In Chicago, Legal Pot Could be Just the Beginning. Are Mushrooms Next?

Chicago could become the largest city in the nation to decriminalize natural psychedelics like mushrooms and peyote.

A little over a month after Chicago made recreational marijuana legal, the City Council is considering whether to decriminalize what are termed “entheogenic” plants that contain psychoactive substances that can induce a spiritual experience.

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Denver decriminalized psychadelic mushrooms in May and Oakland followed suit in June. Last month, Santa Cruz voted unanimously to decriminalize all entheogenic plants.

Among the proponents of such a move in Chicago is Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward) who introduced a resolution in October to have the Chicago Department of Public Health explore the potential benefits of such substances for treating a range of illnesses, from post-traumatic stress disorder to drug addiction.

The resolution recommends that law enforcement reduce the pursuit of criminal cases involving organic psychedelics to “amongst the lowest priority.”

In a statement, Hopkins said he’d like to encourage a public discussion to explore the use of such substances for the treatment of a range of ailments, from PTSD to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) to anxiety and depression.

“Used for ceremonial and healing purposes for thousands of years by cultures around the world, the science is showing tremendous potential for healing ailments of the mind,” said Hopkins.

Entheogens have also shown promise in the treatment of substance abuse and addiction, and even as a smoking-cessation tool.

Psychedelic mushrooms growing in Veracruz, Mexico. (Alan Rockefeller / Wikimedia Commons)Psychedelic mushrooms growing in Veracruz, Mexico. (Alan Rockefeller / Wikimedia Commons)

Richard Miller, professor of pharmacology and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern Medicine’s Feinberg School of Medicine, says that it’s important to recognize that the period of prohibition since 1970 is highly unusual.

“People have taken these things for thousands and thousands of years,” said Miller. “What happened was they became associated with the counterculture movement of the 1960s which was a very, very powerful counterculture – much more powerful than the kinds of things we have these days. And it was very frightening to middle-class America and the Nixon government decided it had to go away, so they passed a law in 1970 called the Controlled Substances Act which made all these things illegal.”

Prior to that, Miller says, thousands of medical papers had been written which seemed to suggest some “very, very promising” medical uses for the plants. But after passage of the Controlled Substances Act, all of that research was effectively shut down.

“That’s the abnormal time, the time we have just been living through,” said Miller. “So really, if you decriminalize these things you are really getting back to what for thousands of years has been normal. Now there’s a renaissance in interest in these things again either with respect to individual spirituality or with respect to medicine.”

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration designated psilocybin a “breakthrough therapy” for treating major depression in a move designed to accelerate drug development. The FDA said that preliminary evidence seemed to indicate that it may be a “substantial improvement” over currently available therapies.

“These drugs can really shake up your psyche a lot and make you look at things in a completely different way,” said Miller, who notes that modern research tools and techniques mean that we now have a far greater understanding of what these substances are doing to the brain.

For example, brain scans have revealed that psilocybin – the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms – seems to increase brain connectivity.

“What you can say is that when you take something like psilocybin what you see is that the different parts of the brain become much more connected with each other than they were before,” said Miller. “Now what exactly that has to do with spirituality is a very interesting question at the cutting edge of research at the moment.”

According to Miller, the classification of these substances as Schedule 1 drugs – the same designation given to heroin – was always nonsense.

“The whole drug categorization thing was a completely political thing. It had absolutely nothing to do with what the drugs were or weren’t good for,” said Miller. “Some of them are dangerous and some of them really aren’t. It was a completely political thing. It’s actually got nothing to do with what the drugs do at all.”

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