Many people are wondering why magic mushrooms are illegal in most places in the world. Fortunately, decriminalising magic mushrooms might be on many government´s to-do lists in the next few years. All the studies have been showing that decriminalising drugs is the way to go if we want to live in healthy societies.

Marijuana Leading the Way

Across Canada on October 17th, 2018, cheers erupted and fists rose in triumphant victory. Surprisingly, this wasn’t a celebration of a national sports team’s glorious win against an archrival. This was the reaction to the legalisation of recreational marijuana in the country. All eyes were on Canada, the world´s first major economy to take such a major step in its drug policy.

To the south in the United States, cannabis is now legal for recreational use in 10 states, and for medical purposes in 33. In the UK, doctors can now prescribe the formally illegal herb for a variety of conditions. Obviously, here in the Netherlands, we don’t see what the big deal is because marijauna has been decriminalised since the early 70s. Other countries are catching up, though. In fact, many Dutch are realizing its government´s drug policies might actually be falling behind a bit, since marijuana is still technically illegal here.

The legalisation of cannabis in the US and Canada has been overwhelmingly popular with the public, causing people to ask the bigger question. What are potential benefits that could come out of the legalisation or decriminalisation (you won’t go to prison but technically it’s not legal) of other illicit substances?.

Cartoon mocking drug policies
Image source: https://poldraw.wordpress.com/tag/professor-nutt/

For decades, debates about drug policy reform have raged between different countries, scientists and lobby groups. Now, it seems that the tide has turned since the days of Nixon’s ‘war on drugs’ and governments are looking for more pragmatic ways to deal with drugs. Marijuana was first on the list for legalisation, but other substances may follow. Indeed, the magic mushroom could be up next.

Mushrooms on the ballot

In May, the US city of Denver will vote on whether to decriminalise psilocybin mushrooms, which many will see as another step in the right direction.

Already, mushroom connoisseurs do enjoy some pockets of freedom, including in Jamaica and Brazil. In the Netherlands, psilocybin truffles are also legal and fresh mushrooms (but not dried) have been legal in New Mexico since 2005.

Obviously, high-risk drugs are one thing, but governments have been taking baby steps towards a more common-sense approach to making drugs policy more effective. As we have mentioned in a previous blog, psilocybin is considered extremely low risk (Fig.1), so it is nonsensical that in some countries it is classified in the same category as crack and heroin.

Graph depicting harm caused by drugs.
Fig.1. Image source: https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2010/11/02/scoring-drugs

Decriminalising magic mushrooms would allow scientists to finally cut through the red tape and start conducting more extensive clinical trials (Curran et al., 2018). All the studies so far have shown that psilocybin has the potential to have an extremely positive effect on many psychological conditions, from depression to PTSD. The sooner researchers can conduct more studies, the sooner people suffering from these conditions can receive effective treatments. Decriminalising magic mushrooms seems to be the next logical step in drug reform for countries all over the world.

High time for reform

The movement to get governments to decriminalise a relatively safe substance like weed has been a monumental effort. For years, drug policy was becoming stricter with harsh jail penalties, even for minor infractions (Fig.2). As the Financial Times’ Simon Kuper puts it, “Around the world, panic-mongering fuddy-duddies gave pot the allure of forbidden fruit.”

Graph depicting highest minimum penalty by year in Latin American countries.
Fig.2. Highest minimum penalty for drug offences in Latin America.
Source: Csete et al., p1444

Fears that decriminalising drugs would result in more crime, more people using, and more children starting to take drugs at a younger age have been proven completely wrong. The idea that less harmful drugs are just one stepping-stone away from your becoming a heroin junkie is a myth (Nutt, 2006).

Most countries’ drug policy is a result of arbitrary classification based on historical legacy, anecdotal evidence or pressure from lobby groups. These repressive policies cause more problems than they solve. According to scientists, they “directly and indirectly contribute to lethal violence, disease, discrimination, forced displacement, injustice, and the undermining of people’s right to health” (Csete et al., p1467). You only need to look at the US prison population (Fig.3) to see the stark racial inequalities to which years of tough drug sentencing have contributed.

Percentage of US population in prison by race.

Fig.3. Drug-related incarceration by race in the US. Source: Csete et al., p1446.

A very comprehensive report from the London School of Economics argued that we need to move beyond drug prohibition in order to allow people-centered sustainable development. The report says that the main things we need to think about when reforming policy are: “public health, harm reduction of consumption and supply, access to essential medicines, and scientific experimentation with strict legal regulation” (LSE, 2016).

A tale of two cities

In Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, drug users have help at hand from the health services if their use starts to become a problem. Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001. Many people think it has been a success as drug death rates fell and are now some of the lowest in Europe. Other benefits of decriminalisation have included: “significant financial savings, less incarceration, significant public health benefits, and no significant increase in drug use” (Csete et al., p1429).

In the Philippines, by contrast, President Rodrigo Duterte is waging a brutal war against everyone involved in the drugs trade. The government has reportedly killed over 5000 people, sometimes with absolutely no evidence of the victims´ involvement in drug crime. Sadly, many NGOs think the death toll is much higher than officially reported. In Davao City, Duterte’s home turf where he was mayor, people live in fear of drug “death squads.”

These examples are polar opposites in drug policy. A whole spectrum exists in between. Other countries are starting to pay attention to Portugal´s results, as it seems the government is rapidly improving conditions for the most marginalized people in society.

Shroom for improvement

Restructuring drug policy is an incredibly complex process. Still, the fact remains: most current national systems are ineffective.

They create more harm than good. They waste the state’s valuable resources by locking people up for minor offenses. People who utilize substances to self-medicate for mental and physical health problems are not criminals.

Something needs to change. A more common-sense approach will likely produce a better outcomes for society as a whole. Finally, it seems governments around the world are starting to get on board with decriminalisation.

With regards to psilocybin, other US cities may follow Denver. If Denver´s initiative is successful in May, we expect many other cities and states to follow. We are following the action closely and will keep you posted on the result. Who knows, maybe we will soon be witnessing scenes of celebration like these ones when governments start decriminalising magic mushrooms.

References

Berke, Jeremy and Gould, Skye. (8 November 2018). Michigan is the 10th state to legalize recreational marijuana. Business Insider.

Busby, Mattha. (4 March 2019). Labour supports trials of consumption rooms to cut drug deaths. The Guardian.

Csete, J., Kamarulzaman, A., Kazatchkine, M., Altice, F., Balicki, M., Buxton, J., . . . Beyrer, C. (2016). Public health and international drug policy. Lancet, 387(10026), 1427-1480.

Curran, H., Nutt, D., & De Wit, H. (2018). Psychedelics and related drugs: Therapeutic possibilities, mechanisms and regulation. Psychopharmacology, 235(2), 373-375.

Ellis-Peterson, Hannah. (19 December 2018). Duterte's Philippines drug war death toll rises above 5,000. The Guardian.

Goldhill, Olivia. (4 February 2019). Denver’s vote to decriminalize magic mushrooms marks the next stage in the drug wars. Quartz.

Kuper, Simon. (26 October 2018). What the Dutch can teach the world about cannabis. Financial Times.

LSE. (February 2016). After the Drug Wars - Report of the LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy.

Naftulin, Julia. (26 February 2019). Denver could soon become the first US city to decriminalize ‘magic’ mushrooms. Insider.

Nutt, David (2006). A tale of two es. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 20(3), 315-317.

Stevens, Alex and Hughes, Caitlin Elizabeth. (2012). A resounding success or a disastrous failure: Re-examining the interpretation of evidence on the Portuguese decriminalisation of illicit drugs. Drug and Alcohol Review, 31 (1), 101-113.

Cover image: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/dec/06/lsd-guides-psychedelic-assisted-psychotherapy

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