Should Psychedelics Be Illegal?

June 7th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Various psychedelic drugs like psilocybin-containing mushrooms, and methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA) have been in the news a lot lately, but if you haven't been keeping track, you might be surprised to learn why.

Persistence in scientific research, coupled with a culture of diminishing recreational drug taboos, has led to breakthroughs with regard to the medical potentials of some psychedelics. ATTN: has reported on a number of these, including recent research into MDMA's potential to help patients suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and relieve social anxiety in autistic adults, as well as research examining LSD and so-called magic mushrooms' ability to reduce long-term stress and the likelihood of suicide in users.

Positive results from recent studies seem to be slowly opening to door for more federal allowances when it comes to applications of illegal drugs in research; earlier in March the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) approved the first clinical trails for MDMA use in patients suffering from anxiety related to a life-threatening condition. Therapists for that study are currently recruiting.

Yet despite strides in the way of more research, psychedelics are still largely considered illegal under federal and state laws. While many psychedelics can seem like dangerously mysterious powders, synthesized in a dingy suburban basement, their histories often stretch back thousands of years, and have strong ties to religious practices and therapeutic processes, as well as to the beginnings of vanguard medical research here in the U.S.

As with other drug categories, psychedelics encompass a broad range of substances, some of which can be found in nature, and others which tend to be created in labs (these often attempt to mimic the symptoms and experiences associated with naturally-occurring psychedelics). As you can glean from the categorical term, psychedelic drugs provide a high deriving from an altered state of consciousness, often occurring by way of the release of a certain chemical in the brain, or the unique linking up of neurological pathways that otherwise don't "talk" to each other. And it's the dangers and risks associated with those experiences, among other things, that has led them to be largely classified as illegal.

Some naturally occurring psychedelics, like psilocybin mushrooms, peyote (containing mescaline), and ayahuasca (containing DMT), have been used for thousands of years in spiritual, religious, and probably early medicinal settings, so it's only relatively recently––with the addition of man-made drugs like LSD, also known as acid––that they have been placed under official regulation. Much of the history surrounding the transition from traditional substance to federally regulated drug begins in the early and mid-twentieth century. In the 1950s and early 1960s, some psychedelics, LSD, for example, were thought of as promising treatments for a variety of psychological and psychiatric conditions, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. LSD was something of an accident, originally created in the late 1930s by a young chemist named Albert Hoffman, and intended for use as a clinical drug. Although it never took the form of mainstream medication, LSD seemed in vogue in experimental medical circles during the period between 1950 and 1965; nearly 40,000 patients––including celebrities like Cary Grant––used some form of LSD for maladies ranging from neurosis, schizophrenia, and psychopathy, the Guardian notes.

It's also no secret that in the run-up to the Cold War, the CIA used forms of LSD in bizarre interrogations, during which they experimented with the drug's efficacy as a mind-control substance. Needless to say, the unpredictable effects of LSD, not to mention the dubious ethics of such experimentation, didn't pan out for the agency.

Other prominent psychedelics also entered into the mainstream during the same period. It's often said that the American public came across the properties of psilocybin mushrooms via a decidedly period piece of cultural anthropology published in a 1957 issue of Life Magazine. Penned by New York City banker R. Gordon Wasson––none other than the vice president of J.P. Morgan & Co. Incorporated––"Seeking the Magic Mushroom" follows Wasson into a remote "Mexican Indian" village where they partake in a ritual involving the "acrid mushrooms." Wasson claims that he and his friend were the "first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms," likely a bogus claim, but still one contained in a vivid account of the drug that captivated Americans who read it. Salon points out that the article actually prompted the Harvard psychology lecturer Timothy Leary to begin researching the mushrooms with both faculty and students. Leary, who is a major figure in the American psychedelic-medicine world, was fired soon after, but went on to study other psychedelics.

It was the growing popularity of psychedelics, during a time of social and cultural revolution, that eventually led to their downfall. As the 1960s wore on, growing concern over the political and cultural climate of the U.S., and the perception that LSD and other psychedelics were primarily being abused recreationally instead of medically, led to bans on further research. Not surprisingly, drugs like LSD began to be widely available and grew into the defining inebriant of the decade. LSD was eventually outlawed federally in 1968. (Certain psychedelics are allowed for use in religious ceremonies.)

The various histories of psychedelic drugs are long and complex, but cases of drugs like LSD can be instructive. And indeed, it seems that we may be slowly coming full-circle in experimenting with medical applications. If anything, the notion that more research is needed to get us out of the dredges of a costly, ineffective War on Drugs is becoming clearer each day.