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The False Promise of City-Wide Psilocybin Decriminalization

By Kathryn Lucido

While city-wide decriminalization of psilocybin is a positive step toward decreasing the impact of the war on drugs, it also creates a false sense of security and progress.

Citing new research that illustrates the therapeutic promise of the drug, several U.S. cities have decriminalized psilocybin, a psychedelic compound that occurs naturally in some fungi. Though these cities have pledged not to spend resources prosecuting people for psilocybin possession, and, in some cases, limited distribution, the substance remains illegal at the federal, state, and city levels.

Psilocybin remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. This classification means that — at least according to Congress and the Drug Enforcement Administration — psilocybin is a dangerous drug with no currently accepted medical uses and a high risk for abuse.

However, clinical research conducted at Johns Hopkins, NYU, the Usona Institute, and other centers shows that this is not the case. Psilocybin, shows great promise in the treatment of various mood and anxiety disorders, and it has a very low risk of abuse. However, due to its status as a Schedule I drug, research is limited due to burdensome restrictions on the drug and those who wish to study its effects.

And while city-wide decriminalization efforts make psilocybin a “low priority” for law enforcement officers in select cities, state and federal law enforcement agencies provide no such guarantees, as the drug remains illegal statewide and federally.

The recent decriminalization in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the current ballot initiatives in Oregon and Washington, D.C. are evidence of the growing trend for cities­, and now states, to decriminalize psychedelics in spite of the Controlled Substances Act, its state level equivalents, and related restrictions on psilocybin. As this trend grows, it exposes citizens and researchers to hefty penalties.

Presumably, the therapeutic effects of psilocybin need to be researched further in order to enact large-scale changes. However, these recent decriminalization efforts do not truly allow for researchers to study the therapeutic effects. Instead, these laws merely afford individuals access to psychedelics in select cities while exposing them to federal criminal charges.

After discovering the research on psilocybin’s use in treating mental illness, some individuals take to self-medicating, especially if they lack available or effective alternatives. As a result, some of the most vulnerable populations, such as people with mental health conditions, and racial minorities who have experienced trauma, might be disproportionately exposed to criminal prosecution.

A recent case in Denver illustrates the false sense of security that city-level decriminalization offers. In a city where psilocybin is decriminalized, Kole Milner was federal indicted for cultivating the substance, and faced up to 20 years in prison. Milner believed he was breaking no laws and was free to grow the mushrooms, though ultimately he pleaded guilty and accepted a six-month sentence, Milner likely was given a false sense of security by Denver’s decriminalization efforts, leaving him exposed to arrest and prosecution by federal law enforcement. The United States attorney assigned to the case, Jason Dunn, stated, “Psilocybin mushrooms are illegal and are a schedule I controlled substance. Together with the Denver DEA, our office will ensure the law is enforced.”

Another potential target for federal prosecution is therapists in the decriminalized zones who wish to conduct therapy using the drug via protocols established by psilocybin research. While therapeutic use is one of the rationales cities use for decriminalization, therapists and doctors who wish to utilize this method are breaking city, state, and federal law and jeopardizing their professional licenses and careers.

The lingering threat of state and federal prosecution may negate the positive impact decriminalization has had in these cities. As use of psilocybin becomes more accepted in these jurisdictions, the drugs will become increasingly available there. These areas thus become more attractive targets for federal prosecution. While federal law enforcement and prosecutors could choose to make psilocybin enforcement in decriminalized cities a low priority, Mr. Dunn’s statement following Mr. Milner’s arrest shows that they lack the intent to do so.

Decriminalization efforts, despite their false promise, are ostensibly a good thing. These efforts are changing the conversation around psychedelics and people are becoming more accepting of their medical uses. Large-scale changes don’t happen overnight. As more cities and states decriminalize psychedelics, attitudes will change and traditional hang-ups might begin to fade away. However, in the meantime, cities should make more of an effort to protect their citizens from state and federal prosecution on psilocybin-related charges.


Kathryn Lucido is a third-year law student and aspiring public defender at Gonzaga University School of Law. She has worked in the office of the San Francisco Public Defender and is the current President of the Gonzaga University Cannabis Law Club.

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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