Touting mental health benefits, advocates aim to decriminalize psychedelic plants in Illinois

April 16 – CHICAGO – Marine Corps veteran Justin Wigg suffered from anger issues and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, but traditional medicine had done little to help. So last fall he traveled to Peru for treatment that is not legal in Illinois, at least not yet.

It was a tea-like psychedelic drink called ayahuasca, infused from two tropical plants, and it produced hallucinations that Wigg, a Chicagoan, compared to “‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Fantasia’.” During the second of four ceremonial sessions, he said, he encountered a spiritual figure called Mother Ayahuasca who lifted his burden.

“I asked him to help me with the anger, and it was like a snap of his fingers, just gone,” he recalled. “I wasn’t mad anymore, which I know sounds crazy, but that’s the best way to describe it.”

Such treatments are gaining the respect of researchers around the world, who have found natural psychedelics to be promising cures for depression, anxiety, and even alcohol addiction. But the federal government still considers them to have no legitimate medical purpose, making the plants illegal to grow, sell, or consume.

A coalition of therapists, patients and advocates wants to change that in Illinois. They are working with State Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat, to draft a bill that would decriminalize herbal psychedelics and create a framework in which counselors, religious healers and others could use one of the drugs, psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”, therapeutically.

Although Illinois police make few arrests for drugs such as mescaline, ibogaine or psilocybin, Ford said it would be wise to take the lead as the popularity of the herbs increases.

“There’s no reason not to think about it now,” Ford said. “Some people in the mental health profession are asking for a new approach. We don’t need to have another situation where people are criminalized like they were with marijuana.”

Others urge caution, saying more studies are needed to understand the risks and benefits of powerful drugs.

Danesh Alam, a Chicago psychiatrist and member of the Illinois Psychiatric Society, said while some research is promising, he is concerned that people are using psychedelics in risky ways. Increasingly, he says, he is seeing patients whose psilocybin use has led to inappropriate, even criminal, behavior.

“We have to be more careful,” he said. “Expanding therapies is important, but we need to be careful and study all aspects before doing so.”

Promising research

Psychedelic plants have been part of religious rituals for thousands of years and, along with the synthetic hallucinogen LSD, became a staple of the American counterculture in the 1960s. But the federal government made many early compounds illegal. of the 1970s, hampering research into their potential benefits.

This began to pick up around the turn of the century, encouraged by encouraging results from European scientists. Matthew Johnson, professor of psychedelics and consciousness at Susan Hill Ward at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said his lab found that psilocybin helped people quit smoking and recover from depression and anxiety. .

He said that unlike traditional psychiatric drugs, psilocybin can produce lasting changes after just a few doses. Evidence suggests mystical experiences help people gain a new perspective on their problems, he said.

“We believe the long-term biological changes will be similar to those of successful psychotherapy,” he said. “Essentially, the person learned something about this problematic behavior in their life and changed their life accordingly.”

That’s what happened with Diana Dalnes, a Chicagoan who struggled with depression and anxiety for years. After a positive but exhausting experience with ketamine, an anesthetic that can produce out-of-body sensations, she tried psilocybin mushrooms while on a rural retreat last year.

She did yoga and breathing exercises, then drank a small dose steeped in tea. When the drugs took hold, she said, she felt a sense of wisdom, serenity and oneness with the universe, which led to a lasting change in her mood.

“I don’t overreact,” she said. “I don’t get angry as much. I’m just a calmer person. Anyone who knows me could tell the difference.”

The retreat was presented as a religious gathering, which placed it in a legal gray area. Following a Supreme Court ruling allowing adherents of a small church to use ayahuasca in ceremonies, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration allowed people to apply for religious exemptions to the Controlled Substances Act.

No one in Illinois has made such a request, a DEA spokesperson said, but George Lake, a Louisiana attorney who advises religious groups on psychedelics, maintains that the agency’s blessing does not is not necessary given the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom.

On a practical level, he said, law enforcement makes few arrests related to the ritual use of psychedelics.

“I think for the most part, when they find out that these people are involved in religious exercise, they’re more or less indifferent,” he said.

Mixed results

Chicago photographer Matt Kosterman didn’t start using psychedelics for spiritual reasons. He wanted a cure for physical problems such as pain, muscle stiffness and food sensitivities that had defied traditional medical interventions.

After reading journalist Michael Pollan’s 2018 book on psychedelics, “How to Change Your Mind,” he tried psilocybin mushrooms. From there, sometimes alone, sometimes under the guidance of a therapist, he moved on to ayahuasca, the designer drugs MDMA and LSD, and even the psychoactive secretions of a desert toad.

He said the sessions helped him to overcome his ailments, which he concluded were psychosomatic, and to come to terms with traumatic episodes from his past. There were no downsides, he said.

“My career is going well, I’ve forgiven (people who mistreated him) and deepened friendships,” he said. “And it’s fun. I like it.”

But not all psychedelic experiences are so benign. Johnson said the substances can cause cardiovascular problems on rare occasions, including heart attacks. People under the influence can also be vulnerable to sexual abuse or put themselves at risk during a bad trip, he said.

He said doctors should be involved as a precaution if plants are used to treat physical or psychological problems.

“Someone’s medical license has to be at stake if something isn’t done right,” he said.

The Illinois bill, however, says people who conduct psilocybin sessions won’t need a medical degree or even a bachelor’s degree, although they will have to pass a licensing exam.

Psychologist Geoff Bathje of Adler University and Chicago’s Sana Healing Collective, who consults with people who use psychedelics, said supporters of the bill want to ensure fairness by allowing a wide range of practitioners.

“People could be trained in their own community instead of going to medical school, a route that is very time consuming and expensive and also makes the service expensive,” he said. “It can be done safely in a much less complicated way.”

A first model

Ford said the bill could go through many changes before it is presented to the legislature, likely next year. Meanwhile, other states and cities are moving forward with their own versions.

The leader is Oregon, which passed a ballot measure in 2020 to allow psilocybin services. But Sam Chapman, who led the campaign, said take-home doses will not be allowed when the law comes into force next year: sessions must take place in an approved facility.

“We know all eyes are on Oregon, and that means that while the program won’t be perfect from the start, it needs to have a solid foundation to serve as a model for other states to follow,” said he declared.

Jean Lacy of the Illinois Psychedelic Society expects a lot of pushback once the Illinois bill is introduced, but said it would provide an opportunity to educate people about substances still shrouded in mystery and of suspicion.

“The more honest we are about this, the more conversations we have, the better we can help the general public and lawmakers understand that people are engaging with these substances with far more prevalence than we realize, and they deserve to do it safely,” she said.

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