Henrik Akselsen, a 36-year-old computer programmer, left the door to his third floor apartment in Fredrikstad, Norway, unlocked when he went to run some errands. While he was out for a few hours, local police searched Akselsen's apartment and found three "blotters" of Lysergic acid diethylamide—also known as LSD or acid, a psychedelic known for its hallucinatory effects. The search came after police intercepted a package of 100 doses of LSD addressed to Akselsen's apartment.
Akselsen was charged for possessing and importing acid. Police initially pushed for an unconditional five-month jail sentence. But Akselsen fought his case all the way up Norway's Supreme Court, and won—well, sort of. Since he had no prior criminal record, the court reduced Akselsen's sentence to 45 hours of "service work"—Norway's equivalent to community service. This changed the tide; for future cases involving LSD, community service instead of jail is now the norm.
Akselsen calls the reduction of his sentence by the Supreme Court "a big move." His case could signal a shift away from disproportionate penalties for drug possession, which were set in the '70s when policy was mired in anti-drug propaganda. Psychedelic researchers and advocates, along with scientists and epidemiologists stationed around the globe, argue that crafting drug laws in accordance with the latest research would advance health, well-being and human rights. Ending the ban on psychedelics in particular, could unlock their untapped health benefits.
The court's decision hinged on a question: Would a scientific assessment of LSD's risk-profile—an evaluation of how harmful and toxic the drug is—warrant lowering the penalty? In other words, what weight does the latest research into the effects of LSD on the body carry in determining punishment? Akselsen's defense argued for proportionality: The less risk the drug poses to health and society, the lighter penalty ought to be.
Scientific reasoning not only won the day, but also the future. "The Supreme Court is responsible for overseeing—as far as possible—a uniform level of punishment in the country," says Kentil Lund, a retired Norwegian Supreme Court justice who advises EmmaSofia, a nonprofit psychedelic advocacy group in Norway, on their legal strategy.
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After hearing expert testimony from scientists, Norway's highest court decided that LSD isn't as harmful as once thought. "The judges agreed that LSD is less dangerous than amphetamine, and so reduced the sentence," says Teri Krebs, a former research fellow at the department of neuroscience at Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Krebs, who was born in America, and her colleague, Pal-Orjan Johansen, a clinical psychologist, both left the Norwegian University of Science and Technology to cofound EmmaSofia. The group, whose name combines "emma," slang for ecstasy, with the Greek word for wisdom, seeks to revise Norway's drug laws, which were set in 1971. The group played a critical role in mounting Akselsen's defense in court, while blowing favourable winds in Norwegian press with op-eds throughout the trial.
"I am delighted that Norway has taken the lead in revising drug sentencing policy according to evidence of harm," says David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. "Let's hope other countries now follow suit."
Nutt was fired from his post as the British government's drug policy adviser in 2009 when he said that alcohol posed a greater health risk than LSD and other psychedelics. Nutt has made other controversial comments—one being that horseback riding is more dangerous than taking MDMA.
Akselsen says he was "disheartened" about the court's final assessment of LSD, saying they ignored some of Nutt's research, which made a splash in 2016 for producing the first ever neuroimages of what the human brain looks like on acid. The court's final opinion was that "LSD is a substance that, according to its chemical composition, has the potential to cause both addiction and health damage." Since the long term effects of drugs like LSD have not been studied, due to their illegal status, the key word in the court's opinion is "potential."
In a 2016 interview with VICE, Nutt explained how psychedelics could be a treatment for addiction, not the cause of it. "Illegal status means that standard human safety studies can't be done," Nutt says. "But we have lots of real world data (like millions of users) with no long term harms apparent." Albert Hofman, the Swiss scientist who first synthesized LSD in 1938, used the drug regularly, Nutt notes. "Hofman lived till over 100 years as did other pioneers. What more would they like as proof?" America's own drug research agency states that "LSD is not considered an addictive drug because it doesn't cause uncontrollable drug-seeking behavior."
Robert Heimer, professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, asserts that banning research on psychedelics has led to irrational drug policy. "A rush to judgment two generations ago banning medical studies of psychedelics has impeded our ability to make rational decisions," he says.
"Very strong psychedelic drugs are unlikely to produce addictive use," Heimer says, contradicting the court's opinion. "They may be habit forming but there is no evidence I can see that suggest people develop, through repeated use of these drugs, the need for them to be in their system."
On the other hand, "There's plenty of evidence that short-term, single or few uses of psychedelics, in the context of a controlled, therapeutic environment, can be remarkably beneficial for things like depression," adds Heimer.
Drug laws around the world tend to be crafted without potential upsides of these drugs in mind, let alone accurate assessments of risk. For example, heroin, cannabis and LSD in America are all grouped in the same category—Schedule 1—under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. But only one of these drugs (guess which) factors into record-breaking death rates year-after-year.
Akselsen contends he's not a dealer and has no interest in making a profit off of LSD. He says that the acid was for his own personal use, part of his "meditation practice" and "intellectual development." "In my experience, taking psychedelics helps you basically open 'new doors' that can later be explored with meditation," Akselsen says." The term 'mind expanding' is pretty accurate in this context."
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Akselsen is one of a growing community. Johansen, of EmmaSofia, says he used psilocybin and MDMA (ecstasy) to help himself beat an alcohol and smoking habit, all the while treating his post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Using psychedelics for inward journeys and self-treatment is part of a global trend. Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris inspired Akselsen to first research psychedelics. Since Akselsen is a programmer, he was also up on trends in Silicon Valley, where "microdosing," or taking tiny doses of acid, has been dubbed a "productivity hack."
Ayelet Waldman, author of A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life describes how microdosing changed her life. "I was experiencing a level of suicidal thinking unique in my personal experience," she says. "The day I took a microdose, it vanished—simply the fog lifted and I no longer felt like killing myself."
"I would have to keep doing it for the effects to maintain," Waldman says. "But I haven't done that because it's illegal." Research, she says, is stunted by fear, echoing scientists like Nutt and Heimer. "Discussion around drug policy has never been a discussion of health," he adds, "it's only pretended to be."
While drug orthodoxies slowly uproot in Norway, America is in the midst of its very own psychedelic renaissance. America's Food and Drug Administration recently deemed MDMA a "breakthrough therapy" for treating PTSD in soldiers. Ketamine, with versatile use in medicine, is also an experimental drug showing promise in treating depression. The revolutionary image of psychedelics popularised in the '60s, which arguably led to their ban in the first place, is slowly giving way to more a tame, clinical tool in mainstream medical and psychological treatment.
"I helped myself with psychedelics and want others to have the same opportunity without the risk of arrest," Johansen told the New York Times in a 2015 article about EmmaSofia's campaign to manufacture regulated psychedelics in Norway.
As show by Akselsen, who avoided arrest, Johansen is that much closer to his goal: giving people the opportunity to help themselves with psychedelics.
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