The new science of cannabis and psychedelics
As the most common mental illness in the US, anxiety disorders affect 19% of the adult population, and each year about 8.4% of American adults suffer a major depressive episode. This cries out for a remedy.
Of course, whole suites of prescription medication aimed at these conditions exist, but many people can’t tolerate their side effects or the length of time it can take to trial several ineffective or sometimes counterproductive options. Anti-anxiety medications can create physical dependency, while 30% of those suffering major depression find no relief through antidepressants. It’s timely, then, to be seeing renewed interest in alternative remedies with a long, but stifled history—plant medicines.
Plant medicines are a bit of a misnomer really, since fungi, animals (eg. toad secretion), and a few synthesized molecules fall under their umbrella. Sometimes called “sacred plant medicines” to differentiate them from recreational drugs or herbal medicine, these substances share the potential to bring about healing not only by physiological means , but through altered perception. Though they have a long history of use and anecdotal success , science is just beginning to legitimize medicines like cannabis and psychedelics as mental health therapies.
If this piques your interest, there’s just one little problem: they’re not legal in the US. At least not at the federal level and not consistently from state to state. Cannabis and psychedelics each have histories of medical use and study, but in 1970, the US Controlled Substances Act deemed them both to have “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.”
But it’s 2023, and we now seem ready to look at plant medicines with fresh eyes.
In recent years, cannabis has dropped its “stoner” stigma to become widely embraced—over two thirds of Americans support its legalization. Numerous studies are pointing to cannabis’s potential to alleviate our predominant mental health struggle: anxiety.
Realm of Caring, a non-profit dedicated to cannabis research and education, has partnered with John Hopkins University to gather longitudinal data on how cannabis use affects various health and quality of life markers. According to Realm of Caring’s Director of Research, Matthew Lowe, PhD, the results “support previous evidence that suggests cannabidiol (CBD) use reduces anxiety and may hold significant benefits for individuals experiencing anxiety-related disorders.”
Current studies all seem to agree there is promise here, and a little more digging should illuminate how best to leverage cannabis for calm.
The subject of harsh fear and criticism over the years, psychedelics are now enjoying a huge renaissance in interest and study. Their alternate name, entheogen, meaning “to generate the divine within” may hint at why that is—they have the potential to generate profound experiences. Profound enough, some studies show, to have a significant antidepressant effect after just one or two sessions.
In one study involving two doses of psilocybin, participants with major depressive disorder saw large improvements that lasted at least 12 months after treatment. Another study showed similar results for participants with depression and anxiety associated with life-threatening cancer. Notable, too, is the fast-acting nature of psychedelics and the absence of serious side effects in a clinical setting.
In addition to Realm of Caring, Lowe heads up research at Unlimited Sciences, a psychedelic research non-profit. In another collaboration with John Hopkins University, they’re conducting an extensive study on real-world psilocybin use to better understand positive and negative outcomes.
As Lowe puts it, “large-scale research is a necessary, ethical, and essential safeguard to minimize negative side effects and adverse reactions.” So far, their results are confirming psilocybin’s promising mental health outcomes.
Lowe may be a believer in the power of plant medicines, but he still cautions individuals to educate themselves before trying them since the possible risks are still poorly understood. That’s why, especially given the surge in popular interest, more studies are important. “It’s the responsibility of lawmakers to recognize this growing demand and allow adequate funding for research to ensure the safety and efficacy of cannabis and psychedelic use.”
Beyond the therapeutic promise plant medicines are showing, there’s an economic argument to be made for legalization. Huge savings can be had on the enforcement side, while tax revenue from legal sales could be spent on more socially constructive initiatives—an opportunity to tackle mental health challenges at their root.
Colorado has garnered 2.24 billion in cannabis tax dollars since they legalized it in 2014, virtually all of which has been invested in public schools.And 321,000 legal cannabis jobs nationwide is certainly nothing to sneeze at.
If cannabis and psychedelics are to be made more widely available, we must agree on how best to integrate them culturally. An approach of strict standardization aims to protect the consumer, but also tends to favor a corporate model. By contrast, groups like Decriminalize Nature, want plant medicines accessible within their traditional and sacred context for personal and community-based healing.
And what about the responsibility to ensure communities (typically BIPOC) that paid a disproportionate price during the “war on drugs” can benefit as the “drugs” become popular and profitable?
These are key considerations as we weave plant medicines back into our culture in the hopes they can become our mental health allies; to one day be used, as Lowe puts it, “not only as a last resort but as a first-line alternative to traditional treatments.”
The non-regulated nature of some options leaves them open to misconduct, so consider taking the free harm reduction course at pshychedelic.support and reading the safety tips article at visionarycongress.org.
If you’re already a cannabis user, consider joining Realm of Caring’s observational research registry, a survey that will further the science and understanding of cannabis risks and benefits.
Although both cannabis and psychedelics are federally prohibited, some states and municipalities have loosened restrictions:
Decriminalization: Possession for personal use will not result in criminal charges (think of it more as a potential traffic violation).
Legalization: Use of the substance is allowed, though restrictions such as quantities and age limits may still apply.
Each of these categorizations may apply to one thing (medical cannabis) and not another (recreational cannabis), one psychedelic (psilocybin), but not others.
It’s a quickly evolving landscape, but up-to-date regulation info can be found online: