The use of psychedelics, especially naturally-occurring ones, dates back centuries. History has it that many of them served various traditional and healing purposes among the indigenous people in different parts of the world. However, their healing qualities have had a checkered past. This is now changing. Since the 1990s scientists have been revisiting the positive health benefits of psychedelics under strict medical supervision and more countries are re-assessing their use for medical purposes.
Psychedelics changed the world
In his book, journalist Michael Pollan “How You Can Change Your Mind” refers to the discovery of psychedelic therapies as a significant event. “Extraordinary new energies had been lost upon the world; things would never be quite the same. The first of these molecules was an accidental invention of science. Lysergic acid diethylamide, commonly known as LSD, was first synthesized by Albert Hofmann in 1938. This was shortly before physicists split an atom of uranium for the first time.”
“Hofmann, who worked for the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Sandoz, had been looking for a drug to stimulate circulation, not a psychoactive compound. It wasn’t until five years later when he accidentally ingested a minuscule quantity of the new chemical that he realized he had created something powerful, at once terrifying and wondrous.”
The second molecule discovered had been around for thousands of years. However, no one in the developed world was aware of it.
This molecule came from a little brown mushroom and it would become known as psilocybin. The indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America had used it for hundreds of years as a sacrament. Called teonanácatl by the Aztecs, or “flesh of the gods,” it had been driven underground over the years by religious pressure.
Pollen wrote: “Then in 1955, twelve years after Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD, a Manhattan banker and amateur mycologist named R. Gordon Wasson sampled the magic mushroom in the town of Huautla de Jiménez in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Two years later, he published a fifteen-page account of the “mushrooms that cause strange visions” in Life magazine. The article had a massive impact and created public awareness of psychedelics.
Brain science revolution
It may seem hard to believe today, but for most of the 1950s and early 1960s, many in the psychiatric establishment regarded LSD and psilocybin as miracle drugs with important healing qualities. It was only from the early 1970s with the growing media coverage. that the world of psychedelics exploded.
The war on drugs
And explode it did. The dark side of psychedelics and irresponsible recreational use began to receive tremendous amounts of bad publicity. The molecules got into the streets. People had dangerous trips, psychotic breaks, as well as flashbacks and suicides.
This created concern and panic among authorities.
“As quickly as the culture and the scientific establishment had embraced psychedelics, they now turned sharply against them. By the end of the decade, psychedelic drugs—which had been legal in most places—were outlawed and forced underground,” said Pollen.
It was not surprising that psychedelics became illegal in most countries by the 1970s. This is how the situation remained. Until the 1990s when a small group of scientists started working on psychedelics out of the public eye. They revisited the original work of their scientific peers, testing their potential to heal mental illnesses. These include depression, anxiety, as well as trauma, and addiction.
Scientists believe that recognizing the healing qualities of these drugs should be made available. They have been consistently lobbying for a review of laws and attitudes towards these natural compounds.
Which countries have relaxed their laws?
To date, there is an increasing number of countries recognizing the natural health benefits of psychedelics. However, there are still many restrictions in place around their use. This article gives you the legal status of psychedelics in some of the leading countries with relaxed laws. The focus of this article is on medical and non-recreational use.
But first, let’s start with where the latest scientific research is taking place.
Research Organizations That Are Leading With New Psychedelic Studies
MAPS, California, United States of America
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is a United States-based non-profit research organization committed to the development of medical, cultural, and legal contexts for people to benefit from the use of psychedelics. MAPS has covered and/or published a wide range of psychedelic research.
Their work includes ayahuasca-assisted therapy, ibogaine-assisted treatment, LSD-assisted psychotherapy, peyote neuropsychological study, and psilocybin studies. MAPS has also helped raise funding for many related studies. Their focus is to address the issues surrounding the accessibility of psychedelic drugs as well as whether or not doctors should be allowed to use them to treat mental disorders.
Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelics and Consciousness in the United States of America
In 2000, the John Hopkins research group became the first in the United States to obtain regulatory approval to reinstate psychedelic research with healthy volunteers. Before this, the last psychedelic study dated back to the 1970s when the research was abruptly ended as a result of negative media coverage which misrepresented the impacts of the substances.
John Hopkins has published several psychedelic studies of over 60 peer-reviewed works. Their work has demonstrated significant health benefits for people who suffer from various medical disorders and the effectiveness of these drugs in treating addiction, treatment-resistant depression, and existential distress resulting from chronic diseases.
Their discoveries so far have given experts in the field better insight into the enduring positive effects of psilocybin and many other psychedelics. They hope to one day “create precision medicine treatments tailored to the specific needs of individual patients.”
Imperial College in London, United Kingdom
On April 26, 2016, the Imperial College in London launched its center for psychedelic research. The research focuses on expanding the college’s achievements in psychedelic studies. While many other research groups have conducted different psychedelic studies, the Imperial center was the first to have such a robust program within a major academic institution in Europe. The college’s psychedelic research team was the first to investigate the effects of LSD on the brain using modern neuroimaging. They are also the first to conduct research into the effects of psilocybin on treating depression.
The Hakomi Institute, Boulder, United States of America
The Hakomi Institute was founded in 1981 by the renowned therapist, Ron Kurtz and Hakomi being the Native American word used to describe the process of body-inclusive psychotherapy. The institute is a reputable organization that educates and trains people on Hakomi Experiential Psychotherapy.
Over the past three decades, the institute has recorded groundbreaking successes in this area. It offers professionals and graduate students a wide range of training covering effective applications of Hakomi therapy.
Psychedelic Research in Israel
Psychedelic research is also gaining ground in Israel. In 2014, dozens of Israelis partook in a clinical trial that included the use of MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy for PTSD. The principal Investigator was Moshe Kotler, M.D., and the study Site: Beer Ya’akov Mental Hospital, Israel
The study has the approval of the Israeli Ministry of Health, an independent Ethics Committee, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Most of the subjects reported experiencing beneficial effects in overcoming post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following the therapy. This is one of the factors that motivated Israel’s Ministry of Health to allow for the “compassionate use” of psychedelics for medical purposes on February 3, 2019.
Many psychedelics, including MDMA, are still classified as dangerous and illegal drugs in Israel. However, this approval enables people to benefit from the therapeutic effects of psychedelics to improve their health. “Compassionate use” means using drugs that are still in development to treat patients outside clinical trials in the absence of alternative options.
Psychedelic friendly countries
Considered Europe’s most psychedelic-friendly country, the Netherlands has more relaxed drug laws than most other countries. It is common knowledge throughout the world that in Amsterdam you may enter a coffee shop and buy soft drugs such as weed, magic truffles, salvia, and peyote cactus. This is because the Dutch drug law is driven by the belief that everyone may decide on matters of their own health. In addition, the country believes that hiding negative social vices does not make them disappear. It rather makes them worse as they will be much more difficult to regulate or influence when concealed. These ideologies make the Dutch government try as much as possible to decriminalize the use of drugs.
Importantly, not all psychedelics are legal
However, does that mean all psychedelic substances are legal in the Netherlands? Not all psychedelics are legal in the country. The sale of most of hallucinogenic mushrooms (also known as magic mushrooms or paddos), has been forbidden since November 1, 2008. More than 200 different mushrooms were put on the banned list and are presently regarded by the Dutch drug law (so-called Opiumwet – Opium Act) as dangerous as cocaine or heroin. Never really considered as drugs before, the paddos were previously sold by the so-called smart shops along with popular natural medicines as Ginkgo Biloba, Guarana, Cola, some herbs, food additives, and vitamins. The decision to stop their sale was taken after almost a hundred cases were recorded each year, where medical help was required, linked to the consumption of paddos in Amsterdam only. Involving mainly foreign tourists.
Hallucinogenic substances like DMT, MDMA, and LSD are classed as a hard drug and in the same category as cocaine, heroin, and morphine. These types of drugs are illegal, and their use is forbidden countrywide. Today, hallucinogenic mushrooms are still forbidden in the Netherlands, along with hard drugs. Drugs are categorized into two groups, based on the influence they have on human health. There are soft drugs, and there are hard drugs. Some psychedelics are classed as hard drugs. The 2008 ban came in response to several reported deaths, numbering hundreds every year, which are linked to those banned mushroom types.
The Netherlands is one of the best places to participate in psychedelic therapies and there are many legal organizations committed to this treatment method. For instance, The Psychedelic Society has taken it upon itself to improve people’s understanding of access to psychedelics. The organization is a pioneer of the psilocybin retreat program in Europe and also helps people identify safe and legal environments for psychedelic therapy with experienced facilitators.
The United States
In the United States, psychedelics drug laws vary from state to state. The United States is currently leading in terms of scientific research into the benefits of psychedelic therapies. In Denver and Oregon, the use of psychedelic mushrooms has been decriminalized. Denver was the first state to do that in May 2019, followed by California in June the same year. This means magic mushrooms can be possessed and used in those states under certain regulations. The decriminalization came in response to several calls to ensure easy access to the drugs, especially for health purposes.
This followed lobbying and public pressure to allow for its use. A 2017 study published in the journal Nature showed that 47% of patients experiencing treatment-resistant depression showed positive responses at five weeks after receiving psilocybin treatments. In 2018, researchers from Johns Hopkins University called for removing psilocybin from the list of Schedule I substances.
Decriminalization of psychedelics
Following the successful decriminalization of the substance, the state of Oregon went a step further to push for its legalization in November 2020, becoming the first state to do so. The bill, Measure 109, which passed by a 55.74% majority, will allow legal access to psilocybin for mental health treatment when it becomes effective. The state is also pushing for the decriminalization of possession of a small amounts of some other drugs, including LSD through another bill, Measure 110. Advocates in other states, such as New York, Virginia, and Washington are also pushing for the decriminalization of drugs, including psychedelics.
Just like in most countries, the psychedelic law in Brazil varies, depending on the substance in question. Ayahuasca is one of the most freely-used hallucinogens in the country. It’s been legalized since 1992 following various legal battles by traditional ayahuasca practitioners and users. Brazil is a signatory to the UN’s Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971, which makes psilocybin and some other hallucinogens illegal in many countries. By virtue of this, psilocybin is “technically” illegal in Brazil. At the same time, Brazilian law requires all illegal activities must have specific written laws against them, and none was written against the use of psilocybin. This has created a grey area for psilocybin users in the country, despite its connection to the 1971 act.
Peru is another country with a psychedelic-friendly environment. Substances like ayahuasca, salvia, DMT, and San Pedro are legal and commonly used in the country, especially in traditional ceremonies led by local guides, popularly known as shamans. Ayahuasca, in particular, is one of the most sacred substances in Peru. It’s pretty common to see tourists from different parts of the world travel to the country to participate in these ceremonies.
Apart from the above, there are other countries with psychedelic-friendly environments. They include Jamaica, Mexico, Czech Chile, Argentina, and Belgium. In fact, you may even find ayahuasca churches in some of them.
Psychedelics Legality: How to Be on the Safe Side
From the above explanations, it is clear that psychedelics are not exclusively legal everywhere. Not even in countries with relaxed drug laws. This is because there are still certain regulations guiding their use, possession, and sales.
Decriminalization doesn’t mean legalisation
It is important to understand what the law says about a particular psychedelic substance in any place you find yourself. An internet search on valid websites, in that location, can be very helpful. It’s also important to understand that decriminalization doesn’t mean legalization. Legalizing a substance means that all penalties (criminal or civil) have been removed for its possession and use. On the other hand, when a substance is decriminalized, this means its use or possession won’t lead to criminal charges. However, civil penalties may still apply. In other words, instead of serving jail time for an offense, its decriminalized status may only call for a fine or referral to a treatment or education program. Either way, you don’t want to find yourself facing criminal or civil charges when you can avoid them altogether.
While there have been various breakthroughs recorded on the health benefits of many psychedelic substances, it is worth noting that they are not without their downsides. Just as their names suggest, hallucinogens release effects that alter people’s perceptions and feelings. So, they are capable of interfering with one’s mood, sleep, as well as body temperature, and sexual behavior. In some cases, their consumption could lead to nausea, increased heart rate, and sleep problems as well as suicides.
Some of these short-term effects are common psychedelic experiences and don’t last. However, there are also adverse, long-term effects, such as persistent psychosis and hallucinogenic persistent perception disorder (HPPD). This can and will leave someone with a long-lasting unpleasant experience.
Psychedelics have proven to be generally safe when used in a medically supported environment, guided by an expert.
After a decades-long hiatus, in 2000 a research group at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research was the first to obtain regulatory approval in the United States to reinitiate research with psychedelics in healthy, psychedelic-naive volunteers. Their 2006 publication, which covers the safety and enduring positive effects of a single dose of psilocybin, is widely considered a landmark study that sparked a renewal of psychedelic research worldwide.
Since then, they have published further groundbreaking studies in more than 60 peer-reviewed articles in respected scientific journals. Johns Hopkins is the leading psychedelic research institutions in the U.S., and among the few leading groups worldwide. Their research has demonstrated therapeutic effects in people who suffer a range of challenging conditions. These include addiction (smoking, alcohol, other drugs of abuse), existential distress caused by life-threatening diseases, and treatment-resistant depression. Studying healthy volunteers has also advanced our understanding of the enduring positive effects of psilocybin. It provided a unique insight into neurophysiological mechanisms of action, with implications for understanding consciousness and optimizing therapeutic and non-therapeutic enduring positive effects.
Mood and brain function
The researchers will focus on how psychedelics affect behavior, mood, cognition, brain function, and biological markers of health. Upcoming studies will determine the effectiveness of psilocybin as a new therapy for the following:
- opioid addiction
- Alzheimer’s disease
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (formerly known as chronic Lyme disease)
- anorexia nervosa
- alcohol use in people with major depression
The researchers hope to create precision medicine treatments tailored to the specific needs of individual patients.
Consult a specialist
You should first discuss your plans with your doctor or related medical specialist. This is because hallucinogens aren’t ideal for some people and in some conditions. Many classic hallucinogens may produce extremely unpleasant experiences at high doses.
Also if you are pregnant, suffering from cardiovascular and other similar conditions, it’s not safe to use these substances. In addition, if you are planning to attend a psychedelic retreat, you must conduct thorough research on the retreat. Discuss this with your health specialist and ensure you patronize legal, experienced, and licensed providers.
- Users of both classic hallucinogens and dissociative drugs may risk serious harm. This is because of the profound alteration in perception and mood these drugs can cause.
- Users might do things they would never do in real life. This can include jumping out of a window or off a roof, for instance. They may even experience profound suicidal feelings and act on them.
- Risk of accidental poisoning from contaminants or other substances mixed with the drug.
- Users of psilocybin also run the risk of accidentally consuming poisonous mushrooms that look like psilocybin. Taking poisonous mushrooms can result in severe illness or possible death.
Psychedelic therapies have tangible, clinically researched health benefits for specific medical conditions, and under supervision. Psychedelics offer real hope to millions around the world when used for medical reasons. Clearly though, history should not repeat itself. Psychedelic therapies should be respected and used to heal the body.
LL Editor’s Note:
This article is not intended to encourage the use of psychedelics for recreational use. Hallucinogenic substances influence each human organism differently and can expose users to risk. Seek professional, medical advice.
Main picture credit: Johns Hopkins https://hopkinspsychedelic.org
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