With efforts underway in the US could Australia follow next to decriminalize magic mushrooms?

Marco Stojanovik

On June 4th Oakland followed Denver to become the second city in the US to decriminalize psychoactive plants and fungi, including mushrooms, cacti, iboga, and ayahuasca. This means the city’s law enforcement will no longer investigate or prosecute people for their use, sale, and distribution. Now instead, proponents argue that resources can be freed to pursue violent offenses.

According to Oakland councilmember Rebecca Kaplan this policy is consistent with ongoing criminal justice reforms. “We need to continue to act to help end mass incarceration and the war on drugs,” she said.

Advocates for reform cite a growing body of research suggesting that psychedelic drugs are safe and therapeutically beneficial with low potential for addiction. Studies around psilocybin especially suggest that it can effectively treat obsessive-compulsive disorderdepression,  end-of-life anxietyaddiction, and cluster headaches, and that it can help people quit smoking and deal with alcohol dependence. There’s also growing evidence that the drug can induce mystical states that promote positive changes in personality such as openness, optimism, and sociability.

“This is getting the word out about the healing power,” said councilmember Noel Gallo. “Many people in communities of color and communities of trauma are not getting access.”

With similar campaigns occurring in Oregon, Iowa and across California, activists hope this is the beginning of a wider national movement in the US towards legalisation.

In Australia, however, misinformation, prejudice, and academic conservatism have stalled psychedelic research and moves towards their medical use and decriminalisation. Since 2011, the non-profit organization Psychedelic Research in Science & Medicine (PRISM) has been working to interest universities and the psychiatric fraternity in Australia to begin psychedelic drug trials to much resistance.

 “Australia has a rather isolated group-think mentality, unfortunately,” says Dr Martin Williams, President of PRISM. “Our political class are just very, very scared and they’re very risk averse. Universities likewise.”

A decades-old stigma remains around these substances as illicit drugs. Traditional framing focuses on their potential risks and adverse consequences and sidelines their therapeutic potential. With a stigma-induced public resistance it’s politically divisive and unwise for policymakers to support reforms.

A lack of support on the part of for-profit pharmaceutical companies has also hindered progress. Many of these patent-free psychedelics need only a few doses to provide long-term effectiveness, in contrast to standard SSRI anti-depressants which require long-term ongoing use. The potential for profit is massively reduced.

Nevertheless, attitudes are changing. In December 2017, Dr Margaret Ross, the palliative care clinician at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, discovered Williams efforts and contacted him about working together on a trial with her patients who have not responded to anti-depressant or anti-anxiety therapies.

Gaining the financial support of $1 million from philanthropists Tania de Jong and Peter Hunt through their charity Mind Medicine Australia (MMA) and the necessary regulatory approvals from the federal and state authorities the trials began this year in April.

Terminally ill patients are being given a single dose of synthetic psilocybin – the psychoactive compound in mushrooms – in conjunction with therapy sessions. The aim is that these patients will be given a new perspective on their lives, easing the anxiety and depression which often overcomes as death approaches.  According to the hospital three in every 10 palliative care patients can experience extreme distress in their final months.

Dr Margaret Ross speaks at our recent Mushroom Day event in Sydney.

Dr Paul Liknaitzky, a psychology researcher at Deakin University and one of MMA’s scientific advisers, explains that the drug works by disabling the ‘default mode network’ – the ‘resting state’ of the brain associated with a person’s typical way of thinking. The default mode networks of people who have depression tend to become hyperactive repeating the same negative thoughts. By disabling this it is hoped that patients can detach themselves from their thoughts and concerns to gain an altered look on their situation approaching death.

The results of similar research in the US have been promising. Studies at New York University and Johns Hopkins University found that a single dose of psilocybin assisted by psychotherapy significantly reduced anxiety, depression, and existential distress in terminally ill cancer patients. Six months after 51 patients were treated at Jon Hopkins University, 80 percent showed significant decreases in depressed mood, while 83 per cent reported increased life satisfaction and 67 per cent reported the experience as one of the top five spiritually meaningful experiences in their lives.

“The US study was really profound: some people were able to transcend their ideas about dying. It really relaxes those old rigid ways we have built up in the way we look at the world,” Dr Margaret Ross explains.They had remission of symptoms [of psychiatric distress]. It was rapid, it was dramatic, and it was beyond impressive, because it lasted for up to six months.” 

The Australian trial seeks to build upon the studies in the US from cancer sufferers to those with other terminal conditions.

“Our plan is not to replicate research that has been done overseas,” says MMA’s de Jong. “We’re investing in being ready for when, and if, the regulators overseas reschedule these medicines.”

She’s referring to the push for a rescheduling of psilocybin to allow for its use as a prescription medicine. In the US the team of researchers at John Hopkins are proposing that the drug be reclassified from the most restrictive Schedule I to Schedule IV, making it available for prescription albeit within a clinical settingMeanwhile, MMA hopes to see it reclassified from an Australian Schedule 9 substance to Schedule 8 allowing its prescription with explicit government approval.

If the Australian trial, along with others occurring internationally, confirm the promising results of the initial studies, rescheduling could occur within the next five years. The campaign for Oakland and Denver style decriminalisation may be a long one in Australia. Yet, the progress being made in medical trials here and around the world leave one optimistic that the stigma is fading and widespread acceptance of their therapeutic potentials is nearing closer.