New York’s move to legalize recreational marijuana earlier this year, signaled the state’s shifting perspective on drugs.
"I'm for the legalization of psilocybin mushrooms and I am open to the public policy impact of legalizing other drugs,” New York City mayoral frontrunner Andrew Yang said during a forum hosted by VOCAL-NY on March 17.
Already, state lawmakers have introduced legislation to decriminalize psychedelics, such as psilocybin and psilocyn, in addition to decriminalizing the possession of all controlled substances. While such legislation might have been considered unpassable previously, both drug policy experts and local politicians feel that these proposals could be adopted as early as the next legislative session based on the state’s softening stance on drugs.
Experts on the subject of legalizing drugs have already predicted that psilocybin and MDMA will be legal pharmaceuticals within the next 10 years. The Food and Drug Administration has already given both psychedelics “breakthrough therapy status,” which has allowed scientists and medical professionals to study them for medicinal or psychiatric applications. New York University and Mount Sinai, both located in the city, have psychedelic research programs, aimed at studying psychedelics and their possible uses. So far, clinical studies conducted across the U.S. have shown that psychedelics, such as MDMA and psilocybin, can be extremely effective at treating depression, anxiety, PTSD and substance abuse issues.
“There’s been a sea change in attitudes about what not long ago was considered fringe science,” Michael Pollan, author of a best-selling book on psychedelics, “How to Change Your Mind,” told The New York Times. “Given the mental health crisis in this country, there’s great curiosity and hope about psychedelics and a recognition that we need new therapeutic tools.”
Several cities, including Oakland, Santa Cruz, Ann Arbor, Washington, D.C, Somerville and Cambridge have already passed legislation decriminalizing plant and fungi psychedelics, such as psilocybin. Other states including California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Missouri, Washington State and Virginia are also seriously considering other drug reforms this year. And in Oregon voters approved legislation to legalize psychedelics for therapeutic purposes and to decriminalize drugs on a much broader scale last year.
Psychedelics, such as LSD and psilocybin, are not addictive and even when taken in high doses they do not have an effect on the body’s organs. Even ecstasy is far less harmful than popular myths about the drug suggest. Bad trips, which can occur when an individual is overcome with a distinct sense of discomfort while taking psychedelics, do not have the kind of significant or permanent mental effect on people as once was thought either. “Psychedelic substances, by far and large, are relatively safe substances, especially when compared to what the government believes their level of safety is,” Troy Smit, deputy director of Empire State NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), which has advocated for cannabis policy reform in New York, told City & State. “What I'm saying is that there is a big discrepancy between a psychedelic substance’s schedule one status and what the actual research and science shows about those drugs.”
While most psychedelics aren’t legally accessible, a few clinics, such as Mindbloom and Field Trip Health have popped up in New York City, offering ketamine treatments for depression and anxiety. Ketamine, a legal psychedelic, has been administered as a treatment for depression or anxiety, for individuals who have not seen results from typical treatments, such as pharmaceuticals and therapy. However, the cost for just one treatment could cost as much as $1,000, which makes these treatments inaccessible to many people in the city.
One woman, who asked to remain anonymous due to the stigma that is still attached to using psychedelics, spoke to City & State about their life changing experience psychedelics to treat her depression.
She initially sought out psychedelic treatments after familiarizing herself with the various ways that they have been used to treat mental health issues and enabled people to open their minds. “I feel like I probably made 10 years of progress in terms of understanding my barriers to things, what held me back and my insecurities, my anxiety,” she said, regarding her initial experience receiving ketamine treatments at Mindbloom.
After undergoing several ketamine treatments, she decided to try micro-dosing psilocybin to push her treatment further, after reading several articles on how to do so, written by professionals well-versed in psychedelic treatments. “I literally function at, I think, a 10% higher level than I did (before), and don't second guess everything, and I have more energy, and more confidence with who I am,” she said.
However, there are other incentives to decriminalize drugs that go beyond medical and psychiatric exploration, such as keeping individuals out of prison and creating better ways of dealing with substance abuse.
State Sen. Gustavo Rivera is currently sponsoring several bills to not only decriminalize all controlled substances but to decriminalize the possession of syringes – a class-A misdemeanor in New York – and establish a program to create safe injection sites, in an effort to help communities that have been disproportionately affected by the state’s policies on drugs.“These are programs that save lives, that meet people in a destigmatized way, where they are, and treats them as human beings with dignity and respect and offers them the opportunity to seek treatment, when they are ready to receive it,” Rivera told City & State. “That is the way that we actually deal with an addiction crisis, we cannot arrest our way out of it – and that has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt for the drug war over the last couple of decades.”
While Rivera is grateful for all of the attention and support that drug reforms have received over the last year, he feels most of these efforts would most likely not have happened if white people had not been affected by the growing drug crisis that has plagued Black and Brown New Yorkers for years.“I am thankful that now my colleagues are here with me and folks who may have once thought that criminalization was the only way to try to solve the problem,” Rivera said. “Now they view this with a sense of compassion, (they view) individuals who are addicted to drugs with a sense of compassion and think of options for treatment as public health solutions.”
Smit suspects that the U.S.’s escalating issue with drug addiction is also at the core of its changing viewpoint on decriminalizing psychedelics in particular, as they have shown a tremendous impact on mitigating addiction in clinical studies. “I think that people are just getting more desperate and willing to accept alternative methods to Western medicine, to address these issues, because Western medicine at the end of the day caused a lot of these issues ... No one wants to be the guy that opposes a life saving substance. And when we get down to it that's what we're talking about here. We're talking about naturally occurring or synthetic substances that have saved lives, even though they're illegal and unregulated,” he said.
Drug reforms are also happening at a much swifter pace than they had previously, which has given Smit the impression that legislation introduced to decriminalize psychedelics and other drugs could get passed as soon as the end of the 2022 legislative session.