POPLAR affiliated reseachers

Introducing Affiliated Researchers for the Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation

(Clockwise from top left: Kwasi Adusei, Ismail Lourido Ali, Jonathan Perez-Reyzin, Dustin Marlan.)

We are excited to welcome our inaugural group of affiliated researchers for the Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation (POPLAR). Through regular contributions to Bill of Health, as well as workshops and other projects, POPLAR affiliated researchers will share their expertise and perspectives on developments in psychedelics law and policy. We look forward to learning from and sharing their insights with our audiences. Keep an eye out for their bylines!

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LSD Microdosing. Small or micro doses of LSD drug cut from a tab, presented on a finger.

A Precise Definition of Microdosing Psychedelics is Needed to Promote Equitable Regulation

By Sarah Hashkes

When we talk about microdosing psychedelics, it’s important we have a mutual understanding of its definition to be able to conduct accurate research, promote regulations, and educate the wider population. This article will look at three main questions and ambiguities regarding the term “microdosing psychedelics” and suggest a definition that would help promote coherence in the field.

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Healthcare concept of professional psychologist doctor consult in psychotherapy session or counsel diagnosis health.

A Precautionary Approach to Touch in Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

By Neşe Devenot, Emma Tumilty, Meaghan Buisson, Sarah McNamee, David Nickles, and Lily Kay Ross

Amid accelerating interest in the use of psychedelics in medicine, a spate of recent exposés have detailed the proliferation of abuse in psychedelic therapy, underscoring the urgent need for ethical guidance in psychedelic-assisted therapies (P-AT), and particularly relating to touch and consent.

Acknowledging the need for such guidance, McLane et al. outline one set of approaches to touch in a recent Journal of Medical Ethics blog. However, we find their piece at odds with the available information in the fields of P-AT and psychotherapy. We explain three major concerns: consent and autonomy, risk mitigation, and evidence and reasoning. In our view, these concerns merit a precautionary approach to touch in P-AT, given the current state of research on touch-based interventions.

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Mushrooms containing psilocybin grow in the forest.

Washington Psilocybin Bill Would Legalize Supported Adult Use

By Mason Marks

On Tuesday, Washington State legislators filed SB 5660, a bill that would legalize the supported adult use of psilocybin by people 21 years of age and older.

Sponsored by Senators Jesse Salomon and Liz Lovelett, the bill, known as the Washington Psilocybin Wellness and Opportunity Act, includes many innovative features including a Social Opportunity Program to help address harms caused by the war on drugs, a provision to support small businesses, and accommodations for people with certain medical conditions to receive the psychedelic substance at home.

I had the privilege of helping to draft the Washington Psilocybin Services Wellness and Opportunity Act with input from the Psychedelic Medicine Alliance of Washington and my colleague John Rapp of the law firm Harris Bricken. We had previously collaborated on the psychedelic decriminalization resolution adopted unanimously by the Seattle City Council.

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Traditional countryside scene in the Netherlands with windbreak lane of poplar trees in the wind under summer sky. Ens, Flevoland Province, the Netherlands.

Q&A with Mason Marks on New Psychedelics Law and Regulation Initiative

By Chloe Reichel

On June 30th, the Petrie-Flom Center announced the launch of a three-year research initiative, the Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation (POPLAR), which is supported by a generous grant from the Saisei Foundation.

The Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School will advance evidence-based psychedelics law and policy.

In 2017, the FDA designated MDMA a breakthrough therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, and in 2018 the agency recognized psilocybin as a breakthrough therapy for treatment-resistant depression. These designations indicate that psychedelics may represent substantial improvements over existing treatments for mental health conditions. Many other psychedelics, including ibogaine, ketamine, and dimethyltryptamine, are the focus of ongoing psychiatric research and commercialization efforts.

Despite the proliferation of clinical research centers and increasing private investment in psychedelic drug development, there is a relative lack of research on the ethical, legal, and social implications of psychedelics research, commerce, and therapeutics.

In the following interview, which has been edited and condensed, Senior Fellow and POPLAR Project Lead Mason Marks explains how POPLAR will fill this gap, and previews some of the initiative’s topics of inquiry.

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lady justice.

Computational Psychiatry for Precision Sentencing in Criminal Law

By Francis X. Shen

A core failing of the criminal justice system is its inability to individualize criminal sentences and tailor probation and parole to meet the unique profile of each offender.

As legal scholar, and now federal judge Stephanos Bibas has observed, “All too often … sentencing guidelines and statutes act as sledgehammers rather than scalpels.”

As a result, dangerous offenders may be released, while offenders who pose little risk to society are left behind bars. And recidivism is common — the U.S. has an astounding recidivism rate of 80% — in part because the current criminal justice system largely fails to address mental health challenges, which are heavily over-represented in the justice system.

Advances in computational psychiatry, such as the deep phenotyping methods explored in this symposium, offer clinicians newfound abilities to practice precision psychiatry. The idea behind precision psychiatry is both simple and elusive: treat individuals as individuals. Yet advancing such a program in practice is “very ambitious” because no two individual brains — and the experiences those brains have had over a lifetime — are the same.

Deep phenotyping offers the criminal justice system the tools to improve public safety, identify low-risk offenders, and modify decision-making to reduce recidivism. Computational psychiatry can lead to what can be described as precision sentencing.

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phone camera

Deep Phenotyping Could Help Solve the Mental Health Care Crisis

By Justin T. Baker

The United States faces a growing mental health crisis and offers insufficient means for individuals to access care.

Digital technologies — the phone in your pocket, the camera-enabled display on your desk, the “smart” watch on your wrist, and the smart speakers in your home — might offer a path forward.

Deploying technology ethically, while understanding the risks of moving too fast (or too slow) with it, could radically extend our limited toolkit for providing access to high-quality care for the many individuals affected by mental health issues for whom the current mental health system is either out of reach or otherwise failing to meet their need.

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Person typing on computer.

Lessons Learned from Deep Phenotyping Patients with Rare Psychiatric Disorders

By Catherine A Brownstein and Joseph Gonzalez-Heydrich

Given the potential sensitivities associated with describing (i.e., phenotyping) patients with potentially stigmatizing psychiatric diagnoses, it is important to acknowledge and respect the wishes of the various parties involved.

The phenotypic description and depiction of a patient in the literature, although deidentified, may still be of great impact to a family.

By way of example, a novel genetic variant was identified as a likely explanation for the clinical presentation of a patient in a large cohort of individuals with neurodevelopmental and/or psychiatric phenotypes, a finding of great medical interest. The research team elected to further study this candidate and collected samples for functional evaluation of the gene variant and preparation of a case report.

Because the patient had a complicated phenotype, several physicians from various specialties were involved in the patient’s care. The paper draft was circulated amongst the collaborating clinicians and researchers and ultimately shared with the patient’s family by one of their involved caregivers. This is typically not a requirement of such studies, as the informed consent process includes the subjects’ understanding and consent for dissemination of deidentified results in the scientific literature. But as a general practice, families are informed about manuscripts in process, and in this case the family had requested to be kept abreast of ongoing developments.

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Society or population, social diversity. Flat cartoon vector illustration.

The Cost of Exclusion in Psychedelic Research

By Xinyuan Chen, Mackenzie Bullard, Christy Duan, Jamilah R. George, Terence Ching, Stephanie Kilpatrick, Jordan Sloshower, and Monnica Williams

In the last two decades, researchers have started to reexamine psychedelics for their therapeutic potential. Though initial results seem promising, the research has a significant shortcoming: the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among research teams and study participants.

In the 1960s, psychedelic substances such as LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline were a major part of American counterculture. Less well-known is that, concurrently, researchers were studying potential therapeutic uses of these mind-altering substances. Unfortunately, psychedelics were classified as Schedule I drugs in 1970, halting research into their therapeutic benefits.

The recent renaissance of psychedelic research shows these substances have significant capabilities for treating anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance use disorders. But these promising results are limited in their applicability: an analysis from 2018 showed that 82.3% of all study participants in psychedelic trials internationally were non-Hispanic Whites, and only 2.5% were African-American.

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3D illustration of man with his brain highlighted

What Psychedelic Research Can Learn from Science, and What It Can Teach

By Manoj Doss

As a psychedelic researcher, I find myself increasingly frustrated by the tendency of the field to make lofty claims about the drugs that stray from the realities and limitations of the data.

For example, psychedelic research that uses neuroimaging employs measures of brain function that are, in fact, quite crude. Typically, one signal in a brain scan can mean many things (amygdala activation can occur when one is scared, happy, observing something salient, etc.).

For this reason, cognitive neuroscientists typically constrain mental activity using behavioral tasks in order to make more educated inferences regarding what is happening in the mind. Yet for some reason, psychedelic scientists believe they can infer mental function from the activity of a few tripping brains under task-free conditions. That is, participants are essentially doing whatever they want in the scanner, making the number of possible inferences one could make nearly infinite. And worse, they base their claims on outdated Freudian theory.

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