Novello, but mostly because it takes place outside of your body, allowing for easier absorption.

"When you soak the mushrooms in lemon juice prior to ingesting or putting it into tea, what that is doing is converting the psilocybin into psilocin for a faster rate of onset, and there's usually less nausea involved," he says. "Keeping that conversion process outside of your body does have an effect. Some people say — and I've noticed this as well — that the experience is less wavy. When it's wavy, you feel the effects strongly, then it dulls down, and then it comes back. That could be the rate of psilocybin conversion into psilocin in your body."
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