Recreational Psychedelics Enters The Conversation

Could decriminalization boost the recreational use of psychedelics?

The medical psychedelics decriminalization efforts are growing, with now 20 different states (or cities and counties within states) either decriminalizing or working on decriminalizing psychedelics. 

There have been pushbacks, with complaints that some decriminalization efforts include making them the “lowest law enforcement priorities,” a ruling that still effectively criminalizes psychedelics. That same ruling applied to the decriminalization of cannabis.

But one of the bigger pushbacks about cannabis was how the decriminalization effectively became the first step toward legalization of not just medical cannabis, but recreational cannabis as well—and that perhaps the current psychedelics decriminalization efforts are headed that way too. 

As various states continue to discuss medical legalization and decriminalization of cannabis, there is generally at least one holdup that says it will lead to recreational use, such as Tennessee state legislator, Rep. Sabi ‘Doc’ Kumar (R-Springfield).

And so it goes in psychedelics: In testimony for decriminalizing psychedelics in Maine in February, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Nirav Shah, cited concerns about the lack of input by state health officials on the regulatory oversight, which could allow psilocybin treatment centers to “function more like recreational use facilities rather than medical treatment facilities.”

Recreational Psychedelics

The Oregon Health Authority created the Oregon Psilocybin Advisory Board, with members from psychology, allopathic and naturopathic medicine, public health, and other professions, and appears to be expecting the federal government to ignore psilocybin use under the new law, as it has in states that have legalized the possession of marijuana, according to a viewpoint article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). That could open the door to the recreational use of psychedelics.

But the development of the psychedelics legalization pathway is different than the cannabis legalization pathway. Though both cannabis and psychedelics had the same beginnings as recreational substances used in the U.S., psychedelics today is almost always about pure medical mental health treatment. 

Psychedelics are more powerful in their effect, and therefore need to be more controlled in their therapeutic use. Most of the clinical studies on psychedelics have been limited by small sample sizes, with difficulties in blinding given the subjective effects of psychedelics, and exclusion of participants with comorbidities, histories of drug use, and personal or family histories of psychotic disorders. “The extent to which findings like these may generalize to larger and more representative patient samples is unknown,” the viewpoint article stated. 

There are still too many unknowns about psychedelics that appear to transcend the effects of the cannabis consumption experience, with more concerns about casual use. For example, another article cited a study of 1993 psilocybin users who experienced “bad trips” reported that 62% characterized them as, among the 10 most challenging experiences in their lives, 10.7 percent reported having put themselves or others at physical risk, and 2.6 percent had become physically violent.

Ten percent of respondents reported symptoms lasting more than 1 year, with a small number of cases consistent with “enduring” psychosis.

So now here we are, in a new industry being developed that is, in many cases, following the legalization process of one of the only other DEA schedule 1 substance—cannabis—that has been legalized by various states.

$2 Billion Market

And as with cannabis, psychedelics startup entrepreneurs have been sensing a gold rush for years, and are lining up in much the same way as they did in the early days of cannabis legalization. The market for psychedelic substances is projected to grow from $2 billion in 2020 to $10.75 billion by 2027, a growth rate that may even outpace the legal US cannabis market.

But there’s a sense that investing in purely medical psychedelics is a safer bet, and that the lessons learned about the rollout of the cannabis industry, and its quick expansion into a recreational product, have been applied. “A lot of the early idealism of cannabis gave way to a race to be the biggest and fastest,” said Bryan Passman, co-founder, and CEO of Hunter-Esquire, a cannabis, and psychedelics business strategy company, speaking to Entrepreneur magazine. “It’s the very early days, but I do think the psychedelics industry as a whole is better set up for success simply because there are more regulatory and legal pathways, and more Ph. D.s and MDs, than in cannabis,” says Passman. “Companies are finding themselves in bed with investors with more scientific minds, versus capitalist minds. The scientific minds are users and I believe it makes them more conscientious, which will hopefully feed into the opportunity for psychedelics to be different.”

Still, there remains some confusion about where the psychedelics industry is now, where it is going, and how the cannabis industry has been and will continue to inform that direction. 

Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), speaking on a panel at the Harvard Law School about the future of psychedelics law, said that legalization follows medicalization, citing the changing voter views of marijuana: From solid support in the ‘60s to a backlash in the Carter and Reagan years, to a major upswing in 2013 after medical marijuana proved viable. 

He said that psychedelic drugs would require a similar trajectory, and it may take a while: “We think it’s going to require a decade of psychedelic clinics being rolled out, for people to hear about the positive experiences. We’ll have licensed legalization, I think, in 2035.” At which time, he suggested, you’ll be able to turn on the television and see psychedelics advertised like any other beneficial drug: “Ask your doctor if MDMA is right for you.”

Dave Hodes

David Hodes is a business journalist based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He has contributed feature articles to several cannabis and psychedelics publications, as well as general business/lifestyle publications, on a variety of topics. Hodes was selected as 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access. He is a member of the National Press Club, and the deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.

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