Opinion: Psychedelic Decriminalisation Only Scratches the Surface

by Katya Kowalski

Decriminalising psychedelic drugs is undoubtedly an important step for social justice. However, there is a much larger issue that needs to be addressed for the psychedelic movement. To see real and widespread change, psychedelic drugs must be accepted in the mainstream medical framework with regulatory clarity setting out a structured pathway.

Decriminalisation is necessary but not a sufficient stepping stone for reform. Psychedelics have an incredible potential to treat a variety of mental health conditions and if we are to simply decriminalise, it attains very little for a mental health revolution.

Given the mental health crisis we are living through, psychedelics could just be the answer. 

To achieve this, psychedelics have an urgent need to fit into the existing mental health narrative and be perceived like any medication in our medical establishment. This means that framing psychedelics as an element of the drug reform debate could hinder this being achieved. 

A conservative government in the UK is highly unlikely to get on board with psychedelic reform simply because it is the correct thing to do. However, they are significantly more likely to get on board if it isn’t framed as drug reform at all.

Drug reform has always faced the challenge of being an inherently liberal issue, making it incredibly difficult to engage a conservative UK government. To see this kind of policy change requires engagement with hard-to-reach groups and individuals that disagree with reform – something which is certainly easier said than done. Nevertheless, psychedelics have a real opportunity to positively disrupt this and be framed as something entirely different. 

What psychedelics need is a fresh, new perspective that no longer sees this as a left-wing issue. Given how controversial of an issue psychedelics have been in the past, reform must be recontextualised.

What if psychedelics were framed as a mental health reform issue rather than one of drug use?

Though calling for decriminalisation is important, seeing these compounds used at scale for therapeutic use requires accompaniment of market authorisation and regulatory clarity for testing psychedelics in a clinical setting. 

If we simply call for decriminalisation, it does nothing to address our mental health crisis – this unique aspect to psychedelic drugs is far too precious to be ignored.

Instead, placing psychedelics into the existing medical narrative as something which is not controversial will advance reform.

Drug reformers often make the mistake of campaigning for widespread access and sweeping change immediately. Starting the conservation here will only go to shift conservatives further away from the topic, polarising the field further. 

Instead we must see scalable, sustainable and longitudinal change. This requires finding a common ground to stand on, in which frames that can immediately advance the agenda are accepted. 

The UK now has the opportunity to highlight how psychedelics could open an entirely new revenue stream for mental healthcare. There is a unique space the UK can occupy by leading research, grasping an economic opportunity and celebrating solutions for treatment. 

The psychedelic solution does of course require careful consideration around accessibility issues, ensuring this is not simply an elitist treatment. There is a need to ensure this wouldn’t just be a treatment which drives health inequalities further. 

To avoid this, psychedelic-assisted therapy must be framed as the opportunity to relieve the financial burden of treatment and disability caused by mental illness currently on the NHS and for the UK economy.

When discussing wider psychedelic reform, the UK isn’t a million miles away. Looking across the Atlantic, ballot measures in the US have allowed reform to flourish – Oregon decriminalised in late 2020 and California is on the horizon for full legalisation. Although it feels unachievable now, it could be just around the corner if approached correctly. 

Let us tackle stigma around psychedelics and mental health together. Reframing the debate to address this gives us a better chance of seeing accepted policy change. 

We are no longer talking about drug reform but mental health reform. To see success, psychedelics need to play into an accepted narrative as a quantum leap for mental health.

The piece was written by Katya Kowalski, Head of Strategy at Volteface. Tweets @KowalskiKatya

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