Amanda Siebert:

The case for decriminalizing plant medicines and psychedelics

Photo: Donald Giannatti via Unsplash

How many people in your community have died as a result of the opioid crisis? 10? 100? 1,000?

What about people suffering from a mental health condition? How many have access to treatment or therapy? How many can even afford it?

In Canada, half the population will experience a mental health issue by the age of 40. Mental health conditions are the number-one cause of disability in Canada, accounting for up to 70 percent of all disability claims and costing taxpayers $51 billion a year. Depression and PTSD are at the root of the nation’s overdose crisis, which has killed more than 15,000 people since 2016, while one in five Canadians meets the criteria for substance use disorder. Each year in Canada, there are more deaths attributable to substance use disorder than motor vehicle accidents. Despite the billions of dollars being poured into these crises, it’s news to no one with a mental health issue that our healthcare system is ill-equipped to handle the vast number of Canadians who are suffering.

In 2018, one in five Canadians required mental health care, but only half felt their needs were sufficiently met. In addition, financial barriers continue to prevent many individuals from seeking the help they need. Even when subsidies are provided, treatment isn’t always available. When Ontario made online therapy free to its residents during COVID-19, it wasn’t long before demand outstripped supply. Even if Canadians are able to access treatment, studies show that an estimated 30 percent of individuals diagnosed with depression are treatment-resistant, making matters even more challenging.

The potential to heal

What if I told you there was a way for the hundreds of thousands of Canadians suffering from mental health issues to feel well without having to take a pill everyday? What if I told you there was a way for the thousands of Canadians suffering from opiate addiction to detox safely without experiencing a single negative side effect? What if I told you some Canadians were already pursuing these paths to save their own lives, in spite of laws that deem them criminals for doing so?

Enter plant medicines.

You may have already seen the headlines, but these are no longer the psychedelic substances our hippie parents used in the 1960s. In fact, there is a growing body of clinical research from scientists around the globe supporting the idea that substances like magic mushrooms, ayahuasca, ibogaine, peyote, San Pedro, and several others provide long-lasting solutions to depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction, as well as end-of-life anxiety for people with terminal illnesses. No longer considered to be the harmful or damaging substances they once were, plant medicines have emerged as wildly powerful potential keys to healing and human improvement, one’s that create lasting positive change in people’s lives, often removing the need or reliance on other medications. But that’s just the beginning.

Plant medicines and psychedelics are non-addictive and in the right set and setting, can be a safe path to recovery. Contrary to what physicians in the ‘70s might have had you believe, they are not linked to mental health problems, or suicidal behaviour.

Ibogaine, a plant medicine from Gabon, Africa, can help those with opioid use disorder detox without experiencing any side effects. Psilocybin, the main ingredient in magic mushrooms, has been shown to alleviate depression, PTSD, and end-of-life anxiety. Ayahuasca, a tea brewed from plants in the Amazon, has been shown to have long-lasting positive impacts on those suffering from complex trauma. The latter two substances have also been shown to help with smoking cessation, alcoholism, and even cocaine addiction. This is just the tip of the research iceberg. At the root of how these substances affect mental health is their positive impact on brain plasticity. They work to help form new pathways in the brain, allowing humans to break out of repetitive behaviours, habits, and thought patterns—things that conventional treatments often fail to do.

Even using these substances in small, subperceptual amounts is proving to have benefits for people with and without mental health issues. This trend is known as microdosing and has gained attention from academics and tech-forward individuals alike, with the potential to improve cognitive function without the psychoactive implications associated with taking large doses. Microdosing is currently being studied in a dedicated program at the University of Toronto.

While the wave of support for these medicines is growing around the world, the use of sacramental and medicinal plants and fungi dates to prehistory. Indigenous people in communities on every continent have used plant medicines since time immemorial to treat illnesses of both the body and mind. And with studies being conducted at such prestigious institutions including Johns Hopkins, NYU, and UCLA, research is beginning to explain why communities with a history of sacramental plant medicine use have healthier populations: these substances have the potential to improve mental and emotional health and quality of life in ways that Western medical treatments do not.

The criminalization of wellness

In Canada, these potentially life-saving substances remain illegal. Without decriminalization, accessing and using plant medicines is a criminal offence. The war on drugs has proven to be a failure, and the architects of it have admitted that their motivation behind it was not based on science or the interest of public health and safety, but on racism and classism. The continued prohibition of plant medicines and of all substance use stands in stark contrast to this country’s existing progressive healthcare policies, and deserves to be reconsidered in the best interest of the health of Canadians—particularly in light of the ongoing overdose crisis, and because every public health expert worth their salt has called on the government repeatedly to decriminalize drugs. Even our police chiefs are backing the initiative to decriminalize simple drug possession.

By decriminalizing sacramental plant medicines, Canada would be in line with existing global policy in the UN’s Convention on Psychotropic Substances, a nearly 50-year-old document that recognizes the value of these substances and exempts them from the law in cultural and social circumstances. Cities such as Oakland, Denver, and Santa Cruz have already taken steps to decriminalize plant medicines, and while it’s too early to tell what effect this has had, it’s safe to say residents there are no longer at risk of being thrown in jail for healing their trauma with plants. Over and above the possibilities for mental health improvement provided by plant medicines, well people will be empowered to realize greater wholeness, purpose, and connection—outcomes that have been repeatedly backed by historical use and modern science.

Society pays the price of inadequate mental-health treatments in loss of life and in unmet human potential. Those costs are far too high. Innovative methods must be added to our existing health-care system.

The benefits of decriminalization

Decriminalization would not create a market for plant medicines or authorize recreational use or retail marketing. It would simply allow facilitators, practitioners, and therapists engaged with these substances to be more transparent about their work, without the fear of being charged with a crime. Similarly, would-be participants would feel safer in seeking out information and accessing plant medicines no longer considered to be illegal.

This is why I hope the campaign to decriminalize plant medicines in Canada succeeds: because everyone knows someone with depression; because everyone knows someone who has died as a result of the overdose crisis. But also, because Canadians deserve to have access to all the possible ways to improve their health. Whether Canadians are suffering from a mental health issue, grappling with addiction, or seeking to improve their existing quality of life, plant medicines provide opportunities for greater wellness for all.

It’s time to reverse this harmful and outdated policy and grant Canadians the opportunity to safely access alternative healing modalities that don’t come with a prescription. Improving one’s health is a choice of bodily autonomy, and one that shouldn’t come with the risk of criminalization. In Canada, we can already use cannabis legally, and ask for a doctor’s assistance in death. We are known globally as a forward-thinking, compassionate nation. It’s a no-brainer: the next step is decriminalizing plant medicines, so that the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who are suffering can have their healthcare needs met, and be free from the trap of mental illness and addiction.

And while health is more valuable than money, let me reiterate that mental health issues cost the Canadian economy $51 billion a year. Decriminalization of sacramental plant medicines would significantly reduce this number.

Despite the best efforts of our healthcare and education systems, young Canadians are now at greater risk of mental health issues than ever. Despite the push for greater harm reduction measures, more British Columbians died of a drug overdose in June 2020 than any month previously recorded, and numbers for July are looking grim. Despite our universal healthcare system, 2.3 million Canadians failed to have their mental healthcare needs met in 2018.

These Canadians deserve every possible opportunity to be well. Despite the current status of plant medicines in Canada, lives are being saved. It’s important that we do everything in our power to protect that.

Now is the time to decriminalize plant medicines and make them accessible to all. Science and thousands of years of human use cannot be wrong. There are no downsides to decriminalizing sacramental plant medicines; only greater opportunities for wellness in our communities, and across the country.

Note from the editor: This was written with the purpose of being used as an eight to 10-minute pitch. Feel free to read, share, and repeat wherever and with whomever you see fit. It can also be republished under the Creative Commons terms listed here. Note that the window for the original petition to decriminalize plant medicines in Canada has closed. Should another petition arise, this story will be updated.