Some of the most promising treatments for severe depression were not developed under the bright fluorescent lights of a university laboratory, but in the trippy underworld of music festivals, dorm rooms, and national park campouts, where psychedelic culture has thrived since being banned during the ‘war on drugs’. After spending the last year exploring psychedelic culture around the world, I noticed an unspoken, but deeply interwoven connection between government-sanctioned peer-reviewed medical studies and the wildly experimental world of psychedelic retreats, where friends and strangers gather, hoping that the likes of magic mushrooms and LSD can give them solace for illnesses that conventional medicines have failed to treat.
To be clear, after repeated success of randomized studies, The Food and Drug Administration has recognized the extraordinary efficacy of psychedelics to treat mental illness and has granted them a rare ‘breakthrough’ designation to accelerate final medical trials before permitting psychedelic therapy as soon as next year.
Despite this progress, activists are still promoting state ballot initiatives to legalize ‘magic’ mushrooms, so residents can freely consume them beyond the bounds of the very limited set of FDA-approved diagnoses (I am volunteering my time to do policy analysis and organize support for some of them).
A ballot initiative in California is one of dozens of local initiatives that have sprung up in just the last year, including a successful initiative to decriminalize mushrooms in Denver, Colorado. But, decriminalizing—or reducing the penalty of using drugs—does not go far enough: people cannot gather, openly share information, nor seek out qualified professional guides without fear of prosecution.
That is, the best science may depend on an above ground, thriving psychedelic market.
To give a window into how the anecdote-to-research pipeline has worked, take the fact that magic mushrooms and LSD are now being studied as a treatment for tobacco and alcohol addiction; typically, peer reviewed articles would point to previous medical research for precedent to justify why highly restricted drugs could be used for a particular illness. However, in the psychedelic medical literature, pioneering studies often refer to individual case studies, such as one person who suddenly reduced their alcohol dependency after experimenting with psychedelics.
Other studies looking at how to design protocols to treat depression through the use of sub-hallucinogenic “micro-doses” of mushrooms, researchers scoured ‘trip reports’ online, where users post stories of what works—and what doesn’t—in treating conditions with a wide variety of banned substances. Micro-dosing, which slightly alters the mood of a user without the anti-social distraction of hallucinations, has emerged as a promising alternative for patients who have difficulty applying the often bizarre experiences high-dose therapy to their everyday lives. Micro-dosing as a trend mostly exists because folks began sharing stories about how unusually small doses positively impacted their lives in unexpected ways.
Psychedelics break the mold of the traditional university-led scientific process. Information that can literally save lives and become the basis for multi-billion-dollar mental health innovations are originating from people doing illegal activities.
It can be tempting to argue that untested drugs should only be used for approved strategies. But, prohibition of any kind, including a prohibition of restriction, which simply limits the acceptable use cases of psychedelics, will always be broken by those determined to use drugs how they wish.
Indeed, it has been an absolute marvel witnessing the many legal loopholes and law enforcement blindspots that committed users have discovered throughout the world.
For instance, last year I traveled to the Netherlands, where the government technically banned the fruits of mushrooms that grow out of the ground, but forgot to ban the still psilocybin-containing truffle. Since then, Amsterdam has been flooded with tourists spending thousands of dollars on expensive magic truffle treats, which incidentally grew a sample size of clients large enough for UK-based universities to conduct research on mental illness outcomes that were more difficult to study in their home country. A legal cottage industry of psychedelic “coaches” in America are now advising residents on how to use and grow their own substances. Users in most American states are legally allowed to buy the seeds of magic mushrooms (“spores”) that do not yet contain the banned compounds, and after illegally growing them in the privacy of their home, get advice on how to use them, partly based on the experience of retreats in Europe.
Rather than play whack-a-mole with a process that is leading to beneficial innovation, the best response from the government is to make psychedelics safer. A regulated market ensures that users can get access to drugs that are not laced with other deadly chemicals, and can seek out experienced professionals to guide them through their journey.
The risks should not be sugar coated: while rare, psychedelics are dangerous. During my travels, I heard my fair share of stories of people suffering from traumatically bad trips. But, in the vast majority of cases I’ve ever heard, people had gotten ahold of poor quality substances or had no access to a high-quality professional guide.
The ballot measure collecting signatures to legalize magic mushrooms in California was originally sponsored by a group of grassroots organizers, Decriminalize California, and has since partnered with a non-profit overseeing legitimate scientific research, the Beckley Institute.
The mental health epidemic has spread at a blazing speed too quick for government response. The comparatively glacial pace of university-research-only scientific discovery cannot keep up with innovations discovered as desperate patients seek treatment from experienced guides. This is the benefit of a legal psychedelic market where scientists and citizens no longer have to work cooperatively in the dark.