Briefing

Are psychedelics the next big legalization battle?

Marijuana legalization is old news — magic mushrooms might be the new frontier in drug legalization.

National attitudes about drug use and legalization might be shifting, as evidenced by the "green wave" of marijuana legalization efforts successfully passing across the country. Over half of the country has legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes, and many allow for adult recreational use. Some question what's next for the future of drug legalization, and the answer might be psychedelics

This year, Colorado legalized using magic mushrooms and other hallucinogenics for personal and therapeutic purposes. Does Colorado's bill hint at a growing interest in reducing restrictions on psychedelic use in the U.S.? 

Here's what you need to know about the movement to legalize psychedelics: 

Which states have passed legislation related to psychedelic drugs?

Using and possessing psilocybin, a psychoactive compound in hallucinogenic mushrooms, is still federally prohibited and banned in most states. The same goes for other hallucinogens, like DMT and ayahuasca. However, a resurgence of research touting the potential benefits of psychedelic-assisted therapy has some lawmakers reconsidering strict prohibition laws. 

Over a dozen cities, including Washington D.C., have decriminalized psilocybin, per CNBC. Colorado was the first to pass such a measure by decriminalizing the substance in Denver in 2019. Legislators in more than two dozen states have introduced more than 60 bills proposing new regulations for using psychedelics. Still, most of them "are stalled in committee or have failed to get a vote," CNBC reports. 

Bills introduced to decriminalize possession of psychedelic mushrooms have failed to be enacted in 19 states, including Missouri, Iowa, and Kansas. Other states, including Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas, have introduced measures to allow researchers to study the health benefits of psilocybin. 

In 2020, voters in Oregon overwhelmingly supported a bill to legalize the regulated use of psilocybin for personal use. While those interested in the substance will not need a medical referral, the law outlines that psilocybin can only be administered at licensed "service centers." The application for that license will open in January 2023, but about a third of the state's cities and counties introduced ballot measures in the recent midterm elections to ban these centers from their area. 

Colorado voters recently passed a similar initiative, becoming the only other state to pass such legislation. The measure allows the use of psilocybin and psilocin, two psychoactive compounds found in mushrooms, under the supervision of licensed facilitators in regulated centers. The bill also legalizes personal use, cultivating, and sharing of the two psychedelic compounds along with three others — DMT, ibogaine, and mescaline — for adults over 21. Retail sales are still prohibited, and the law also outlaws use in public places, schools, or while driving.

Why are advocates pushing for psychedelic legalization? 

Supporters for the push to legalize psychedelics often cite the growing number of studies that suggest the substances are a viable option for treating mental health issues. There are several ongoing studies exploring psychedelic treatment for depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, and eating disorders, The Associated Press reports.

A recent preliminary study found that a single dose of synthetic psilocybin improved symptoms in some people with treatment-resistant depression. The trial studied 233 people separated into three groups taking different doses of the synthetic compound. The results, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, showed that subjects in the group that took the largest amount felt their symptoms ease the most over three weeks. The trials authors say it is the largest study of its kind to date, but more extensive research is needed to test the efficacy of treating depression with psilocybin.

Other experts found the rapid response to the treatment promising. "The maximum effect (was) seen the day after receiving the treatment. This contrasts with standard antidepressants, which take several weeks to reach maximum effect," said Anthony Cleare, professor of psychopharmacology at King's College London.

Advocates also argue that putting people in jail for non-violent offenses related to naturally occurring substances is a waste of taxpayers' money. 

Natural Medicine Colorado, an organization that ran a campaign championing the measure, called the passage of Colorado's bill "a truly historic moment."

"Colorado voters saw the benefit of regulated access to natural medicines, including psilocybin, so people with PTSD, terminal illness, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can heal," the group said in a statement, per AP. 

In an opinion piece for The Guardian, two psychedelic therapy entrepreneurs note that such therapies are receiving an "unprecedented" amount of financial and political support from right-wing sources. They consider why the American right might suddenly be interested in psychedelics: "The most obvious answer is money," they conclude. "As psychedelics are absorbed into mainstream medicine, they promise to become another American cash cow. Money will come from patents on novel formulations and by patenting and providing the associated treatment techniques."

What do critics say is at risk with legalizing psychedelics?

Some critics of the Colorado bill believe passing legislation for psychedelic therapy sets a dangerous precedent of circumventing the research the Food and Drug Administration does to approve the substance as a medicine. They also argue that allowing these therapy centers to open and legalizing private personal use threatens public safety and sends the message that psychoactive compounds are healthy. 

Luke Niforatos, the leader of two national organizations that opposed the Colorado measure, believes the passage promotes using psychedelics before the FDA can complete its studies.

"I'm hoping the rest of the country can learn the hard lessons from my state's foray," said Niforatos. "As the years go on and we learn more about this experiment, hopefully we'll say we're going to let the FDA and scientists lead medicine, not corporations."

Although the Oregon bill passed two years ago, some opponents are trying to step in to block the state from implementing it in their areas. 

"We just want to say no; we want to opt-out for a while," said Stayton, Oregon, Mayor Henry Porter. "The health, safety, and welfare of the community, that's my main responsibility."

Porter says his wariness is caused by lingering questions about psilocybin due to limited research. He believes the January opening of the license application for therapy centers is too soon. 

"I don't know what it does. I don't know how it would be controlled. I don't know how to keep kids away from it," he said. "I guess it's the fear of things we don't understand."

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