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What are Entheogens?

Entheogens are naturally occurring plants and fungi that contain non-addictive psychoactive compounds. They have been consumed by humans for their spiritual and medicinal purposes since as far back as 11,000 BC in Northern Africa and 3,000 BC in the Americas. The Nixon Administration classified entheogens as Schedule I drugs through the Federal Controlled Substances Act without scientific basis. Top Nixon Aide, John Ehrlichman, admitted that these Schedule I classifications, including cannabis, were done to purposefully criminalize Black Americans and people associated with the anti-war movement. The characteristics of entheogens are described below:


Psilocybin

Designated as a breakthrough therapy by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), psilocybin is the most commonly used entheogen in the United States. Most users who have experienced a guided psilocybin session describe it as one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives, sometimes comparing it in significance to the birth of their first child.1

Cacti

Containing the entheogenic compound known as mescaline, certain varieties of cacti such as San Pedro are used in legal religious ceremonies by the Native American Church. Prescribed for various ailments, including alcohol abuse, the cost of the entheogen is often reimbursed by the U.S. Indian Health Service.

Ayahuasca

Used in religious and cultural ceremonies in South America, this entheogen is brewed from several different native species to create a drink with dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI).

Iboga

A West African plant used in traditional religious ceremonies for its compound, ibogaine. Often prescribed in clinics in South America, Mexico, the Netherlands, and New Zealand for substance abuse disorders, including addiction to opioids.

Medical Benefits of Entheogens

Smoking

Smoking kills one in five of our friends, family members, and neighbors in Massachusetts. Apart from premature deaths and quality of life implications, smoking also cost our state hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicaid expenses every year.7 A 2017 study by Johns Hopkins medical faculty found that smoking patients achieved an 80% abstinence rate over six months with psilocybin mushroom assisted therapy—a 45% higher success rate than the most effective smoking cessation drug.8 Similarly, research suggests potential benefits for treating alcoholism.9 10

Cluster headaches

Some Massachusetts residents suffer from cluster headaches, an extremely debilitating condition. A study by the American Academy of Neurology interviewed patients who tried psilocybin in the absence of any known cure. Five in seven reported psilocybin ended the headaches and one in two reported a complete termination of the ailment.11

Depression

Massachusetts millennials have the highest rates of depression for their age group in the United States, and nearly one in five residents regardless of age suffer from depression.4  A 2020 meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials dating back almost two decades found that psychedelic-assisted therapy is substantially effective in treating PTSD, depression, anxiety linked to terminal illness, and social anxiety linked to autism.5 Other studies confirm this result, finding that entheogens substantially reduce psychological distress and suicidal planning and ideation.6

Opioid addiction

In the month of May alone, nearly 170 of our friends, family members, and neighbors in Massachusetts lost their lives to opioid overdoses.2 A 2017 study of 44,000 Americans found that psychedelic use is associated with a 40% reduced risk of opioid abuse.3

Recidivism

As crime rates and severe partisanship rise nationally, a 2018 pilot study suggests that psilocybin use combined with psychological support decreases authoritarian tendencies and improves feelings of connectivity with nature. Moreover, a 2014 study of over 25,000 people found that entheogen interventions reduce the likelihood of recidivism.12 13

Decriminalizing Entheogens

Pursuing decriminalization resolutions at the city level and a task force bill to study decriminalization at the state level has immediate benefits for our communities.

Destigmatization and Education:

Because misconceptions propagated by the media hysteria and war on drug propaganda, many would-be beneficiaries of entheogens do not pursue potentially life-saving treatment. Decriminalization signals to the community, country, and world that entheogens can be consumed safely in consultation with harm-reduction advice from physicians and therapists and reputable sites online. Moreover, as a study published in the Lancet found, people can substitute entheogens in place of addictive and harmful drugs:
Honestly acknowledging the benefits of entheogens will also improve the repute of warnings to use them in guided, controlled settings and avoid them if one has family risk factors for schizophrenia. Ultimately, decriminalization means more people will use entheogens to treat ailments like migraines, addictions, and mental health disorders blocking their paths to more productive, happy, and healthy lives.

Safe and Equitable Access:

Safe access to entheogens is already practically decriminalized for people with great financial means, following a general trend of substance prohibition. People with these financial means are able to finance trips to Jamaica and other countries to experience entheogens, while poor and disproportionately people of color must instead obtain access through luck and personal connections. When possession of a substance is criminalized, access will always be difficult for people of limited means and the legal system will disproportionately punish people with limited social capital.

Momentum for Further Research:

Decriminalization laws have emerged across the United States, generating more funding for research at the University of North Carolina, Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, Harvard University and many others through a virtuous cycle of destigmatization. Denver, Santa Cruz, Oakland, Ann Arbor, Brazil, Peru, Jamaica, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Canada’s Ministry of Health have all decriminalized entheogens to varying degrees.

Joining these cities and countries will create momentum for even more research and pressure federal lawmakers to reclassify entheogens under the Federal Controlled Substances Act, formally recognizing their well-accepted medicinal benefits. Already, the Judiciary Committee Chair of the U.S. House of Representatives, Jerry Nadler (D-NY) has said that ““From everything we have learned, people are going to do drugs. And certainly the softer drugs like marijuana, there’s no good reason at all that they cannot be legalized and regulated properly.”

References

[1] Griffiths, R.R., Richards, W.A., McCann, R.J. (2006). Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Journal of Psychopharmacology. Web.
[2] Data Brief: Opioid-Related Overdose deaths among Massachusetts Residents. June 2020. Web
[3] Pisano, V. D., Putnam, N. P., Kramer, H. M., Franciotti, K. J., Halpern, J. H., Holden, S. C. (2017). The association of psychedelic use and opioid use disorders among illicit users in the U.S. Journal of Psychopharmacology. Web
[4] Cohan, A. (2019). Massachusetts millennials have highest rate of depression in U.S. Boston Herald. Web
[5] Luoma, J.B., Chwyl, C., Bathje, G.J., Davis, A.K., Lancelotta, R. (2020). A Meta-Analysis of Placebo-Controlled Trials of Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Web
[6] Hendricks, P.S., Johnson, M.W., Griffiths, R.R. (2016). Psilocybin, psychological distress, and suicidality. Journal of Psychopharmacology. Web
[7] Richard, P., West, K., Ku, L. (2012). The ROI of a Medicaid Tobacco Cessation Program in Mass. PLOS ONE Journal. Web
[8] Johnson, M.W., Garcia-Romeu, A., Griffiths, R.R. (2017). Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-facilitated smoking cessation. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. Web
[9] Bogenschutz, M.P., Forcehimes, A.A., Pommy, J.A., Wilcox, C.E., Barbosa, PCR., Strassman, R.J. (2015). Psilocybin-assisted treatment for alcohol dependence: A proof-of-concept study. Journal of Psychopharmacology. Web
[10] Schenber, E.E. et. al. (2014). Treating drug dependence with the aid of ibogaine. Journal of Psychopharmacology. Web
[11] Sewell, R. A., Halpern, J.H., Pope, H.G. (2006). Response of cluster headache to psilocybin and LSD. American Academy of Neurology. Web.
[12] Lyons, T. and Carhart-Harris, R.L. (2018). Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. Journal of Psychopharmacology. Web.
[13] Hendricks, P.S., Clark, C.B., Johnson, M.W. (2014). Hallucinogen use predicts reduced recidivism among substance-involved offenders under community corrections supervision. Journal of Psychopharmacology. Web