Should psychedelic drugs be decriminalized in Mass.? Advocates see opening

Successful campaign in Somerville and push by lawmaker could provide momentum

A resident of Washington, D.C., where psilocybin has been decriminalized, shows off the Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms he is growing. Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post

Somerville in January became the first jurisdiction in Massachusetts to move toward decriminalizing plant-based psychedelic drugs, with city leaders voting unanimously to recognize the medical uses of natural entheogens — including psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms” — and make them among the lowest enforcement priorities for local police.

Fresh off that victory, advocates for decriminalizing such drugs are now bringing their fight to Beacon Hill.

State Representative Mike Connolly, whose district includes large swaths of Somerville and Cambridge and who has been working with the reformers, told the Globe he is planning to file a preliminary bill that would create a committee of public officials, scientists, criminal justice experts, and others to study whether Massachusetts should decriminalize natural psychedelics and legalize their administration in therapeutic settings statewide.

The committee also may study whether to decriminalize possession of small amounts of other currently illicit substances.

Supporters hope votes on more substantive bills implementing the group’s recommendations will follow in the 2022 legislative session.

“This ought to be taken out of the realm of the criminal justice system and become part of the way we look at people’s health,” Connolly said. “It may strike some folks as an unconventional approach, but there’s a growing body of evidence that points to how entheogenic substances can offer hope for people struggling with intractable PTSD, depression, and substance use disorder — all of which the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated.”

Proponents of overhauling drug laws argue that decades of law enforcement crackdowns have ravaged communities of color and filled prisons while doing little to reduce the availability of illicit drugs or the rates of their use — as illustrated starkly by an overdose crisis that in 2018 alone killed more than 67,000 Americans. Health care professionals, not police officers, they say, should handle what are essentially issues of mental and physical health.

Meanwhile, peer-reviewed research from the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research and other institutions increasingly backs the efficacy of psilocybin and similar compounds as treatment for many conditions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety (especially for those in end-of-life care), cluster and migraine headaches, and substance-use disorder.

The federal Food and Drug Administration in 2018 designated psilocybin as a “breakthrough” therapy for treatment-resistant depression, clearing the way for accelerated trials after initial studies showed it is far more effective than currently available pharmaceuticals. That determination intensified calls for the federal government to end its designation of psilocybin as a “Schedule 1″ drug with no medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Taken in high doses or stressful settings, psilocybin can sometimes cause unpleasant or overwhelming temporary experiences, and in rare cases may exacerbate existing conditions such as schizophrenia.

But experts said such “bad trips” are easily avoided with proper dosing and preparation, and noted the drug isn’t physically toxic or addictive. Tolerance builds almost immediately, making repeated back-to-back trips impractical; the most enthusiastic users indulge perhaps once a month, with one telling the Globe that taking psilocybin more often would be as unappealing as “having chocolate cake for dinner every night.”

Michou Olivera, a 51-year-old Greenfield resident, said taking mushrooms in 2018 helped her end a long struggle with depression, alcoholism, and marijuana abuse that began when she was 13 in response to relentless bullying about her masculine appearance and voice.

“I lived in a world that was full of black, horrible darkness — I was imprisoned by myself, by my cravings, by feelings of worthlessness. It seemed insurmountable,” Olivera said. “What psilocybin did was allow me to see the roadblocks and what was holding me back without feeling shame.’'

Today, Olivera said, she has happily embraced her identity and appearance, hasn’t touched alcohol in over two years, and has enrolled in college to study psychology in hopes of one day treating others with psilocybin. Like other proponents, she believes the drug can offer benefits even to healthy people, pointing to studies that show psilocybin often has a positive and lasting effect on well-being.

The idea of decriminalizing psychedelic drugs isn’t necessarily far-fetched.

Solid majorities of voters in Oregon last year approved ballot initiatives authorizing psychedelic therapy and replacing criminal penalties for drug possession with a $100 fine (which is waived if the defendant agrees to a health evaluation). Washington, D.C., and other progressive cities from Oakland to Ann Arbor have implemented similar measures, all following in the footsteps of Portugal, where 20 years of decriminalization and aggressive public health and harm-reduction measures have cut overdose deaths by about 80 percent without increasing rates of drug use.

Still, decriminalization proponents acknowledge that their Massachusetts campaign will be an uphill climb, at least initially, with the Legislature distracted by more pressing matters and lawmakers generally lagging behind the public on drug policy. There are also decades of pervasive anti-drug messaging to overcome.

“If marijuana was too heavy a lift, it’s hard to see how other drugs would be something the Legislature would find easier,” said veteran Massachusetts political observer Steve Koczela of the MassINC Polling Group, referring to lawmakers’ unwillingness to take up cannabis legalization before voters forced the issue with a 2016 ballot initiative. “If it’s going to happen, a ballot question would be the most likely way.”

However, Koczela added, voters are dissatisfied with current policing practices, potentially giving reformers an opening. A 2017 MassINC poll found that, by a 2-to-1 margin, Massachusetts voters agree “drugs should be treated as a health issue and favor investing in treatment over locking up drug dealers.”

Sam Chapman, who helped lead the successful campaign to legalize psychedelic therapy in Oregon, said his group took a largely educational approach after finding that voters weren’t particularly politicized or hardened in their opinions about psilocybin, but knew practically nothing about the drug.

Chapman’s team especially emphasized the potential of psychedelics to treat veterans suffering from PTSD and help communities of color with high rates of mental illness amid the pandemic.

“We led with the science and followed with the personal stories,” Chapman said. “It’s a one-two combo that’s incredibly hard to deny.”

Other than objections from a group of psychiatrists, campaigners in Oregon ran into little organized opposition. Instead, their biggest challenge was addressing the widespread, incorrect assumption that the proposed measure would authorize commercial stores selling magic mushrooms, peyote, and the like.

In reality, Chapman said, supporters are wary of corporate involvement and would prefer to simply decriminalize small-scale peer-to-peer exchanges of psychoactive mushrooms and other entheogenic plants, while making supervised psilocybin therapy available to patients.

Possession of a small quantity of psilocybin is a misdemeanor in Massachusetts. Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael, who represented the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association during the drafting of the state’s marijuana regulations, said officers here very rarely encounter such drugs.

Police groups likely wouldn’t oppose supervised psilocybin therapy, especially for veterans, Carmichael said. He also noted that criminal charges for psychedelics are already unusual, with officers almost always preferring to bring subjects in the throes of a bad trip to the hospital instead of the station.

The primary concern of law enforcement is that decriminalization might encourage greater use of the substances, increasing the risk of encounters between police and impaired people, while decreasing the ability of officers to refer subjects to treatment.

“I’m not a big fan of people who possess drugs going to jail,” Carmichael said. “But it could be an opportunity missed to have a mechanism where people get drug education or treatment if necessary. The goal should be to try to help them abstain from drug use.”

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