In a Nutshell:
- Detroit voters have adopted Proposal E, joining Ann Arbor in decriminalizing entheogenic plants (a.k.a. hallucinogens)
- Decriminalization reduces enforcement priority for police and removes criminal penalties associated with possession and use of these substances
- While psychedelic drugs may have some therapeutic applications in controlled settings, they are neither safe nor therapeutic when self-administered
On Tuesday, voters in Detroit adopted Proposal E, ostensibly decriminalizing the use and possession of certain psychedelic substances, including psilocybin (contained by “magic” mushrooms), mescaline (active constituent of the cactus peyote), and ibogaine.
Detroit follows Ann Arbor (and a handful of cities around the country) in this move to decriminalize psychedelics. In 2020, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize psychedelics. The swift motion to decriminalize psychedelics in various parts of the country shares many similarities with the path cannabis took from municipal decriminalization to statewide legalization.
Given that lobbying efforts are underway in other municipalities around Michigan, and that a bill for statewide decriminalization of psychedelics has been introduced in the Michigan Senate, it is increasingly important that citizens and policymakers understand the terminology and research surrounding psychedelic plants and fungi to enable informed decision making.
A Drug by Any Other Name
The ballot language for Proposal E in Detroit employed the phrase “entheogenic plants;” entheogen is a term of art that specifically denotes usage of a psychedelic substance in shamanic/spiritual rituals or other sacred contexts. By defining a variety of organic matter and chemical constituents as entheogenic plants, the ballot language skirts around the meaning of its own chosen terminology. For example, recreational use of magic mushrooms is now decriminalized, even though the ‘shrooms are neither plants nor sacred or ritualistic in this context.
One wonders if the final vote tally would have been different had the ballot language instead specified that it was for decriminalization of hallucinogenic drugs.
Legalization vs. Decriminalization
Individuals are sometimes confused by the distinction between decriminalization and legalization, particularly within the context of drug enforcement.
Legalization removes all prohibitions and sanctions for use of a drug. Alcohol and tobacco are legal drugs; cannabis is legal under Michigan law though still illegal under federal law (an added layer of confusion for some).
By contrast, decriminalization removes criminal penalties associated with a drug, but the drug remains illegal. Decriminalized drugs are typically the lowest enforcement priority for law enforcement, but a decriminalized drug could still carry civil penalties, such as a fine or referral to substance abuse treatment or education programs.
Criminal penalties are costly for both individuals and society. By failing to address the sociodemographic, health, and education factors associated with substance use, history has shown that criminal penalties ultimately do little to deter drug use.
A criminal justice paradigm led the country into a costly war on drugs that has disproportionately targeted low-income and minority communities – particularly Black Americans – while largely failing to stem the tide of drug use. In contrast, a public health paradigm has long advocated instead for decriminalization of drugs with a focus on treatment, education, and harm reduction.
Therapeutic Use – What Does the Science Show
Supporters of decriminalizing psychedelics often point to purported therapeutic uses, but this therapeutic value is often both mischaracterized and overstated.
It may surprise some to learn that psychedelic therapy isn’t new. There was a phase of experimental psychedelic therapy in the mid-Twentieth Century, peaking in the 1960s and 70s. One such program in Norway that utilized psychedelic therapy from 1961-1976 was characterized by reports of both success and long-term negative consequences. Whether interest was lost due to lack of compelling results or a growing social and political push to criminalize drug use is difficult to say.
Interest in this field of research has been renewed in the last decade. Some recent studies have suggested that psilocybin-assisted therapy could be a viable tool in the treatment of depression, PTSD, smoking cessation, and other substance use disorders.
It is an essential point of clarification to emphasize that taking a psychedelic drug is not in and of itself considered a psychiatric treatment; rather, psychedelic drugs may be deployed in controlled environments to increase individual users’ openness (and susceptibility) to psychotherapy by trained therapists. Simply ingesting a psychedelic drug is neither therapeutic nor safe. For instance, while psilocybin does not promote physical dependence and is generally regarded as “safe” when administered in a controlled setting, recreational use in unprepared, unsupervised users may exacerbate existing mental illness in those with or predisposed to psychotic disorders. It may also result in behaviors (such as driving while under the influence of the drug) that could be harmful.
In reality, it is difficult to summarize research on all psychedelic substances, given differences in clinical application, pharmacological activity, safety, and abuse potential. In most contexts, it is likely best that the layperson defer to professional guidance. Among psychiatrists surveyed through the American Psychiatric Association, a majority still contend that use of psychedelics increases risk of psychiatric disorders, although four in five support further research. Emergency room physicians also worry about the influx of emergency room patients needing supportive care (or possibly sedation) due to overuse of psychedelics.
While severe, life-threatening effects from psychedelics are rare, they do occur. For example: One man, “after doing his own research,” tried to treat his opioid dependence and depression by injecting himself with psilocybin. He developed kidney and liver failure, as well as fungal sepsis, requiring extensive acute care. Cases like this illustrate the need for improved health literacy and caution against self-diagnosis, self-treatment, and self-medicating.
The question of decriminalizing psychedelics is likely to reach other parts of the state sooner or later. Within the context of municipal budget constraints, it is sensible to set priorities for all governmental functions, especially costly functions like law enforcement. Based upon available evidence, there is little reason for psychedelic plants and fungi to be an enforcement priority. Resources expended on enforcement of drug laws might be better directed towards Michigan’s underfunded public health agencies or to reducing mental health and substance abuse treatment provider shortages in the state.
At the same time, messaging around decriminalization efforts that depict hallucinogens as “plant medicine” could lead to the adverse outcome of more people attempting to self-medicate with these drugs absent evidence-based behavioral health treatment and guidance, potentially exacerbating mental health crises. Moreover, if decriminalization efforts eventually give way to legalization, Michigan will have to contend with the consequences of yet another commercialized set of drugs alongside alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis.
When the people or their elected representatives decide that psychedelics are no longer a law enforcement priority, the government still bears a public health responsibility to ensure that members of the public have accurate information to make informed personal choices.
Permission to reprint this blog post in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the Citizens Research Council of Michigan is properly cited.