Drugs

Making Way for Psychedelics: 5 Paths Going Forward

Psychedelics have been criminalized in the U.S. for half a century. Maybe there's a better way.

Ayahuasca art
Photo Credit: Pinterest

Psychedelics, hidden for decades in the shadows, are back in the light. Research studies at universities like UCLA and NYU have ushered in a new era not seen since the 1950s and '60s, when psychedelics were a common psychotherapy tool for psychiatrists like Humphry Osmond, who gave psychonaut Aldous Huxley, author of The Doors of Perception, a dose of mescaline in 1953.

Since psychedelics were officially declared illegal in 1967, marijuana, a Schedule I substance along with psychedelics, is legal in some form in 29 states and the District of Columbia. The federal legality of psychedelics hasn’t changed, but societal perception and use has.

The microdosing trend has been driven by the Silicon Valley crowd in particular, who have reported that psychedelics spike creativity and productivity and reduce depression and anxiety.

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Recently, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) received the green light to commence a Phase III FDA approval process to study MDMA for PTSD treatment for veterans, and more Americans are going to far-flung sites to take part in shamanic rituals using ayahuasca, ibogaine and peyote.

With all this psychedelic momentum, should psychedelics be legalized? Here are some possibilities.

1. Albert Hofmann’s method

Albert Hofmann was the first person to synthesize LSD for Switzerland’s Sandoz Pharmaceutical in 1938. Hofmann also experienced the first LSD trip when he accidentally ingested some LSD and took a notorious bicycle ride on April 19, 1943. Hofmann believed that psychedelics have benefits and that people should be able to access them, though he felt the drugs should be subject to controls and taken under the supervision of a psychiatrist.

2. The religious way

In the case of O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal, a Christian Spiritist sect, the government found that their use of ayahuasca, a sacramental tea containing the psychedelic DMT, was protected under the First Amendment. The government had to concede that applying the Controlled Substances Act to ayahuasca would be a burden on religious freedom.

In 1996, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, ensuring that Native Americans could use peyote as part of their religious practice. Though likely the road less traveled, the burden is on the government to prove a psychedelic is not for religious use.

3. Medical road

Medicinal cannabis markets have boomed since California was the first to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. A medicinal system is likely the easiest route to follow since it’s a recognizable structure, more palatable to mainstream consumers and a simpler model to convince lawmakers. This is the route MAPS seems to be following, as evidenced by its close work with the FDA. But this approach also produces a unique set of challenges, especially cost, time and establishing regulations.

4. Fully legal

This method is probably the most politically difficult because it relies on two government agencies, the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Trump’s chosen FDA commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, has called for deregulation to cut costs and expedite drug reviews, though it’s unknown whether that would apply to psychedelic policy.

The DEA could be tricky because it’s overseen by anti-drug crusader Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Some of his recent drug policy moves are ordering his staff to enforce mandatory minimums for drug offenders and asking Congress for permission to prosecute medical marijuana providers. Given Sessions’ obstinate views on cannabis, psychedelics would probably be held to the same hard line.

5. Prohibition path

This is the road we currently travel, where people are driven to the darkest corners of the internet to get "legal" psychedelics, find themselves on the streets looking to buy or interact with strange dealers. Others find themselves without protections from bad players trying to make a buck. Especially vulnerable are those in the nightlife and party scene, where MDMA is frequently tainted with fentanyl, a potentially lethal synthetic opioid.

Many experts say that psychedelics defy all regulatory categories and shouldn’t be subject to drug policy at all. Psychedelics, meaning “mind manifesting,” need a category all to themselves.

Erin Hiatt covers drug policy, law, psychedelics, cannabis and hemp for THCMag and Freedom Leaf.