Using Psychedelics Shouldn't Be a Crime

September 15, 2015 - By Jag Davies

Psychedelic substances have been used around the world for thousands of years for religious and therapeutic purposes. In the 1950s and 1960s, psychedelics were considered promising treatments for a broad range of psychological conditions, and for otherwise-healthy people seeking to improve their creativity or well-being.  Tens of thousands of people were introduced to them in clinical studies, as an adjunct to psychotherapy, or as part of a religious or spiritual practice.

Nixon’s war on drugs, however, led to a total ban on research, which persisted for decades.  But over the past 15 years psychedelic research has gradually gained momentum. Today, there are dozens of studies taking place to evaluate the medical safety and efficacy of substances like LSD (“acid”), psilocybin ("magic") mushrooms, ayahuasca, and MDMA ("molly" or "ecstasy"). The new research findings have been so impressive that groups like MAPS are hoping to gain FDA approval for psychedelic-assisted therapy in the next decade.

If psychedelic therapy becomes legal, though, that won’t change the status quo: thousands of people getting handcuffed, arrested, branded as criminals, and serving time behind bars every year simply for using or possessing a psychedelic substance in the United States.  Even in a world with legal psychedelic therapy, it's certain that most people who use psychedelics would continue to do so outside of government-sanctioned, medically-supervised settings.

This is a critical moment for people who care about psychedelics to bring their voices to the table.  The drug policy landscape has changed as quickly as any other issue in U.S. politics over the past few years. A clear and growing majority of Americans – including many prominent lawmakers from across the political spectrum – now support once-unimaginable reforms like legally regulating marijuana, ending criminal penalties for drug possession, and reforming sentencing laws to scale back mass incarceration.

So does this mean we should fully legalize psychedelics? Recent polling does not suggest  broad support for legalizing psychedelics in particular.  Yet between the poles of complete prohibition and full legalization, there are a number of things we can do to dramatically reduce the harms of psychedelic prohibition:

  • Ending arrests and criminal penalties for people who use or possess psychedelics (a step several countries like Portugal and the Czech Republic have taken with enormous success).
  • Scaling back draconian sentencing laws for people convicted of making or selling psychedelics (under current law, many people are locked up behind bars for a decade and often much longer).
  • Ending harmful zero tolerance policies by working with universities, festivals, nightlife venues, and other institutions to instead promote life-saving harm reduction measures, such as allowing drug checking, access to fact-based drug information, and onsite mental health services (to learn more, check out the Drug Policy Alliance’s Music Fan program).
  • Exposing and overcoming ongoing barriers to scientific and medical research so that the potential benefits and risks of psychedelics are properly understood.
  • Debunking unsubstantiated myths about psychedelics that are the vestiges of the drug war by educating the public about  their histories, traditional uses, and clinical findings.
  • Exploring and evaluating small-scale models for regulation and legalization.

One sign of the momentum for psychedelic policy reform is the launch of an annual event this Sunday, September 20, by a group of organizations calling themselves the 920 Coalition. The 920 event seeks to educate people about the historical, medicinal and therapeutic uses of psilocybin mushrooms. 

How many more years will have to go by in which people who use psychedelics are stigmatized, marginalized, and living a shadow identity that doesn't speak to their full truth, living in fear of being labelled a criminal though they don’t cause harm to others?

We can end the criminalization of people who use psychedelics – if we want to.

Jag Davies is director of communications strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance.

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