Harvard to study pyschedelics and the law as decriminalization gains steam

Harvard Law School is launching a groundbreaking research initiative into psychedelics and the law.

The Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation, or POPLAR, is being funded by the Saisei Foundation, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, according to a Harvard Law blog post.

The research by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics comes as some states and cities have decriminalized pschedelic drugs.

“Right now, there are a handful of psychedelics research centers at universities around the country. However, they are focused on clinical research,” Mason Marks, who is leading POPLAR, said in a Wednesday statement. “There is no systematic research being done on psychedelics law, and POPLAR will fill this gap.”

The researchers will focus on five areas: ethics in psychedelics research and therapeutics; challenges with psychedelics and intellectual property law; federal support for psychedelics research; access to and equity in emerging psychedelics industries; and the role of psychedelics in healing trauma.

“Preliminary research suggests that psychedelics could hold major benefits for people experiencing trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder,” Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen said in a statement. “By analyzing social, legal, and political barriers to access in this context, we hope to advance the understanding of their potential impact as therapeutics.”

Congress banned the use of psychedelics in the 1970s with the Controlled Substances Act, citing “no currently accepted medical use” for the drugs that were popularized at the time “and a high potential for abuse,” which some medical experts now disagree with, according to the Petrie-Flom Center.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2017 gave its Breakthrough Therapy Designation to MDMA — a psychoactive drug commonly known as “ecstasy” — to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2018, the agency granted the therapy designation to psilocybin, a drug found in so-called magic mushrooms, to treat depression.

For years, many psychedelic scientists have been theorizing that hallucinating on magic mushrooms could possibly reboot the brain and clear out negative thoughts that may contribute to depression. A 2016 study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that a single dose of psilocybin mushrooms “produced substantial and enduring decreases in depressed mood and anxiety … in patients with a life-threatening cancer diagnosis.”

Psilocybin mushrooms are seen in a grow room at the Procare farm in Hazerswoude, central Netherlands. Oregon’s attorney general has approved language for a ballot measure to make psychedelic mushrooms legal. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

Psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin have also shown promise in treating alcoholism, according to a 2019 survey published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

In recent years, a number of states have moved to legalize different drugs, including psychedelics, in an effort to reduce drug-related arrests and prison populations, as well as overdose deaths.

A bill was introduced in California in February that would decriminalize personal use of psychedelic drugs like psilocybin mushrooms, MDMA, LSD, ketamine, DMT, mescaline, and ibogaine for people over the age of 21. 

It came on the heels of Oregon’s blockbuster drug decriminalization bill, which went into effect earlier in February with a goal to replace incarceration with a $100 fine and addiction counseling. 

A number of cities have also decriminalized psychedelic drugs recently, including Oakland and Santa Cruz in California; Washington, D.C.; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Denver. 

Despite the push for decriminalization by some lawmakers, many Americans bristle at the idea of decriminalizing drugs like LSD and MDMA. 

When Oregon voters were considering the drug decriminalization bill last year, two dozen district attorneys urged against it, saying it “recklessly decriminalizes possession of the most dangerous types of drugs (and) will lead to an increase in acceptability of dangerous drugs.”

Fox News’ Paul Best, Jade Scipioni and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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