The House of Representatives may vote before the end of the week to lift a longstanding legal barrier to scientific research into both marijuana and psychedelic drugs like ecstasy and magic mushrooms.
An amendment offered by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) would abolish a rider that's been attached to federal spending bills since 1996 prohibiting federal spending on "any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance in Schedule I" of the Controlled Substances Act. In effect, the rider is a ban on all research into the benefits and risks of many recreational drugs, because any institution—like a university—that tried to research a Schedule I drug could lose its federal funding for unrelated projects.
"This bill is likely to encourage more government-funded and private research," says Brad Burge, communications director for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. "A big benefit will be the elimination of the stigma around that research."
Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Forbes that the budget rider language had "served as a gag rule on government employees discussing the benefits of legalization."
But the conversation about the benefits—and potential risks—of using marijuana and psychedelics is now happening, whether Congress likes it or not. Clearing the way for additional research into those drugs will help craft public policy regarding their use, and could open the door to additional medical uses.
In a series of tweets after introducing the amendment on Friday, Ocasio-Cortez touted the potential of psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms, for treating individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. "It's well past time we take drug use out of criminal consideration," she wrote. "The War on Drugs has caused so much harm. It's time to reverse it."
Indeed, psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy, are enjoying a sudden breakthrough in public opinion—one that coincides with greater demand for studying how they affect the brain. As Reason's Jacob Sullum wrote last month, shortly before voters in Denver narrowly legalized magic mushrooms for recreational use, "the Food and Drug Administration's approval of psilocybin as a treatment for depression, which seems increasingly likely now that the agency has deemed it a 'breakthrough therapy,' may help shift public opinion. The fact that neither addiction nor fatal overdose are salient concerns in connection with psilocybin also should help, notwithstanding the drug's relatively limited appeal."
Even the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which has long opposed the legalization of marijuana, now admits that federal barriers to researching the drug are too high. In January, Susan Weiss, research director at NIDA, criticized the "complex and lengthy registration process" that would-be cannabis researchers have to complete, as well as the fact that researches must source their marijuana from a single government-approved grower.
All of that could change if Ocasio-Cortez' proposal is included in the "minibus" spending bill expected to be voted on later this week. It's not yet clear whether the amendment will survive a floor vote (or whether it would be subsequently approved by the Senate), but it has already overcome the first hurdle. The amendment cleared the House Rules Committee, which controls whether amendments can be offered on the floor as potential attachments to other pieces of legislation, on Monday night, opening a path for it to be included in the spending bill.
Ocasio-Cortez' proposal enjoys bipartisan backing, with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R–Fla.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D–Calif.) announcing their support on Monday.
"That's huge," says Burge of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Even if this attempt at ending the longstanding prohibition on drug research fails, he points out, the effort will "really help us when it comes to outreach to other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle."