Seattle votes to decriminalise 'magic mushrooms' and similar substances

As a Schedule I controlled substance, psilocybin falls in the same category as hard drugs such as heroin. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

SEATTLE (BLOOMBERG) - Seattle's city council voted unanimously to relax its rules against naturally occurring drugs, joining a handful of other cities that have decriminalised psilocybin and similar substances since Denver kicked off a wave of such changes three years ago.

The city's police will make it among their lowest priorities to arrest or prosecute anyone engaging in activities related to "entheogens" or drugs like psilocybin and ayahuasca that are often used for spiritual or religious purposes, according to a meeting attended by telephone.

Psilocybin, a mind-altering substance also known as magic mushrooms or shrooms, is classified by the federal government as a Schedule I drug, the most-restrictive category.

Seattle becomes at least the ninth US city to take such action in recent years, joining Denver, Washington and Ann Arbor, Michigan, among others. In 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalise psilocybin for therapeutic use.

Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who sponsored the effort, said it was the first step in the city's move to change its drug policies.

"Our overall goal is to follow the lead of Oregon," he said, speaking in a phone interview before the vote. "There's a huge demonstrated potential for these substances to provide cutting-edge treatments for substance abuse, recovery from brain injuries," and other issues, Lewis said. "I want to make sure we're following the science in our policies around regulating these substances."

The legal changes come as psilocybin and other drugs have been gaining favor with university researchers and consumers as an alternative to traditional mental health treatments. Many companies specialise in such drugs, with listings on the Canadian Securities Exchange having raised US$277 million (S$375.4 million) for such companies since 2020, and many investors wading in.

Some high-profile researchers are now calling for federal change. Separately on Monday (Oct 4), the head of Harvard Law School's Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation, Mason Marks, advocated for relaxation of laws around psychedelic drugs in order to spur mental health-care innovation.

His article, published in peer-review journal Nature Medicine, points out that the current status of psilocybin makes it hard to get federal funding for research, which means that private companies currently fund most research and therefore shape public policy.

As a Schedule I controlled substance, psilocybin falls in the same category as hard drugs such as heroin. Marks said moving it to a less-restrictive category would help create "more-inclusive clinical trials and unbiased regulatory review" by the US Food and Drug Administration.

"Basically, our position is that rescheduling is the best approach. It will solve many problems," Marks said in an interview.

Seattle's law would not apply to LSD, ketamine or MDMA, even though such drugs are often lumped together with plant-based psychedelics and are also gaining popularity with consumers, investors and researchers.

A Seattle city spokesman said those substances don't meet the definition of "living, fresh, dried or processed plant or fungal material, including teas or powders".

More than 12 people called into the meeting to voice their support for the measure and talk about how psilocybin had helped them to quit smoking, cope with pain and personal trauma and overcome other personal obstacles. One person objected, saying that drugs warp people's minds.

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