Ch-Ch-Changes: The History of Psychedelics and Decriminalization

By: Eli Smeds, Megan Delehanty, and Alexandra Andrade

History of Psychedelic Use

Psychedelics have been used ceremoniously and spiritually for centuries. Many psychedelic substances originate in plants, animals, and fungi. Such as Salvia Divinorum containing salvinorin a, Psilocybe Cubensis containing Psilocybin (metabolized into Psilocin), Mimosa Hostils bark containing N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, Bufo Alverious containing 5-MeO-DMT and bufotenin, Ergot of rye containing the precursors to LSD, morning glory seeds containing LSA, and even sassafras bark containing MDA just to name a few we’ve discovered (fascinatingly there is strong evidence to show there are more naturally occurring psychoactive substances that exist in life underwater that we’ve not yet discovered). 

Psychoactive substances occur naturally around the world, and we have been aware of these substances and their profound effect on human consciousness for centuries before us. Many of the substances listed above have we’re used ceremoniously as entheogens (meaning “becoming divine within”) in spiritual and religious ceremonies to unlock the users inner spirit and sense of spirituality. These substances have a unique effect to give the users feelings of connectedness, nothingness, loss of ego and sense of self and visualizations of entities. Through these experiences tend to be intense they are also incredibly life changing and influential to the person taking the substance.

Demonization of Psychedelic use

Psychedelic substances did not start becoming illegal until the 1970’s, when president Richard Nixon signed in the Controlled Substances Act. Which placed substances that have been used ceremoniously for healing such as Cannabis, Psilocybin, N,N-DMT, and Mescaline in Schedule 1 (along with other psychoactive substances), which deems them illegal, claims they have no medical applications, and considers them highly addictive substances on par with heroin. 

It is also known that psychologists and mental health professionals were aware of the unique therapeutic benefits that psychedelics hold, because during the (first) psychedelic renaissance, substances such as LSD, Psilocybin, and MDMA* (which again is an entactogen but can have Psychedelic qualities) were all used in experimental therapies that were usually deemed quite effective. And these psychedelic experiences actually help people cease addictions, for example Iboga is used to treat withdrawals. This absolutely contradicts the Controlled Substances Act‘s definition of a “schedule I substance”.

Psychedelics in the Modern Context

Nowadays it’s surprisingly more common to find people who are willing to talk about and experience psychedelic substances. We are beginning to see a resurgence in general interest with psychedelics. It’s more common to hear people discuss Psychedelic assisted therapy and there is increasing acceptance of Psychedelics. However this is still a “counter-culture” movement, this “second Psychedelic renaissance” seems to be much greater, more people now are trying psychedelics. And with the addition of the internet, people will now post trip reports so curious minds can try to dip their toes into what a psychedelic experience is actually like, without having to fish through misinformation and fear mongering spread throughout the days of D.A.R.E.. 

Decriminalization  and Medical Use of Psychedelics:

States like Colorado and California have cities that have been decriminalizing some psychedelics slowly, Denver decriminalized mushrooms, and the city of Santa Cruz decriminalized all “natural” psychedelics. And this is probably the most obvious example of the slow acceptance of psychedelic substances other than the resurgence of their use in psychotherapy. MDMA (an entactogen) has recently been rescheduled from schedule I status for treatment of PTSD, ketamine (a dissociative anesthetic that has hallucinogenic qualities) is being used to treat depression, and DMT and Psilocybin are being used to help treat depression, anxiety, and end of life fear in terminal cancer patients.

This places use, possession, and growing in the ‘lowest law enforcement priority’. In Dever, the first city to do this, the city is not allowed to spend resources on imposing penalties to those 21 and over for use and possession of mushrooms. In California, Oakland took this a step further and decriminalized entheogenic plants, Santa Cruz as mentioned above followed suit this past January.

In these cities that have decriminalized, it is only for ‘natural’. During class we discussed the thin line that exists between ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’ psychedelics. Psychedelics that are classified as natural are those such as psilocybin containing mushrooms, ayahuasca, Salvia divinorum, and peyote. Many ‘synthetics’ are actually derived from very natural sources, such as LSD. LSD is made from lysergic acid which is found in a fungus that grows on grains.  There are other psychedelics that can be classified as either: dimethyltryptamine (DMT) which is the active ingredient in ayahuasca, and mescaline, the active chemical in peyote. Both of these can be synthesized in a lab.

Decriminalize Nature has turned their efforts towards 100 different cities across the globe in an attempt to replicate what has been done in Oakland and Denver.Some of the cities that will have decriminalization proposals looked at in 2020 are: Berkley, Chicago, Columbia (Missouri), Dallas, Portland (Oregon), and Port Townsend. The group Decriminalize Nature is very involved in this movement. The mission listed on their website is: “To improve human health and well-being by decriminalizing and expanding access to entheogenic plants and fungi through political and community organizing, education and advocacy.” They want entheogenic  plants to be centered around community and avoid the commercialization that cannabis has seen in its decriminalization. 

The cultural significance of different types of psychedelics were another major source of discussion during our class meeting. Ayahuasca, psilocybe mushrooms, and iboga are all regarded as sacred within the Amazon, Central America, and Central Africa respectively. These substances have been used for millennia for spiritual growth. They also all have their own medicinal use. Ayahuasca for instance can be beneficial for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction. Iboga and cacti can be used as treatment for addictions (iboga for opiates and cacti for alcohol). During the discussion there were some amazing points about the need to respect these substances and the practices that they are a part of.

Institutions such as John Hopkins, UCLA, and NYU have been using psychedelics to study their effects on mental health. UCLA and NYU in particular have shown that psilocybe mushrooms are effective at treating end of life anxiety in cancer patients. Another psychedelic that has shown promise for mental health treatment is ecstasy. One of the videos that was assigned by our group focused on how ecstasy is being used to treat soldiers with PTSD; this therapy includes pharmaceutical grade MDMA and a psychotherapist. Ecstasy is currently only available as a treatment within clinical trials, as it is still  listed as a schedule 1 drug like other psychedelics. It’s schedule 1 listing means that ‘it has no medical use’  despite the results of studies. MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) currently funds trials, link here:

The question was brought up of whether this could be done, if there were any groups that might not want this to happen. The group that we said may not want to keep psychedelics rooted in the community and non-commercialized is the pharmaceutical companies. Since researchers are looking at the benefits of psilocybin for depression and anxiety treatment this could impact the antidepressant market. Currently this market was valued around 13.7 billion dollars in 2018 and said to grow to over 17 billion by this year. While a sliver of the total pharmaceutical industry’s profits (the total industry is valued at over 900 billion dollars), there are still major companies that may try to take advantage of these substances if legalized. 

Designer Drugs:

The last reading that was used by our class was the History of Designer Drugs. The term designer drugs originally referred to heroin-like substances in the ‘80s, then gained popularity when MDMA (ecstasy) did in the mid-’80s. MDMA was first used as adjunct to psychiatric treatment in 1976. It was adopted by Greer as an easily controlled altered state of consciousness. It increases self-discovery, feelings of love and empathy and is labeled as empathogen. Empathogens are substances that  increase empathy, the name was changed to entactogen. 

Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement of 1986- preemptively banned designer drugs by making any chemicals similar in chemistry and pharmacology to Schedule I or II drugs illegal. Fentanyl analogues to heroin (e.g., “China White”) were causing many overdoses, so the US government wanted a sweeping ban. Emergency scheduling was first used for MDMA, which was put in Schedule I, despite the DEA’s own judge finding that it should be classified as Schedule III for its medicinal uses.

 Huge internet explosion of designer drugs in the late ‘90’s and early ‘00s, known as “research chemicals,” many of which were hallucinogens, such as MDMA. Research chemicals were sold in powder to validate that they were for non-consumptive research, leading to many emergency room visits due to varying dosages. Toxic responses can be attributed to contaminants in street drugs. Not typical stimulants or hallucinogens, but entactogens- a therapeutic class of pharmaceuticals. Evidence that MDMA and MDA compounds may cause degeneration of specific cells in the CNS of animal models, but its controlled status hinders medical research. There is hope that if psychedelics continue to be decriminalized through the country that substances such as MDMA that aren’t ‘natural’ but have medical uses may also be decriminalized.


Richert, Lucas, and Erika Dyck. “Psychedelic Crossings: American Mental Health and LSD in the 1970s.” Medical Humanities, 2019.

 (Links to an external site.)

Freye, Enno. “History of Designer Drugs.” In Pharmacology and Abuse of Cocaine, Amphetamines, Ecstasy and Related Designer Drugs. Vol.  219. Edited by Enno Freye, 183–89. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2010.

Video References:

Could psychedelics be mental health’s “wonder drug”?

PSYCHEDELICS AND PSYCHOLOGY: Modern Medicine Meets Ancient Medicine | Anthony P. Bossis | TEDxMarin

Hamilton’s pharmacopeia on magic mushrooms:

Magic Mushrooms Documentary (Vice)

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