Psilocybin Mushrooms Decriminalization and Legalization in the United States
For millennia, entheogenic and psychoactive plants were used by Shamans and traditional healers to help people heal. These plants were considered ‘ancient teachers.’ Today, clinical researchers are re-discovering the healing power of psilocybin and other ancient, natural remedies. They’re also confronting state and federal legal hurdles.
The criminalization of psychoactive plants spans some 100 years here in America. Gone are the days when cocaine was sold in Coca Cola cans and Sears & Roebuck catalogs. Today, under federal laws, people found cultivating entheogenic plants can be criminalized and prosecuted, stripped of their rights, liberties and families. Thanks to some concerned citizens, all of that is changing.
Across America, grassroots networks have spread like mycelium. They’re joined by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and other medical schools, all working to petition the federal government to change psilocybin from a Schedule I drug with no known medical potential to a Schedule IV drug with vast curative potential, thus creating a legal pathway for psilocybin’s use in clinical therapy. The need is great, as behavioral therapy and common pharmaceuticals are failing far too many. With ‘deaths of despair’ rising, suicides and overdoses have reached pandemic proportions.
Though psychedelics remain illegal under federal laws, in May of 2018 then-president Donald Trump approved the Right to Try Act, allowing terminally ill patients the right to use psychedelics in their therapies. That October of 2018, the Food and Drug Administration reclassified psilocybin as a ‘breakthrough therapy’ drug, allowing its research in clinical trials for Treatment Resistant Depression in 2018, and for Major Depressive Disorder in 2019.
Despite federal restrictions, states and cities are taking back control to decriminalize these plants. The first U.S. city to legalize entheogenic plants was Denver, Colorado, which decriminalized marijuana at the ballot box in 2012, and then psilocybin in 2019. Following suit, Oakland, California decriminalized psilocybin in 2019. Then the City Council of Santa Cruz, California voted unanimously in 2020 to make investigation and arrest for “possession, use or cultivation of psychoactive plants and fungi” by adults a low-priority infraction for law enforcement.
This past September the City Council of Ann Arbor, Michigan voted unanimously to decriminalize a variety of psychedelics including psilocybin and ayahuasca. This initiative was made possible by Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor, and sponsored by council members Anne Bannister and Jeff Hayner.
“Decriminalization of naturally occurring medicines is necessary for progress“
“Decriminalization of naturally occurring medicines is necessary for progress,” Hayner stated in a press release. “We can no longer turn a blind eye towards the wisdom of indigenous peoples, and the bounty the earth provides.” Julie Barron, a local therapist who chairs the Ann Arbor chapter of Decriminalize Nature, told Marijuana Moment: “I see people everyday at the end of their rope trying to get help. There’s so much scientific evidence and current clinical trials with entheogenic plants/fungi, but they’re not currently available to the people of Ann Arbor.”
Nationwide, the recent U.S. federal election marked a referendum on outdated policies criminalizing millennia-old plants. On November 3, 2020 Oregon became the first state in our Union to decriminalize psilocybin and legalize medical psilocybin for therapeutic use, statewide. Oregon also made the finding of hard drugs for personal use punishable by a civil citation rather than arrest, with a plan to create ‘addiction centers’ for the compassionate treatment of drug abusers, to be funded by the growing tax revenues being collected from legal sales of marijuana in their state. Oregon was also the first state to decriminalize marijuana in 1974, then legalize its non-medical use statewide in 2014.
How did Oregon achieve psilocybin freedom? With some help. The first Decriminalize Nature chapter was begun in 2015 by two Portland, Oregon therapists, Tom and Sheri Eckert. In Oregon, amid dire homelessness, one in four adults experiences mental illness. As explained in Mother Jones, the Eckerts felt that “the pharma-driven status quo isn’t working. We need new therapeutic options.”
After studying the emerging clinical research on psilocybin, the Eckerts decided to “devote the next five years of their lives to crafting and campaigning for a ballot measure” to bring psilocybin to “anyone who can safely benefit” from it. The Eckerts’ activism took root, transforming the national dialogue and providing a blueprint for legislative action in cities and chapters across the nation.
Researchers and activists in 100 U.S. cities have joined the struggle to legalize plant medicine for the purpose of healing. This November in Washington, D.C., the Entheogenic Plant and Fungus Policy Act of 2020 was approved by 76% of voters. This ballot initiative was introduced by D.C. resident Melissa Lavasani, a government employee who recovered from her postpartum depression by micro-dosing with Psilocybin cubensis mushrooms. “We are trying to normalize mental health,” she told supporters.
The term entheogen comes from the Greek éntheos, meaning ‘possessed by God’ or ‘God within.’ This term is increasingly being used to denote psychedelic plants due to the negative connotations long associated with criminalized psychedelics. The term was first used in 1979 by Carl A. P. Ruck in the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs in reference to psychoactive plants and natural hallucinogens. Unlike synthetic drugs or pharmaceuticals, entheogens are distinct in causing one to experience insights and inspiration, often in a deeply spiritual way, and profoundly affecting the brain’s neuroplasticity—its ability to heal.
Legislation to decriminalize entheogens has already been proposed by Decriminalize Nature chapters in Chicago, Berkeley, Dallas and Port Townsend, Washington. In 2019, an Iowa lawmaker introduced two bills that would legalize medical psilocybin and remove it from the state’s list of controlled substances. In New York, House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed legislation to remove restrictions on researching the medical use of psilocybin. In 2020 in Vermont, a bill was introduced to decriminalize entheogenic plants like psilocybin. While in Hawaii, four state senators proposed a Psilocybin Therapy bill.
The latest U.S. city to decriminalize plants: Somerville, Massachusetts. This January of 2021 their city council voted unanimously to no longer criminalize the use or possession by adults of entheogenic plants. The ballot initiative was proposed by Bay Staters of Natural Medicine, the Heroic Hearts Project and Decriminalize Nature Massachusetts, which presented emerging clinical research on the benefits of natural psychedelics in treating a variety of mental health issues and substance abuse disorders.
Mass action continues: in Florida, Representative Michael Greico filed legislation allowing for psilocybin therapy for people diagnosed with a mental health condition. While in Connecticut, five legislators introduced a bill to create a task force for studying the medical benefits of psilocybin.
In Washington State, their Supreme Court declared felony drug possession charges unconstitutional. Cambridge, Massachusetts moved to decriminalize entheogenic plants. In Missouri, Representative Michael Davis introduced the Right to Try Act, to allow the critically ill the right to try psilocybin, MDMA and other substances, and remove felony penalties for drug possession statewide. New Jersey reduced criminal penalties for possession of psilocybin. While in California, Senator Scott Weiner introduced a bill to decriminalize psychedelics such as psilocybin and ayahuasca on a statewide level.
With the psychedelic renaissance fully underway, the legalization of psilocybin and other medicinal, entheogenic plants will continue growing. Grassroots networks, researchers and activists are working together to let the healing begin. Want to help? Start here, with the Decriminalize Nature handbook.
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