Minneapolis Mayor to Loosen Enforcement of Psychedelics

Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis said he intended to issue an executive order on Friday instructing the city’s police officers to, in essence, look the other way when it comes to the purchase and use of certain illegal psychedelic drugs.

Coming as a growing number of cities, including Denver, Detroit and Washington, D.C., have adopted more permissive stances on psychedelics, Mr. Frey’s order notes that people are increasingly turning to substances like psychoactive mushrooms to improve their mental health.

The widening appeal of psychedelics in clinical and spiritual settings has alarmed some health professionals who say they worry about the rise of an unregulated field of therapeutic interventions through mind-altering compounds. At the same time, efforts to decriminalize and expand access to psychedelics have received a surprising degree of bipartisan political support in Minnesota and elsewhere.

Mr. Frey, a Democrat, acknowledged that some residents might oppose any loosened enforcement of drug laws. But he said he hoped the measure would contribute to a national rethinking of drug laws that date back to the Nixon era, and draw attention to the role plant-based psychedelics can play for people dealing with depression, trauma and addiction.

“We have a mass proliferation of deaths of despair,” he said, citing the nation’s high rates of suicide and opioid abuse. “This is something that is known to help.”

Psychedelics, a class of psychoactive substances that alter mood and perception, have long been illegal. But stigma surrounding their use has receded in recent years as scores of celebrities, military veterans, athletes and entrepreneurs have described psychedelic trips as transformative experiences and opportunities for self-exploration and spiritual growth.

Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis at City Hall.Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

Leading psychiatrists have come to see psychedelics as potential game changers in the treatment of some mental health problems.

In 2021, about 8 percent of people in the United States between the ages of 19 and 30 disclosed having used psychedelics in the past year, up from 3 percent in 2011, according to a survey commissioned by the National Institutes of Health.

The rising use and shifting public opinions have set in motion legislative and regulatory moves. After ballot measures in 2020 and 2022, Oregon and Colorado legalized therapies that include the use of some psychedelics.

Minnesota may soon follow. In May, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers created a task force that will present a detailed proposal for legalizing medicinal psychedelics.

The changing policies in states and cities have propelled a booming, unregulated marketplace of psychedelic therapies and rituals.

Books and online forums advise people on microdosing protocols, a popular wellness hack that involves regularly ingesting tiny doses of psilocybin mushrooms, also known as magic mushrooms. Luxurious resorts overseas offer psychedelic retreats. Psychedelic therapists or guides in the United States are openly promoting treatments that had once been conducted in the shadows.

This growing field alarms some medical professionals and federal health officials, who say that the benefits of psychedelics are being overstated and their risks downplayed.

In a position paper issued last year, the American Psychiatric Association said psychedelic treatments should be restricted to clinical studies for now. Some mental health experts warn that psychedelic sessions can be more psychologically destabilizing than healing for some people, citing cases of psychotic and manic episodes.

Dr. Joshua Gordon, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, a federal agency, called the proliferation of unregulated therapeutic use of psychedelics problematic.

Joshua Gordon, the director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, has concerns about the rising accessibility of psychedelics outside of research clinical settings.Credit…Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

“Even if these drugs are efficacious for some individuals or for some diagnoses,” Dr. Gordon said, “their unregulated use might mean that people who would actually benefit from some other therapies may be going down a route that doesn’t work for them and could even be harmful.”

Many users of psychedelics oppose efforts to confine their use to clinical settings, arguing that mind-altering drugs have played a central role in the spiritual life of Indigenous people for centuries and are used as sacraments by several religious groups.

“Not everyone is going to be exploring these things in the traditional Western medical model,” said Jessica Nielson, a neurobiologist and data scientist at the University of Minnesota who serves on the state task force and advised city officials on the executive order. “I think that would be restrictive.”

In Washington, lawmakers from both parties have backed initiatives to expand access to medicinal psychedelics, often citing their appeal among veterans with mental health challenges. Representatives from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the White House did not respond to a request for comment.

In March, Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, sponsored a bill with Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, that would make it easier for terminally ill patients to be treated with psychedelics to ease their distress.

Jessica Nielson, a neurobiologist and data scientist, serves on the Minnesota task force and founded the Psychedelic Society of Minnesota.Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

In the House, Representative Dan Crenshaw, Republican of Texas, has joined forces with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, to press the Pentagon to make psychedelic therapies available to active-duty service members as part of clinical trials.

When the latest iteration of the bill was unveiled last month, a sponsor, Representative Morgan Luttrell, another Texas Republican, disclosed that he had been treated with psychedelics four years ago at a clinic in Mexico.

Mr. Luttrell, a former Navy SEAL, survived a helicopter crash in 2009 that left him with a traumatic brain injury. After retiring from the Navy in 2014, Mr. Luttrell said he struggled to settle into civilian life because he was constantly on edge and “hyperaggressive.”

As a graduate student studying applied cognition and neuroscience, Mr. Luttrell said he heard about psychedelic therapies that had helped other struggling veterans. Over time, he said, those accounts helped him overcome what he described as a lifelong aversion to using illegal drugs, and he signed up for a retreat at a clinic in Tijuana.

The protocol included ibogaine, a psychoactive substance derived from African plants, and 5-MeO-DMT, a psychedelic made with secretions of a toad, he said.

Mr. Luttrell described the experience as excruciating but stunningly cathartic. “It was like 20 years of therapy in three days,” he said. “I look at it as a rebirth.”

In Minneapolis, Mr. Frey’s executive order, his first of 2023, does not legalize psychedelics but designates them as the lowest enforcement priority for the police. Arrests related to psychedelics have been rare in recent years, city officials said, and the order makes clear that people could still be charged for distributing them in schools or for driving under their influence.

The order applies only to naturally occurring psychedelics, like magic mushrooms, ayahuasca, mescaline and iboga. It excludes synthetic drugs like L.S.D. and MDMA, which are commonly used recreationally.

In fact, the order itself avoids using the word “psychedelics” — which a British psychiatrist coined 1957 — and instead refers to naturally occurring psychoactive compounds as entheogens. That term generally applies to the compounds’ use in spiritual and ritualistic settings.

When Kurtis Hanna, a Minnesota lobbyist and drug prohibition critic, began discussing the possibility of a psychedelics task force with state lawmakers, he assumed Democrats would be more receptive than Republicans. To his surprise, he said, lawmakers in both parties seemed eager to study the issue.

“A lot of the people around the country that are saying that this is extremely helpful are our veterans, police officers, first responders,” Mr. Hanna said. “I think the heartfelt stories that are coming out of these communities resonate very much with conservatives.”

The state’s task force will include clinicians, health policy experts, veterans, Indigenous people and individuals with severe mental illness who have found little relief from existing treatments.

Adam Tomczik, a prosecutor in Minneapolis, was among those who applied for a seat, which he got. He said he struggled with a severe depressive episode after turmoil swept the city in 2020, and was drinking heavily and wrestling with thoughts of self-harm.

Adam Tomczik received ketamine treatment for depression and is now serving on a Minnesota task force studying the possibility of legalizing medicinal psychedelics.Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

“It was like being in a bottomless pit and you can’t climb out,” he said.

Desperate for a reprieve, Mr. Tomczik said he was treated with infusions of ketamine, an anesthetic that is lawfully prescribed off label to treat depression. At low doses, the sedative induces a dissociative, psychedelic-like state.

The ketamine sessions helped Mr. Tomczik quit drinking, he said, and he began thinking more clearly and felt considerably better. His therapist told him he would most likely find more lasting relief by taking psilocybin mushrooms, but that was a nonstarter for Mr. Tomczik, who is paid to uphold the law.

“I want to be a representative for people in Minnesota with treatment-resistant mental health issues, of which there are many,” he said. “I’m approaching this position with a lot of humility because I don’t have all the answers.”

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