On Thursday, researchers at John Hopkins University and New York University published the results of a study that found psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychoactive mushrooms, to be an effective treatment for anxiety and depression in cancer patients.
This news came a day after the Food and Drug Administration reportedly gave the green light on the third and final phase of trials in a large-scale study on the benefits of MDMA as a treatment for PTSD. The studies sparked conversations about potential shifts in various drugs’ classifications and criminalization.
Both MDMA and psilocybin are currently categorized under Schedule 1 of the DEA’s Controlled Substance Schedule, meaning they have been deemed to have no current accepted medical use. They are also considered to have high potential for abuse.
While the results of these studies confirm what researchers and users have been saying for years, the news has been taken by some as a sign of the federal government’s increased willingness to acknowledge the potential medical benefits of certain controlled substances.
Deborah Small, Executive Director and Founder of Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs, doesn’t consider this news to be a sudden shift in federal drug policy but rather, a response necessitated by the unprecedented number veterans suffering from PTSD, including a reported 30% of veterans from the War in Iraq and Afghanistan, alone.
“If you think about it, we’ve been at war now for over a decade, and it’s only about 2% of the population [who have served in the military] so you have a small group of people who have been continuously exposed to trauma, typical hazards, et cetera,” Small said.
Small likens the government’s interest in MDMA as a treatment for PTSD to the rise of methadone, an opioid medication used to treat soldiers battling heroin addiction during the Vietnam War era. When it was discovered that an estimated 15% of soldiers were addicted to heroin, President Nixon, fearful of an impending drug epidemic among the veteran population, shifted federal opioid drug policy away from punishment to treatment and ordered the creation of the first federal program for methadone treatment in 1971. Methadone remains one of the most common drugs used to combat opioid addiction today.
The government’s shift in response to MDMA is one of the changes the Obama administration has made in terms of official drug policy. Earlier this year, the DEA released a highly anticipated announcement proclaiming a commitment to research concerning marijuana and its components.
Though the DEA failed to reschedule marijuana this summer, it launched Just Think Twice, a less absolute take on the notorious “Just Say No” rhetoric adopted during the Reagan era that aims educate people on the “real facts” of the drug ‘epidemic’ in the United States.
Still, the changes that have been made during the Obama administration are but a slight softening of a policy that has been in place President Nixon declared a War on Drugs in 1971.
Even while Obama openly critiqued the War on Drugs, his administration continued to carry out drug war policy. In fact,the DEA carried out more raids on marijuana dispensaries under Obama than it had under any other president in over a decade, outspending the Bush administration’s crackdown by $100 million.
It appears that as his time in office winds down, he is moving to make concessions.
Small commented on the shifting trends in drug enforcement policy:
“Making people plead guilty to crimes in order to get access to treatment so that they don’t have to go to prison is a relatively minor reform in an incredibly punitive system, and so the idea that we even see that as progress says a lot about where we are coming from in this whole scenario.”
When seven states voted to legalize either medical or recreational marijuana this November, it appeared as though the United States was experiencing a culture shift in attitudes towards controlled substances. But Trump’s election and now selection of known marijuana opponents for cabinet appointments have provided sharp plot twist to what the New York Times called “The Marijuana Election.”
For Attorney General, Trump is considering Alabama Senator Jefferson “Jeff” Beauregard Sessions III, a self-proclaimed “fan of the DEA” known for speaking out against Obama’s non-interference drug policy. Sessions also infamously used Lady Gaga as evidence of the dangers of marijuana in a 2014 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Trump is considering Georgia Representative Tom Price, another marijuana opponent, for Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the FDA. Finally, Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, who is currently facing pressure to resign following media reports that four people, including a baby, died in his prison since April, could be responsible for all federal detention facilities as Trump’s head of Homeland Security.
Under this administration, it is unlikely there will be continued support for further research into the benefits of hallucinogens and psychedelics or efforts towards decriminalization. Rather, Small says we can expect that the War on Drugs will continue to be used as an excuse to go after marginalized groups.
“The War on Drugs was never about a war on drugs, ever. It’s always about the ability of the state to target people who they want to target using drug use as the justification,” Small said.
“It doesn’t matter if the government decides it wants to study MDMA, or think about using hallucinogens, if they [the Trump administration] want to go after Black people, Brown people, LGBT people, immigrants and other groups of people, they will use the War on Drugs to do it, even in places where drugs are pending legal.”