If you’ve never heard of Timothy Leary, let us fill you in. Leary was a Harvard psychology professor and countercultural icon of the 1960s who advocated for the widespread acceptance and use of psychedelic drugs. His drug of choice was LSD, a powerful synthetic substance known for inducing vivid hallucinations, but also for taking its users on a deep and illuminating dive into their own consciousness. His famous call to action — “Turn on, tune in, drop out” — became a rallying cry for the hedonistic freedom of that era.
Leary’s campaign to normalize the use of psychedelic drugs earned him the enmity of none other than President Richard Nixon, who called him “the most dangerous man in America” while declaring a “war on drugs” that would persist for the next half-century.
Congress dropped the hammer in 1970, criminalizing LSD and other hallucinogens by adding them to federal Schedule 1, the controlled substance designation reserved for drugs with the highest potential for abuse and no redeeming medical value. Marijuana was added the next year, sharply curtailing research into the potential therapeutic benefits of both cannabis and substances like LSD and psilocybin, the latter being the psychoactive ingredient in “magic mushrooms.”
In the decades that followed, our nation’s attitude toward drugs lurched even father to the right, highlighted by Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” propaganda campaign and an aggressive law enforcement crackdown that slapped scores of Americans with draconian, mandatory minimum sentences for relatively minor drug offenses. Tragically, the impact of the drug war fell disproportionately on communities of color.
We’ve come a long way since those repressive times, but there’s still work to be done.
In a welcome step toward ending the tiresome and counterproductive war on drugs once and for all, advocates in Michigan are pushing for the decriminalization of plant-based psychedelic substances, including psilocybin. Having secured approval of their petition language from the State Board of Canvassers, organizers of the Michigan Initiative for Community Healing will soon start collecting signatures to place their measure on the statewide ballot, giving Michigan voters the chance to weigh in on the proposal.
We wouldn’t be the first state to do so. Three years ago, state voters approved a ballot measure that made Oregon the first in the nation to decriminalize psilocybin and legalize it for therapeutic use. Momentum for reform continues to build as local governments across the country, including here in Michigan, take steps to decriminalize plant-based psychedelics.
In just the last two years, the governing bodies of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County and Detroit have all passed measures declaring that laws against using psilocybin and similar natural substances are the city’s lowest law enforcement priority. Michigan lawmakers also have joined the fight: State Sens. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, and Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, late last year introduced legislation to allow personal and communal use, possession, cultivation, transportation and delivery of psilocybin and mescaline, another natural hallucinogen.
Much like cannabis, a growing body of evidence supports the idea that psilocybin and other psychedelic substances have legitimate medicinal uses. After gaining federal regulatory approval to conduct experiments with psychedelic drugs on healthy volunteer subjects, research is underway at Johns Hopkins University to confirm studies that suggested hallucinogens may provide therapeutic benefits for a range of conditions, from tobacco addiction and Alzheimer’s disease to major depression disorder and anorexia nervosa. Psychedelics are also thought to have a palliative effect on the fear and stress that terminal patients experience as they near death.
Despite the many merits of the ballot initiative, we’re concerned its sponsors may end up derailing their own train by shifting the debate away from the likely therapeutic benefits of these drugs. The drive to legalize cannabis in Michigan began by persuasively making the case for medicinal use. It makes sense to follow a similar path with psychedelics, but that’s not how the ballot sponsors see it. One of the lead organizers recently said the campaign will focus on the “spiritual and ancestral applications of these plants.” That’s fine, but it’s probably not a winning argument.
Even though we strongly support decriminalizing drugs, it also may not be the best idea to include provisions in the ballot language that dramatically reduce criminal penalties for drug-related offenses, sharply reducing fines and slashing minimum sentences for the most serious drug offenses. We’re concerned that broadening the ballot measure may end up dooming the whole enterprise by making it an easier target for critics.
Provided the organizers manage to collect signatures from 340,000+ registered Michigan voters by June 1 — no small task on its own — we surmise that the ballot proposal will fail to garner the support of Michigan voters simply because it goes too far. We know that Michiganders are overwhelmingly in favor of legalized recreational cannabis, but vastly more people smoke weed than use psychedelics. It will take more time, more evidence and more persuasion to convince voters that decriminalizing plant-based hallucinogens is the right move for Michigan.
Taking the long view, a loss at the ballot would be but a temporary setback, a teachable moment that advances public understanding of the issue and adds another useful chapter to a burgeoning movement that eventually will bring an end to criminal consequences for the possession and use of most drugs. Prohibition not only hasn’t worked, it has victimized millions of Americans over the past 50 years. With continued advocacy, it’s only a matter of time before a more enlightened approach takes hold.
When that day comes, we’ll be here to welcome it with open arms.
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