Last week Tamarius Davis told Miami Beach police that he was high on magic mushrooms that "made him feel empowered" when he randomly shot and killed 21-year-old father Dustin Wakefield.
While the broad-daylight attack on Ocean Drive has renewed calls to reform the South Beach Entertainment District, Davis' purported admission raises an entirely different question regarding whether psilocybin mushrooms are safe, especially after state Rep. Michael Grieco, who represents Miami Beach, introduced a 59-page proposal to legalize them for medicinal use earlier this year.
"This tragedy does not impact my resolve regarding my efforts to make psilocybin legally available in controlled clinical environments for treatment-resistant depression and PTSD patients," Grieco tells New Times. "Any impairing substance, from alcohol to fentanyl, can be dangerous if abused. Drugs and guns don't mix, just like drinking and driving [don't mix]."
According to Matthew Johnson, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at John Hopkins University and one of the world’s leading scientists on the human effects of psychedelics, violence is a very uncommon reaction to ingesting psychedelic mushrooms.
"Psilocybin mushrooms are relatively safe with no known overdose level — like cannabis," Johnson tells New Times. "The vast majority [of people who take psilocybin mushrooms] do not get violent. If they're having a bad trip, they become frightened but do not necessarily attack people. It's extremely rare."
For centuries, indigenous cultures have used psilocybin mushrooms in religious and other sacred ceremonies. Taking psilocybin mushrooms can alter and distort sensory perception, especially visually. But the most profound effects, Johnson says, are internal ruminations that can lead to spiritual awakenings, euphoria, peacefulness, awe and wonder, dissolution of the ego, the transcendence of time and space, and the feeling of connectedness with the world.
Over the past 17 years, Johnson has studied the effects of psychedelics on individuals struggling with addiction, post-traumatic stress, and cancer-diagnosis distress. In 2008, he published psychedelic safety guidelines, helping to spur more research on psychedelics as a therapeutic treatment.
"In over 700 [clinically controlled] sessions, I have never seen anyone engage in violence under these conditions," Johnson notes.
A history of schizophrenia, a public setting, and unfamiliar people are factors that can contribute to and/or exacerbate a bad trip while on psychedelics and lead to safety concerns, Johnson says. The most common and dangerous side effect is physical injury to the person who ingested the substance — a person under the influence of a hallucinogen climbs a tree and falls, or runs into traffic, for instance.
Johnson has testified in cases in which psychedelics were a factor in murder, including the particularly gruesome case in which a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter gouged out the eyes, tongue, and still-beating heart of his friend after taking mushroom tea in Oregon in 2010.
"There are cases where people have become violent on mushrooms, usually out of fear, or panic, or delusional behavior or thinking," Johnson explains, citing the MMA murder. "He had some religious delusions: He thought his friend was Satan and that a great tidal wave would bring the end of the world. But the thing to emphasize is that this is really rare."
Psilocybin is listed as a Schedule I substance under the federal government's Controlled Substances Act, which means that — like heroin, MDMA, LSD, and cannabis — it is considered to have a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. This designation also prohibits any federal spending that might go toward legalizing psilocybin (or any Schedule I substance).
In the past 20 years, clinical trials have produced mounting scientific evidence pointing to psilocybin's promise as a medicinal and therapeutic treatment. In 2018, Johnson's review of psilocybin-abuse liability led to his recommendation that psilocybin be reclassified upon potential medical approval as a Schedule IV substance, which would classify it as having a low potential for abuse and low risk of dependence, on the level of prescription drugs like Xanax and Valium.
More recently, a growing number of municipalities and states have decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms and/or legalized them for medicinal use. In May 2019, Denver became the first city to decriminalize psilocybin, followed by Oakland, California; Santa Cruz, California; Washington, D.C.; and Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. In November 2020, Oregon became the first state to both decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms and legalize them for medicinal use.
In January 2021, Rep. Grieco introduced Florida House Bill 549, the Florida Psilocybin Mental Health Care Act, which would create state-sponsored clinics where patients suffering from mental health disorders could be administered microdoses of psilocybin by a licensed medical professional. The bill died in the Professions & Public Health Subcommittee in April.
Not long after Dustin Wakefield's August 24 murder made headlines worldwide, Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola took to Facebook to post his disapproval of the movement to decriminalize psilocybin in Florida.
"A 21 yr old tourist was murdered in cold blood by a zonked out 22 yr old tourist high on mushrooms," Arriola posted the following day. "Some are advocating for the legalization of this powerful narcotic."
The debate got heated on social media when Grieco, a former Miami Beach commissioner, defended his push to legalize psilocybin for medicinal treatment.
"For the record, I am 'some' and believe in what I put my name on," Grieco commented. "It is ironic that someone whose fingerprints are all over the downfall of Miami Beach has the audacity to not only mention yesterday's tragic daylight murder of a tourist, but to deflect and blame the senseless killing simply on drugs. The lawlessness and violence is a product of your inability to lead."
Grieco later clarified to New Times that he condemns any politicization of the recent murder in Miami Beach.
"Anyone trying to play 'gotcha' to score political points at the expense of a murder victim is a lowlife," he says. "This week's homicide is a direct product of drug abuse, firearm misuse, and the complete breakdown of public safety in South Beach."