Overview:

As the Biden administration explores a federal task force to monitor the emerging psychedelic treatment ecosystem, and a proposed amendment to the Right to Try Act, how likely is it that psychedelics will soon be legal in the United States?

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This is part of our Taboo Series.

As Michael Pollan reported in his Netflix documentary How to Change Your Mind, psychedelics have been viewed as part of the turn-on, tune-in, drop-out culture popularized by the likes of Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and other merry pranksters of the ‘60s, at least in Western cultures. The counterculture movement of the ’60s and ’70s and the anti-drug movement of the ’80s receding into our collective past, and the stigma associated with psychedelics has waned significantly

In 2022, proposed federal legislation permitting terminally-ill patients to access MDMA and psilocybin mushrooms and the possibility of establishing a federal task force to monitor the emerging psychedelic treatment ecosystem point toward a shift in acceptance of psychedelics. However, given most psychedelics and cannabis remain listed as Schedule 1 drugs, their legal use remains murky at best. 

When asked about the current state of psychedelic legislation in the United States, Shelby Hartman, Co-Founder of DoubleBlind, a print magazine and media company focused on psychedelics, pointed to two different avenues that are being pursued simultaneously. 

The decriminalization initiatives take all funding and resources away from local law enforcement for the prosecution of the possession or growing or gifting of these compounds. While decriminalization does not legalize a particular drug, it likely reduces the risk that someone would be incarcerated if they were to be found with the compound on them in their jurisdiction. Denver was the first city to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in 2019 with Oregon being the first state to decriminalize all drugs the following year.

Also, there’s some momentum around state legalization for the medical use of psilocybin. In November 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize medical psilocybin at the ballot box. Unlike cannabis legalization, this law does not contain provisions for people to purchase psilocybin mushrooms or grow their own mushrooms. Instead, this legislation sought to create an infrastructure for all adults to have access to psilocybin therapy. 

Striving for equity the psychedelics movement 

Despite these advances in psychedelic research, too often, those funding these commercial endeavors do not create opportunities to include people of color, indigenous communities, and others who pioneered this medicine. Organizers behind Measure 109, the Oregon ballot initiative that legalized psilocybin mushrooms for limited therapeutic use, took the lessons learned during the push to legalize cannabis and sought to address these discrepancies from the onset. 

Hartman noted that at DoubleBlind, they often say it’s really important not to ignore the contributions of Indigenous people, who have been the stewards of the wisdom and the knowledge for time immemorial. “We need to be creating legislation that prioritizes the fundamental need to ensure that this movement unfolds in a way that’s equitable.”

Nathan Howard, Co-creator and Director of Operations at both Inner Trek and the Sheri Eckert Foundation (SEF) and the Facilitator of the Plant Medicine Healing Alliance (PMHA), concurs. “Where I think we’ll experience real challenges, and corruption of the spirit and culture of plant and fungi, is when folks come into this work with a focus on profits above all else. We must create laws and culture that puts collaboration over competition and service over profit.”

Tracking the psychedelic legalization and decriminalization movement across the United States

In his analysis, Josh Hardman, Founder and Editor of Psychedelic Alpha, observes how, in some respects, the topography of psychedelic drug policy reform is not surprising. “States like Oregon, Washington, and Colorado were amongst the first crop of states to embrace medical and ‘recreational’ marijuana and are Democrat strongholds. It’s not surprising, then, that they’re also hotbeds for psychedelic drug policy reform.” What he found surprising was the number of staunchly Republican states, such as Texas, Georgia, and Florida, that are moving toward psychedelic drug policy reform. However, Hardman adds the caveat that, “Such efforts are generally more limited, such as establishing working groups to investigate potential medical applications of psychedelics.”

In Hardman’s estimation, one driver of this somewhat bipartisan support for psychedelic therapeutics is the foregrounding of PTSD as a condition to be treated. Currently, MDMA-assisted therapy is the closest psychedelic therapy to obtaining potential FDA approval, with Phase 3 clinical trials showing great promise in its ability to tackle PTSD. While this is a heterogeneous disease, Hardman explained, it is prominently associated with the military, lending itself to the foregrounding of veterans’ experiences. “This, in turn, has proved important in gaining bipartisan support for such therapies and associated drug policy reform efforts.”

Trying to track the progress of legalizing and decriminalizing drugs can be tricky for a typical consumer. This graphic map, along with policy alerts furnished by the Psychedelic Legalization & Decriminalization Tracker, provides the latest updates about psychedelic drug policy reform in the United States. This project is overseen by Psychedelic Alpha, a firm that covers the psychedelics space in a weekly bulletin and provides consultancy services to a variety of stakeholders, which produces the tracker alongside other resources. 

Putting psychedelic legislation into therapeutic practice in Oregon

So what does psychedelic legislation look like in practice? Oregon offers an insightful case study, as they are the only state to date where people can legally partake of these substances. Under Measure 109 starting in 2023, licensed facilitators will be able to hold space for anyone over 21 that desires to have this experience. A medical diagnosis will not be necessary in order to undertake a guided session with a licensed facilitator. Oregon-based organizations such as The Alma Institute and Inner Trek hope to create proactive programming to train these facilitators that center on community, access, and equity. 

Currently, Rebecca Martinez, Founder of The Alma Institute, is fundraising for a robust scholarship fund that will enable people from marginalized populations interested in becoming licensed facilitators to obtain the training, resourcing, and support they need to be successful in this line of work. She plans on launching their training program in early 2023 with a pilot cohort of about 40 people. The program is going to be at least 160 hours followed by an intensive practicum that will be at least 40 hours. They plan to offer an online hybrid learning model to enable those who are not local to Portland the ability to obtain certification as a facilitator. Graduates will then need to take a licensing exam with the state. Once licensed, Alma graduates will be invited to join a 300-hour paid apprenticeship at Alma’s partner service site in Portland.  

Incorporating a blend of teaching methods and perspectives, within robust online and in-person learning environments, InnerTrek will deliver a comprehensive curriculum aimed at equipping students with the knowledge and skills needed to pass the state licensing exam and launch successful careers as licensed psilocybin facilitators. At present, InnerTrek’s program has been approved by the Oregon Health Authority approved program and they are awaiting licensure by the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission to begin training. Also, Howard and Tom Eckert co-founded SEF to ensure that Oregon’s evolving psychedelic ecosystem includes professionals and participants from diverse backgrounds, financial means, and geographies around the state. 

In an effort to provide more protections and policy advocacy to fully protect the underground community, Howard joined PMHA, which works to protect ceremonial use of plant and fungi medicines. Their mission is to fully decriminalize fungi and plant medicines for home growing, group healing, and ceremonial and religious purposes. “Working initially in Portland, in partnership with indigenous stakeholders among others, we aim to enact this policy while promoting sustainable sourcing and honoring, in mutual reciprocity of care, the human, plant, and animal ecologies where the medicines grow.” 

One fascinating and potentially lucrative side effect of legalization is psychedelic tourism. These journeys remain well out of the price range for most individuals. In the estimation of Martinez, the psychedelic tourism model will always be there for those with means who seek out such experiences, but she sees the future in seeing how mushrooms get integrated into normal people’s lives and change when they start to shift their consciousness and start to heal their wounds. As she reflects, “I don’t see the retreat center models being really dedicated to healing in that way. I think they’re selling an experience, and I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. I just don’t think it’s as exciting or compelling as what’s possible through community-based care.

When will psychedelics be legalized in the United States?

Within the next few years, Hartman predicts these compounds will be legalized, adding that there are dozens of pharmaceutical companies trying to get other kinds of psychedelics through the FDA approval process. “So far, none of them have had a ton of traction other than MDMA and psilocybin. But as there are hundreds of millions of dollars being put into that research, we anticipate that in the next decade doctors will be able to prescribe a number of other types of psychedelic compounds.” 

Hardman expects continued efforts at the local and state level, with San Francisco’s recent ‘decriminalization’ success likely to buoy grassroots efforts. 

In his estimation, state and local legislators will be anxiously watching Oregon to see how its roll-out of Psilocybin Services fares in 2023. “It will serve as an important natural experiment, which will be closely followed by policymakers and advocates in other jurisdictions.” 

For now, we need to wait and see what happens especially at the Federal level. As reported earlier on OnlySky, the Biden administration is exploring the prospect of establishing a federal task force to monitor the emerging psychedelic treatment ecosystem. Also, a proposed amendment to the Right to Try Act will permit those with life-threatening conditions to access psychedelics such as psilocybin at the Federal level as part of their treatment regime. 

The legalization of cannabis for at least medicinal purposes in very red states such as Alabama, Arkansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and West Virginia, point to a growing acceptance from those who most likely supported the Reagan administration’s Just Say No campaign. But how politicians will respond to proposed legislation in their state to legalize psychedelics remains to be seen especially as we head into a tumultuous 2022 midterm election cycle. 

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As a freelance writer with dual MDiv/MSW degree from Yale Divinity School/Columbia University, I focus on the rise of secular spirituality, religious satire, spiritual health & wellness, faith &...