Some psychiatrists think cannabis can be considered a psychedelic drug like shrooms — here’s why
Marijuana isn’t typically thought of as a psychedelic — a drug that produces hallucinations or an apparent expansion of consciousness.
But according to Julie Holland, a psychiatrist with a private practice in New York, some of cannabis’ effects are psychedelic in nature.
At a recent conference in London on the science of psychedelics, Holland said that u sing marijuana may be linked with a phenomenon some psychiatrists refer to as “dehabituation” — the process of looking at something with fresh eyes.
“That can be very helpful in psychiatry,” she said.
Several forms of psychotherapy emphasize the idea that troubling situations center around a problem of perspective. By approaching those same scenarios from a new point of view — usually with the help of a therapist — we can fix our thinking and feel better.
Psychiatry and psychedelics share the common Latin root “psyche,” or mind, because both are believed to act on it, albeit in different ways. That’s one of the reasons that dozens of scientists, including psychiatrists like Holland, are increasingly supportive of the idea that psychedelic drugs might have a place in treating mental illness. Research on using traditional psychedelics like magic mushrooms, LSD, and ayahuasca to treat issues ranging from anxiety and drug addiction to depression has seen a major resurgence in the last few years.
While less of this research has focused on cannabis, Holland still believes the drug has some characteristics that could make it helpful in related ways.
“The thing that I’m interested in with cannabis is how it does this thing where everything old is new again,” she said.
To this end, Holland is serving as the medical monitor for a new study launched by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) that aims to assess whether marijuana could help reduce the symptoms of PTSD in veterans with the disorder .
Marijuana is not classified as a psychedelic, however, and remains in a drug class of its own. It’s also a Schedule I substance according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which makes studying its potential use for mental illness — or any other medical problem — difficult.
The largest and most comprehensive existing report on the science of marijuana concluded that there’s still a lot we don’t know about how the drug affects the brain. For example, it suggested that people who use cannabis more frequently have an increased risk for developing schizophrenia, social anxiety disorders, and depression (to a lesser extent), but the report could not say whether marijuana plays a role in causing those disorders or if being prone to one simply makes you more likely to use the drug.
“In psychiatry it seems that cannabis is grossly underused and understudied,” Holland said.
In the brain, marijuana tends to produce what scientists call "de-habituation," or the sense that everything is new and novel.
‘A tipping point’: Psychedelics, cannabis win big across the country on election night
As the nation awaits a final result from the presidential election, a clear winner emerged Tuesday: drugs.
Measures to legalize cannabis and decriminalize other drugs won major victories this week as five states — Arizona, New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and Mississippi — legalized some form of marijuana use and Oregon became the first state to make possession of small amounts of harder drugs, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, violations not punishable by jail time.
Voters in Oregon and Washington, D.C., also approved measures to allow for the therapeutic use of psychedelic mushrooms, which are already being prescribed to help some terminally ill patients in Canada cope with pain and end-of-life anxiety.
“People are realizing it’s not just about getting high,” said Avis Bulbulyan, CEO of SIVA Enterprises, a cannabis business development and solutions firm based in Glendale, California, near Los Angeles. “This is a tipping point for drug policy absent any federal reform.”
On Tuesday, South Dakota became the first state whose voters approved both recreational and medical cannabis in the same election. Medicinal marijuana also was made legal in Mississippi. Meanwhile, New Jersey, Montana and Arizona all legalized recreational cannabis.
“Despite this public consensus, elected officials have far too often remained unresponsive to the legalization issue,” Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, said in a statement.
NORML has lobbied for the end of marijuana prohibitions since it was founded in 1970.
“These results once again illustrate that support for legalization extends across geographic and demographic lines,” Altieri said. “The success of these initiatives proves definitively that marijuana legalization is not exclusively a ‘blue’ state issue, but an issue that is supported by a majority of all Americans — regardless of party politics.”
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Just 10 years ago, recreational cannabis was illegal in all 50 states, but that started to change in 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. At the time, California, which has one of the biggest and oldest marijuana markets in the country, allowed only medicinal use of cannabis.
A domino effect followed, with several more states venturing into the medicinal markets, including Pennsylvania in 2016 and New York in 2014. Now, 15 states, two territories and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use, while 34 states and two territories allow medical marijuana.
News MAP: See the states where marijuana is legal
“It’s fantastic to see this cannabis sweep,” said Stuart Titus, CEO of Medical Marijuana Inc., a hemp products company based in San Diego. “There is a tremendous momentum building. I think we’re right on the precipice of changing federal policy with so many states coming online.”
Despite the ballot initiatives, marijuana and other drugs remain illegal at the federal level. The Drug Enforcement Administration continues to classify cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug akin to LSD, heroin and ecstasy.
In New Jersey, some advocates for cannabis legalization worry that the state ballot measure remains too murky and would not tackle social justice concerns surrounding the so-called war on drugs.
The question posed to voters appears simple at first glance: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’?”
While the majority of voters said yes, the language would not necessarily decriminalize all adult-use cannabis. Instead, it would make only “a controlled form” of the plant legal, said Chris Goldstein, a regional organizer for NORML.
“New Jersey voters sent a message to the Legislature — they want prohibition to end,” he said. “They want people to stop getting arrested.”
The Legislature will now have to pass another measure to set up the new cannabis marketplace. Whether that will reduce marijuana arrests and convictions remains to be seen, Goldstein said.
Meanwhile, Arizona’s measure allows people convicted of certain cannabis crimes to seek expungement of their records. Arizona voters narrowly defeated a legal pot proposal in 2016.
Cannabis was not the only drug on the ballot.
In Oregon, voters approved Measure 110 to allow a person found in possession of small amounts of hard drugs to avoid jail time by paying a $100 fine or attending an addiction recovery center. The centers would be funded through tax revenue collected from the state’s legal cannabis program.
Separately, Oregon voters passed measures to decriminalize psychedelic drugs, as did voters in Washington, D.C.
In Washington, D.C., Initiative 81 will lower the enforcement priority for “entheogenic plants and fungi,” or psychedelic mushrooms and mescaline-containing cacti. The ballot measure would not legalize psychedelics in the nation’s capital.
Oregon, however, became the first state to legalize psilocybin, also called magic mushrooms.
Measure 109 calls for the manufacture and therapeutic use of psilocybin to treat patients with mental health disorders. Some research suggests that psilocybin, when ingested in small doses under supervised settings, can ease stress and induce feelings of happiness.
In one recent study, patients who were given a single dose of the psychedelic drug to ease depression and anxiety still felt its positive effects years later. The patients were given small amounts of psilocybin in 2016 to look at whether it could ease cancer-related anxiety and depression. Eighty percent of the patients said their symptoms faded.
“What is permanent is that I don’t have anxiety about cancer. Not only about my cancer returning, but how I viewed my reoccurrence when it did happen,” Dinah Bazer, who was diagnosed in March with a type of rare gastrointestinal cancer, said at the time.
Alicia Victoria Lozano is a Los Angeles-based digital reporter for NBC News.
'A tipping point': Psychedelics, cannabis and even harder drugs win big across the country on election night with voter-approved ballot measures in five states and D.C.