Drugs, Drugs, and More Drugs: How Psychedelics Are Becoming the New Marijuana
President Joe Biden re-engaged the issue of drug legalization with his recent announcement of a blanket pardon for anyone who had committed the federal offense of simple possession of marijuana — around 6,500 individuals. This executive action intensified discussion over whether Congress should take further steps to legalize the drug.
Meanwhile, recreational marijuana measures are on the ballot this election cycle in five U.S. states: Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Although it might seem like this is just the next slate of states to fall in line with the 19 that now allow recreational marijuana, it is indicative of a wide-sweeping trend in which legalizing marijuana is a gateway to legalizing even more drugs. Next on the list? Psychedelics.
In 2012, Colorado became one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana by passing ballot measure Amendment 64. Ten years later, they are back with a ballot measure to legalize the use of psychedelic plants and fungi as natural medicine. If this measure is adopted, it would decriminalize the use of hallucinogenic plants that are currently Schedule 1 controlled substances according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It would also create the “Natural Medicine Advisory Board.” This initiative comes on the heels of a recent poll showing that 45% of Americans support legalizing some psychedelic substances for the treatment of mental health conditions. Recreational marijuana just wasn’t enough for Colorado, as they now seek to make drugs that in the 1960s were deemed dangerous, addictive, and illegal into an accepted medicine for mental health treatment.
What we are seeing play out is the result of decades worth of strategic and organized efforts to destigmatize psychedelic drugs. Activists like Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), have been working behind the scenes since the 1980s to make psychedelics look respectable. As shown in Episode 3 of the Netflix series “How to Change your Mind,” Doblin recognized that “We needed an FDA strategy,” so he decided to go back to school and complete his dissertation on “the regulation of the medical use of psychedelics and marijuana.” Doblin’s dissertation has been subsequently referred to as the roadmap for getting these notorious drugs approved by the FDA.
Doblin also recognized that in order to garner public support and lend respectability to psychedelic drugs, he needed scientific research to validate their usefulness. Unbeknownst to most of the American public, there are roughly 172 studies currently registered at clinicaltrials.gov investigating psychedelic drugs, including LSD, MDMA, Psilocybin, and Mescaline. Much like the research used to prop up other ideologically driven topics related to mental health (i.e., transgenderism), these studies make big claims about their efficacy but are based on poor research methods.
That fact hasn’t stopped the media from popularizing these drugs. For several years now, popular media has been priming the American public to accept psychedelic drugs as breakthrough substances that can heal a range of unresponsive mental health conditions, from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to end-of-life anxiety. Multiple books encouraging the use of psychedelics to heal mental health issues, enhance creativity, and have spiritual experiences have been published. Most recently, Netflix released a series based on the work of a psychedelic activist and professor at U.C. Berkeley, Michael Pollan, entitled “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.”
Not everyone is blindly accepting the inadequate research and media fanfare. Two concerned researchers recently wrote an editorial in Psychological Medicine that noted, “[U]nfortunately, psychedelic drugs have come to recent prominence through the unwise lowering of research standards by some major medical journals and the inappropriate exaggeration of research results in the popular media by scientists.” These researchers looked at several studies on different psychedelic drugs that evaluated their impact on mental health conditions. These studies did not achieve statistically significant results but were later touted by media outlets with claims that psychedelics could free the brain up and actually rewire it.
As these concerned researchers noted, “[W]e fear that this type of hype surrounding psychedelics will lead to their premature introduction to clinical practice in poorly regulated ways that risk patients’ well-being and medicine’s credibility. ... Only the best of these studies should be published.”
As we come closer to election day, we should be leery of the heightened media coverage these drugs are receiving, particularly when they are set against the backdrop of continuous messaging that our nation is in a mental health crisis. We need to recognize that these current attempts to fast-track FDA approval and decriminalize and ultimately legalize psychedelics are nothing more than a social experiment that is preying on the pain of hurting people. In the end, these drugs will only further complicate our society’s challenges. We must resist any notion that they are the solution.
Connor Semelsberger is Director of Federal Affairs - Life and Human Dignity at Family Research Council.
Dr. Jennifer Bauwens is the Director of the Center for Family Studies at Family Research Council.