D.A.R.E to Decriminalize? The Decriminalization of Psychedelics
Photographed by Quinn McCaffrey of Ryan Backus
By Ryan Backus
While psychedelics have been around for centuries, drugs are just recently becoming decriminalized in certain cities and states in the United States. It is important to note the difference between decriminalization and legalization. Legalization means a once-banned drug is made legal, under federal or state law. Decriminalization means a once-banned drug is still prohibited by law, but a person will not be penalized for carrying the substance under a certain amount. Like cannabis, psychedelics are still federally illegal.
The road to decriminalization has been long and strenuous, dating back to as early as 200 CE. Indigenous populations around the world have recognized the beneficial effects of psychedelics for hundreds of years. The hallucinogenic species of the Psilocybin genus have a history of use among the native peoples of Mesoamerica for religious communion, divination, and healing, from pre-Columbian times to the present day.
Ancient civilizations most known for using Psilocybin were in Central America. A lot of indigenous artwork in Central America depicts mushrooms used as a means of communicating with the gods. Because of this, Psilocybin was used in religious and spiritual ceremonies for divination, healing, anesthetizing pain, and celebrations.
Central Americans used Psilocybin for other rituals, as well. Peyote, Morning Glory Seeds, and Salvia Divinorum were used for sacred rituals. Additionally, in South America, a common Psychoactive used within the culture was Ayahuasca, an entheogenic brewed drink traditionally used both socially and as a ceremonial or Shamanic spiritual medicine among the indigenous peoples along the Amazon Basin.
The use of psychedelics did not stop there. There was a very lively history of psychedelics in the 20th century as well. Modern psychedelic research began when Albert Hofmann first synthesized Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD-25) in 1938. Five years later, Hofmann became the first person to ingest LSD.
Psychologist Timothy Leary, who died in 1996, is regarded as the father of the psychedelic movement of the 1960s, and its experiments with mind-altering drugs. In 1960, Leary joined the faculty of Harvard at the Center for Personality Research, where he analyzed the effects of psychedelics and personality. There is even rumored to be LSD research conducted on subjects by the CIA.
In the 1960s and 70s, there was a surge in popularity of psychedelics, largely a result of the hippie movement. During 1965, young Americans soared in numbers into the San Francisco Bay Area, primarily with the desire to trip on the still-legal LSD. Trippers also grooved to “Acid Rock” music, and many were spiritual seekers.
In 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Drug Abuse Control Act into law, making the possession of psychedelics a crime. However, President Richard Nixon passed the more comprehensive Controlled Substances Act in 1970. This established a federal program to enforce drug laws and marked the start of the war on drugs.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), drugs are scheduled around three main considerations: Schedule 1: potential for abuse, Schedule 2: accepted medical uses, and Schedule 3: addiction potential. Psychedelics were included in the most difficult class, Schedule 1, from the very beginning. Due to the production of mescaline, the psychedelic compound, even sacramental peyote was included in the original drug schedule.
The war on drugs is still a controversial topic today. Many people find the efforts too extreme and targeting minorities. There are concerns the battle against drugs dismantles many basic rights granted to U.S. citizens by the Constitution, specifically the freedom of religion. The war on drugs is also considered a form of structural racism, primarily targeting people of color.
Psychedelics have recently increased in popularity and become more accepted. Studies show Psilocybin and other psychedelics can have beneficial effects on a variety of mental health and other conditions such as PTSD, anorexia, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and addiction.
These benefits prompted a movement to decriminalize Psilocybin in the U.S. Denver, Colorado became the first city to decriminalize Psilocybin in May 2019. Oakland and Santa Cruz, California, Washington D.C., and several smaller cities in Massachusetts soon followed. Seattle, Washington was the largest city to decriminalize Psilocybin.
Oregon voters passed the 2020 Oregon Ballot Measure 109, making it the first state to both decriminalize Psilocybin and legalize it for therapeutic use. Colorado followed with the 2022 Colorado Ballot Measure 122. The use, sale, and possession of Psilocybin in the United States remain illegal under federal law.
With research showing promising results for patients, lawmakers in other states and cities also are considering loosening Psilocybin restrictions. A few states want to legalize Psilocybin treatment for all adult patients, while others want to limit it to veterans or others with PTSD. Some states have formed task forces to study the issue. While the future of psilocybin is still everchanging, more and more governments are making room for mushrooms.