By Sam Douglas
Psychedelic Medicine: Will it lead to reform in Australia
It seems every day there’s another news story about researchers being given permission to investigate the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. Venture capitalists and investors are increasingly aware of the financial potential too as they seek to maximise returns through first mover advantage. Awesome! We’ll have legalised or at least decriminalised psychedelics in no time, right? Sorry to burst your bubble, but, no. The medical-psychedelic movement, or I should say, the medical-psychedelic-business movement in Australia may not deliver non-medical legalisation or even decriminalisation.
In the US, medical cannabis undoubtedly helped smooth the way for recreational legalisation in the states where it has occurred. Depending on the state, the list of conditions that would allow a cannabis prescription was quite long, and the process of getting & filling that prescription was achievable for large numbers of people. Medical access has led to recreational access. It should be no surprise that psychedelic decriminalisation has the greatest support in places that have followed this path, such as Colorado (especially Denver) and California.
But medical cannabis in Australia is a very different beast. Here, despite estimates that up to 100,000 people are self-medicating with illicitly sourced product, and that up to 500,000 could benefit, the number of prescriptions written has been quite small (though growing rapidly). The barriers to patient access are so problematic that our Senate is undertaking an inquiry into this very issue.
Nor has it, thus far, led to many changes in the criminalised status of cannabis. The structure of medical cannabis access schemes in Australia seem to be as restrictive as possible. Cynically, I suspect this is so politicians can pose with the families of children suffering from otherwise untreatable epilepsy, but not have to entertain any serious change to the status quo. If, as some people think, cannabis law reform is a precondition for psychedelic law reform, then Australia is a very long way behind other jurisdictions.
Yes, there are some NGOs associated with psychedelic medicine doing great work supporting research and advocating for medical access. But it’s worth noting that some of the highest profile NGOs in this area publicly state that they do not support changing the law, except for medical use. Yes, some proponents may talk openly about medicalisation leading to legalisation. But if you pay attention, this happens a lot less than it used to. And yes, some of these people privately support law reform efforts. But talk is cheap, private conversations doubly so.
When anyone talks up the future of psychedelic medicine, we need to ask them what this future will actually look like, specific to where we are. Will it be like our medical cannabis situation, where the vast bulk of people who could make use of it can’t, where the product is often overpriced and inferior, and that non-medical possession and all cultivation (except in the ACT) is still a criminal offence?
Except it could be more restrictive than that. Even if you could get through all the hoops to access your standardised dose of synthetic medical psychedelic, restricting its use to supervised clinical settings might mean that you never even take the substance outside the building, let alone in an environment of your choosing.
Sure, if scientists are successful in removing the ‘trip’ from the beneficial effects of psychedelics, then it might be less restrictive. You’ll get your prescription and take the expensive patented drug that ‘fixes’ you – gets you back to being a good little worker/consumer who doesn’t make a fuss about why society is such a dumpster-fire of sadness, anger and dysfunction.
I hope you’ll excuse me if I find such scenarios underwhelming.
None of this is to say that these advances are inherently bad, and that the companies, NGOs and researchers pursuing them are not doing something worthwhile. In my experience talking to people interested in psychedelics, it’s clear that there are many people in the community who have a deep need for new approaches to mental health and want to access these therapies legally. As awareness grows, this will only increase. I have enough experience of anxiety and depression in myself and those close to me, that I am fully aware of the limitations of existing treatments and why sufferers are demanding something better.
But businesses will generally only seek to reform laws to the extent that they will profit from such changes. Companies responsible for the manufacture of codeine and fentanyl don’t, as far as I’m aware, lobby to decriminalise the cultivation of opium poppies. Nor is it clear that corporations seeking to profit from medical cannabis are particularly interested in governments letting people grow their own, even for medicinal purposes. If our government gives psychedelic businesses a choice between a highly restrictive regulatory regime or no access at all, we can reliably predict how they will react.
Here is the future we could be heading for in Australia, if we don’t step up:
Those who are sick enough, and can navigate the bureaucratic hurdles, might eventually be able to get into a clinic for psychedelic therapy. The companies who make and supply medical psychedelics to these facilities will make billions of dollars. Researchers who don’t say anything too radical in public will still get their grants. And well-connected NGOs and their political allies will pat each on the back, signalling their virtue by doing photo-ops with carefully selected patients.
You, however, will still face legal consequences and risk your career for growing or picking psilocybin mushrooms. You’ll be treated as a criminal for having some squares of paper that are vastly less likely to kill you than a bottle of spirits or a packet of paracetamol. If you buy a pill, you’ll never be 100% sure of the ingredients or potency. You’ll still run the gauntlet of unreliable sniffer dogs at festivals and train stations and be forced to endure the violation of being unlawfully strip-searched by police if one indicates on you. Every day will be a reminder that your autonomy, religious freedom and cognitive liberty matter less than corporate profit and social conformity.
I don’t know about you, but I want something more than that, for all of us.
If you want to openly use ayahuasca or huachuma because they’re integral to your spirituality or religion. If you want to be able to trip responsibly in a safe place with good friends & family. If you want to dance the night away with a pill that has a precise and appropriate amount of MDMA in it. If you want to see the world differently, and don’t want to beg a doctor for permission to do so. If you’d like our laws about what’s illegal to possess and grow to be informed by actual research on risk and harm, rather than historical prejudice and the moral cowardice of politicians. If you think the war on drugs has failed and want it to end.
If you want any of these things, then you need to understand that the businesses, organisations and researchers around psychedelic medicine are not automatically going to give them to you.
If any changes to how psychedelics are treated under the law are going to happen – or even have a chance of happening – it will be through political and social actions. Break stereotypes. Change the minds of those around you. Write to politicians and respond to parliamentary inquiries. Educate yourself about which political parties will really support change and vote accordingly. Find like-minded people and get organised to do all this and more.
This will be hard. Look at the effort it’s taken to get cannabis law reform this far in Australia. And I’d be lying if I said that this will definitely work – the reality is that sometimes truth and fairness don’t always win.
But we owe it to ourselves, and each other, to try.