Should psychedelics be legal? Users share the pros and cons

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Should psychedelics be legal? Users share the pros and cons

Mike Tyson loves “smoking the toad.”

The ancient practice, in which users smoke the venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad to produce a short psychoactive trip, was discovered by the former world champion boxer four years ago — and he said it changed his life.

“I ‘died’ during my first trip,” 55-year-old Tyson told The Post last month at Wonderland, a Miami conference dedicated to psychedelics, microdosing and medicine. “In my trips I’ve seen that death is beautiful. Life and death both have to be beautiful, but death has a bad rep. The toad has taught me that I’m not going to be here forever. There’s an expiration date.”

He also said the drug helped him lose 100 pounds in three months, start boxing again, and reconnect with his wife and children.

 “I’m fighting for psychedelics to become medicine you can buy over the counter,” he said. “I’m not finished. I want to do more. I want to be the best I can be in this field.”

Tyson’s not alone on his trip. DJ Diplo and comedian Chelsea Handler have admitted to smoking toad venom, either to calm their anxieties or just to have an experience. And actress Kristen Bell has said she used psilocybin — or “magic mushrooms” — to help ease the anxiety and depression she has lived with for more than 20 years. According to a new Global Drug Survey report, more recreational drug users started shifting toward tiny doses of psychedelics to improve their mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic.

Once seen as the preserve of whacked-out hippies, psychoactive drugs are now becoming increasingly acceptable and even legal in many US cities.

Last month, voters in Detroit agreed to decriminalize “personal possession and therapeutic use of entheogenic plants [like psilocybin mushrooms, saliva, peyote and ayahuasca] as the city’s lowest law-enforcement priority,” joining Ann Arbor, Denver and Washington, DC, among other cities, in loosening their laws. Oregon also became the first state to legalize magic mushrooms, allowing the use of psilocybin as part of a supervised mental health treatment. 

"Psychedelics are a window, not a doorway. They can give you a glimpse into what is possible, into a better way of being. But to realize the benefits they promise . . . you have to do the work."
“Psychedelics are a window, not a doorway. They can give you a glimpse into what is possible, into a better way of being. But to realize the benefits they promise . . . you have to do the work.”
Isaac Miller 2021

So far, psychedelics and psilocybin — along with heroin and cocaine — are still not legal in New York, remaining on the Schedule 1 list of prohibited substances.

And that’s probably a good thing, according to Matt Gangloff. After back-to-back tours in Iraq as a Combat Engineer with the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and struggling with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the freelance writer from Missoula, Mont., turned to magic mushrooms to help him return to normal life.

At first, they helped.

“Psychedelics were the little push that I needed to start the long process of healing and growing,” Gangloff told The Post. “This was the impetus, the inflection point, the line in the sand where I really committed myself to dealing with my s–t and finding a way of being that worked for me.”

But Gangloff, 35, doesn’t use them any more — and he doesn’t recommend anyone else does either. “Psychedelics are a window, not a doorway,” he said. “They can give you a glimpse into what is possible, into a better way of being. But to realize the benefits they promise … you have to do the work. 

“Doing that work is hard. It takes place in the physical world. For me, it was getting sober, meditating, fixing my diet, exercise and sleep. You know, all things that are much harder than munching down mushrooms.”

It’s a similar story for Philip Markoff. He first tried magic mushrooms at the age of 17, opening a “Pandora’s box” that led to dabbling in other substances including LSD, mescaline, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), salvia and ayahuasca. “It was an incredible experience that got me willing to try any psychedelic that crossed my path,” he said.

"I was experienced with tripping but psychedelics can still just go sideways. I easily see how someone could kill themselves to make it stop."
“I was experienced with tripping but psychedelics can still just go sideways. I easily see how someone could kill themselves to make it stop.”
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But he got hooked, calling his addiction “traumatizing.”

“I’ve had full-blown anxiety attacks where I was sweating profusely and shaking in fear. I was experienced with tripping but psychedelics can still just go sideways. I easily see how someone could kill themselves to make it stop,” he said.

Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug policy adviser to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said the widespread decriminalization of psychoactive drugs is driven by one thing: money. “Big Business has caught onto a promising profit scheme: sky high medical claims to sell new and largely unknown mind-altering drugs,” said Sabet, who now serves as the president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM).

“It worked with marijuana, calling it medicine, and now they are using the same playbook with psychedelics. We don’t know what these drugs may look like in a for-profit corporate model. We should be listening to scientists [about] drugs, not entrepreneurs.”

So far, scientists have found that small amounts (microdoses) of psilocybin can treat migraines and obsessive compulsive disorder and, according to a Johns Hopkins study last year, lead to “rapid and large reductions” in depression among respondents. Now, funded by a $4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins is researching whether psilocybin can treat tobacco addiction. The impact of psilocybin on other conditions — from anorexia nervosa to Alzheimer’s — is also being explored. 

“We’re currently in an exciting time for the field where we hope to learn much more about how psychedelics can be used medically, and how these substances impact the brain,” said Albert Garcia-Romeu, an assistant professor at John Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit. “A good deal of preliminary research conducted since around 2000 … largely support[s] the idea that they could be integrated effectively as an element of medical and mental healthcare treatments.”

Kirk Rutter, 51, took part in a clinical psychedelics study at London’s Imperial College in 2015. Grief-stricken by the loss of his mother, the technical specialist had tried various antidepressants and a year of talk therapy but remained at his lowest ebb. Reaching the end of the road, he decided to try psilocybin. 

“Before I tried it I felt pretty hopeless, like this was the last chance — I was sinking in the quicksand,” he recalls. “And I was nervous, too, as I’d never taken it before. I’d watched lots of videos and read a lot about it and I was worried that there was a great deal of ‘you could go crazy and never come back’ rhetoric surrounding it.”

He emerged from the trial a changed man. 

“The psychedelic aspect was very enjoyable once I’d acclimatized and, ultimately, it helped me change my relationship with the grief — it pulled me out of a hole,” he adds. “There was great beauty in the experience alongside the more challenging moments, but the resolutions came from being in the truth rather than the clouds.” 

Kirk Rutter: “The psychedelic aspect was very enjoyable once I’d acclimatized and, ultimately, it helped me change my relationship with the grief — it pulled me out of a hole.”
Kirk Rutter: “The psychedelic aspect was very enjoyable once I’d acclimatized and, ultimately, it helped me change my relationship with the grief — it pulled me out of a hole.”

While psychedelics are generally safe from a pharmacological and medical standpoint — LSD and psilocybin accounted for just 0.005 percent of US emergency room visits, according to federal statistics published in 2013 — the short-term effects can differ from person to person. Some might experience nausea or tremors, others increased heart rate or perspiration. Crucially, though, they have not been found to cause withdrawal symptoms or be physically addictive. “The most relevant risks, in my opinion, involve the psychological effects of psilocybin, which can be unpredictable and sometimes lead to intense emotional reactions including anxiety, paranoia, disorientation and the risk of unusual beliefs and erratic behaviors while under the influence,” said Garcia-Romeu. 

“A very small number of people may also develop ongoing psychiatric issues after exposure to psychedelics, though these are thought to be related to already existing predispositions such as a personal or family history of psychotic illness.”

Michael Pollan, the best-selling author of microdosing bible “This Is Your Mind On Plants,” also thinks we should be wary about decriminalizing psychedelics, which carry stronger risks than cannabis. 

“The psychedelic experience is much more consequential and intense and it requires a container of some kind to be safe when used at high doses,” Pollan said. “By container, I mean a set of practices or rituals, a guide or sitter, a clear intention, and a safe place.

“When we figure all that out, then we can talk about legalization.”

After he quit psychedelics, Markoff launched his own drug education YouTube channel (under the pseudonym “CG Kid’), gaining over 350,000 subscribers. He also offers support for those struggling with addiction at shamelessprotocol.com. And yet he wholeheartedly supports the decriminalization of psychedelics. 

The venom of the Sonoran Desert toad produces a psychoactive hallucinogenic effect when consumed.
The venom of the Sonoran Desert toad produces a psychoactive hallucinogenic effect when consumed.
Shutterstock

“I’m no political expert but I just feel we have bigger problems than whether or not a grown adult should face 5-99 years in prison for possession of any psychedelic drug,” Markoff said. 

“We have additives and toxic foods given to children in school, being advertised to them in flashy cartoons directly marketed to them. Teen suicide is on the rise as a result of social media use … porn is accessible to any kid with a smartphone and we’re going to let all that happen but arrest people for using psychedelics and give them harsher sentences than a rapist would receive.” 

At the same time, some totally legal drugs are a lot more dangerous, Garcia-Romeu said.

“Alcohol kills an estimated 3 million people worldwide annually, and tobacco accounts for roughly 8 million global deaths per year,” he said.

“Yet, these drugs are readily available in the corner store.”

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