Decriminalizing some hard drugs in British Columbia could help reduce the stigma around psychedelics that have medicinal value but have been caught up in the war on drugs, experts say.
“The war on drugs is one of the main drivers of the overdose epidemic and may also be one of the reasons we don’t use the best treatment for mental health: psychedelics,” said Zach Walsh, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and a scientist at the BC Center on Substance Use.
“In the 1970s, international prohibitions began against any number of drugs, including psychedelics, but also harder drugs. Since then, they have all been grouped together.”
But Walsh said that psychedelics, opiates and stimulants should be treated differently.
“So when the war on drugs falls apart, you see decriminalization, you see more acceptance of psychedelics. They could have mental health benefits. Both are symptoms of a larger change in public attitudes.”
For about three years beginning in January 2023, British Columbia adults who have 2.5 grams or less of illicit drugs for personal use, including heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine, will not be arrested, charged, or seized for their drugs. .
“Instead, police will offer information about available health and social supports and help with referrals when requested,” the province said in a May news release.
Sheila Malcolmson, BC Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, has said the move would end the stigma that prevents people from accessing vital support and services.
As attitudes around hard drugs have changed, experts have noted a resurgence of interest in psychedelics. The green light has been given to test psychedelics and their derivatives on hundreds of people around the world in clinical trials.
Damien Kettlewell is the CEO of Clairvoyant Therapeutics, a British Columbia-based company conducting clinical trials on dozens of people to see how psilocybin, an active ingredient in magic mushrooms, can help treat alcohol use disorder.
Kettlewell said decriminalizing certain illicit substances can help reduce stigma against therapy that involves ingesting mind-altering substances, such as psilocybin, ketamine, LSD or MDMA (the active ingredient in ecstasy), in a clinical setting as part of more traditional psychotherapy.
“I would encourage skeptics to look at the history of the war on drugs. LSD was used quite effectively by psychotherapists in California in the 1950’s for alcoholism. The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous attributed Alcoholics Anonymous to an LSD trip he had experienced in the ’30s. There was a lot of research done in the ’50s and ’60s regarding psilocybin and all of this research just stopped,” Kettlewell said.
“Then there was a generation of misinformation to demonize these substances when certain indigenous communities have used them for thousands of years to positive results.”
Alexander Somjen, CEO of Origin Therapeutics, agrees.
“Decriminalization raises awareness about (addiction and mental health issues) and thus raises the need to find alternative forms of treatment to address the problem,” said Somjen, who invests in psychedelic companies.
“Many problems with addiction, trauma, depression and anxiety stem from these deep-seated thought patterns and neural pathways. Psilocybin has the potential to help people see the world differently and form a new, more positive narrative in their brain as a kind of control and elimination function for the brain.”
Walsh said reducing the stigma around drugs is a positive step.
“Like any war, it takes a long time to dismantle it and we are looking at it piece by piece.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on Saturday, August 20, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of Meta and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.