State lawmakers across the country are embracing the idea of legalizing psilocybin and other psychedelic agents as research reveals therapeutic potential to treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and end-of-life anxiety, and even help people quit drinking and smoking.
The growing interest in a category of drugs often associated with 1960s hippie culture transcends partisan fault lines as psychedelic legalization or “study” bills have been introduced in more than a dozen states this year, building on momentum from last year.
It is a sign that “magic mushrooms” and other hallucinogens are quickly losing their stigma and that policymakers are increasingly convinced of the therapeutic promise of a class of drugs once demonized as psychosis-inducing.
“I don’t claim to 100% understand the mechanics of it … but I’ve learned enough to be confident it is actually able to do something for these people,” said Missouri state Rep. Tony Lovasco (R), who is sponsoring a bill to legalize the medical use of psilocybin for people suffering from treatment-resistant PTSD and depression or who have a terminal illness.
In 2020, Oregon became the first state to authorize the therapeutic use of psychoactive mushrooms for people 21 and over, through passage of Measure 109. The voter-approved law requires that people consume the drug under the supervision of a trained facilitator.
In November, Colorado voters approved a more expansive measure to decriminalize personal adult use and possession of psilocybin, mescaline, and other hallucinogenic plants and fungi. The law also calls for the establishment of therapeutic clinics.
Psilocybin, a compound found in certain varieties of mushrooms, is considered the most studied psychedelic. It can also be manufactured in synthetic form in a lab.
The Drug Enforcement Administration considers psilocybin and other hallucinogens such as LSD and Ecstasy to be Schedule 1 drugs, meaning they have no “currently accepted” medical use and have a high potential for abuse.
But over the past two decades, psychedelic research has enjoyed a renaissance as scientists have documented numerous therapeutic benefits of hallucinogenic drugs.
Since 2014, researchers at Johns Hopkins have found that psilocybin shows promise as a treatment for alcohol abuse, nicotine addiction, major depression, and anxiety experienced by cancer patients. Studies have also suggested that Ecstasy, a synthetic drug also known as MDMA, may have value in treating PTSD.
But in an interview, Dr. Steven Zalcman, a branch chief at the National Institute of Mental Health, cautioned that the studies are not yet conclusive.
“There are data suggestive … of the fact that agents like psilocybin and MDMA might be beneficial to individuals with PTSD and major depressive disorder and other disorders, but from my point of view there are not yet definitive, compelling scientific data that establishes that to be the case,” Zalcman said.
Because of the potential benefits, “magic mushroom” bills are popping up in blue states and red states around the country as state legislative sessions get underway.
According to news reports and tracking by Marijuana Moment, psychedelics reform measures have been introduced or are expected to be introduced this year in states including: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Virginia and Washington.
“I’m excited by it,” said Dr. Joshua Siegel, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis who has conducted psychedelic neuroimaging research.
Siegel was the lead author of a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association in December that charted the exponential growth in psychedelic-related drug reform proposals in state legislatures between 2019 and 2022.
“I think it’s happening under most people’s noses,” Siegel said.
The bills generally fall into one of three categories: proposals to study the benefits of psychedelic therapy, bills to reclassify or decriminalize psychedelics, and measures that would legalize and allow the use of the drugs by individuals or with supervision. The sponsors of the legislation are both Democrats and Republicans.
A bipartisan bill was introduced in Arizona this month to earmark $30 million for clinical trials of whole mushroom psilocybin using veterans, first responders, frontline healthcare workers and people from underserved communities.
“We are not trying to make psilocybin legal. We are trying to collect objective data on the good and bad of this,” Dr. Sue Sisley, an Arizona-based researcher and supporter of the measure, told the Arizona Republic recently. “We don’t want it to end up like cannabis where the industry was created before there was hardcore science.”
Declaring it a “right-to-try and liberty issue,” first-year Montana state Rep. George Nikolakakos (R) has filed a bill to study the use of psilocybin for the treatment of depression and other mental health conditions.
“We’ve got a mental health crisis, we all know it, and this has the real potential to help us address that,” said Nikolakakos, an Air Force veteran who said he knows 12 veterans who have died by suicide.
Another measure, sponsored by Rep. Jill Cohenour (D), would legalize the therapeutic use of psilocybin in Montana. A psychedelic therapy bill is also expected to be introduced in the Montana Senate.
Earlier this month, a Republican-led subcommittee in the Virginia House voted down a bill to allow doctors to prescribe psilocybin for certain medical conditions. The bill was sponsored by Del. Dawn Adams (D), a nurse practitioner who said she remains optimistic the idea will gain acceptance over time.
“It has the potential to save a life, it has the potential to save many lives and so I think that’s worth trying,” Adams told Pluribus News.
A bill in the Virginia Senate to reclassify psilocybin as a Schedule III drug and create a Psilocybin Advisory Board is still in play.
Siegel, of Washington University, contrasted the fast-moving groundswell of interest in psychedelic therapy with what he called the “big and slow battle” over the medical benefits of cannabis.
“Here’s a much more convincing case in some ways than cannabis,” Siegel said.
As part of their December JAMA paper, Siegel and his colleagues projected, based on an analytical model, that within the next 10 to 15 years, the majority of states will legalize psychedelics.
But while Siegel thinks states are fertile ground to test out different legal frameworks for psychedelics, he also worries that a state-by-state approach could backfire.
“We’re heading towards where there’s more psychedelic use, but there has to be some degree of consensus of what that looks like or we will end up repeating what happened in the ‘60s,” Siegel cautioned.