Protecting the human rights of people who use psychedelics
In a recent Comment Ben Sessa explained how the War on the Drugs worldwide has impeded development of psychiatric treatment with psychedelics such as LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms). Prohibition also had negative outcomes for the millions of individuals who find it worthwhile to use psychedelics in various cultural settings outside of those in the clinic.
People have used psychedelics in spiritual practice for at least 5700 years, pre-dating all major organised religions. 100 years ago, members of rival religious groups campaigned against Native American use of psychedelic peyote cactus. However in the 1950s, concerned scientists used evidence and human rights arguments to defend peyote users, leading to legal exemptions for specific groups. When psychedelics spread to the wider society in the 1960s, this was also acknowledged by religious scholars and governments as a spiritual movement (eg, the UK Home Office).
Under the UN 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, WHO has responsibility to evaluate international policy for psychedelic substances. The original WHO assessment said that psychedelics “are usually taken in the hope of inducing a mystical experience leading to a greater understanding of the users’ personal problems and of the universe”. The WHO assessment did not cite a single example of harm from naturally-occurring psychedelics such as psilocybin or peyote, and cited only a handful of anecdotes related to LSD. This was in no way an evidence-based harm assessment.
In the past 50 years, people are thought to have used at least half a billion doses of psychedelic drugs. Psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics are legally sold in The Netherlands. Based on extensive human experience, it is generally acknowledged that psychedelics do not elicit addiction or compulsive use and that there is little evidence for an association between psychedelic use and birth defects, chromosome damage, lasting mental illness, or toxic effects to the brain or other body organs. Although psychedelics can induce temporary confusion and emotional turmoil, hospitalisations and serious injuries are extremely rare. Overall psychedelics are not particularly dangerous when compared with other common activities.
In 2016 the UN will have a special meeting in New York to set the future for international drug policy. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and the Global Commission on Drug Policy say that we must “Ensure that the international conventions are interpreted and/or revised to accommodate…decriminalisation and legal regulatory policies.” National and international policies should respect the human rights of individuals who chose to use psychedelics as a spiritual, personal development, or cultural activity.
I am board leader of EmmaSofia, a non-profit organisation based in Oslo, Norway, working to increase access to quality-controlled MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) and psychedelics. I have received funding from the Research Council of Norway (grant 185924).
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5. Global Commission on Drug Policy. Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy 2011. http://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/ wp-content/themes/gcdp_v1/pdf/Global_ Commission_Report_English.pdf (accessed Feb 1, 2015).