Seattle Councilmember Andrew Lewis hosted a panel of experts last week to provide insight into a bid to decriminalize psychedelic substances citywide.
Lewis is looking to develop legislation that would decriminalize possession of substances like mushrooms, LSD, and ayahuasca in Seattle, following the lead of cities like Denver and Oakland, as well as the entire state of Oregon. Last Wednesday, he brought in a panel of seven experts — including doctors specializing in substance use disorders — to expand on the potential benefits such a proposal could have.
As University of Washington psychiatrist Dr. Nathan Sackett clarified, the main goal surrounding decriminalization is to make it so that psychedelic substances can be used in controlled, medical settings, rather than recreationally.
“When we talk about psychedelics, I’m talking about psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy,” he described. “This is not anyone going to some party on a Friday night and taking a bunch of substances of unknown origin.”
“This is a very intentional and organized practice where someone takes psychedelics with a therapist, they have the session with the therapist, and then have what are called integration sessions,” he continued. “It’s in this structured environment where we have seen profound results, particularly for substance use disorders.”
Dr. Sackett points to studies dating back to the 1950s researching the use of psychedelics to treat alcoholism, many of which demonstrated that they could be a “catalyst for profound behavioral change.”
A more recent study in 2016 administered sessions with 10 patients dealing with alcoholism where they ingested psilocybin (more commonly known as magic mushrooms). After 10 weeks, they experienced a 50% reduction in alcohol use.
A separate 2014 study out of Johns Hopkins University administered psilocybin treatments to 15 smokers — after six months, 12 of the 15 had ceased smoking altogether.
“These numbers are staggering,” Sackett noted. “Psychedelics are profoundly safe when they’re given in a controlled environment with skilled professionals, that clearly act on both a physiologic level and a psychological level, and there’s growing evidence to suggest that they can have a profound impact to motivate change for substance use disorders.”
Also on Lewis’ panel was Todd Youngs, a former opiate user, who was addicted to heroin and other substances for the better part of two decades. Youngs detailed dozens of arrests for offenses ranging from possession to destruction of property over the course of his addiction across both Washington and Missouri.
Now, he’s 12 years sober, and credits the guided use of ayahuasca — a plant-based psychedelic — for helping him kick his addiction.
“The letter of the law does not permit the type of approach that I took, whether it was effective or not, but I do feel quite confident that the spirit of the law is pleased that I am no longer a problem for the courts, my family, or my community, and that I am once again a joyful and contributing member of the human family,” he said.
Decriminalization can also be tricky from a legal perspective, but as law professor and Harvard senior fellow Dr. Mason Marks points out, there are significant public health benefits.
“I come at this from the perspective of medicine and public health,” Marks said. “Oftentimes people will take multiple drugs over the course of many years and still receive no benefit or adequate relief. Due in part to their ineffectiveness, we’ve seen suicide rates rising steadily over the last 20 years, and we’ve seen drug overdoses skyrocket over the same time. People want something new and different, and psychedelics do appear to fill that unmet need.”
Lewis has not yet set an exact timeline, but is hoping to have his proposal fully drafted and presented to city council sometime before the end of the year.