What’s the Best Way Forward for Psilocybin in Connecticut?

    A group of Connecticut lawmakers has heard testimony from advocates and other experts on psilocybin access, mental health and decriminalization plans. State lawmakers have already been rethinking prohibition of psilocybin mushrooms, which under federal law are a Schedule I controlled substance—illegal for any use, including medical. But there are major disagreements among politicians and advocates over the best approach.

    In May 2023, the Connecticut House approved a bill, sponsored by Representative Steve Stafstrom (D), to decriminalize possession of small quantities of psilocybin mushrooms for personal use. For possession of up to a half ounce, it would replace a misdemeanor charge and potential one-year prison sentence with a $150 civil fine. For subsequent instances the fine could increase, and the person could be required to do a drug education program. The bill passed 86-64, with most Democrats in favor, joined by two Republicans. But the bill stalled in the Senate and hasn’t moved forward. On January 8, Rep. Stafstrom said he would try to reintroduce and pass the bill in 2024.

    Even before that, the legislature and Governor Ned Lamont (D) were moving toward authorizing psychedelic therapy. In 2021, lawmakers required a state-appointed study group to research potential benefits and safety of therapeutic psilocybin. The following year, they agreed to fund a psychedelic research program with psilocybin and MDMA, if those drugs become FDA-approved.

    Gov. Lamont has signaled “concerns” about decriminalization, however. And Stafstrom’s bill naturally has opponents among conservative GOP lawmakers.

    “To suggest that this is an innocent piece of legislation, I don’t think it is,” said House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora said in 2023. “It’s frustrating because the science isn’t there yet to prove the efficacy of psilocybin.” According to the Connecticut Examiner, he also predicted that removing jail time for psilocybin would lead to it becoming fully legal later on, saying that cannabis, fully legal in Connecticut since 2021, had become so common that “you can’t get away from it.”

    Of course, plenty of advocates do intend this to be a step toward legalization, whether for therapeutic or general use.

    “I’m interested in making sure these substances are available for mental health purposes, particularly for communities suffering the most trauma.”

    At a public forum in the state capitol in Hartford on January 10, hosted by activists with Connecticut for Accessible Psychedelic Medicine, speakers aired a variety of views on these questions.

    Monnica T. Williams, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, has led research into psychedelic treatment, with a focus on Black and Brown individuals experiencing racial trauma, and founded a practice in Tolland, Connecticut.

    “I’m interested in making sure these substances are available for mental health purposes,” Dr. Williams said at the event, “particularly for communities suffering the most trauma and other conditions as a result of being marginalized and barriers to care … Many people have talked about experiences of growth, decreases in symptoms of traumatization, depression, stress, anxiety as a result of use—specifically with people of color. It would be important for us to do what we can to make them more available, and even better if they can be used with a mental health clinician who’s trained in their use.”

    Other speakers testified about the potential for psilocybin and similar drugs to address mental health crises. Lisa Capitani, a registered nurse specializing in the endocannabinoid system, described failures of the mainstream health care system for both patient and provider—and how psychedelics helped her at a time when she was struggling.

    “The events of 2020, when I was reassigned to an emergency room during the first wave of the pandemic, and all that came with that proved overwhelming for my [pre-existing] PTSD and led to a significant health collapse,” she said. “The health care system failed me; not only did I lose my job, but I struggled to obtain adequate care for my pain and mental health … Only through the exploration of cannabis and psychedelic plant medicines did I find true healing, not just from the issues from 2020 but the issues I had been told were incurable for over a decade.”

    “We can create our own reality, that’s what legislators do; this is your opportunity to take a stand on this issue.”

    Rep. Stafstrom’s bill has also faced opposition from some of the very people working towards decriminalizing psychedelics. They’ve rejected it because it would leave civil fines in place—arguing that this would actually lead to more law enforcement seizures, because cops would be encouraged to collect money from tickets.

    In June 2023, a coalition including CT CannaWarriors, Bay Staters for Natural Medicine, Parents for Plant Medicine, and New England Veterans for Plant Medicine sent an open letter to Connecticut lawmakers, explaining their stance.

    “Fines Incentivize More Policing,” their statement read, “and fines almost always disproportionately harm people who lack the financial means to pay them.”

    “Many officers elect not to enforce laws they feel carry an excessive punishment and cost to the state to enforce,” it continued. “However, a fine of $150 may sound more reasonable to impose for many members of law enforcement. And moreover, any revenue stream that is created for a city or the state will create a strong financial incentive for police.”

    The advocates added that the bill wouldn’t protect people who grow psilocybin, who may use mushrooms themselves or share with friends and family. Cultivating or manufacturing psilocybin remains harshly criminalized under state law, with a prison sentence of up to 15 years and a fine of up to $50,000. Police looking to ticket psilocybin possession, the advocates fear, could put underground psilocybin growers under increased scrutiny and risk of arrest.

    “There’s this need to continue to penalize people, it’s out of habit,” said Larry Norris, a board member of Decriminalize Nature, said on January 10. His organization has helped organize successful campaigns to decriminalize psychedelics in cities nationwide. “We don’t need to give someone a fine for doing this thing because it’s been criminalized before. We don’t need to penalize somebody and say, well at this limited amount you need to go to jail. We can create our own reality, that’s what legislators do; this is your opportunity to take a stand on this issue.”

    “It is imperative that we provide retroactive relief for those who have suffered the consequences of our nation’s failed drug war.”

    Decriminalizing a drug helps people avoid punishment going forward, but what about those previously charged and sentenced? Speakers also addressed this, and urged lawmakers to prioritize relief for people with criminal records for psilocybin.

    “Despite a robust legal market in Connecticut, we still have people serving cannabis-related sentences, and cannabis-related convictions have not been fully cleared,” said Sarah Gersten, executive director of the Last Prisoner Project. “This is a pattern we cannot afford to replicate with psilocybin. We know the ‘War on Drugs’ was never about protecting public health or safety, it was about further subjugating marginalized communities … It is imperative that we not only make it affordable and accessible, but that we eliminate the related criminal penalties and provide retroactive relief for those who have suffered the consequences of our nation’s failed drug war.”

    Fiscal and legal concerns around psilocybin reform were also raised. Mason Marks, an attorney and law professor specializing in psychedelics, testified to lawmakers about issues with Oregon’s legal therapeutic psilocybin program. Despite the plan for this model to be self-sustaining through licensing fees and other revenues, regulators were forced to ask Oregon’s legislature for millions in additional funding to cover their overheads, Dr. Marks described. Decriminalization, he said, is far simpler and could actually save Connecticut’s government money.

    “We don’t need to recreate the FDA here in Connecticut,” Marks said. “In addition to being less expensive than these heavily regulated programs, decriminalization also does not conflict with federal law. If you reduce or eliminate criminal penalties in Connecticut, due to our system of federalism, that does not conflict with federal law in the way these supervised state-regulated programs do.”


    Photograph of advocates at the hearing courtesy of Jason Ortiz

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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