Will Psychedelics Follow Legal Marijuana in Progressive States?

Last year’s 420 Rally, staged in front of Denver’s City Hall ( source )

Last year’s 420 Rally, staged in front of Denver’s City Hall (source)


It’s no secret that Colorado is leading the nation in the slow push for legal marijuana. In just four years of carefully regulated sales, the state has taken in over $5 billion in tax revenue from the state’s 509 marijuana dispensaries. Colorado cannabis, which is taxed at a rate of fifteen percent for recreational use, has stimulated local economies, funded school systems and brought a new entrepreneurial spirit to the rugged mountain state. There have certainly been drawbacks in the implementation of legal marijuana, both in Colorado and elsewhere, but the multitude of success stories are leaving some groups in the progressive west to wonder what’s next.

Even while marijuana is still illegal on the federal level (not to mention a Schedule 1 substance that sits equal to cocaine and heroin in the eyes of the DEA), ambitious organizations are lobbying in pro-cannabis states for the legalization of psychedelic drugs. For many, psychedelics are the next frontier beyond legal marijuana and a new opportunity for states to cash in on what is currently an underground market.

Dr. Timothy Leary ( source )

Dr. Timothy Leary (source)

Psychedelics, including LSD, psilocybin (psychedelic mushrooms) and MDMA (ecstacy), experienced a meteoric rise in popularity in the mid-1960s as they both rode the wave of the counterculture movement and pushed it in new directions. LSD was at the forefront of the movement as Dr. Timothy Leary preached to millions of young people about the wonders of the psychedelic experience. The chemical compound influenced every aspect of American culture --  from entire genres of music to the colors and patterns that decorated our homes. Many of the influences of the psychedelic heyday are still with us more than fifty years later. But the party came to a dramatic end all at once when California, in 1966, became the first state to make LSD and other psychedelic compounds illegal. Four years later, possession of LSD or its counterparts was designated a federal crime, and the chemical joined marijuana and heroin as a Schedule 1 banned substance.


The psychedelic scene went dark for a long time after that. Despite all the popular culture associations of free love and wanton drug use we attribute to the 1970s, the actual prevalence of LSD dropped off dramatically as early as 1969. The next forty years saw little to no advancement in research on psychedelic compounds. They were still too great of a boogeyman during the newly founded war on drugs, which continues to work behind the scenes even in the Trump administration. The old Reagan adage of ‘Just Say No’ applied to everything in the 1980s and left no room for research on the possible benefits of marijuana and psychedelics for decades to come.

But as the current decade dawned, old studies were slowly brought to light, relaxing some of the tightest restrictions on psychedelic research. Part of the reason for this was undoubtedly the slew of successful studies in the 1990s and 2000s on the medicinal benefits of marijuana, opening the gates for the investigation of other substances. In September of this year, the first ever scientific trials on microdosing LSD (the practice of ingesting small amounts of the drug every few days to increase happiness and productivity) were approved in Silicon Valley. Researchers are also beginning to test the effectiveness of using psychedelics to treat patients suffering from disorders, including the use of MDMA to treat veterans with PTSD.

A graphic from the advocacy group Denver for Psilocybin ( source )

A graphic from the advocacy group Denver for Psilocybin (source)

Now that progressive states including Colorado, California, Oregon, and Massachusetts have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, will the acceptance of psychedelics follow? Action groups like Denver for Psilocybin are forming in these states to lobby their legislators and inform them of the potential benefits of these alternative substances, and the negligible danger they present in a recreational context. A proposal to hold a referendum on the decriminalization of psychedelic mushrooms was narrowly defeated in California this year, and other such proposals are in the works in Oregon and Colorado. The question that legislators will have to ask themselves in these states is a profound one: why are these drugs illegal in the first place?

Just like with marijuana, psychedelics present a problem for the pharmaceutical industry, which holds immense lobbying power at every level of government. Today, the major pharmaceutical companies retain control of medicine in America by peddling addictive opiates and amphetamine-based drugs in the treatment of disorders. While some of these treatments are viable and safe, the introduction of non-addictive psychedelics into mainstream medicine would undoubtedly disrupt the flow of uppers and downers to patients who don’t really need them. The potential market upheaval that would bring scares the pharmaceutical industry.

But, as legal cannabis has shown us in certain states, the major industries are open to negotiation so long as they’re given a flexible timeframe to adjust. Legal weed went from a potential nightmare, to businesses in Colorado, to the state’s biggest cash cow in just a few years. If groups advocating for the legalization of psychedelics play their cards right, they might find the tide changing in the near future.

There are certainly more insidious reasons why psychedelics might be outlawed in the United States, but as we are still living in a prohibition era, we can only speculate on those. Whether we are really being kept safe by these laws, or perhaps even held back, is a question that future generations will be able to answer. In the meantime, we can hope that legislators and industries will be sympathetic to the millions who could benefit medically from psychedelic research, and watch to see how different of a path it will take from that of marijuana.

CultureDrew WaylandComment