The Bay Area is no stranger to psychedelic drugs. The region attained an almost mythical status for its LSD-infused counterculture in the 1960s. And recently, legislators are aiming to decriminalize psychedelics and academics are researching the drugs’ ability to treat mental health issues.
On Tuesday, San Francisco Supervisors Dean Preston and Hillary Ronen introduced legislation that would would decriminalize use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms and other entheogenic plants such as mescaline.
This legislation dovetails with the Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics’ new website and training program, announced Wednesday, which aims to inform the public about the burgeoning use of psychedelics for addressing mental health issues. The center was founded in 2020 to conduct psychedelic research, training and public education under the supervision of interdisciplinary faculty at UC Berkeley.
Its co-founder is psychedelics superstar Michael Pollan, UC Berkeley’s John S. and James L. Knight professor of journalism and best-selling author, most recently of “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.” Pollan is leading the center’s public education program, which, if psychedelics are decriminalized in The City, would become an essential resource for those looking to begin treatment.
“These substances have enormous potential, but they are not for everyone and they carry serious risks when used improperly,” said Pollan at a news conference. “The shift from destroyer of young minds in the ’60s to effective medicine in the 2020s is as sudden as it is confusing to many people. So we want to address that confusion and that curiosity with solid, credible information from a trusted source.”
Pollan also noted, “Not many people were doing basic science, trying to understand how it is that psychedelics have the effects they have and why they’re effective in the treatment of various mental disorders. We want to figure out what psychedelics might teach us about things like perception, predictive processing, belief change and brain plasticity.”
Among the center’s aims is to explore the chemical makeup of “magic mushrooms” and other plant-based psychedelics in order to establish their safety for clinical trials.
Andrea Gomez, assistant professor of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley and a member of the center’s executive committee, said, “I believe a major strength of conducting psychedelic research at the BCSP is that, over the last half-century, there has been piecemeal advancement of clinical psychedelic science. On the contrary, innovations in molecular biology have exploded.”
Gomez explained, “Owing to rapid advances in sequencing and gene editing technologies, we now possess the ability to edit our own DNA, to identify genes in our genome that may be mutated and cause pathological conditions such as neurodegeneration. By harnessing the power of these gene editing technologies … we think this is a fantastic potential for understanding what genes are activated by psychedelics, how do they change the brain. And can we edit them?”
The center is also developing a training program for medical, religious, and other health care professionals who want to guide patients through psychedelics treatment. A study performed by John Hopkins Medicine found that two doses of psilocybin, along with supportive psychotherapy, reduced depressive symptoms in over half of the patients diagnosed with major depression. After four weeks, 54% of patients were considered to be in remission, meaning that they were no longer clinically depressed.
“We’re finding that there’s an increasingly large need for professionally trained facilitators to provide safe, legal and effective psychedelic assisted therapy,” said Tina Trujillo, associate professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Education and an executive committee member of the center. “The field has recognized that these substances alone are not a magic pill. They’re part of a larger system of sophisticated and coordinated care. That includes a trained guide or facilitator who supports clients to prepare to undergo and integrate their psychedelic experiences into the rest of their lives.”
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Pollan echoed this sentiment. “Estimates are we’re going to need 100,000 trained psychedelic facilitators when psilocybin and MDMA are approved by the FDA, which is expected to happen within the next five years or so,” he said.
This fall, the center is launching its first certificate program in psychedelic facilitation. Twenty-four licensed professionals, including chaplains, medical doctors, nurses, psychotherapists and social workers, will undergo 175 hours of professional preparation over the course of nine months. Trujillo said the course integrates five domains of knowledge: spiritual care, contemplative practice, psychotherapeutic methods, clinical science and research, and ancestral entheogenic traditions.
As the field of psychedelic therapy expands and the need for trained facilitators potentially increases, center leaders said they want to avoid the traditional exclusion of marginalized communities.
“We’re committed to creating a diverse and inclusive learning environment,” said Trujillo. “The field of psychedelic-assisted care is largely a white socio-economic privilege space. We’re committed to doing better on behalf of all the communities who have been historically excluded from these types of care.”
Gomez said this year the center developed an Indigenous science student fellowship that “focuses on the Indigenous science of psychedelics.”
The federal legalization of psychedelic medicine is making rapid progress in Congress, and Oregon became the first state to legalize the use of psilocybin under professional supervision, starting in 2023.
Oregon’s legislation accompanies recent bipartisan efforts in Congress to legalize the use of MDMA (popularized as the rave drug molly or ecstasy) and psilocybin for terminally ill patients and armed services members suffering from trauma.
While the center has no official stance on legalization, Pollan anticipates that psychedelics will be increasingly decriminalized in the coming years.
“One of the striking things about the Oregon experiment, which passed by ballot initiative in 2020, is that it will make a guided psychedelic experience available to anyone over 21, regardless of diagnosis,” said Pollan. “I do think that the use of psychedelics will not be restricted to the medical system. It’s not now and won’t be in the future.”
Correction: This article originally misstated the day San Francisco Supervisors Dean Preston and Hillary Ronen introduced legislation that would would decriminalize use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms and other entheogenic plants. It was Tuesday, July 26, not Wednesday, July 27.