Denver’s decision to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms is changing the conversation about psychoactive drugs. Liam Glen writes on the possibility of a laxer policy.
It is no secret that attitudes around drugs are changing. At this point, the criminalization of cannabis is a joke. I have no interest in paying money to inhale flower smoke, but as a current college student, I know that I could easily obtain it if I desired.
The inefficacy and injustice of criminalizing a substance that lacks serious negative effects has driven legalization efforts throughout the US. But many were surprised when the city of Denver took this a step further and voted to effectively decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, a group of hallucinogenic fungus species commonly known as magic mushrooms.
It is uncertain whether law enforcement will respect the decision. Even if they do, the effects will not be revolutionary – psilocybin mushrooms do not result in many arrests per year. But the move has succeeded in making headlines, and in shifting the conversation around psychoactive substances.
An Overdose of Caution
Drug policy in the US is guided by some version of the precautionary principle. If we are unsure whether a psychoactive substance is completely safe, then it should be illegal.
The resurgence of psilocybin mushrooms would not be happening if not for newly-discovered medical benefits. In 2018, the FDA gave it breakthrough therapy designation for its promise in treating mental disorders like depression. This is a rare occurrence for a Schedule I drug.
Still, opponents of Denver’s decision argue that it is irresponsible to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms if we are not fully aware such an action’s effects. Even Michael Pollan, whose book How to Change Your Mind has fueled the pro-psilocybin movement, cautions against hastily bringing it in the mainstream.
However, the real irresponsibility was on the part of lawmakers who listed psilocybin as a Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 amid a moral backlash against the hippie movement.
The expensive, foul-tasting, non-addictive psilocybin mushrooms are not particularly popular or potent drugs. Psilocybin works by activating the brain’s serotonin receptors. The hallucinogenic effects are more likely to manifest in simple sensory distortion than intense visions of riding dragons or communing with clockwork elves. Risks exist, but hardly enough to justify putting people in prison over it.
Precaution through criminalization also fails to consider that the US is not the only country in the world. According to the Third Wave, a pro-psilocybin organization, magic mushrooms are partially legalized or decriminalized in several countries, including Brazil, the Netherlands, Austria, and Canada. The sale of spores is even legal in most of the US. So far, this has not resulted in societal collapse.
Costs and Benefits
The idea of criminalization as a deterrent for undesirable drug use is thankfully giving way to rehabilitation as a cure for addiction. But this still does not address the question of when we should allow recreational use.
The category of psychoactive drugs is wide, including alcohol, tobacco, many prescription medications, and even caffeine.
Alcohol can certainly be misused, but it is also possible to consume it in healthy moderation. The same principle is now driving the normalization of cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms.
Furthermore, there is no possible positive use of tobacco, yet it is legal in nearly every country of the world. Taking it off the market would be more trouble than it is worth. In addition, many argue, it is not the government’s right to say whether people should or should not be allowed to smoke. Perhaps we should consider applying the same principle to other substances.
The government of course has the right to regulate drugs and prevent the use of those with the highest potential for abuse. Unlike audience members in the 2016 Libertarian presidential debates, I do not think there is a right to sell heroin to five-year-olds.
However, it is still worth questioning whether cracking down on some substances is worth the cost. For some – like heroin or methamphetamine – the answer is a very quick yes. For others – like LSD or MDMA, hallucinogens favorited by adventurous people with enough money to avoid legal consequence – we may come to a different conclusion.