Where I Stand on Magic Mushrooms

My position on the recent initiatives to change the legal status of psilocybin in various jurisdictions is somewhat nuanced and perhaps for that reason has been misrepresented in several press accounts. To be clear: I support decriminalization. “No one should ever be arrested or go to jail for the possession or cultivation of any kind of mushroom,” as I said in my New York Times op-ed piece. As I told interviewers in the days after the Denver initiative passed, I would have voted in favor of it had I been eligible.

However, I think it would be premature to push for the legalization, commercial cultivation, and sales of psilocybin mushrooms for non-medical use. My reasons:

1. Unlike decriminalization, legalization would encourage businesses to enter the market; they would not merely offer access but would actively promote the use of magic mushrooms — an important difference. The risks of unsupervised psilocybin use are considerable, and of a different order than the risks of cannabis. People with a personal or family history of schizophrenia, for example, need to be actively discouraged from using psilocybin; reckless or casual use can have more serious consequences than the casual use of cannabis, particularly in high doses, when the presence of a sitter or guide is imperative. Commercialization at the local or state level would also mean the establishment of large grow operations and these could easily prompt a federal crackdown.

2. Cannabis is not just a different drug but a different issue as well. The prohibition of cannabis has been the foundation of the drug war, and led to the incarceration of thousands of people, many of them people of color. A large number of the people jailed under “three strikes” laws were jailed for unconscionably long terms, and in many cases, one of those strikes was a cannabis crime. That’s why there has been a compelling social justice reason for working to legalize cannabis. While it is true that prohibition takes a psychological toll on mushroom users, I don’t see the same emergency in the case of psilocybin, where arrests have been relatively few and generally have not been targeted at people of color.

3. Researchers are currently on a promising path toward federal approval of psilocybin as a medicine. Unlike the case of cannabis, where the federal government actively blocked research into marijuana’s medical benefits, no obstacles have been placed in the way of psychedelic research and the process has not been politicized in any way I am aware of. I’m concerned that politicizing psilocybin at this particular historical juncture could jeopardize that process, which is widely expected to lead to federal approval and rescheduling of psilocybin in a few years’ time. Smart politics is a matter of not only choosing what you want to fight for, but also of deciding when to fight. Forcing politicians (who now know so little about the subject) to take positions this early in the process could easily backfire.

4. As I made clear in my book How to Change Your Mind, I don’t believe medicalization should be the only future for psilocybin, and that people without clinical diagnoses should have access to these substances as well. But we don’t yet know the best way to do that safely outside of a medical or religious context. A ballot initiative currently being drafted in Oregon would legalize guided psilocybin therapy under a state regulatory regime. It’s too soon to say whether this represents a sensible approach to making psilocybin available to healthy (as well as ill) people in a way that minimizes risks.

5. My position is essentially tactical, and people will always disagree about tactics — indeed, such a debate is healthy and I welcome it. I share the goal of access to these materials not just for the ill but for “the betterment of well people” too. Tactics might have to shift if, for example, obstacles are placed in the way of research or rescheduling, or if the authorities were suddenly to crack down on psilocybin use. But for now it seems to me the focus should be on supporting the research program while taking steps to make sure individuals are not penalized for the personal use and cultivation of psilocybin. Great enthusiasm has been inspired by psychedelic research, and I share it, but we should be mindful of psychedelic history too, in which exuberance about the potential of these medicines gave way to a political backlash that set back research, and access, for more than 30 years. It doesn’t have to happen again, but it could.

Originally published by GEN: https://gen.medium.com/where-michael-pollan-stands-on-magic-mushrooms-6a17053a55fd