Chances are that psilocybin or magic mushrooms will be more widely legalized within several years. The progress they have made since 2020 has been extraordinary. The path from illegality to legality looks remarkably like the journey that cannabis has been on for the last several years.
As public sentiment has changed—driven in large part by anecdotal accounts of psilocybin’s effectiveness as a treatment for PTSD as well as treatment-resistant depression and anxiety—several jurisdictions have begun removing barriers to psilocybin use through deprioritization, decriminalization, and full legalization. As with cannabis, though, these local actions are complicated by psilocybin’s federal status as an illegal Schedule I drug.
While it’s worth asking when and how psilocybin could be legalized, that’s somewhat of a backward question. The better question might be: why exactly is psilocybin illegal in the first place?
Why Is Psilocybin Federally Illegal?
There’s a simple answer, and then there’s the more complicated truth that underlies that simple answer.
First, the straightforward part: psilocybin and psilocin—the active hallucinogenic substance from mushrooms native to South America, Mexico, and the southern U.S.—are federally illegal because they were classified as Schedule I substances under the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. That categorization is based on the three Schedule I criteria:
- drugs with no currently accepted medical use in the United States,
- drugs with a “high potential for abuse,” and
- drugs that lack “accepted safety” for use under medical supervision.
What differentiates Schedule I drugs from every other schedule is the lack of an “accepted medical use.” Highly addictive but useful drugs such as cocaine, morphine, codeine, and fentanyl are all classified as Schedule II.
Because they lack that apparent utility, Schedule I drugs are tightly controlled, which makes research—including, say, research into whether a drug might be medically useful—incredibly difficult. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because there’s another plant-based drug that’s earned federal classification as a Schedule I controlled substance despite its clear medical usefulness: marijuana.)
But this is where the story gets, well, racist. Before the federal government classified psilocybin as Schedule I in 1970, indigenous populations had used it (and other entheogens) as a medical treatment for thousands of years. Modern Western medical culture, after an initial brief exploration, disregarded that history—until recently.
What the Research Into Psilocybin Shows
Actual scientific research on psilocybin contradicts each of the assertions in the federal government’s classification.
First, numerous recent studies have demonstrated psilocybin’s effectiveness in the treatment of mental health disorders. In 2018 and again in 2019, the FDA granted “breakthrough” status to allow scientific studies of psilocybin in addressing treatment-resistant depression. The results have been impressive. For example, a 2020 study at Johns Hopkins University found that 71 percent of patients who received psilocybin treatment for major depressive disorder experienced a “clinically significant response.” Just over half—54 percent—achieved complete remission. One of the study’s authors noted that after treatment with psilocybin, “People feel ‘reorganized’ in a way that they don’t with other drugs… It’s almost like reprogramming the operating system of a computer.”
Second, psilocybin is widely acknowledged as non-addictive.
Third, research has demonstrated that psilocybin is not just safe to use but is in fact safer than alcohol.
Researchers have therefore recommended that psilocybin should more appropriately be categorized as a Schedule IV substance. Schedule IV drugs are those with a currently accepted medical use, a relatively low potential for abuse, and a limited risk of physical or psychological dependence. Schedule IV drugs include alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and zolpidem (Ambien).
Why Psilocybin Businesses Should Partner With a Cannabis Law Firm
So why is it that we’re even talking about psilocybin? Isn’t Cultiva Law a cannabis firm?
Well, yes—but that’s not all we are. We’ve specialized in helping businesses navigate the regulatory hurdles associated with cannabis as it proceeds down the path from illegality to legality. We know and love the science of cannabinoids, but that represents only a part of the broader science of plant-based pharmaceuticals and plant-based psychoactive substances.
Entheogens like psilocybin—as well as ayahuasca, iboga, peyote, and others—are following in the path of cannabis from illegality to legality. That’s mostly due to a gradual shift in public opinion regarding the utility of these plant-based treatments, which again echoes the evolution of public opinion regarding cannabis.