The Healing Mushroom: Will New York Legalize Psychedelics?
February 1, 2023 - Chronogram
Last year was another momentous step forward for the American psychedelic movement. Colorado voters approved a ballot measure legalizing psilocybin and psilocin, the psychedelic compounds in magic mushrooms, for adults over the age of 21. Oregon was the first state to do so in 2020, and lawmakers in about a dozen states are laying the groundwork with active legislation to do the same in the near future. If that surprises you, well, it shouldn't. A groundbreaking study in the Journal of the American Medical Association published in December estimates that most states will legalize psychedelics by 2037. This is due to the profound therapeutic effects psychedelics have for treating depression, grief, PTSD, addiction, and anxiety.
Psychedelics have proven to provide real healing for various disorders. So much so that a diverse range of hallucinogens have now entered the mainstream. They are no longer exclusive to counterculture movement aficionados anymore, or ravers, or hippies reminiscing of a bygone era at a Grateful Dead-adjacent festival. Today, around the world, scientists and therapists from the most prestigious universities and practices are administering psychedelics in therapeutic settings and their patients are embodying long-lasting results.
This work is so well researched and widely accepted that even celebrities are opening up on social media about seeking psychedelic therapy with hallucinogens like ayahuasca and psilocybin, a divulgence that public relations experts would have probably advised against just a few years ago. But the world is changing. Mental health struggles are not the shameful depressive internal battles they once were. People are opening up.
Prince Harry, in interviews for his memoir Spare, stated psychedelics helped his grief. Immediately, all of western media jumped at the opportunity to delve into the subject. While the idea of mainstream psychedelics is new, indigenous cultures throughout the world have used psychedelics like ayahuasca and psilocybin to treat underlying symptoms of depression and grief for thousands of years. So, it's no surprise that psychedelics are experiencing a resurgence of sorts, akin to Jennifer Coolidge's renaissance.
A Treatment for PTSD and Depression
In New York, lawmakers are pursuing progressive psychedelic legislation in 2023. One bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Patrick Burke (142nd District, which includes parts of Buffalo), seeks to enable medical professionals to receive training to administer psilocybin therapy to treat PTSD, depression, and alcohol dependency, among other conditions. Another bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal (67th District in Manhattan), would legalize the "possession, use, cultivation, production, creation, analysis, gifting, exchange, or sharing by or between natural persons of 21 years of age or older of a natural plant or fungus-based hallucinogen." This would include the legalization of natural psychedelics like psilocybin, psilocin, ibogaine, DMT, and mescaline.
"I've gotten a lot of hate mail about this," says Assemblymember Karines Reyes (87th District in the Bronx), a co-sponsor on the legislation sponsored by Rosenthal. She stresses that the bill, if passed, would not legalize natural psychedelics in New York. Instead, what the bill says is that if the federal government reschedules psychedelics, New York will then follow suit with legalization.
"The impetus for this really is all the clinical research that has been happening around MDMA and psilocybin, that has shown really promising results for the treatment of PTSD and depression," says Reyes. "It's really been curative for many people, unlike any other medication that's being used for the treatment of these mental health issues. And I think it's important to make sure that New Yorkers have access to that treatment."
Rosenthal previously introduced a bill in 2021 that would constitute a "psychedelic research institute" for the study of the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. The science-led initiatives behind the different bills New York will consider is why Reyes, a registered nurse, is not fazed by the hate mail she receives. "I am not afraid of the perceptions that people paint based on prejudices that they may have about these drugs and these compounds," she says. "They're naturally occurring. They don't kill people like fentanyl and morphine. This is kind of in the same vein of marijuana, right? You don't see deaths from it. And I really do believe in the medicinal properties that this in a controlled environment can have for people who really, really need it."
Aaron Genuth, policy and outreach director of the Hudson Valley Psychedelic Society, co-launched Decriminalize Nature New York City and State, an educational campaign that started when entheogenic plants were decriminalized in Oakland, California, in 2019. He and other psychedelic advocates worked with Rosenthal to expand the New York bill to include other natural psychedelics in addition to psilocybin.
"Over the next several months, there's going to be a lot of direct advocacy to state level lawmakers as it relates to these bills and to psychedelics overall in New York," Genuth says. "There's been some speculation of doing something like what they did in Colorado, where they merged two bills, one of which was focused specifically on decriminalization and one that was specifically focused on unregulated use. While imperfect, it is the most far-reaching and impactful piece of state-level psychedelic legislation that we've seen yet."
Co-Presidents Pammy Jackson and Avery Stempel of New Yorkers for Mental Health Alternatives, an organization focused on educating the public and policymakers about reasons to end the prohibition of psychedelic substance believe that no one should face jail time or any form of criminalization for wanting to heal.
"We have people from all walks of life asking about alternative medicinal help. We've spoken with military veterans with PTSD, sufferers from cluster headaches, people wanting to get off of SSRIs [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a class of drugs that are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants] that keep them emotionally numb, and the list goes on," Jackson says.
"We are in a severe mental health crisis," Jackson continues. "The current treatment options for pain management and mental well-being are insufficient, and we desperately need alternatives. We hope others will join us in the fight to help those suffering and allow them the opportunity to heal."