The debate about legalizing psychedelic mushrooms comes to Rhode Island

March 4, 2023 · Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — An Instagram account this week made fun of the state legislators who have proposed decriminalizing “magic mushrooms.”

An image posted by the “What’s going on in Rhode Island” account shows Representative Brandon C. Potter and Senator Meghan E. Kallman against a backdrop of gigantic mushrooms and a psychedelic rainbow swirl.

More than 2,200 people “liked” the image, and some of the comments were scathing. “Can always count on the Democrats to find new ways to try to buy votes,” one person wrote. “Lot of people are going to get hurt and killed by impaired drivers.”

But many others supported the proposal. “Good!” one person wrote. “There’s a long history of therapeutic use for mushrooms, and if it weren’t for politics and war on drugs BS they’d never have been made illegal in the first place.”

On Friday, Kallman said, “They were trying to troll us, but what they succeeded in doing was generating a lot of interest in the proposal.”

Kallman, a Pawtucket Democrat who is considering running for the First Congressional District seat, and Potter, a Cranston Democrat, have introduced legislation that would allow Rhode Islanders to possess up to an ounce of psilocybin, the hallucinogen found in psychedelic mushrooms. The bill also would allow psilocybin to be used as a treatment for chronic mental health disorders, provided the US Food and Drug Administration approves such use in the future.

The legislation comes one year after the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to make Rhode Island the 19th state to legalize recreational marijuana.

“I have confidence in colleagues to have a sensible and informed conversation,” Kallman said. “The marijuana bill has gotten us used to talking about drugs that used to be taboo.”

The proposal also comes after Oregon voted to legalize the use of the psilocybin in supervised facilities in 2020, and after Colorado voters approved a similar ballot question in 2022.

In 2021, Somerville became the first jurisdiction in Massachusetts to move toward decriminalizing plant-based psychedelic drugs, with city leaders voting unanimously to recognize the medical uses of natural entheogens, including psilocybin, and make them among the lowest enforcement priorities for local police.

In 2022, the Connecticut legislature started the process toward legalizing centers in which veterans and first responders could be administered psilocybin and MDMA, a synthetic psychedelic.

And in January of this year, Massachusetts legislators introduced bills in the Senate and the House to end arrests for adults who possess, consume, grow, give away, or transport less than two grams of certain entheogenic plants and fungi.

RELATED: A religious experience: The case for legalizing psychedelic drugs in Massachusetts

“Collectively we are taking a good, strong look at the war on drugs and the consequences thereof,” Kallman said. “For too long, our drug policy was racially and culturally motivated, and to a large extent it still is, and that is a really, really bad reason to make drug policy.”

She cited reports that John Ehrlichman, one of President Richard Nixon’s top advisers and a key figure in the Watergate scandal, said the war on drugs was created as a political tool to go after “two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people.”

Kallman said policy decisions should instead be based on the drug’s ability to treat depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. She cited a 2022 Johns Hopkins University report that found “the substantial antidepressant effects of psilocybin-assisted therapy, given with supportive psychotherapy, may last at least a year for some patients.”

But the proposal is bound to face opposition from the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association, which had warned that the recreational marijuana legislation had “several public health and safety holes” that “could result in immediate detrimental effects for Rhode Islanders.”

“I think we would be opposed to it on the same level as decriminalizing all Schedule 1 drugs,” said Sidney Wordell, the association’s executive director. “If the state comes back and determines they want psilocybin legalized in medical use, we will have to deal with it then, but that has not happened.”

Psilocybin is a Schedule I substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act, along with drugs such as heroin and LSD that the federal Drug Enforcement Administration says “has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.”

The DEA said physical effects of psilocybin include nausea, vomiting, muscle weakness, and lack of coordination, and psychological effects include hallucinations, “an inability to discern fantasy from reality” and “panic reactions and a psychotic-like episode” particularly at higher doses.

Wordell raised public safety concerns about the new legislation, saying law enforcement officers would not have an objective way to measure impairment in drivers in the same way that they can measure alcohol impairment. He said departments have begun using drug recognition experts but their testimony is often challenged in courts.

Wordell warned against legalizing psychedelics and other drugs that remain illegal under federal law. “That’s more of a European model,” he said. “But the issue is that those countries have far superior wraparound services for individuals that are having substance abuse problems. We don’t have that.”

Attorney General Peter F. Neronha is still reviewing the legislation, spokesman Brian Hodge said, offering no opposition or support.

Kallman said Rhode Island could see how others states and cities have dealt with impaired driving enforcement after legalizing psilocybin. “There are people and entities from whom we can learn,” she said.

Kallman said there is no current FDA approval process under way, but advocates expect there will be one in the next couple of years.

Potter said veterans and others struggling with PTSD, depression and other mental health disorders could benefit from psilocybin. “We should give them the freedom to try every tool available and not criminalize a natural, effective remedy,” he said.

Potter introduce the psychedelic mushroom bill last year, and it died in the Judiciary Committee. But the committee received a letter of support from Dr. James Crowley, a professor emeritus at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School and a former Rhode Island Medical Society president.

Crowley said a terminal cancer diagnosis is known to produce anxiety and depression, including thoughts of suicide, but studies show that psilocybin therapy relieves “emotional and existential distress at the end of life” for 65-85 percent of terminally ill people, with no lasting negative effects.

“My position is that psilocybin therapy belongs in the palliative/hospice care toolbox and should be one of the choices caregivers of terminally ill people should have available to ease their suffering and by extension to be similarly available for further study in PTSD and depression,” he wrote.

A 2021 poll found 65 percent of registered voters think psychedelic substances such as psychedelic mushrooms do not have medical uses, while 35 percent think they do.

The Hill-HarrisX survey found generational and political divides, with 53 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds saying “magic mushrooms” have medicinal benefits while majorities of voters 30 and older saying they don’t. The poll found 43 percent of Democrats, 41 percent of independents, and 23 percent of Republicans say psychedelic substances have medical uses. (Full Story)

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