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Should magic mushrooms be legal?

The 360 is a feature designed to show you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What’s happening:

Marijuana is becoming legal in more parts of the country, both medicinally and recreationally. A new group of advocates is following the pot playbook to change laws regarding hallucinogens, specifically magic mushrooms.

A small but growing campaign to legalize magic mushrooms has spread its spores into a handful of spots across the United States. In May, Denver became the first city in the country to decriminalize psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms. A month later, the Oakland City Council did the same. Under decriminalization, psilocybin is still officially illegal, but city agencies do not enforce laws that ban it.

Under federal law, psilocybin and similar hallucinogens are classified by the U.S. government as Schedule I drugs, substances with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Why there’s debate:

Supporters of legalizing magic mushrooms point to evidence that the classification is incorrect on both counts. Recent research suggests psilocybin may be an effective treatment for psychological issues such as depression and anxiety. Magic mushrooms also come with a low risk of addiction, studies suggest. There is some evidence that psilocybin can help people break their addictions to other substances, specifically smoking.

Many of these benefits, some say, are present when users practice “microdosing” — taking a small amount that provides psychological benefits without creating a hallucinogenic effect. Microdosing can improve creativity and focus, practitioners report.

Federal law limits how much research can be done on psilocybin, meaning only a handful of studies to explore these claims have been conducted. Skeptics believe that much more research needs to be done before any conclusions can be drawn. Some scientists who advocate for the medical uses of magic mushrooms argue against allowing recreational use because of widely varying effects the drug can have on individuals — especially those with certain psychological conditions.

What’s next:

Scientists have made some progress in creating space for more medical study of psilocybin and other psychedelics. An amendment that would have opened up more opportunities for research introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez failed in the House of Representatives in June.

Meanwhile, the decriminalization movement looks to be gaining momentum. Mushroom activists are working to get decriminalization measures on the ballot in California and Oregon by 2020. Similar campaigns have also started in Canada and Australia.

Perspectives

Psilocybin may be a revolutionary treatment for depression

“It’s really unprecedented in medical history to see effects for depression that are caused by a single medication.” — Johns Hopkins University researcher Matthew Johnson to NPR

The drug should be made accessible to certain vulnerable groups

“If Prozac had the effects observed in the best current studies on psychedelics, withholding it from the depressed or dying would be considered a human-rights violation as serious as failing, out of spite, to set a broken leg.” — Graeme Wood, Atlantic

Mushroom decriminalization lacks the criminal justice motivation that pushed pot legalization

“Unlike cannabis, it should be noted, decriminalizing psilocybin and other psychedelics doesn’t necessarily have to do with righting egregious criminal-justice wrongs or accumulating gobs of tax revenue to fund social projects. It’s more of a moral gesture, an assertion that people shouldn’t be getting arrested for altering their minds.” — Alex Norcia, Vice

A healthy cultural attitude is needed for decriminalization to be successful

“Like it or not, the psilocybin decriminalization wave may be about to wash across America. ... And if we’re going to enter this world, we can either allow another vast mega-business of mushroom concoctions, marketed in the same overboard manner as THC and CBD. Or we can bake in a more cautious, less commercial, microdosing-based approach from the start.” — Chris Taylor, Mashable

The science is promising but still limited

“Scientists have found that psychedelics could be particularly potent for conditions like treatment-resistant depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. ... Other studies, however, have raised bigger questions about whether some claims surrounding psychedelics are more hopeful than truthful.” — Meghana Keshavan, Scientific American

Users report broad positive effects from microdosing

“[Microdosing is] too little to trigger hallucinations but enough, its proponents say, to sharpen the mind. Psilocybin microdosers (including hundreds on Reddit) report that the mushrooms can increase creativity, calm anxiety, decrease the need for caffeine, and reduce depression.” — Sharon Begley, Stat

The benefits reported from microdosing could be entirely from the placebo effect

“Microdosing, especially with its DIY approach, may give people dissatisfied with conventional options for mental health treatment a sense of agency. The problem is, the effectiveness of microdosing and its long-term effects on the brain are still unclear.” — Melissa Pandika, Mic

Psilocybin and cannabis are very different. Conflating the two could cause problems

“The history of psychedelics has been marked by periods of both irrational exuberance and equally irrational stigmatization, so a few cautionary notes are in order. As much as the supporters of legal psilocybin hope to follow the political playbook that has rapidly changed the status of cannabis in recent years, they need to bear in mind that psilocybin is a very different drug, and it is not for everyone.” — Michael Pollan, New York Times

Unregulated recreational use can be dangerous

“Taking too much psilocybin won’t kill you, but you can certainly overdo it and put yourself in danger. And we need far more research on how psychedelics might affect different individuals, especially those with serious conditions like schizophrenia.” — Matt Simon, Wired

The drug should be taken only in safe, controlled environments

“People should not be taking these compounds and be wandering around the busy streets of the city. ... They should be in a quiet, contained space, ideally being monitored by someone who is not in an altered state of consciousness.” — UCLA psychiatrist Charles Grob to Los Angeles Times

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