Ettinger: It’s Time to Look Beyond Legalizing Marijuana

By Eve Ettinger

December 9, 2020

Material like psilocybin can also prove helpful if used right.

Anticipation around the potential future of legalizing cannabis in Virginia is growing as we draw near to the January legislative session of the Virginia General Assembly and as pre-filing deadlines and limits have been set, clarifying the legislative agenda for this upcoming session. 

The discussion has been slowly moving toward this inevitable conclusion in the Commonwealth ever since I moved here in 2000 as a young teen–I remember the work of moms lobbying for cannabis oil to be legalized for medical use on behalf of their children with epilepsy, the slow rollout of hemp-derived CBD oil, and then the legalization of marijuana-derived CBD oil, followed by the decriminalization of possession of marijuana this last year. What was once punishable by 30 days to a year in jail and fines ranging from $500-2,500 for anything over half an ounce of weed has been dropped to a $25 fine for anything up to an ounce.

Legalizing Marijuana is Non-Negotiable

The deescalation of Virginia’s approach to marijuana is huge progress in terms of adjusting the discussion from a racist, carceral War On Drugs approach to a more humane, restorative justice regulation of possession and use of cannabis. We’ve heard the numbers, the inordinately high numbers of Black people (men, especially) incarcerated for marijuana possession offenses vs white kids possessing the same amounts who tend to get a slap on the wrist and a warning–but here’s what the old laws meant in practice. 

I worked on a pot farm in Northern California one fall as a trimmer a few years back, and the drying process is a touchy, tricky thing that requires carefully regulated airflow, low humidity, and heat to do well. If you aren’t careful, the weed might dry to a dusty crumble, or a tacky, stiff product vulnerable to mildew. When dry product is later exposed to humidity, it rapidly absorbs the water in the air and becomes heavier. This is why the proper handling and drying of weed is so important in a product that’s sold by weight rather than by volume. 

You need to know this information because after that fall trimming job, I had a temp job in a legal office which processed the appeals of incarcerated people regarding their sentences. One case I heard about was one where a Black man whose house was raided on a stakeout by cops after they saw a group of teens come to his front door and then leave. The assumption had been that he was dealing–the reality was something more like a school fundraising drive, if I recall correctly–and the raid turned up something like 0.57 oz of marijuana stored in a cookie jar in his kitchen. 

The thing is, you don’t buy weed in 0.57 of an ounce increments, which meant (in my mind) that this weed had been exposed to humidity (this arrest had happened in the summer) so that it would weigh just over the limit that would provide cause for incarceration. Please, urged the appeal letter, this was injustice. I don’t know what happened to this man in the years since or to his appeal, but he is just one of hundreds upon hundreds of Black men who will no longer be locked away for non-violent marijuana possession charges, thanks to the work of Gov. Northam and the General Assembly this past year. 

The eventual legalization of marijuna in 2021 will further reduce the racist shadow of the War on Drugs in Virginia communities.This is wonderful, wonderful progress. But it’s not enough. 

The Post-Covid Mental Health Crisis

Our society is currently experiencing a sustained national trauma event. The failure of the Trump administration to adequately respond to and protect citizens from Covid-19, resulting in over 260,000 deaths so far. As hospital beds are currently maxed out around the country with steadily increasing numbers of infected patients, this number is sure to grow. The failure of our government to support us during this crisis is leaving us all experiencing a prolonged state of hyper-vigilance around personal health, financial uncertainties, and the threat of our friends and family members dying. We’re all going to have various degrees of lasting mental health effects from the pandemic when it’s over–like our forebears who hoarded canned food for decades after the depression, we will surely see anxiety and other trauma symptoms played out communally for years to come. 2020 didn’t have to be this way, but we’re here now, and the mental health ramifications are inevitable.

The U.S. has been slipping into a mental health crisis for years and it’s getting worse, thanks to Covid-19. Without adequate infrastructure and tools to meet this crisis head on, we’re going to see spikes in overdoses, opiate addictions, and with these, gun violence. I would argue that a simple preventative measure would be for the Virginia General Assembly to consider the legalization of psilocybin along with the legalization of marijuana. 

Psilocybin: A Natural Option for Mitigating PTSD

Psilocybin is the more clinical term for the chemical compound occurring in “magic mushrooms,” mushrooms with hallucinogenic properties. Psilocybin is in the process of being legalized in the District of Columbia, and has been legalized in Oregon State, and is decriminalized in municipalities like Denver, CO, Oakland, CA, and Ann Arbor, MI. Legalization has been proposed or is up for discussion in California, New York, New Jersey, and Vermont. It’s currently a Schedule I drug, but researchers at Johns Hopkins have urged for it to be reclassified as Schedule IV, the same as sleep aids. The legalization discussion is normalizing conversations about psilocybin, which has a growing body of substantive medical evidence backing up positive arguments for its use to combat anxiety, depression, and PTSD

The way psilocybin works in the brain, in layman’s terms, is that the “ego death” caused by the hallucination and increased senses of perception creates a state in the brain where different areas that don’t usually work together end up in communication with each other. This helps to build new neural pathways in the brain, opening doors for new ways of metabolizing experiences and emotions that might not have been accessible prior. And this is a key element for successfully processing and overcoming trauma. 

There’s no known risks to psilocybin use–it can increase the heart rate, but not in a way that’s considered dangerous to most people. It has no known overdose point and is not addictive. Humans have been consuming it for centuries, unlike a lot of these newer man-made hallucinogens. But if that doesn’t convince you, let me tell you my experience. 

Magic Mushrooms Erased My Panic Attacks for Three Months  

I have complex PTSD, and with that comes anxiety and depression as symptoms. I wasn’t aware of my diagnosis until about five years ago but had been trying various things to try to get in control of my mind and body during panic attacks and anxiety spirals. Meditation, especially as a part of yoga, is often recommended to people like me but when your triggers are rational fears (as opposed to the unlikely event that a bomb would go off in a yoga studio, the reasonable fear that someone might betray you and try to control your autonomy in the course of a day, for example), “mindfulness” practices can often trigger anxiety attacks because there’s no sense of a “safe space” in your mind where you can go to be quiet and feel your body without hyper-vigilance entering the scene. So these attempts, for me, were futile and often made my anxiety worse. Enter magic mushrooms.

When I first took psilocybin in 2014, my brain relaxed for the first time in my conscious memory, and I experienced an absence of hyper-vigilance for the duration of the trip. I hadn’t realized how constantly wound up with anticipatory fear I had been until that point when I was faced with its absence. I felt comfortable retreating into my own mind–suddenly the purposes of meditation made sense, and even felt like they might work for me to calm myself during an anxiety spiral. After the trip was over, I used this new knowledge to center myself and self-soothe–it was like there had been a quiet, safe space in my mind all along, and psilocybin cleared the clutter away and showed me how to open the door and enter that room. 

I didn’t experience any anxiety for the following three months. And I had a panic attack at the end of that run which broke the streak, but when I did, I was able to recognize what was happening and take the first steps towards getting a C-PTSD diagnosis. Before, this had felt unthinkable. 

Broaden the Conversation About Legalization

This is anecdotal, but I firmly believe that decriminalizing psilocybin for use as a safe, natural tool for combatting anxiety (used with intention, not casually or often, and monitored by a professional!) would be a compassionate and forward-thinking preventative measure for our community’s inevitable post-covid stress response once the immediate danger has passed. And the science backs me up–studies linked earlier in this piece documented significant decreases in anxiety and depression in subjects for up to six months following their initial use of the compound. If marijuna legalization is on the table for January’s General Assembly session, it’s simply pragmatic to consider legalizing (or at minimum, decriminalizing) psilocybin in Virginia as well. 

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