Psychedelics for Mental Health Explained Amid Hopes Illinois Will Relax Law

Activists supporting the use of psychedelic drugs as medicinal treatments are working with a state official to decriminalize them in Illinois.

Representative La Shawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat, has sponsored a bill called the Illinois Compassionate Use of Natural Plants and Fungi Act that would decriminalize the possession, use, and production of some psychoactive natural plants and fungi.

This would include decriminalizing psilocybin, the well-known psychedelic compound that is active in magic mushrooms.

The bill would also establish the Illinois Psilocybin Advisory Board, which would consist of public health experts and researchers in the field of psychedelics.

"Some people in the mental health profession are asking for a new approach," Ford told the Chicago Tribune. "We don't need to have another situation where people are being criminalized like they were with marijuana."

Support for psychedelics as medication is nothing new. Indeed, it goes back decades to the 1940s at least, when Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann started testing lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, on himself after he discovered it accidentally and noted its effect in animal testing.

Positive Effects

He found that LSD could have positive effects on his mood. What followed was decades of research into the substance, including as a cure for alcoholism and mental illness, which yielded some promising results.

At the same time, LSD was used for more nefarious purposes. Under a covert operation called MK-ULTRA, the CIA conducted many LSD experiments on people as part of an investigation into whether it could be put to military use.

Abuse and stigmatization of psychoactive drugs led to their criminalization in the 1960s and '70s, with LSD and others being placed into Schedule I of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act—the most restrictive schedule.

This "severely constrained development of psychedelic substances and their potential for clinical research in psychiatric disorders," according to a 2018 review published in the journal Neuropharmacology by researchers Sean Belouin and Jack Henningfield.

Despite the limitations, some research continued. One 2020 review of randomized-controlled clinical trials into the therapeutic use of LSD in psychiatry found that "the vast majority of authors described important positive short-term changes in patients" and that "despite some controversial results … LSD is revealed as a potential therapeutic agent in psychiatry; the evidence to date is strongest for the use of LSD in the treatment of alcoholism."

Psilocybin, meanwhile, has been researched as a treatment for anxiety and depression. One small 2016 study of 12 people suggested that even brief medication of two doses appeared to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression for several months, though there was no control group.

Yet such studies tend to be carried out by smaller organizations, while larger, risk-averse companies hold back, according to Belouin and Henningfield, and these smaller organizations may not have the funding to develop medicines through large safety and efficacy trials.

None of this is to say that such drugs can't be harmful. Both LSD and psilocybin carry the risk of the user having an unpleasant experience and are known to cause delusions and hallucinations in large enough doses, while overdose can lead to psychosis.

In any case, the potential benefits of psychoactive compounds as medicine continue to be investigated. It remains to be seen whether the efforts to decriminalize psilocybin in Illinois will be successful.

Outside of research, psychedelic plants have been used by non-Western cultures for thousands of years. Modern day usage by such cultures includes Amazonian use of Ayahuasca, a plant compound containing DMT, and indigenous American usage of the Peyote cactus, which contains mescaline, Royal College of Psychiatrists member Ben Sessa wrote in 2006.

A file photo depicts mushrooms that may be psychedelic. Medicinal uses of psychedelic drugs have been researched for decades. Yarygin/Getty