Voters in the nation’s capital joined with peers across the country to nudge forward a further reconsideration of mind-affecting substances popularized in the Sixties but made illicit thereafter.
Support ran strong for a District of Columbia ballot initiative directing local law enforcement to make among its lowest priorities the prosecution of those who use or sell certain hallucinogenic plants and fungi — aka magic mushrooms and psilocybin, the Washington Post reported.
Those substances also appeared to be headed to legalization in an Oregon vote, which also would “decriminalize the possession of all illegal drugs,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
D.C. voters, with their support for the “Entheogenic Plant and Fungus Policy Act of 2020,” aimed to join other governments across the country in decriminalizing select hallucinogens, as similar measures previously won approval in Denver; Oakland, Calif.; Santa Cruz, Calif.; and Ann Arbor, Mich.
The resurgence of attention to psychedelic pharmacopeia is not just a bad flashback to tie-dye-wearing, long-haired hippies dropping acid (LSD) and propounding philosophies of making peace and love. Journalist-author Michael Pollan detailed the surprising reprise of hallucinogenic drugs in his book, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.”
Serious medical researchers are conducting rigorous studies on Molly (aka MDMA, Ecstasy, or 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) and psilocybin and the powerful drugs’ potential to help patients with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression and anxiety due to cancer.
Johns Hopkins, with $17 million in private funding, has launched in recent months its Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, with the esteemed university reporting:
“The center, believed to be the first such research center in the country and the largest of its kind in the world, will focus on how psychedelics impact brain function and mood in both healthy individuals and those affected by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and anorexia nervosa. ‘Psychedelics are a fascinating class of compounds,’ said Roland Griffiths, founding director of the new center and a professor of psychiatry and of neuroscience … ‘They produce a unique and profound change of consciousness over the course of just several hours.’”
A treatment featuring psilocybin worked better than the usual antidepressant medications, researchers from Johns Hopkins and Ohio State University found in their small but rigorous study, the results of which were just published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
The Washington Post noted that the DC ballot initiative has steps to go before it exerts any legal sway:
“The ballot initiative goes to the D.C. Council for review. If the council doesn’t overturn the measure — as it did in 2018 with an initiative that would have mandated a $15-per-hour minimum wage for tipped workers — it will be sent to Congress for review. If Congress doesn’t object within 30 legislative days — as it did when it blocked D.C.’s attempt to legalize marijuana in 1998 — the initiative would go into effect.”
A roll-back on bans of ‘recreational’ drugs
The D.C. and Oregon moves on hallucinogens, news media reported, were part of a continuing national shift on illicit substances, notably marijuana. As NPR reported:
“In states across the country, voters sent a clear message they wanted restrictions on recreational drug use eased. On Tuesday, residents of Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota voted to join the ranks of 11 other states that have done so. In 2012, Colorado and Washington made the leap to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Colorado has collected $1.23 billion in marijuana taxes and fees since 2014, including more than $302 million last year alone. Washington eclipsed Colorado that same year, collecting $395.5 million … Along with the legalization of marijuana, states like Montana and Arizona will allow individuals serving specific marijuana-related sentences to request resentencing or even expungement. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse, 55 million American adults currently use marijuana. As well, more than half of Americans view marijuana use as socially acceptable.”
But as NPR also reported:
[M]arijuana also accounted for 40% of all drug arrests in the United States in 2018, according to a Pew Research Center study. Marijuana, as well as psychedelics and other drugs, is still illegal under federal law. Local governments can choose to ban the sale or cultivation of marijuana. California was the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use in 1996. More than 20 years later, South Dakota and Mississippi followed suit. Now, 35 states and four territories allow the use of medical marijuana.”
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them by dangerous drugs. There is a fine line to be walked with so-called recreational drugs and with powerful mind-altering substances.
The nation has not been well-served by “wars” without nuance against drugs. As I have written, marijuana, for example, may not be a shrieking menace — the “demon weed.” But it has real harms for the young and old. It is not exactly analogous to another commonly used and extremely popular recreational substance: booze. Alcohol, though, should be looked at, with its pros and cons, with eyes wide open. It should go without saying that no one should get behind the wheel intoxicated — on grass, booze, or prescription drugs. My colleagues at the firm and I see the unacceptable results that can occur with car, truck, and motorcycle wrecks, especially those involving the stoned.
Hallucinogens require, perhaps, a step up in more careful consideration. The world may not be best off if blue noses run amok. It can be detrimental for us all for politicians and partisans to impose biases on serious, rigorous, medical-scientific research that benefits humanity. Congress, for example, long has mostly barred the public funding of research that would examine gun violence that claims 33,000 American lives annually as a public health issue. This approach, applied to road deaths, resulted (with the huge role, too, of crusaders like lawyer Ralph Nader) in safer streets and vehicles, and fewer highway fatalities. It’s interesting and notable that the early studies of psychedelic drugs in PTSD or cancer care suggest that effective doses can be few and not large, with benefits sustaining. The suffering of those with PTSD and serious cancers can’t be ignored.
A harsh reminder about drug risks
But researchers and regulators would be well advised to proceed with major caution with novel treatments involving drugs, especially if they have revenue potential to entice Big Pharma involvement. We can’t forget that the coronavirus pandemic has only worsened the nation’s opioid drug abuse and overdose crisis, of which the New York Times reported:
“From 1999 through 2018, 232,000 Americans died from overdoses of prescription opioids, according to the latest numbers from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Addiction to the painkillers also triggered an epidemic of abuse of illegal opioids like heroin, contributing to an avalanche of deaths, crime and soaring health care costs.”
Attorneys for states, counties, local governments, and Indian tribes have spent some time now trying to find some measure of legal redress for the grave damages done to the nation by drug makers, with another $26 billion deal floating up as a possible global settlement of a catalog of lawsuits against McKesson, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and Johnson & Johnson.
We’ll see if this proposal can benefit the harmed. But it only underscores that we have a lot of work to do to ensure that drugs and their makers work to the public’s benefit — and not to create widespread harm.