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Psychedelics and America: A Digital Symposium

By Mason Marks

In 2020, the psychedelics research and policy reform renaissance is in full swing. Prohibited by federal law since the 1970s, psychedelic substances can alter how people see themselves, the world, and those around them. Clinical trials suggest they may help people overcome ingrained thought patterns associated with depression, anxiety, and addiction.

Acknowledging their spiritual and therapeutic potential, universities have established new psychedelics research programs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed them breakthrough therapies for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. This designation means they could be significant improvements over traditional treatments such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Accordingly, the FDA has put some psychedelics on an accelerated course toward approval. Eventually, they could help millions who have not benefitted from existing therapies.

However, despite their breakthrough status, psychedelics will not become FDA approved for several years. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is making the country’s mental health crisis worse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rates of depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicidal thoughts have risen in the past nine months.

Unwilling to wait and frustrated by ineffective mental health treatments and outdated federal drug polices, four U.S cities have decriminalized psychedelics. Denver, Colorado, Oakland and Santa Cruz, California, and Ann Arbor, Michigan will no longer arrest or prosecute people for possessing or using certain psychedelics. Next week, voters in Oregon and Washington, D.C. may join this movement when they vote on a total of three psychedelics-related ballot initiatives.

This digital symposium for the Petrie-Flom Center’s Bill of Health blog explores the role psychedelics may play in America’s future. It accompanies a panel discussion on October 28 at Harvard Law School hosted by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics. Panelists will discuss the potential for psychedelics to treat mental health conditions better than existing therapies and reverse the nation’s worsening mental health trends. They will explore whether psychedelics will become medicalized therapies only some can afford, or be available for people to use on their own terms for spiritual as well as physical and mental health. Participants will discuss whether the benefits of psychedelics can be accessed equitably, without leaving vulnerable groups behind and reinforcing patterns of oppression and exploitation.

For the digital symposium accompanying the panel, Melissa Lavasani describes her personal journey to become Chairwoman of Decriminalize Nature DC, the organization campaigning to decriminalize psychedelic plants and fungi in the nation’s capital. Dustin Marlan, a law professor at the UMASS School of Law, argues that psychedelics reform should be viewed through the lenses of equality and neurodiversity. Kathryn Lucido, a third-year law student and aspiring public defender, explains why city-level psychedelics decriminalization constitutes a false promise that could harm individuals and communities. Reporter Shelby Hartman, the Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of DoubleBlind, discusses how psychedelics could resolve deep-seated interpersonal and international conflicts to help save the world. Religious scholar Sam Shonkoff, a professor of Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, explains the importance of including religious perspectives in psychedelics research and discourse. Cognitive scientist Manoj Doss, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Studies at Johns Hopkins, explains what psychedelic science can learn from traditional science and vice versa. Clinical psychologist Larissa Maier, a postdoctoral addiction studies researcher at the UCSF School of Pharmacy, will discuss the spectrum of uses for psychedelic substances including the ritual, recreational, and medical.

We hope you will join us for the online panel on October 28. The accompanying digital symposium on Bill of Health launches today and continues tomorrow with an essay by Melissa Lavasani.

Mason Marks

Mason Marks

Mason Marks is a research scholar at NYU Law School's Information Law Institute. In August, he will join the faculty of Gonzaga University School of Law. Mason conducts research on health law, data privacy, and FDA regulation. He is interested in the application of artificial intelligence to clinical decision-making in medicine and how emerging technologies disrupt traditional flows of health information. His tech writing has been published by the Washington Post, the Guardian, Wired, Vice News, STAT, and the Houston Chronicle. Mason received his J.D. from Vanderbilt Law School. He is a member of the California Bar and practiced intellectual property law in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to law school, he received his M.D. from Tufts University and his B.A. in Biology from Amherst College.

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