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California to consider decriminalising LSD, ketamine and magic mushrooms

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 21/02/2021 Laurence Dodds
Psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles. - AP © AP Psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles. - AP

Psychedelic drugs such as LSD, ketamine and magic mushrooms could be decriminalised in California amid a wave of drug liberalisation that is sweeping across the US.

A proposed law put forth in the California senate last week would make it legal for anyone over 21 to carry small amounts of eight substances including DMT and MDMA, as well as expunging many criminal convictions.

The bill, introduced by San Francisco Democrat Scott Wiener, says America's war on drugs has inflicted "overwhelming financial and social costs" while ignoring the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics.

It is only the latest example of US states turning against decades of harsh drug enforcement, chiming with momentum to federally decriminalise cannabis in Washington DC.

Four red states voted to legalise pot in November, while both Oregon and the city of DC backed psilocybin (or "magic") mushrooms for therapeutic use. Oregon also decriminalised "personal" amounts of all drugs starting on Feb 1.

Timothy Leary sitting on a couch: LSD was first popularised in the 1960s by US psychologist Timoth Leary, who coined the phrase "turn on, tune in, drop out". - John Bulmer © Provided by The Telegraph LSD was first popularised in the 1960s by US psychologist Timoth Leary, who coined the phrase "turn on, tune in, drop out". - John Bulmer

Natalie Ginsberg, policy director of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (Maps), who helped write the California's bill, said it was part of an "exciting" trend of US states learning from and building on each other's work.

For example, some of the earliest states to legalise cannabis offered no way to clear criminal convictions, which had been disproportionately imposed on black Americans. That allowed white entrepreneurs with spotless records to dominate the new "green gold rush", at the expense of those who had been arrested for plying the same trade previously.

Alongside drugs, Mr Wiener's bill would decriminalise various methods of checking their safety and purity in an attempt to reduce accidental overdoses. It would also create a path towards legalising psychedelics for medical and spiritual use.

Indigenous Americans have used mescaline and psilocybin mushrooms, supposedly called "flesh of the gods" by the Aztecs, for millennia. The bill specifically excludes peyote, a psychoactive cactus which is federally permitted as a sacrament but highly endangered.

More recently, California's fusion of hippie culture, social activism, Eastern philosophy, new age mysticism and psychological experimentation has shaped above-board research and therapy programmes exploring psychedelics' capacity to alleviate, and sometimes exacerbate, mental illness.

Ms Ginsberg said that many therapists who had worked with MDMA in the Seventies "went underground" when it was banned in the Eighties, continuing their practice "at great personal risk". Decriminalising, she said, would help them "feel a little more safe", although it is not the bill's intention.

Iryna Aronov, a Mountain View therapist who helps people make sense of traumatic drug experiences, said that criminal sanctions make it easier for users to have a bad trip, anxiously imagining police officers everywhere.

She also argues that that the stigma leads some therapists to dismiss patients' positive psychedelic use as "just getting high", making them feel "pathologised and shamed". She described how her own therapist's judgement deterred her from processing her psychedelic experiences for years.

However, Dr Paul Abramson, a federally licensed ketamine therapist and the director of My Doctor Medical Group in San Francisco, said the bill would make no immediate difference to most clinicians' actual practice, since it will not change medical regulations.

He said the inclusion of ketamine was "highly problematic" because, unlike other "classical psychedelics", it is highly addictive and dangerous outside controlled settings. Although he is in favour of general decriminalisation as a way of reducing harm to users, he urged caution for patients attempting DIY psychedelic therapy.

"These are real medications, and like all medications they  an have side effects," he said. "I've seen a lot of people with serious mental problems use these drugs without supervision and have psychological crises." 

Ms Ginsberg said that MDMA and ketamine had been included because they are often adulterated with dangerous ingredients and lead to criminal charges more frequently than other psychedelics.

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