A federal health agency kicked off a speaker series on Thursday that’s dedicated to recapping science on the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms. And the experts who spoke at the first event said in response to Marijuana Moment’s questions that federal drug laws are out of step with voters and undermine the research objectives of the scientific community.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI), under the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is hosting the events, says that while federal law classifies the psychedelic as a Schedule I substance with no currently accepted medical value, clinical trials “are researching psilocybin to treat cancer related depression, for example, and moreover for its potential medicinal application in treating a range of severe psychiatric disorders.”
To that end, the agency is organizing a first-of-its-kind Psilocybin Research Speaker Series that’s taking place over the next several weeks.
— NCI Cancer Training (@NCI_Training) April 22, 2021
Thursday’s initial event featured professors from UCLA and Johns Hopkins University, who led presentations on the use of psilocybin in end-of-life care and the “neuropsychopharmacology and implications for therapeutics” of the entheogen.
Dr. Charles Grob of UCLA talked about the need for increased diversity among participants in psychedelics studies and also noted the “thorny issue” of funding.
“I’ll say that the National Institutes of Health really have not funded this area,” he said. “As far as I’m aware, since the late 60s, they funded mechanistic questions but not actual treatment—whether psychedelics may have some role as a treatment model that I think that needs to be relooked at.”
He also said in response to a question from Marijuana Moment that he views the scientific and decriminalization policy movements around psychedelics as a “parallel process.” He added that “the decriminalization phenomena is actually quite fascinating and, honestly, it took me by surprise.”
Decriminalization measures “seem to be passing by large majority, so it seems like the public, to a significant degree, is done with the drug war—and I certainly would applaud that,” he said. However, he noted the importance of “public education programs” about the safe use of psychedelics in jurisdictions that opt to enact decriminalization or loosen criminal penalties.
Asked by Marijuana Moment about whether the scheduling status of psilocybin under federal law inhibits research into the compound’s risk and benefits, Dr. Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University said that the “Schedule I status is anathema to research because it makes research much more difficult—and that’s both clinical research and even preclinical research.”
“Even a preclinical neurological researcher, if they want to work with a Schedule I compound, they still have to jump through all the hurdles and create a [Drug Enforcement Administration] license and track their substance in a way that’s really quite discouraging of research,” he said. “I wish there were an easier workaround for Schedule I compounds and research generally, but as the laws are currently written, there isn’t a workaround.”
The next event in the federally hosted series on the psychedelic, scheduled for May 27, will give a scientific perspective on advancing public health initiatives through “dynamic regulatory frameworks. Another panel is titled “Transcendent, Spiritual, and Humane: Psychedelic Medicine Ends the Epoch of Psychiatric Reductionism and Rouses the Dawn of a New Mental Health Universe.”
Psilocybin, a natural active compound found in 200+ fungi species, is being studied for possible use in the treatment of severe psychiatric disorders. @theNCI’s Psilocybin Speaker Series starts TODAY at 3 pm ET & will look at current psilocybin research. https://t.co/WTXMKVqFDA https://t.co/S5WT0oBFem
— NIH NCCIH (@NIH_NCCIH) April 22, 2021
Microdosing psilocybin will be a focus of the June 7 event, as well as the use of the psychedelic in treating depression. A representative from the National Institute on Drug Abuse will discuss the “synthesis, characterization, and preclinical pharmacology of psilocybin analogs and related tryptamines.”
Finally, on June 10, participants will learn about psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for advanced cancer-related psychiatric and existential distress, led by an NYU professor.
As a reminder: all these presentations on psychedelics research are being organized and promoted by a federal agency. Despite strict restrictions on psilocybin at the federal level, the speakers series is highlighting science that runs counter that notion that the entheogen has no medical utility—undermining its ongoing Schedule I status.
NCI said the series has two purposes:
- Education: provide time-sensitive and evidence-based scientific information, utilizing expert speakers from academia, government, and the community.
- Research: assess the current state of the science, identify research gaps and opportunities, regarding future research needs for investigation among diverse research communities.
But while it may seem counterintuitive that the federal government is sanctioning this research series, it’s not without precedent.
NCI hosted a symposium this month on research into marijuana as a therapeutic in the treatment of cancer and other related issues in December 2020, for example.
The Food and Drug Administration also held a public conference that year that looked at the use and effects of CBD differ based on sex and gender.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health in 2018 sponsored a working that touched on various aspects of marijuana research, particularly under the current federal framework of prohibition.
But the psilocybin-focused event series from a federal agency serves as a unique reminder that psychedelics are gaining attention amid a national movement to end criminalization over the substances that show significant therapeutic potential.
In California, for example, two Senate committees have recently approved a bill to legalize possession of a wide range of psychedelics and create a working group to study broader reform.
The Northampton, Massachusetts City Council passed a resolution earlier this month to deprioritize enforcement of laws against the possession, use and distribution of a wide range of psychedelics such as psilocybin and ayahuasca. It’s the third city in the state to advance the policy change, following Somerville and Cambridge.
These are some of the latest iterations of a national psychedelics reform movement that’s spread rapidly since Denver became the first city to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in 2019.
In Oregon, November’s election saw the passage of a historic initiatives to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes and more broadly decriminalize possession of all drugs.
In Oakland, the first city where a city council voted to broadly deprioritize criminalization of entheogenic substances, lawmakers approved a follow-up resolution in December that calls for the policy change to be adopted statewide and for local jurisdictions to be allowed to permit healing ceremonies where people could use psychedelics.
After Ann Arbor legislators passed a decriminalization resolution last year, a county prosecutor recently announced that his office will not be pursuing charges over possessing entheogenic plants and fungi—“regardless of the amount at issue.”
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.