The red and blue embrace of such reforms has been given a variety of meanings, but beyond dispute is that fatigue with decades of a failed drug war that has affected people everywhere led voters across party lines and ideologies to embrace a new approach. Though the victorious initiatives represented a major leap in some states and more modest steps in others, Maryland, an otherwise progressive state on issues such as reproductive rights and gun control, has moved at a glacial pace in taking the step from allowing medical use of marijuana to recreational legalization, and it has taken only modest steps toward treating drug addiction as mainly a medical and psychological issue rather than a criminal issue.
D.C. voters approved a referendum that would make the enforcement of laws against entheogens — naturally occurring hallucinogenic substances derived from plants, fungi and amphibians and used for religious or spiritual purposes, among the lowest law enforcement priorities. Although the law refers broadly to entheogens, the primary focus appears to have been so called magic mushrooms, whose primary active constituent is psilocybin. In neighboring Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) recently said the commonwealth would “move forward with legalizing marijuana.”
The legalization of medical marijuana and decriminalization of possession of small amounts of the drug have eased the burden on Maryland’s criminal justice system, but the failure to move to full legalization means that the state is losing access to millions, potentially billions, of dollars in tax revenue. Considering the huge cost of pandemic-related closures and programs, the state needs this revenue now more than ever. Though many other businesses have suffered badly during the pandemic, business at medical marijuana dispensaries has been booming.
Because of the conflict between federal and state law (marijuana is still a Schedule I drug — the most restrictive category and the same as that for heroin and cocaine), legal marijuana dispensaries have to deal with cash because of their inability to work within the legal banking system. Despite this obstacle, marijuana businesses are providing a major tax benefit to states and localities.
Since recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado in 2014, tax revenue from marijuana sales have reached more than $1 billion, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue. In Washington state, 2019 marijuana tax revenue totaled $395.5 million, $172 million more than that from liquor.
Moving beyond the de-escalation of the war against weed, Oregon, which legalized marijuana in 2014, approved the decriminalization of personal use quantities of drugs such as cocaine and heroin and legalized therapeutic use of psilocybin.
It is particularly ironic that Maryland, home to the world’s leading center on psychedelic research — the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, launched in 2019 — still treats psilocybin as a Schedule I drug without therapeutic use. The center’s director, psychologist Roland R. Griffiths, began conducting research on the therapeutic potential of psilocybin 20 years ago. He has conducted a series of carefully controlled studies with promising results in areas ranging from helping terminally ill cancer patients deal with the existential challenge of confronting death to treating severe depression, as well as psilocybin use as an aid to facilitate people dealing with addiction to alcohol and other drugs.
The day after the election, the Hopkins team published a small but groundbreaking study in JAMA Psychiatry that found that “psilocybin-assisted therapy was efficacious in producing large, rapid, and sustained antidepressant effects in patients with major depressive disorder.”
Those in the state legislature who have taken a go-slow approach on moving to legalizing marijuana for recreational use have argued that such a move would entail risks. Yes, there are always risks — but they must be balanced against the risk of the status quo and the potential benefits, not only of tax revenue but also the freeing of police resources and the broadening of individual freedom that this would achieve.
Regarding the therapeutic use of psilocybin by trained facilitators, the argument against legalization is even weaker. Such therapeutic legalization would not create tax revenue. It would, however, provide a critical tool for therapists who now have their hands tied in helping their fellow human beings deal with some of mankind’s most persistent and vexing challenges.
It is way past time for Maryland to legalize recreational use of marijuana and the therapeutic use of psilocybin. The socioeconomic and cultural imperatives of this time make it clear that 2021 should be the year that our state legislature wakes up to the incontrovertible reality that the war on drugs has been an abject failure, causing collateral damage across our state and our nation.