A good predictor that restrictive laws are on their way out is when large numbers of people honor them in the breach. Prohibition famously foundered on Americans' desire to keep the party going. Marijuana legalization gained acceptance as a large and growing segment of the U.S. population enjoyed its use despite government-imposed restrictions.
If this pattern holds, we should soon expect psychedelic drugs to overcome legal barriers. That won't just be a victory for people's freedom to make their own choices, but also for innovators who see therapeutic promise in LSD, magic mushrooms, and MDMA.
In poll results published last week by YouGov America, 28 percent of respondents reported having used at least one of seven specified psychedelic drugs. The drugs mentioned were LSD (acid), psilocybin (mushrooms), MDMA (ecstasy), mescaline (peyote), ketamine, DMT, and salvia. LSD and mushrooms were favored by 14 percent and 13 percent of respondents, respectively. Nine percent had used MDMA. Other drugs enjoyed lesser degrees of popularity.
By and large, Americans still oppose legalization of these drugs, the pollsters found. But "people who have tried these three drugs are more supportive of decriminalizing them." Leading the pack were magic mushrooms: "Two-thirds of people who have tried psilocybin (68 percent) say it should be legal."
At 28 percent usage across the population, psychedelics have penetrated mainstream American culture to a significant extent. It looks like those old D.A.R.E. lessons were every bit as effective as researchers expected: A 1992 Indiana University Study found that participation in the anti-drug program increased rates of "hallucinogenic" drug use among graduates. That certainly provided job security for police officers who taught the program in schools and apparently generated a new generation of lawbreakers. Importantly, we've been here before. Prohibition was famously a failure because enforcement was impossible when much of the population defied the law or at least tolerated scofflawry.
"This episode examines the problems of enforcement, as millions of law-abiding Americans become lawbreakers overnight," PBS noted of the second installment in Ken Burns' documentary Prohibition, about the country's massive policy mistake in trying to ban alcoholic beverages.
Repeal soon became an attractive proposition and alcoholic beverages were (mostly) re-legalized.
Marijuana provides even easier fodder for comparison since we have more data on behavior and opinions over time. It's apparent that support for legalization grew as its use became accepted among a sizeable minority of Americans.
"More than 50 years ago, just 4 percent said they had tried the drug, but that percentage surpassed 20 percent in 1977, 30 percent in 1985 and 40 percent in 2015," Gallup reported in 2021 of marijuana use. There was a big jump as states dropped their laws against cannabis, but Gallup found that at least one-third of the population consistently tried marijuana between 1985 and legalization of recreational use in Colorado and Washington in 2012. Over that time support for legalization steadily increased, eventually reaching majority status.
"Support for legalizing marijuana has risen 11 points since 2010," Pew Research reported in 2013 when 52 percent of Americans favored legalization. "The change is even more dramatic since the late 1960s. A 1969 Gallup survey found that just 12 percent favored legalizing marijuana use, while 84 percent were opposed."
The link between familiarity with and acceptance of an illegal intoxicant and changing attitudes toward its status haven't been lost on government officials.
"One possibility is that marijuana use is a barometer of public attitudes about illicit drug use," an Office of National Drug Control Policy report fretted in 1994. "If more people are smoking marijuana, it could reflect increased acceptance of illicit drug use in general."
Attitudes were changing. Two years later, marijuana was legalized for medical use by ballot measures in Arizona and California (the Arizona measure was rendered ineffective by poor drafting). Legal recreational use (even if in defiance of federal law) began at the state level in 2012.
If scofflawry ended Prohibition, and interest in marijuana by one-third of the population led to legalization, what can we expect when 28 percent of Americans experiment with psychedelic drugs? History suggests that, if the numbers hold, support for letting people make their own choices will rise.
That softening of attitudes can only be helped by growing evidence that psychedelic drugs can offer mental health benefits for a variety of ailments. "Early studies suggest hallucinogens could help free patients from psychiatric disorders, from addiction to depression," the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus pointed out in an article published last month.
In July, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R–Texas) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) co-sponsored defense-spending amendments that would ease research into the use of psychedelics to treat military personnel for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"When asked about it, a majority of Americans (54 percent) say they support such research, while 18 percent oppose it," YouGov adds. "People who've tried at least one psychedelic drug are more likely to support the PTSD research (71 percent) than are people who haven't (47 percent)."
With medical researchers adding support for the medical use of psychedelics to the positive experiences of recreational users, it's difficult to see how acceptance of the drugs doesn't grow. And with acceptance is likely to come, as in the past, opposition to caging people for consuming these substances.
This November, Colorado voters will have an opportunity to ease restrictions on magic mushrooms, a move already made by Oregonians. Other states are considering allowing medical use for treating emotional and mental disorders. Cities including San Francisco may emulate decriminalization moves in Oakland, Denver, and Detroit.
"It's all part of a mass movement to decriminalize and eventually legalize drugs like psilocybin mushrooms and open up access for all," reports Bloomberg.
We're still years away from completely eliminating threats of arrest and prosecution to those who use mushrooms, MDMA, LSD, and similar substances. But as the legal barriers fall away, we'll owe the credit to those who were determined to make their own decisions without regard for the preferences of prohibitionist politicians.