A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis marketplace in Los Angeles. Lawmakers throughout the United States are weighing proposals to legalize psychedelic mushrooms and research into alternative treatments for depression and anxiety. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Pennsylvania could soon join the flood of cities and states opening the door to decriminalization, research, and even legalization of psychedelics.

The Philly region is already home to a broad array of therapists, social workers, scientists, and researchers anxious to see psychedelics like psilocybin (as in magic mushrooms), LSD, and MDMA (aka molly or ecstasy) given the chance to safely reach an audience. They gathered mid-July at Penn for the PhilaDelic Conference on the Interdisciplinary Frontiers of Psychedelic Studies.

Colette Condorcita, the founder and chair of Decriminalize Nature Philadelphia, who spoke at the conference, told Billy Penn she’s had positive conversations with the legislative directors for five members of City Council about a resolution that would deprioritize the arrest and prosecution of individuals using psychedelics found in plants and fungi. 

“We’re in this amazing moment where there’s a massive cultural re-evaluation happening with these tools,” Condorcita said, “and it’s finally reaching a city like Philadelphia and a state like Pennsylvania.”

With more meetings lined up before City Council’s fall session, Condorcita said her organization is still searching for a “champion” for the resolution in City Hall, but she expects hearings in the coming months. 

At the state level, a bill to promote research into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin stalled in the Pa. House last March, but since then the balance of the chamber has changed.

Brett Waters, a Lower Merion native and lawyer who founded psychedelic advocacy group Reason for Hope, pointed out that last year’s bill already had the support of 10 Republican and 10 Democratic representatives. New legislation expected to be introduced stands a better chance of advancing, he said, after Democrats flipped the House last fall.

“What we currently have to offer from a treatment perspective is simply not enough,” Waters said. “It’s not even close.”

Waters launched Reason for Hope five years ago after losing his mother to suicide. His grandfather, a WWII veteran, also died by suicide years earlier.

Psychedelics, he said, “have a chance to lead to some significant systemic changes in the way we think about and treat mental health conditions” by “getting to the root cause and helping people break out of rigid patterns.”

Help for depression, PTSD, people living with addiction

The FDA is expected to approve MDMA therapy for PTSD in the next year, and though some new laws are being enacted in places known for liberal policies around drugs, like Colorado and Oregon, the psychedelic bandwagon includes other states that might come as a surprise. 

Texas legalized psychedelic research two years ago. Arizona, Utah, Hawaii, Oklahoma, and Missouri are considering laws around research or therapeutic use. The Connecticut House passed a bill to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms and last year established a pilot program for therapeutic access.

Meanwhile, neighboring New Jersey has reduced the penalties for possession of psilocybin and is considering a bill that would legalize its use to treat mental illness and addiction in adults. 

Victor Cabral, a licensed social worker trained in psychedelic-assisted therapy who served as deputy director in Gov. Tom Wolf’s Office of Advocacy and Reform, believes that while decriminalization is unlikely to pass in Pa., more conservative policies are within reach. 

A law allowing veterans or other vulnerable populations to access psychedelic-assisted therapy could bridge the gap and share bipartisan support, said Cabral, who has collaborated with Waters, of Reason for Hope, on advocacy efforts.

Waters has helped garner funding for similar programs in other states, allowing “real-world patients” to receive therapy for PTSD and treatment-resistant depression. In doing so, states can treat veterans who might otherwise leave the country in search of psychedelic therapy elsewhere, he said, while also collecting data on the efficacy of a program to inform further expansions.

Any progress would be meaningful for a city like Philly, said Condorcita, of Decriminalize Nature Philadelphia. 

“The tools we’re working to decriminalize can be so incredibly supportive for fundamentally healing the existential trauma that comes from structural racism, violence, and poverty,” she said.

Psychedelic therapy has been shown to help not only with depression, eating disorders, and alcohol use disorder, Condorcita noted, but there’s a new lead that shows promise for people living with addiction: ibogaine, a naturally occurring psychedelic extracted from the roots of a Central African plant.

Kentucky’s Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission held a hearing on ibogaine last month as it considers investing in research. Waters, who’s been working with the Kentucky commission, said he’s hopeful Pennsylvania and other states might partner on that effort. Philadelphia has recorded more than 1,000 deaths from opioid overdoses in each of the past several years.

Making sure reform is equitable

As advocates push for change, the lessons of the marijuana reform movement are top of mind. 

Even as medical and recreational use has expanded, inequities have persisted in the way existing laws are enforced, as well as access from both a consumer and industry perspective.

In psychedelic research to this point, white study participants have been overrepresented, leading to concerns about who will have access to treatment and how reflective research will be of the entire population, said Cabral, the social worker.

“In order for these policies to be equitable, we need to be talking upfront about how to make sure that whatever legislation is being passed, it’s embedded in there that we need a diverse sample of folks so we can gather that data,” Cabral said.

Unless Pennsylvania rolls out a model that allows psychedelic-assisted therapy to be accessed through medical insurance, including Medicaid, it will remain costly and out of the reach of many residents, reinforcing current inequities in the medical system.

Cabral stressed that now is the time to build in guardrails and policies that ensure the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of psilocybin, MDMA, LSD, and other drugs reach everyone who needs them. 

“We need to continue to create opportunities for our communities, specifically BIPOC communities,” Cabral said, “to provide education, to reconnect them to the relationships their cultures had with these medicines even before all this, and to galvanize them to get involved and have their voices heard.”