NV stops short of decriminalizing ‘magic mushrooms’ some call transformative for mental health
Editor's note: This story has been adapted from the Aug. 1 episode of the IndyMatters podcast.
John Dalton, a retired Navy SEAL, lost nine of his fellow SEALs in the last year — all to suicide or alcoholism induced by PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.
“It became obvious to me that current treatment modalities were just not cutting it,” he told The Nevada Independent.
In the wake of this loss, Dalton turned to advocating for a new kind of treatment for veterans, first responders and others who suffer from mental illness: magic mushrooms.
Scientifically known as psilocybin, magic mushrooms are a naturally occurring psychedelic currently illegal in all states except Oregon, Colorado and certain cities, including Washington, D.C.
A hallucinogen, psilocybin can induce a range of effects including sensory distortions, euphoria, and anxiety depending on the user and dosage.
Although a bill was introduced this year by state lawmakers to decriminalize psilocybin in Nevada, the final version of SB242 signed by Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo only created a working group to study the use of psychedelics and the impact that decriminalization and medical legalization could have in the state.
This bill, passed with bipartisan support in both the Senate and Assembly, mirrors efforts in other states (such as Oregon and Colorado) to explore the benefits that psychedelics could have on mental health outcomes.
The science behind ‘magic’ mushrooms
Psilocybin is found in certain types of psilocybe mushrooms, which can be ingested orally and brewed in tea. Though magic mushrooms are not considered addictive, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has classified them as a Schedule I substance, indicating a high risk of abuse and no legitimate medical use.
But proponents say the medicinal properties of psilocybin are still not fully understood.
Advocates and users say that when used properly, magic mushrooms can help treat mental health issues from anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For this kind of treatment, psilocybin is often taken in a microdose — between 0.1 and 0.3 grams, or 10 percent of a full hallucination-inducing dose.
As Kate Cotter, executive director of Nevada Coalition for Psychedelic Medicines, explained, “There's not a lot of research out on microdosing. There's a lot of anecdotal evidence to support that it helps with mood and creativity.”
An early psilocybin study started at Harvard in 1960 found that microdoses could lead to a mood boost and self-reflection in users, without inducing some of the riskier side effects such as hallucination. In June 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released guidance for research involving psilocybin, emphasizing that the drug is still in an “investigational” stage.
Advocates like Cotter suggest that in a controlled environment, psilocybin can help alleviate symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and addition. But the magic of magic mushrooms has its limits — for patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, it can worsen symptoms.
Rochelle Hines, a neuroscientist at UNLV who studies serotonin and how psilocybin can affect mental health, emphasized that psychedelics alone are not a cure-all without being backed up by more traditional methods of therapy. She explained that “just making the brain labile to change probably isn't gonna be enough. There may need to be supports in place to help people work through and solidify those changes.”
Decriminalizing addiction, legalizing mental health care
On the tail of movements to legalize medical and recreational marijuana have come similar efforts to decriminalize other drugs and legalize them under certain circumstances.
In 2020, Oregon became the first state in the nation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of most drugs, including LSD, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. Instead of facing criminal penalties for drug possession, Oregonians now face a small civil citation similar to a parking ticket.
Though the implementation of Oregon’s policy has seen mixed success, advocates — including state and municipal officials — heralded it as a step toward ending what boils down to be the criminalization of addiction.
The original bill proposed in Nevada this year would have seen the state take a similar approach as Oregon. The possession, use and cultivation of up to 4 ounces of psilocybin-containing mushrooms would not have been made legal, but the bill would have removed associated criminal penalties.
Law enforcement groups from across the state expressed opposition to the decriminalization aspects of the bill over concerns about public safety, especially keeping children and drivers safe. But supporters said that psychedelics could help law enforcement and first-responders deal with work-related trauma.
In addition, the bill would have mandated a study on the treatment of mental health and other medical conditions with psilocybin in adults.
But the final version of the bill does neither of those things. Instead, it creates a working group of politicians, advocates, scientists and psychiatrists to review the current research on the medicinal uses of psilocybin and assess the possibility of rolling out safe access to appropriate psychedelic treatment by the end of 2024.
Scot Rutledge, a lobbyist with Argentum Partners who supported the later version of the bill, said that changing the criminalization laws was an effort to solve a non-existent problem.
“If you ask law enforcement, and this was part of the public record, people are not getting arrested for psychedelics and it's not something that's being prosecuted,” Rutledge explained to The Nevada Independent.
The version of the bill that was passed leaves Nevada’s current psilocybin penalties untouched: up to four years in prison or $5,000 in fines.
A threat to sacred indigenous practices?
While psilocybin and other psychedelics have seemingly sprung to political relevance in just the last few years in Nevada and other states, they have played an important role throughout history.
Researchers believe that the use of psilocybin dates back to 9,000 BCE in North Africa and Spain, though some researchers speculate that it could have been used even earlier and helped move along the evolution of the homo sapien.
More specifically, psilocybin use for religious and ceremonial purposes can be traced back to indigenous tribes of Mexico and Central America as early as 3,500 years ago.
Today, psilocybin and other psychedelics such as peyote and ayahuasca still play an important role for certain tribes throughout the Americas.
These customs are sacred to those who practice them and some advocacy groups, like the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, say that decriminalization — expanding access to limited resources that have long been available only to tribes — would be yet another form of colonization. Peyote is particularly rare, growing naturally only in small areas and taking many years to cultivate, so some advocates encouraged lawmakers to decriminalize psilocybin, but not other psychedelics.
In order to address potential conflicts between decriminalization and indigenous traditions, the Nevada bill requires a representative of a tribal government to be appointed to the working group.
“I think where we landed was the result of a very comprehensive set of conversations with stakeholders,” Rutledge said of the bill.
Though psilocybin and other psychedelics are not currently slated for decriminalization, advocates still feel hopeful that they can work out a solution that will meet the needs of everyone — from law enforcement officers, to veterans struggling with PTSD, to indigenous communities trying to protect the practices most sacred to them.
Dalton, the Navy SEAL, said that he expects getting Nevadans on board with psilocybin treatments will take time.
“I absolutely did not believe in the potential that this medicine had until I got to know it and understand this whole culture and look at the neuroscience behind it,” he said. “And I think all Nevadans will believe the same thing once they see it.”