Safe and legal access to psychedelic drugs is an issue of medical importance and religious freedom.
Before psychedelics were made illegal by the Controlled Substances Act of 1971, hundreds of studies involving tens of thousands of participants had been conducted on their potential medical and therapeutic use. Decades of research had shown promising results for treating anything from depression to substance use disorders.
In spite of these potential benefits, research became nearly impossible when they became “Schedule 1” substances. In 2006, researchers at Johns Hopkins published the first study in decades on the use of psilocybin (commonly called magic mushrooms) that helped reignite a wave of interest in this class of substances.
Therapeutic and Medical Use
Since then, researchers have confirmed multiple promising areas of research:
- Helping smokers quit.
- Treatment of alcohol use disorders.
- MDMA assisted treatment for PTSD.
- Reduction in cocaine use.
- Psilocybin-assisted therapy for depression now has “breakthrough” status with the FDA.
The prohibition of psychedelics happened in the face of overwhelming evidence for their potential benefits and set back research by decades at the cost of many lives. Even famed Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder, Bill Wilson, used LSD and advocated for its inclusion as a part of larger treatment and support programs.
Ongoing research is needed to confirm initial positive results and accurately assess potential adverse effects. High levels of accountability are needed to protect participants who may be in a vulnerable state. Further considerations include equity in access for low-income groups and reciprocity for indigenous populations that have cultivated or discovered the compounds now being researched.
Far too often “religious freedom” is invoked to justify state-sponsored or subsidized bias and bigotry. But for others, this essential doctrine is critical to protect worshiping communities from languishing in legal limbo or laboring under state-imposed undue burdens. Indeed, many groups that have psychedelic substances as a part of their religious lineage refer to them as “entheogens” and hold them as sacraments.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) codified protections for groups like the Native American Church for the sacramental use of peyote, a mescaline containing psychedelic cactus. The União do Vegetal (UDV), a Christian religious organization founded in Brazil with active members in the United States, celebrates a sacrament they call Hoasca that contains the psychedelic, or entheogenic compound, DMT. In a 2006 Supreme Court ruling, the UDV confirmed their right to the use of this sacrament.
Even with these precedents, many religious and spiritual groups that use entheogenic substances are at risk from local and federal law enforcement. It is critical to allow these groups the freedom of their religious practice and ensure transparency and accountability.