The Politics of Psychedelics: Legalisation vs Decriminalisation

psychedelics legalisation decriminalisation

This is a guest post from Matt Zemon, MSc, author of Psychedelics for Everyone

While psychedelic medicine has been a part of human history for thousands of years, the modern history of psychedelics dates back to the 1930s when Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann synthesised LSD. Following Hofmann’s discovery of LSD’s hallucinogenic properties, research continued in the United States through the 1950s and 1960s as scientists and psychotherapists studied the therapeutic and medicinal benefits of drugs like psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD.

Psychedelic Counterculture and the War on Drugs

The 1960s was a time marked by significant historical events like the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and social and political activism involving women’s rights, free speech, and environmental consciousness. During this time, LSD became popular for recreational use and as a symbol of rebellion associated with anti-war protests and activism.

In 1970, the U.S. Government passed the Controlled Substances Act, which classified drugs based on their potential for abuse, accepted medical use, safety, and potential for addiction. Psychedelic substances, including LSD, MDMA, mescaline (peyote), and psilocybin (magic mushrooms), were classified as Schedule I drugs, which were falsely described as having a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.

For years, psychedelic drugs remained underground. But in recent years, there has been a resurgence of research into these substances. Institutions like Johns Hopkins, NYU, and UCLA have conducted clinical studies showing promising results for psychedelic-assisted therapy with substances like psilocybin mushrooms to treat mental health conditions. 

Legalisation vs Decriminalisation vs Medicalisation

Today, most psychedelic drugs are still illegal in the United States, with a few exceptions. Ketamine can be legally used for treatment-resistant depression and anxiety when administered by a licensed professional. Additionally, MDMA and psilocybin have all been granted breakthrough therapy status to study their therapeutic potential for mental health treatment and substance use disorders while clinical trials are underway with LSD and DMT.

As America’s mental health crisis grows and we continue to learn more about the benefits of psychedelics. Advocacy groups like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) advocate for a drug reform policy that would eliminate the barriers to psychedelic research, education, and care.

But what does the future look like for the widespread availability of psychedelics, and how do we go about creating laws and policies that will allow for safe use?

There are three main pathways to legal access to psychedelics that are currently being considered:

  1. Legalisation: Psychedelic drugs would be available for personal possession under the law, with certain restrictions and regulations involved.
  2. Decriminalisation: Psychedelics would remain classified as illegal drugs, but law enforcement would be instructed to make enforcement their lowest priority.
  3. Medicalisation: Psychedelic treatments for medical use would be highly regulated and legal when administered by a licensed professional.

Legalising Psychedelics

While the details of legalising psychedelics are complicated, the concept is pretty straightforward. Legalising psychedelics would mean that an individual could legally purchase certain psychedelics for personal possession. You could walk into a store, buy psychedelic substances such as psychedelic mushrooms, and legally consume them.

Not only would drug purchasing be regulated, but sales, too. It might look something like this. An individual or business would obtain a licence to grow natural psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms. The licence would require them to adhere to certain standards and allow for government inspections. The products could then be sold in stores that would likely also be highly regulated.

Those who advocate for the full legalisation of psychedelics argue that government regulations will ensure quality control and potency. Others argue that legalising substances like psychedelic mushrooms will allow the government to collect tax dollars on sales, similar to cannabis, alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, and every other drug else we purchase.

Additionally, if psychedelic drugs were legal, it would cut down on the use of fentanyl-laced drugs, resulting in many fewer drug overdoses. By removing the illicit drug business and replacing it with a legal model, the U.S. government could save up to $50 billion per year on law enforcement and criminal justice programs related to recreational drug use.

The main argument for those who are against legalisation, of course, is that it would increase recreational drug consumption overall and, in turn, drug-related harm. However, there is an argument to be made that legalising and regulating psychedelics would minimise the risk of adverse events.

Psychedelic Decriminalisation

Decriminalisation would mean that selling psychedelic substances would remain illegal, but there would be little to no criminal punishment for consumption. Again, the process and details could get tricky, but the general idea is to cut down on harsh punishments for drug possession and decrease the number of people who are arrested or jailed for non-violent crimes.

Advocates for decriminalization argue that the war on drugs in our country has been highly tied to racism, and people of colour are disproportionately fined, charged, and jailed for drug possession. By removing criminal penalties for possession and personal use of psychedelic substances, we’re taking a step in the right direction of addressing the public health and social issues at the root cause of drug misuse.

Several American cities – including Ann Arbor, Denver, Oakland, and Seattle – have begun to pass decriminalisation laws around psilocybin. Oregon, New York, and Virginia are all in various stages of enacting decriminalisation measures.

Psychedelic Medicine

The third potential path to psychedelic drug access is medicalisation, meaning that the drugs would be legal for medical treatment when administered in an appropriate setting by a trained professional. Scientific research has made significant gains in recent years in demonstrating the effectiveness of approaches like psilocybin therapy for the treatment of depression or MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD.

Under medical legalisation, treatment like psilocybin-assisted therapy would be available in the form of a prescription, similar to how psychiatrists currently prescribe SSRIs alongside talk therapy to treat mental health issues.

Where Do We Go From Here?

While the future of psychedelics as it relates to the political and social landscape of our country is still unknown, we are certainly in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance. The potential of psychedelics for therapeutic and healing powers is being explored in a way it never has before. If clinical trials like those involving MDMA and psilocybin continue to show promising results, it’s likely that we’ll see psychedelic therapy as a legal option in the near future.

Matt Zemon

Matt received his Master of Science in Psychology and Neuroscience of Mental Health from King’s College London. He is the author of Psychedelics for Everyone and the CEO and co-founder of HAPPŸŸ, a mental wellness company that specialises in psychedelic-assisted oral ketamine therapy along with digital therapeutics.

As a prolific entrepreneur in the well-being sector, Matt was the co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Psychable, an online community connecting people who would like to explore the healing power of psychedelics with a network of practitioners and psychedelic-based treatments, and the co-founder of Take2Minutes, a nonprofit dedicated to helping individuals improve their mental health.

In 2019, Matt had an opportunity to experience a guided psilocybin (magic mushroom) journey, and it completely changed his worldview. Since then, he has gone from someone who had never taken any drugs to doing a deep dive into the study of human consciousness with the help of psilocybin, ayahuasca, ketamine, LSD, MDMA, DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, and more.

Psychedelics for Everyone is his attempt to share some of the insights he has gained while diving into the world of psychedelics. While Matt is not suggesting that psychedelics are a panacea that will solve all of life’s problems, he is confident that they can play a powerful role in healing and connection, both for the people that choose to use them and for those that do not. 

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