Those opposed to the end of psychedelic prohibition often cite a perceived threat to public safety. Easier access to these substances, the argument goes, will lead to a leap in crime and hospitalizations. In some quarters, that fear persists even though ample evidence from the Netherlands, Portugal and the few other post-prohibition countries suggest the opposite.
We now have the opportunity to see what happens when prohibition is lifted in the U.S. Last year Colorado voters passed a ballot initiative to legalize the possession of psychedelic plants and fungi, the first state in the country to do so. While a statewide regulatory framework for therapeutic use is still being developed, the personal possession of psilocybin mushrooms has been legal since January.
Just the facts. Greg Ferenstein wondered what the data revealed. Ferenstein is the founder of Frederick Research, a consultant for the psychedelics industry. He recently studied the preliminary numbers from Colorado and published a report for the Reason Foundation, where he is a senior research fellow. The report title captures the gist: “Early data suggest no health or safety harms from Colorado psychedelics legalization.”
Crime statistics show no significant change from the same period the year before. Incidents of driving under the influence of psychedelics remain low at 2% of all DUIs. Hospitals throughout the state report that drug-related hospitalizations and emergency room visits due to psychedelic use represent only 0.3% of all drug-related incidences.
“No one on the ground in Colorado who has to deal with violence or public health issues seems to think that psychedelics are a threat,” Ferenstein told me. He spoke with representatives from the Denver and Jefferson County police departments, as well as two of the state’s largest hospital systems. “When it comes to the people who actually have to deal with abuse or safety, psychedelics aren’t even on their radar.”
Generalizable. It’s possible, he suggests, that legalization would lead to similar outcomes elsewhere. “Most people have no interest in mushrooms,” he points out. He did some light polling of everyday Coloradans for the report. Only six of the 70 respondents said that legalization had impacted them in any way. Of those, all but one were positive, and the other was neutral. “It’s a non-issue to most people,” he said.
At the same time, Ferenstein notes that while production and distribution of psychedelics is not legal, the current underground market is thriving. “It’s fully meeting demand for what people want. Pretty much anyone who wants mushrooms in Colorado can easily get them.”
That certainly seems to be the case in New York, where gray market cannabis shops are abundant, and psilocybin chocolates and gummies are regularly available behind the counter. Ferenstein agrees. “I literally walked by a display case of a giant bag of mushrooms recently in Brooklyn. For all intents and purposes, mushrooms are legal and fully accessible to anyone who wants them in a retail context in multiple cities all around the country.”
Think different. What implications might this have for policy? Ferenstein poses a provocative possibility that is rarely considered as we focus attention on clinical trials, medical frameworks, and religious use.
“I do not believe that, in the case of psilocybin, the law significantly changes access or demand. It changes the legal status. It changes whether people can access safe psychedelics. And it changes how we prosecute people. But it doesn’t do much to the supply or the demand curve.”
Whether or not legalization might lead to an increase in demand is worth debating. It does seem possible that the state sanctioning of psychedelics would encourage more people to try them, though that number might be fairly small. But Ferenstein’s report suggests that broader use is unlikely to harm public safety. In fact, it should do the opposite. Legalization would make products safer, so users can trust what they take. And bringing facilitators up from the underground creates avenues for accountability against bad actors.
Next. As more cities and states move toward legalization, we’ll learn a lot by studying the data. It may turn out that the public safety concerns that fueled prohibition are no more than a drug war hangover.
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