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LEACH: End Prohibition on ‘Magic Mushrooms’

When I first introduced what eventually became Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana law in the Senate, I struggled to find a single co-sponsor. The issue was controversial, not well understood, and my bill was considered extremely unlikely to pass. The Pennsylvania legislature is not typically in the vanguard of social change.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and my medical marijuana bill passed the Senate 43-7 and by a 3-1 margin in the House. It took a great deal of hard work on the part of a lot of people, legislators, advocates, patients, etc., to get us from pipedream to passage. But ultimately, the arguments behind our bill were simply too universal and too compelling to dismiss. The weight of medical evidence strongly indicated that cannabis helped people with a variety of illnesses, and the simple fact is that sick people, regardless of political party or ideology, just want to get better.

Now, six years after medical marijuana became legal, we face a new but related issue. One that is informed by many of the same compelling considerations as the fight for access to marijuana. It is time that we legalize the medical use of what have been called “psychedelics” (and are now referred to as “entheogenic plants and fungi”).

Entheogens that are receiving a good deal of attention from researchers include psilocybin, which is the extract of certain “magic” mushrooms, mescaline, derived from the peyote cactus, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (who names these things?), which is commonly referred to as MDMA or “ecstasy”, and Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, known as LSD.

These substances all have certain things in common. They are psycho-active, meaning they can, to varying degrees, alter your mood, thoughts or perceptions. They are all currently federally illegal (with some exceptions) and illegal in most states. And they have all shown great promise in treating a variety of ailments from depression, pain, and anxiety to PTSD and drug addiction.

The idea that these mind-altering substances can be therapeutic is not new. A lot of research was being done on these drugs in the 1950s and 60s. However, in the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon, for reasons having little to do with the merits of the specific substances involved, committed the nation to an aggressive “war on drugs”.

This war was launched in an effort to demonize and prosecute anti-war and civil rights protesters, and to use the criminal justice system as a means to control minority populations. Because mind-expansion was then (but not now) considered to be an activity of young people and the political left, every substance which could, in any way, alter someone’s consciousness was lumped together into the term “drugs” and labeled “bad” and “dangerous”. Of course, tobacco and alcohol, which were the preferred intoxicants of the ruling class, were exempt from this “war”.

Nixon’s war on drugs, adopted and expanded by Nancy Reagan, ended virtually all medical inquiry into entheogens. Only in the last 10 years did research begin again. But now, there are literally hundreds of ongoing studies and clinical trials, and the early results are extremely promising, often in cases where traditional therapies are ineffective. The results were so drastic that the federal government, always slow to rethink long-standing drug policy, has started to take notice. In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration granted psilocybin “breakthrough therapy” status for depression, which will make further research much easier. Just last week, the FDA approved a phase 2 clinical trial to study the effects of LSD on anxiety.

State and local governments have reacted as well. In 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin. In the 2022 election there will be a question on the California ballot to do the same. A number cities around the nation have legalized or decriminalized certain entheogens, including Washington, D.C., Santa Cruz, Denver, and Somerville, Massachusetts. Over 100 other municipalities are considering the same thing.

These drugs are clearly intoxicants, which must be respected with appropriate oversight and regulation. However, the irony is that most of the entheogens being studied are less dangerous and have fewer side effects than the drugs they may replace. The only reason they are stigmatized and prohibited in a way that other medicines are not is because they were deliberately incorporated into the political culture wars of the past. Like marijuana, the disapprobation these drugs have received was never rationally related to the drugs themselves.

What is clearly needed is an educational campaign for psychedelics similar to the one that successfully changed people’s minds about marijuana. As people come to fully understand the potential benefits to be had, outdated stigmas and superstitions will fade, and we will be able to give people access to truly life-changing medications.

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LEACH: Bright Future for Legalized Marijuana in PA

In recent years an increasing number of states, both red and blue, have legalized the sale, possession, and use of marijuana. This is good news, Prohibition has been one of the most pernicious domestic policies in all of American history. It is racist, cruel, heartless, expensive, irrational, and devastating to entire communities. Ending it is long overdue. However, while I am proud to have written and sponsored Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana law (Act 16 of 2016), the recreational prohibition still endures, and every day it persists is an injustice.

First, it is important to understand the history of prohibition. A Pennsylvanian named Harry Anslinger was head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics during alcohol prohibition in the 1930s. When that ended, Mr. Anslinger needed a new justification to fund his department. He opportunistically seized on Cannabis and began a crusade to make it illegal. But he didn’t argue that pot was bad for you. Instead, he testified to congress that “Marijuana makes Black people think they are just as good as White people” and “Marijuana makes White women desire sexual relationships with Black men.”

Thus, a policy steeped in racism was born. Even though cannabis use is approximately the same among all races, if you are Black, you are four times more likely to be arrested on marijuana-related charges than if you are White, and once arrested, are five times more likely to be incarcerated. Every year 20,000-25,000 Pennsylvanians, largely people of color, are thrust into the vortex of the criminal justice system. This often prevents them from continuing their higher education or from getting a job, permanently altering the trajectory of their lives.

Compelling arguments in favor of prohibition are difficult to find.

Some argue that marijuana is bad for you. But even if cannabis is in some way unhealthy, it is not the role of our criminal justice system to force healthy choices on free individuals. Cigarettes kill over a thousand Americans per day in truly horrific ways. Yet cigarettes are legal in all 50 states.

Comparing marijuana to alcohol shows even more starkly how irrational our policy is. Alcohol directly kills 95,000 people per year. Marijuana has no lethal dose. Zero people die of cannabis poisoning or overdoses each year. Alcohol is physically addictive, to the point that withdrawing from alcohol addiction too quickly can itself be fatal. A person can develop a habitual dependency on marijuana. But nobody quitting it will have delirium tremors or die. People using alcohol are often violent and reckless, cannabis makes people relaxed and mellow. There are virtually no reports of domestic violence committed by people under the influence of marijuana. Yet not only is alcohol legal in Pennsylvania, but it is also actually sold and promoted by the state itself.

The ban on cannabis also causes crime far more serious and violent than simple possession of marijuana. Because prohibition prohibits a legitimate and regulated market, it forces those who use cannabis to support an underground black market. Such a market can’t be governed by the courts and police like other businesses are. Instead, it is, of necessity, governed by criminals, drug syndicates, and violence. Eliminating prohibition will (like with alcohol), over time, end this illicit market. But under current law, every dollar that isn’t going to a licensed, vetted, regulated entrepreneur, ultimately goes instead to a violent drug cartel.

Some falsely argue cannabis is a “gateway” to harder drugs. Sure, maybe a high percentage of heroin users previously used cannabis. But an even higher percentage of heroin users previously drank milk. The point is that looking at what a hard drug user previously did is in no way proof of causation. A better metric is to look at how many marijuana users go on to use heroin. That is approximately 3 percent. The same studies that show this also show that alcohol is a far more effective gateway drug than cannabis. Yet nobody is calling for the return of alcohol prohibition.

Certainly, there will be some people who use marijuana irresponsibly. They may choose to get high rather than go to work, or they may drive while under the influence. However, in the states that have legalized recreational marijuana, there is no evidence that the rates of DUI-related car accidents or injuries have increased.

Responsible marijuana users shouldn’t pay the price of the small percentage of people who are negligent. We don’t turn people who drink beer or wine with dinner at home into criminals because some people drive drunk. That would be unfair and nonsensical. Marijuana users should be treated the same.

Legalization would benefit society in numerous ways. We’d save hundreds of millions of dollars per year if we didn’t have to arrest, process, prosecute, incarcerate and monitor people for smoking a plant that makes them feel giddy. But the economic benefits don’t end there. Cannabis is currently a  $35 billion per year industry. With the right legal changes, that could, within 5 years, grow to be a $75 billion per year industry. This will create literally millions of new jobs. So rather than destroying people’s careers, we’ll be giving them opportunities.

The best argument for legalizing marijuana can be found in the states that have already done it. The sky has not fallen. The world has not ended. Instead, well-regulated grow houses, dispensaries, cannabis lounges, and delivery businesses are thriving. People are freer. The prison populations are being reduced and tax dollars are coming in, instead of pouring out. This is clearly the direction in which history is going. It is time for Pennsylvania to step into this brighter future and consign cannabis prohibition to the ash-heap of history, where it belongs.