With the expanding legality of psychedelics, concerns over their usage are growing. Can psychedelics treat mental health problems, such as depression, effectively? And what is it about psychedelics that allow widespread legalization?
The Treatment Process
Vice News analyzed the specific compounds in psychedelic mushrooms that make most hallucinogens illegal. One of these is psilocybin.
Psilocybin was completely illegal to produce, possess, and sell in Canada until this past summer. In August 2020, Canada’s health care system allowed people with terminal illnesses to consume psychedelic mushrooms.
Canada’s decision may be with good cause, too. For example, Psychology Today reports that psychedelics, specifically psilocybin, may indeed provide some benefits to those suffering from depression.
Psilocybin helps alleviate depression and anxiety by stimulating a specific serotonin receptor called 5HT2A. Research shows that abnormalities in the 5HT2A receptor may be a cause of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Normally, treatment for these conditions would depend on finding a medication that blocks the 5HT2A receptor. However, this is the exact opposite effect of psilocybin.
Nonetheless, recent research shows psilocybin can induce antidepressant-like effects in animal trials. This effect may be due to the beta-carbolines, harmane and harmaline, which are present in psilocybin.
Those who are more wary of psilocybin might ask why patients can’t simply take medication containing harmane and harmaline. Interestingly, they could, but the drawbacks may be the same as taking psilocybin.
The Cheese Effect
Drugs with similar effects as the beta-carbolines have been used in situations of severe depression where other medications have failed. However, Psychology Today notes that these medications often produce something called the cheese effect.
Essentially, the cheese effect causes patients’ blood pressure to skyrocket whenever they eat cheese, drink beer, drink wine, or consume other foods high in tyramine, an amino acid. The sharp rise in blood pressure can lead to hypertenstive crisis, stroke, and death.
Unfortunately, psilocybin will also induce the cheese effect for patients who elect to take it.
Psychology Today also notes that not all clinical trials have yielded the desired results: “To date, psilocybin has demonstrated modest, although some authors claim promising, results in clinical trials for the treatment of addiction, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety.”
Treatment With Psychedelics: An Individual Experience
In terms of what the actual treatment process looks like, just ask Mona Strelaeff, the 67 year-old Canadian who was granted use of medical psilocybin.
According to Vice News, Strelaeff is predominantly undergoing treatment for trauma. While some of this trauma relates to a breast cancer diagnosis from 12 years ago (Strelaeff has since recovered), some of it also stems from childhood. Thus, psychotherapeutic approaches to recovery and healing may involve psilocybin in the future.
After going into remission, Strelaeff said she struggled with depression, anxiety, and addiction.
In an email to Vice, Strelaeff explained, “During my psilocybin therapy I went deep, way back to when I was a little girl and all those things that happened to me,” she added. “All the unresolved trauma, it came back and I was beyond terrified, shaking uncontrollably, and crying.”
Speaking specifically about the psilocybin therapy, Strelaeff affirmed, “I conquered those tough memories.”
Why Are Psychedelics Becoming Legal?
The answer may lie in two major advances.
First, there’s a growing body of evidence that is lending credence to psychedelics’ efficacy as a treatment for mental health disorders.
Secondly, due to this growing body of evidence, companies like Compass Pathways, which produce psilocybin for medicinal use, now have considerable market value. Similar for-profit companies will undoubtedly arise in the future.
When looking back on Colorado’s groundbreaking legalization of cannabis in November 2012, the reasons were not so different. Cannabis was deemed safe for recreational use, which indicated that it has low levels of risk or harm. Legalization has also drawn in millions of dollars in tax revenue for the state as well.
Nonetheless, the commodification of psychedelic drugs is risky and could breed unprecedented consequences, such as market manipulation. The regulation needed to ensure such commodification just takes time, as we have seen with cannabis in the U.S.
For example, Nj.com reports that, “state lawmakers must still pass a bill that will detail the rules and regulations surrounding the legal weed industry,” and that, “dispensaries must go through a rigorous licensing process.”
This process will likely take several months or even an entire year.
Legalization Has Been a Long Time Coming
Shelby Hartman of DoubleBlind Magazine spoke about the momentum psychedelic legalization is gaining.
DoubleBlind is working to eliminate the negative stigma behind psychedelic drugs. The magazine recently posted a course teaching those interested how to grow mushrooms.
“There is a group of researchers, lawyers, policy activists, and other thought leaders who have been working towards the legalization of psychedelics, in a medical context, for decades,” Hartman explained.
Hartman noted, “Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS, has been working to get MDMA through the FDA approval process since he founded MAPS in the mid-80s. Johns Hopkins began its work looking at psilocybin for depression, anxiety, and other conditions in the mid-2000s. So, yes, there’s more momentum.”
Hartman believes “the growing need for novel mental health treatments, the legalization of cannabis (which laid the groundwork for the medicalization of other formerly stigmatized plant medicines), and the growing interest in meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness practices” are contributing to legalization.
Speaking on the decriminalization of all drugs, Hartman stated that “the U.S. is absolutely heading in that direction.” Hartman may indeed be correct considering Oregon’s recent decriminalization of all drugs with more states expected to follow suit in 2022.
How Much is Too Much?
This is a complicated question and with a psychoactive compound that is more powerful than those found in cannabis, like THC, experiences will likely vary from patient-to-patient.
However, we can glean some insight from cannabis’ recreational legalization in Colorado.
According to PotGuide, tourists in Colorado were previously only allowed to purchase 7 grams in a single transaction. Residents, meanwhile, were able to purchase 28 grams or 1 ounce in a single transaction.
Since 2016, that law has changed. Now, both tourists and residents can purchase up to 28 grams or 1 ounce. Medical card holders can purchase up to 2 ounces in a single transaction.
People can still mix and match concentrated cannabis and edibles. However, this process gets complicated as 1 ounce is equivalent to 8 grams of concentrate, but 800 milligrams of edibles.
If psychedelic drugs like psilocybin are going to navigate the process of legalization similar to how cannabis has, it is likely the same purchase and possession issues will linger through medicinal and recreational legalization.
By Thomas O’Connor