By Shaurya Ganjoo
The recent uproar due to Marijuana legalization seems minuscule compared to what is to come soon, as the War on Drugs draws to a conclusion, as states start considering the legalization of psychedelics, with Colorado and Oregon allowing adult use of psilocybin. So what exactly does this entail? A resurgence of flower children who will now advocate for cocaine legalization? Not exactly.
Psilocybin is a heavily controversial subject that needs to be approached with caution because of its numerous benefits and potential harms. It’s a topic that has been debated for many years but as more research and new legislation is passed, it's imperative to discuss the history and potential decriminalization of them.
LSD or lysergic acid diethylamide is a substance that causes a number of psychoactive effects in users, primarily causing hallucinations, as a result of the psilocybin present. The usage of the drug blossomed at the dawn of the counterculture movement in the 60s. Dr. Albert Hofmann synthesized LSD in 1943. Dr. Albert Hoffman was interested in the field of ergotism, which was “poisoning produced by exposure to the compounds found in a fungus that grows on wheat.” Shortly thereafter, he created a derivative of the substance, which would later become LSD. Dr. Hofmann, after coming into contact with the substance in a very small dose, found himself in a “dreamlike state” where he saw an “uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” Shortly thereafter, he prescribed himself what he considered a small dose (which experts now agree was in fact a very high dose) and consumed it. The results, in his own words, were refreshing. After consumption, he went home by bicycle, fascinated by the Swiss countryside, as everything around him was distorted. Upon arriving home, Hoffman would state that he saw fantastic images surge in, “colored fountains' ' rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux.
The CIA experimented with LSD in the 1950s for its potential use in psychological warfare, with nearly one-thousand five-hundred people being test subjects to test LSD’s warfare potential. RPR’s Mariam Khan wrote an article in depth about this.
The public was captivated by this drug, so much so that two psychologists at Harvard, Dr. Timothy Leary, and Dr. Richard Alpert (who later went by Ram Dass) took an interest in it to test its effectiveness in therapy, therefore creating the Harvard Psilocybin Project. These researchers inevitably were fired from Harvard due to malpractice; they frequently used their own product, and even gave it to students. Regardless, their research yielded success. Their results were taken with a grain of salt, for they often conducted investigations while “under the influence of psilocybin,” with “poorly controlled conditions.” Their work was often critiqued for being biased toward the legalization of Psilocybin for mental and spiritual purposes as well.
Post world war two America experimented with all kinds of new drugs that consisted of this magical compound. What had once been a part of several indigenous communities, was now making a comeback in many different forms, ranging from natural plants, such as Salvia and “Shrooms,” to lab-grown compounds such as DMT, LSD, and ketamine. Scientists across the northern hemisphere have heavily experimented with all these compounds to better understand the human mind, and in very controlled situations, it has provided scientists with many new discoveries.
Leary and Ram Dass’ dreams would finally become a reality decades after the Harvard Psilocybin Project, as Oregon permitted ownership of small quantities of psilocybin. “The Oregon Psilocybin Services Section implements Ballot Measure 109 which was passed in November 2020 and directs the Oregon Health Authority to license and regulate the manufacturing, transportation, delivery, sale, and purchase of psilocybin products and the provision of psilocybin services.” Colorado also made magic mushrooms legal for recreational use, which takes effect next year. As of now, possession is legal, but selling them is not. Massachusetts, California, and some cities in Washington have decriminalized drug usage which would mean individuals who are found with psilocybin would not be arrested but may face fines, or community service. However, it will likely take some time before residents actively get to use psilocybin. Dispensaries will take a long time to set up, and government oversight will be strict. Additionally, strong measures will be implemented to mitigate the distribution of these drugs outside of the state, since it still remains illegal across the United States.
However, in places like Canada, restrictions have softened. Although the drug remains a controlled substance, numerous dispensaries have propped up across the east part of Canada, and regulation has gone down. In some sense, Psilocybin is following in the footsteps of Marijuana, for it was slowly decriminalized and then legalized as more and more people were able to get their hands on this drug.
What are the implications of this, however? Is it really a good idea to let the general public use a substance that tampers with their mind? Let’s start with a discussion as to why exactly legalization happened. Joni Sweet examines how psilocybin can be useful for mental health treatment, and that may become feasible with legalization. Dr. Keith Heinzerling is the principal investigator for clinical trials concerning the therapy that will use psilocybin. The therapy will have three parts: preparation, administration, and integration, or in other words, a session to mentally prepare the patient, a session where the patient goes on an “acid trip,” and a session to reflect on the results. These trips will be highly monitored by a team of skilled therapists.
The effectiveness of psilocybin is a highly researched topic, and the results have been positive. Psilocybin “provide[s] relief for the patient to better manage… [and] understand their symptoms,” writes researcher Parag Bhatt, further stating that it has been found to be more successful than antidepressants.
In fact, research suggests that these drugs are relatively pretty safe, and hold a lot of scientific promise.
Psilocybin has been recommended for things such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as researched by NYU. PTSD is usually treated via psychotherapy, where patients meet with a trained specialist, in either a private or group setting. Another treatment for it is anti-depressants, which are notorious for failing to do anything, if not making the problem worse, and even increasing suicidal tendencies. In fact, antidepressants are ineffective for people who have suffered multiple traumas or have severe PTSD. The National Library for Medicine published a paper that revealed that antidepressants worked no better than a placebo. However, psilocybin has yielded promising results.
The solution may lie in psychedelics, as a study from the University of South Florida revealed that psychedelics cause neurogenesis—when brain cells in the hippocampus grow and repair brain cells. About 80% of terminally ill cancer patients could be relieved from 6 months of distress, thanks to psychedelic therapy. Patients felt their quality of life improved and had more energy, as well as a more positive outlook on life. The University of San Francisco corroborates that psilocybin rewires the brain by creating neural connections between different regions of the brain, more specifically by flattening the brain's landscape. Participants in the study saw improvements in their cognitive functioning.
Pharmaceutical companies have failed to produce drugs that have provided significant results, yet the solution to these problems lies right in front of them. For more than 60 years, scientists have been successful in treating numerous mental health issues.
However, although it is very rare, there is a chance that individuals who use the substance may develop psychosis, especially among individuals who already suffer from mental health issues. Frequent users may also develop Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder, or HPPD, which can cause the effects of hallucinogens to last for a long time. It could lead to things like anxiety, and psychosis. Additionally, it’s important to consider that all the evidence listed here was found in highly controlled trials with an extensive team of experts. Replicating the results without a specialist may lead to a “bad trip” where patients may be mentally scarred for life. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that although Psilocybin is very effective in the long term, suicidal ideation was not uncommon.
Additionally, it's imperative to consider the ethicality of legalization. These psychedelics, once decriminalized, will make their way into the general American public. Psychedelics are, despite their benefits, very easy to abuse. When it gets into the hands of teenagers, it can prove disastrous, and lead to major depressive episodes. The impact on teenagers' minds is not researched thoroughly enough, and studies are also still relatively new. It is unclear what the long-term effects of psychedelics may be, and there just have not been enough trials. They pose a threat to public safety, but at the same time, well-planned legislation may prove successful, and reduce the chances of harm or abuse.
Even if we were to not concern ourselves with the semantics and the data, a pragmatic approach would require introspection on our current laws that prohibit Psychedelics, as legislators have done across America. Then again, turning over psychedelic drugs to the libertarian market, where a profit incentive may muddle the medical importance, may not be the best idea either. Regardless, only time will tell if legalization will be the ‘magic’ cure to mental health disorders, or whether it will make them worse.