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Q&A: Class at Western Illinois University examines the ways we heal

A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis marketplace on May 24, 2019, in Los Angeles. Oregon's pioneering experiment with legalized magic mushrooms took a step closer to reality as the first "facilitators" who will accompany clients as they experience the drug received their state licenses, authorities said Tuesday, April 18, 2023.
Richard Vogel
A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis marketplace on May 24, 2019, in Los Angeles. A bill in the introduced in the last Illinois General Assembly could be the first steps in future therapeutic use of psilocybin mushrooms in Illinois.

A growing interest in the potential health benefits of substances like psilocybin and cannabis is fueling a reexamination of our relationship with medicine. A billintroduced in the Illinois General Assembly earlier this year proposed the use of psilocybin in a therapeutic setting for conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and addiction.

Dr. Heather McIlvaine-Newsad teaches the class “From Magic Mushrooms to Big Pharma” at Western Illinois University.

McIlvaine-Newsad recently spoke with WCBU about the class, growing interest in industries like cannabis in both the business and legislative arena and the relationship between pharmaceutical companies and indigenous healing practices.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Would you just start by explaining the inspiration behind the course?

Dr. Heather McIlvaine-Newsad: So several years ago a former colleague, Dr. Sarah Haynes, who was a colleague in the religious studies department, and I decided that we were going to create a new minor in Cannabis and Culture, because we saw legislation moving towards legalizing recreational cannabis in Illinois. And we thought this was a great opportunity to be able to educate the public and students about the cultural and political and economic aspects of cannabis, not just cannabis production. And we were then thinking about how to expand that, so the minor would include alternative forms of healing. One of the things that I've always been interested in is nature based healing. I decided that it would be a great opportunity to be able to create a course that explored different ways in which people around the world utilize natural plants and fungi to be able to heal themselves.

Would you give an example of a few things this course covers, what students are talking about?

McIlvaine-Newsad: One of the things that we talk about are inflammation based diseases, so arthritis and high blood pressure, using ginger and tumeric, which are ingredients that are found in the wild, and are really incorporated into lots of different food cultures, like Indian culture and Southeast Asian cultures. Then we talk about some of the more, I guess you could call them, exotic ways of healing. So for example, we talk about the role of Ayahuasca in Latin American cultures, indigenous Latin American cultures and how they're used as part of a religious belief system. But there are also ways in which people tap into a different level of consciousness. And then how those types of medicines can be used in non-indigenous cultures. We also then talk about cultural appropriation and how big pharma often goes in and does what anthropologists call biopiracy. They basically take the knowledge from indigenous peoples and don't pay for it.

Could you expand on that relationship between pharmaceutical companies and indigenous people and how we see it play out commercially?

McIlvaine-Newsad: Probably one of the most famous examples is Bayer Pharmaceuticals, which produces aspirin. It's originally a German pharmaceutical company. And aspirin comes from the derivative from willow bark trees. People have been using it as a tincture for a really, really long time from North America and Bayer Pharmaceuticals went in and synthesized it and made tons and tons of money off of it. So that's just a really common example. Another example is the modern day birth control pill that 51% of the population has access to. Originally, it comes from indigenous people in current day Mexico. So, again, biopiracy went in and basically took advantage of that and didn't pay the indigenous people anything at all for it.

How are pharmaceuticals, medicine and the way we heal ourselves tied to our culture? 

 McIlvaine-Newsad: One of the things that I asked students in the course to do, and it really takes an awful lot of courage on their part, is to share some of their own health issues. If they want to. And I share mine as well, I talk about struggling with depression and anxiety and having chronic pain from being hit by a drunk driver six years ago in which I was prescribed opioids. But that can be treated in different ways. That can be treated with cannabis, tinctures of cannabis being ingested. I can't smoke because I have lung issues. But we talk about these kinds of things. And it just allows students to have open conversations about different ways of healing ourselves, and understanding really, that there's no one right way to do things. And then seeing all of the threads of how all of this is held together.

Are we seeing a resurgence of scientists being able to examine the possible benefits of previously taboo substances?

McIlvaine-Newsad: Absolutely. And Illinois, is one of the states that is, actually I think it'll be the third state behind California and Oregon, if it approves a bill that's currently under consideration to allow psilocybin, which is the active agent in mushrooms to be used in a clinical setting. And I think this course in particular allows students to see the reasons why these nature based medicines have been restricted. It deals with socioeconomic status of the populations who use them, it deals with their ethnicity or race. It deals with power, right? And so for students to be able to see the web that we've created around what is appropriate and what is inappropriate and how to appropriately heal ourselves. It kind of unearths the complexity of our culture.

Proponents of that bill in the Illinois Assembly point a lot to potential use of psilocybin for veterans with PTSD. What are some of the potential benefits that are, not being uncovered because they were already there, but receiving more mainstream attention?

McIlvaine-Newsad: Michael Pollan, who is a very well known, popular author, wrote a book recently called [“How to Change Your Mind”] where he really explores this. And I think one of the things that we have [is] a veteran population who we haven't done a really good job of taking care of, when they return from service. And so a lot of them have significant PTSD, which doesn't allow them to live their best lives after having served the nation. And it's something that, I think until this current generation, we haven't talked really openly about mental health issues. Whether it's veteran based or sexual trauma, or any of those kinds of things. And so, being able to have those kinds of open conversations is really important. And I am hopeful that Illinois will pass that legislation, so that it can be used as a medicine. It can be used with scientists and doctors who know how to do this. So not just, you can't just buy it next to cannabis, recreational cannabis, because it's a completely different type of medicine. But to have somebody walk you through the process. And we know that ketamine and DMT are also other medicines that have that same type of potential and are being used in other places, they can significantly rewire the brain for addiction issues.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.