For more than 20 years, the movement to decriminalize and/or legalize cannabis has gained momentum and support across the U.S., resulting in substantial legal reform at the state level that continues today. In recent years, a movement to decriminalize and legalize another Schedule I substance, psilocybin, the main active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, has emerged with the hopes of following a similar trajectory.
Psychedelic mushrooms are psychoactive plants that contain the hallucinogenic chemical psilocybin, which occurs naturally in certain types of fresh and dried mushrooms. These plants have a rich history, with some evidence even suggesting human consumption can be traced back thousands of years. It wasn’t until the late 1950s, however, that they came to prominence in the United States. In turn, pharmaceutical research into psilocybin and its potential health benefits boomed.
Psilocybin was first subjected to federal regulation in 1965 and subsequently banned under federal law in 1968. In 1970, psilocybin was officially classified as a Schedule I substance and simultaneously labeled a “hallucinogen” under the federal Controlled Substances Act. The statute defines Schedule I substances as those with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. As a result, research into any potential health benefits came to a halt.
It wasn’t until more recent years that research into the potential health benefits of psychedelic mushrooms reemerged in earnest. Clinical trials began to indicate promising effects of psychedelics on depression, suicidality, substance use, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Members of the scientific community now suspect that psilocybin supports neuroplasticity, restoring the number of neuronal connections and ameliorating longstanding psychiatric problems.
In response, efforts emerged to decriminalize and legalize psychedelic mushrooms in the United States with grassroots movements in Denver, Colorado and in the state of Oregon. In 2019, Denver became the first city to decriminalize psilocybin. Denver enacted an ordinance stating that personal possession of psychedelic mushrooms is the city and county of Denver’s “lowest law enforcement priority.”
Since 2019, there has been a move for legal reform across various states and municipalities. However, so far, only two states—Oregon and Colorado—have been successful in not only decriminalizing possession of psilocybin, but also establishing a regulatory system for supported adult-use of psilocybin.
So far, only two states—Oregon and Colorado—have been successful in not only decriminalizing possession of psilocybin, but also establishing a regulatory system for supported adult-use of psilocybin.
In November 2022, Oregon officially became the first state in the U.S. to decriminalize possession and legalize supervised use of psilocybin. The shift came after Oregon voters approved 2020 Ballot Measure 109, which included the direction to the Oregon Health Authority (“OHA”) to license and regulate psilocybin products. The OHA adopted its first rules related to testing psilocybin products and training programs in May 2022. The remainder of the regulations were adopted in December 2022. Although Oregon law allows for the personal use of psilocybin, consumption is only permitted at licensed service centers.
Colorado was the next state to successfully enact similar legislation. In November 2022, Colorado voters passed Proposition 122, the Natural Medicine Health Act, decriminalizing the personal possession and use of psilocybin and establishing a regulated access program for psychedelics. Like in Oregon, Colorado only allows psilocybin to be purchased and consumed at licensed healing centers. The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies has until September 30, 2024, to adopt the rules needed to implement and regulate the “natural medicine access program.”
However, Oregon and Colorado will not likely be the only states permitting psilocybin use for much longer. Lawmakers in numerous states have introduced psychedelics reform legislation during the current legislative sessions in their states. Legislation was recently passed in Washington and many states still have legislation pending that would legalize psilocybin in some capacity, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island.
There are also state legislatures that have indicated interest in conducting additional research into psychedelics like psilocybin. For example, in June 2021, Texas passed a bill calling for a study led by its Department of State Health Services that would include evaluating the therapeutic efficacy of psilocybin for mental health purposes. Maryland passed a bill to support the state Department of Health in studying the effectiveness of and improving access to alternative therapies, including psilocybin, for post–traumatic stress disorder in veterans. There is also pending legislation in Arizona, Minnesota, and Nevada that, if passed, would result in additional psilocybin research and clinical studies.
Although not all legislative efforts have proven successful, with the current interest and the increasing number of studies and research into its health benefits, the movement to legalize psychedelic mushrooms does not appear to be going away anytime soon. This movement, combined with the federal government’s treatment of psilocybin as a Schedule I drug, will likely generate a patchwork of state and local laws. Complicating matters further, it remains to be seen whether the federal government will exercise prosecutorial discretion in cases involving psilocybin as it has in cases involving marijuana. We will monitor legal and scientific developments involving psilocybin and update this post as warranted.