If you look at the roots of prohibition, it often has to do with racism—people in power targeting people without power, and one way of targeting the population is to target the drugs that they use. In the early 1900s, our first drug law in Canada was the Opium Act, and it was explicitly targeting Chinese people. So the beginning of prohibition in Canada was about racism—taking a minority and suppressing them.
This theme has existed for many decades. Psychedelics were criminalized during the battle between hippies and the status quo, with the Vietnam War going on in the background. You have young people of the day saying “We don’t want to fight the war,” and the status quo was saying “We want to get you off your comfortable couch, give you a gun, and drop you in the jungle.” There was a battle, a cultural divide, and the people in power did what they often do: criminalize the drugs that were used by the people without power. It really was unfortunate because not only did a huge amount of human suffering occur from the criminalization of psychedelics, cannabis and other drugs, but we also lost the ability to research—we lost decades of knowledge that we could have gained.
Now what we see is an explosion of positive scientific reports about how psychedelics can be used to heal. They’re very powerful tools and need to be used carefully and constructively, and criminalizing them prevents our society from developing the wisdom that we need to use these medicines in a positive and healing way.
We’re basically now on track to legalize MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorders in about four years. Psychedelics are being legalized because they’re being turned into a medicine. Cannabis is being legalized because of popular opinion. When Justin Trudeau said we want to legalize cannabis, the reason why he did it is because he read the polls, and the polls said that over 50 percent of Canadians wanted to legalize cannabis.
Cannabis is a relatively low risk—on the scale of substances it’s not going to kill anyone. Dependency and toxicity are relatively low, but with psychedelics there’s a greater chance of people having an unpleasant experience. The risk from psychedelics really comes from behaviour. Some people take psychedelics and behave obnoxiously. I have Google Alerts on all the different psychedelics, and every day I get a summary of what happened around the planet. There’s a lot of bad stuff that happens. But when I look at the story and I say what was the problem it’s always one thing, which is lack of supervision. Supervision and clean access to known products.
Those are problems of prohibition. If we didn’t criminalize them, then we would have the opportunity to set up safe circumstances. Which essentially means we need a profession. I call it a psychedelic supervisor. We need somebody in charge of offering psychedelic experiences to people.
If I was in charge I would gather a group of people around the table including a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and a social worker who does group counselling, family counselling and couples’ therapy. I would also include a variety of Indigenous people, the peyote folks, the ayahuasca folks. I’d include a government regulator, and then I’d ask a very simple question: how are we going to develop best practices to guide this new profession?
Part of using psychedelics skillfully would be screening out people who have risks for significant mental health diagnoses like schizophrenia. But there also seems to be an indication that people with big mental health risks may benefit from microdosing, so we need a best practice around that—to be very careful that we don’t make people worse.
Supervisors could have different specialties: what it takes to do an ayahuasca ceremony is completely different than what it takes to work with PTSD patients in a therapeutic setting, which is completely different from what it takes to work with a multi-day music festival. It would be similar to a doctor or lawyer or veterinarian or accountant, and they would be accountable to a professional body. That’s how I believe psychedelics should be eventually legalized.
Recently a bunch of researchers were given a tour of the post-prohibition process in Oregon, and I toured cannabis grow-op facilities and sales facilities. And the tour was led by a cop. He was an old cop, so it was really interesting. I asked, “What do you think about legalized cannabis? I want to hear from a cop perspective.” And he said it’s the best thing ever, which surprised me. He said when police enforce unwanted laws, they get targeted as the bad guys.
I’ve trained the Vancouver Police Department on how to look at drugs differently, and I’m aware that young cops come into the profession and they want to be the good guys. They’re the star of their football team in high school, and they want to chase bad guys and be the good guys. But they’re not being the good guys when they’re chasing down people with addictions and mental health problems. It gets awfully murky for them.
If you think about other crimes, there’s usually an informant. Someone who says come over here, I need help. With drug crimes it’s different, because it’s between consenting adults (usually) and so there’s no informant. In order to get information and target people, you need to ramp up your policing to make the whole thing work, and that ramping up has produced a huge problem.
There are some extreme idealists out there who believe psychedelics are going to make everything better, and I am not one of them. When psychedelics are eventually legalized, and I believe they will be, I think there will be some new treatment options for PTSD, end of life anxiety, and then people can have different types of spiritual experiences and hopefully work through those experiences in terms of living happier and better lives.
I’m not naive, I don’t think psychedelics are going to help with climate change or the concentration of wealth, or poverty. But the process of criminalization of psychedelics has also produced huge problems for us. It doesn’t work, and it’s never worked anywhere on the planet.
Story has been edited for length and clarity.
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