The fervent popularity of Breaking Bad has associated New Mexico with a very specific drug. But despite now ubiquitous blue “meth” candy, the Land of Enchantment has another provocative substance relationship. See, in 2005, the New Mexico Court of Appeals decided that growing hallucinogenic mushrooms wasn’t illegal. To put it another way: You can totally grow boomers in Albuquerque, brah. I caught up with Bett Williams, author, mushroom enthusiast, Santa Fe resident, and generally hip lady to find out just what the hell is going on there.
I found Ms. Williams when I read her Santa Fe Reporter article on books ‘n’ psilocybin mushrooms. (Psilocybin is the active psychedelic compound found in more than 200 kinds of shrooms. It makes you trip.) She caught me up with the legality of the fungi, which — like marijuana that’s been given the go-ahead by individual states — is still a Schedule I narcotic, per to the feds. “They’re legal to grow, they’re legal to eat the fruits that you pull directly off the cakes, but you’re not allowed to have dried mushrooms,” Williams says. “These are important distinctions to make. There are different ways people deal with that.”
How do Santa Fe residents deal with it? It is it a big scene? Mushrooms, grown outdoors, aren’t in season right now, Williams notes. “Mushrooms are overlooked in places like Florida, because they grow out of the ground so easily,” she says. As for Santa Fe? “There are a few pockets of people who are farmers and gardeners, who grow [non-hallucinogenic] mushrooms anyway,” she says. “So, they will grow some [psilocybin] mushrooms and they’ll do them. But, they do them on their own land. You’re not gonna go to a nightclub and say, ‘Hey, are you shrooming?’ It’s a small community.”
Williams, who is writing a book on mushrooms called The Wild Kindness, plays down the notion that New Mexico is playing host to some sort of cultural phenomenon. “I hate to disappoint you, but nobody does mushrooms. It’s like something they keep in the back of their freezer for years and, then, maybe they take them,” Williams says. But, then again: “There’s a real enthusiasm for low-dosing. There’s this guy who has really bad hay fever and, when it’s debilitating, he does a low dose of mushrooms and he’s able to go out and farm.”
“There are some artists I know who are growing their own and doing it in private ways: dance, therapy,” Williams continues. “It’s a square substance. I know a fair amount of teenagers and I don’t think they’re running around doing shrooms.” She puts psilocybin mushrooms in their own category, and even personifies them. “Weed, as a plant, really enjoys attention, it enjoys commerce, it enjoys being involved in politics,” she tells me. “Mushrooms, the more you take them, the more demure and humble I feel they are in terms of what their teachings are. If you’re around people who do mushrooms a lot, you can tell a newbie because they’re wearing a mushroom shirt and are like, ‘Wahoo! This is amazing!’ People who do them regularly, they just stop talking about it. It’s a very humbling medicine.”
Williams finds shrooms to be a wonderful remedy, if a complicated one. “I personally am committed to continuing to use them for issues related to alcoholism and PTSD. Every single time I do them, I don’t want to. But, they never fail me. It’s always great,” she says ecstatically. “I think they’re incredible for depression. I’m a recovering alcoholic, so I had depression coming off of alcohol — like, ‘God, I need a drink’ — and the ensuing self-loathing. A low dose is really helpful, especially if imperceptible: no hallucinations or no big body high. There’s a very distinct absence of negative thought. My struggle with it is that I realize how addicted I am to negative thinking. Over a period of, let’s say, 30 days of extreme low-dosing, I can barely handle not feeling bad. I get so used to needing to feel bad. It’s an extraordinary teacher. To actually have a long-term relationship, it becomes a rigorous commitment.”
Bett Williams, herself, is a trip. I caught her the day after her father passed away, and she looked at the death from an astonishing perspective. She’s one of those people you get to interview when you write columns like this and you feel honored. How else could I come across someone who talks like this?
“Mushrooms guide you to other plants. They’re constantly saying to me, ‘Why do you need us when you have mullein you should be taking as well?’ I have been drinking frankincense water, which I didn’t know was a thing until the mushrooms said, ‘Hey, you should look this up.’ It was often used with Syrian rue, which is a legal substance. It potentiates the mushrooms quite a bit: Makes them about twice as strong. It makes them last, about, a quarter longer. It slightly changes the quality of a trip, because it’s very Middle Eastern. The images are more Islamic: Just even the smell and the taste evokes that. It’s from Iran and it’s one of the oldest herbs used for divination. When you hear the phrase ‘magic carpet ride,’ that’s Syrian rue. They used it to dye carpets red.”
Besides convincing me that I need to drive down to Santa Fe and become friends with her, Williams also makes me consider the feminist angle of it all. “Women speaking about mushrooms really destigmatizes the hedonistic quality,” she says. “Even though [Timothy] Leary and Terence McKenna were spiritual people, there was a kind of bravado with talking about drugs that didn’t take into account that they were illegal and that women have children to take care of and they don’t want to lose their houses. So, women talking about these things, they’re gonna be the ones that make the government realize: ‘Wait, we can’t keep putting people into jail for this.’”
Williams recently spoke at a conference in Cleveland, Women & Entheogens. “This guy said, ‘The police would rather see people do this than heroin or crack, these things that are actually destroying their communities,’” she says of a moment at the forum. “The thing is, it is a Schedule I drug and I think all it would take is some really terrifying person in our governmental system to have cops be like, ‘Well, it’s Schedule I. You’re going to jail.’ I don’t keep dried mushrooms in my house. People started to come to my house to do them and it gets to be shady. Because people who don’t know how to do drugs in a sacred way tend to be pains in the ass.”
That spurred me to wonder if New Mexico cops were cracking down on people who boom out. “Absolutely not,” Williams tells me. “I have an angry ex-girlfriend who has told the cops on multiple occasions that I grow mushrooms, and they just blow it off.” She did add that a group of women were arrested as they transported mushrooms a few years back and then drops this bomb: “Lots of people are getting out of plant medicine charges by joining the Native American Church. There’s a branch located in New Mexico. It doesn’t mean you won’t get arrested, but it may help with getting off of actual jail time,” she says, adding, “You don’t need to be Native American to join.”
Before you buy your plane tickets to trip balls at Bandelier National Monument, there’s another caveat. “It’s really hard to buy mushrooms in New Mexico,” Williams says. “That’s why people often grow their own. It’s really, really hard to find them.” But, the fact that they’re legal in the state is glorious serendipity as far as she’s concerned. “The sheer landscape is like, if you’re gonna go to Chaco Canyon — mushrooms are not a fun thing to do around a lot of people. You’re gonna want to be in a place like New Mexico,” Williams says. “It’s amazing it’s legal here. It’s really great because it’s a great place to do it.”