It may be legal to experience a spiritual or healing journey on magic mushrooms sooner than you think—if you live in the right part of America. A group called the Oregon Psilocybin Society is pushing for a 2020 ballot measure that would make the Beaver State the first in the nation to legalize psilocybin, the primary active ingredient in numerous species of psychedelic mushrooms, in a therapeutic setting.
Psilocybin is currently listed on Schedule I under the federal Controlled Substances Act, which means it's supposedly got no medical value and is ripe for abuse. Advocates who say the substance is safe and, in some cases, medically useful hope that in the absence of federal movement, states can start loosening restrictions on their own, just as many have for weed.
Oregon's Psilocybin Society is led by Tom and Sheri Eckert, a husband and wife team who runs a therapy practice in the Portland area. The Eckerts say they believe psilocybin could be beneficial to their own patients, particularly those who have been victims of domestic violence. "Both of us have had interesting psychedelic experiences in the past and saw their power," Tom told me.
"We put the dots together, realized this is relatively safe, certainly when done in the right way and following research protocol," he added. "Seeing the incredible outcomes of research really motivated us."
In recent years, research on psilocybin and other psychedelics has been ramping up, producing results that show potential for treatment of disorders such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, addiction, and more. Psilocybin in particular has been the subject of a series of studies performed at Johns Hopkins University, the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, and New York University, which have found that it helped reduce anxiety in some individuals facing terminal illness, while increasing feelings of well-being and gratitude.
However, even as attitudes toward pot have continued to warm up, the appetite of the American public for legal psychedelics remains skeptical. A 2016 Vox/Morning Consult poll found only 22 percent of respondents in support of psilocybin decriminalization, with 68 percent opposed. Even fewer thought the substance should be legal for medicinal purposes: just 18 percent. On the other hand, a poll published by YouGov last month found 53 percent of respondents in support of research on potential medical benefits of psychedelics, despite their legal status, with 21 percent opposed. If the substances were proven safe, a whopping 63 percent of respondents said they would personally consider treatment with psilocybin, ketamine, or MDMA, most commonly known as a component in many forms of ecstasy.
The potential for the Oregon psilocybin measure to have a domino effect is real. Voters in California made the state the first to legalize marijuana for medicinal uses via ballot measure, voting yes on Proposition 215 in 1996. Over the ensuing decades, 28 other states plus Washington, DC, authorized medical marijuana either by ballot or legislation, while seven states plus DC have legalized cannabis outright, despite ongoing federal prohibition.
That said, the founders point out there are important differences between the Psilocybin Society's campaign and medical marijuana programs—mirroring some of the differences between the two drugs. For one thing, the initiative would not allow for personal possession of psychedelic mushrooms or psilocybin—rather, patients could only take it at licensed centers under supervision of a certified facilitator. Facilitators would not necessarily have to be doctors, to avoid conflicts with insurance and nationally recognized accreditation bodies.
And while medical marijuana states usually stipulate a list of conditions that qualify patients for eligibility—cancer, HIV and AIDS, chronic pain, or others—the psilocybin measure would open the doors of therapy to any adult not contraindicated for safety reasons, without requiring a particular diagnosis. "It's not only amazing for mental health, there's also a lot of potential for self-development and creative work," Tom said. "We're trying to put forth the most reasonable thing we can without undue restrictions."
The Eckerts say they haven't experienced much in the way of blowback—yet. "Hopefully when backlash does come, we can consistently address the subject matter through science and studies to reduce any fear that is there due to stigmatization," Sheri told me.
Concerted opposition is sure to emerge sooner or later. "This type of drug legalization is the snake oil of the 21st century," Scott Chipman, Southern California chair of the group Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, wrote in an email to VICE. "The movement to 'medicalize' and 'legalize' 'psychedelic' drugs is just one more attempt to move our society toward legalization of all drugs," he says, calling the industry "a dangerous threat to public health and safety."
"We must use the FDA process to determine what is or is not a medicine and not rely on drug dealers, legislators or even public votes to determine medical efficacy," Chipman added. "We call on all citizens to reject drug legalization in all forms."
Meanwhile, as activists like the Eckerts make their move in Oregon, federal change is looking at least somewhat less implausible than it once did. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is in the midst of clinical studies on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy as a tool to combat PTSD, with a goal of obtaining prescription approval by the FDA in 2021.
"We support any efforts that are educating the public about the beneficial uses of psychedelics as long as the conversation is rounded out with discussion of their risks," MAPS communication director Brad Burge said about the proposed Oregon ballot proposal, adding that "we feel clinical trials and a scientific approach is more likely to create wider acceptance."
While the Oregon measure is focused on therapeutic use, some advocates aren't shy about hoping medical acceptance leads to more widespread legalization. "I'm a believer we need to have a larger conversation about drug prohibition in general," said Mitchell Gomez, executive director of DanceSafe, a group that promotes best practices and harm reduction at electronic music festivals. "Medical use is great because it opens the door for those conversations."
"If you're going to look at the relative risks of classic psychedelics versus the relative risks of hundreds of other things society lets people do, the risk is lower than driving a car, skydiving, swimming, cheerleading, horseback riding," Gomez added. "Mushrooms are much safer to hand to strangers than a peanut."
The Eckerts would love to see a loosening of federal restrictions on psilocybin, but for now are happy to serve in the vanguard of a state-by-state effort. Their group is currently laying the groundwork for a signature campaign to qualify for the ballot, working with the Oregon Legislative Counsel to create sound language for the initiative and beginning educational outreach around the state.
"We're convicted about it, willing to take the challenge and stand up for what we think makes good sense and helps people," Tom said, adding that they've had a lot of contacts by people around the state who are interested in the cause. "We're strengthening our networks, doing more events, developing organization and outreach programs such that it will move into campaign apparatus—2020 is shaping up to be a very interesting year."
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