Nearly 9 In 10 Americans Think Using Psilocybin For Therapy Or Well-Being Is ‘Morally Positive,’ Study Finds

Nearly 9 In 10 Americans Think Using Psilocybin For Therapy Or Well-Being Is ‘Morally Positive,’ Study Finds

Nearly 9 in 10 Americans in a newly published study on the “moral status” of psilocybin said they approve of the psychedelic’s use in a controlled, licensed setting to treat a psychiatric condition or promote well-being.

“Our results revealed strong bipartisan support for supervised psilocybin use for either treatment (89%) or enhancement (85%) in a demographically representative sample of US Americans,” authors wrote of their findings, published last month in the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB) Neuroscience. “Overall, support for treatment was very high in both political groups: 91% of liberals and 86% of conservatives reported favorable attitudes toward treatment uses of psilocybin.”

Researchers—representing institutions such as the universities of Oxford, Yale, Johns Hopkins and Grenada—surveyed 795 people on the issue, asking about supervised use specifically for treatment and for well-being enhancement. Participants, the report says, “rated the individual’s decision as morally positive in both contexts.”

“Participants’ approval of controlled psilocybin use for enhancement was slightly weaker [than for treatment], though still very high,” the study found: “89% of liberals and 78% of conservatives indicated approval.”

The study is of note because although psilocybin “has shown promise both as a treatment for psychiatric conditions and as a means of improving well-being in healthy individuals,” authors wrote—and some jurisdictions, such as Oregon and Colorado, have now legalized supervised use—”public attitudes toward this shift are understudied.”

“These results can inform effective policy-making decisions around supervised psilocybin use,” they said, “given robust public attitudes as elicited in the context of an innovative regulatory model.”

The survey did not include questions about psilocybin use in unsupervised, community, social or recreational settings.

Participants instead were provided with “basic information on psilocybin, including its psychedelic properties and the fact that it is the active ingredient of ‘magic mushrooms,’” says the report. They were also informed of Oregon’s supervised psilocybin law and “asked to imagine a future in which such a law has been passed at the federal level.”

“Then, participants were randomly assigned to one of two vignettes about an individual taking the drug under the supervision of a trained professional,” as the study describes. “Participants were provided with scientifically accurate information on psilocybin, which stated that psilocybin has been shown to be medically safe and non-addictive if administered in an appropriately controlled setting, both for those with certain mental health disorders and for healthy individuals. Participants were then asked to morally evaluate the supervised use of the drug by the identified individual for either treatment or enhancement, depending on condition assignment.”

In general, younger adults were more supportive of psilocybin use than older adults, and liberals reported greater approval than conservatives. But strong majorities of both major political alignments nevertheless approved of a person’s decision to use psilocybin.

“Given such bipartisan positive attitudes,” authors wrote, “future legislative changes allowing psychedelic use in supervised settings for both purposes, even at the federal level, seem unlikely to trigger major public backlash, assuming similar background information about (known) benefits or risks, which may change over time.”

Authors noted that at the time they conducted the survey, in summer of 2021, Oregon “had already taken highly publicized steps toward facilitating psilocybin use and psilocybin’s efficacy began to see increased media coverage, which might have affected attitudes.”

An analysis of the responses found that people’s “care values” were associated with moral support for psilocybin use—a finding authors said “indicates that political differences in support for psilocybin use may be partly explained by liberals’ greater emphasis on care values.”

Age differences in those surveyed, by contrast, “were unrelated to moral values.”

Despite the strong support, the study warns against too hasty a policy response.

“Changes related to psychedelics must be carefully considered, and the risk of inflated expectations is a concern. Psilocybin is not a silver bullet for treating mental illness,” authors said.

They pointed to a recent phase II clinical trial that found “no significant difference in primary endpoints” between psilocybin and the pharmaceutical escitalopram in treatment of major depressive disorder, “suggesting psilocybin’s efficacy above and beyond current measures might be limited.”

“Still,” they continued, “psilocybin may turn out to have a more tolerable side effect profile than escitalopram and other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and the drugs’ subjective effects may be valued differently by different users (i.e., in the context of shared clinical decision-making).”

The researchers also cautioned against what they called “the apparent hype bubble now surrounding the so-called ‘psychedelic Renaissance.’”

Given the comparatively early stage of research into psychedelics, “both over- and understatements of trial results are not uncommon,” they said. “Current scientific evidence, however, does not allow for rash conclusions beyond the fact that psilocybin has significant medical potential and a good safety profile compared to other drugs, given the right context.”

“Nevertheless, our findings do suggest that the safe and supervised use of psychedelics under conditions of legalization has the potential to find wide public acceptance,” the study concludes. “If the field can overcome scientific inaccuracies, pursue rigorous research, and build trust—then psychedelics such as psilocybin may one day be seen as a mainstream means to treat mental illness and possibly also to promote overall well-being.”

A separate study of adults in Canada published earlier this year found that 8 in 10 (79.3 percent) believe psilocybin-assisted therapy is “a reasonable medical choice” to treat existential dread at the end of one’s life, while almost 2 in 3 (63.3 percent) feel the substance should be legal for medical purposes generally. Notably, 84.8 percent said the country’s public health system should cover costs of the psychedelic therapy.

In the U.S., another survey found that majorities of active duty military personnel, veterans and their family members support allowing U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors to recommend medical psychedelics to patients if they believe it would provide a benefit.

States are now exploring their own psilocybin programs or other reforms in what’s already proved to be an active year for psychedelics policy in 2024.

For example, last week a Missouri House committee unanimously approved a bill to legalize the medical use of psilocybin by military veterans and fund studies exploring the therapeutic potential of the psychedelic.

Connecticut lawmakers held a hearing on a bill to decriminalize possession of psilocybin last week.

Vermont legislative panel continued its consideration this month of a bill that would legalize psilocybin in the state and establish a work group on how to further regulate psychedelics for therapeutic use.

Also this month, the Arizona Senate passed a bipartisan bill that would legalize psilocybin service centers where people could receive the psychedelic in a medically supervised setting.

The governor of New Mexico recently endorsed a newly enacted resolution requesting that state officials research the therapeutic potential of psilocybin and explore the creation of a regulatory framework to provide access to the psychedelic.

An Illinois senator recently introduced a bill to legalize psilocybin and allow regulated access at service centers in the state where adults could use the psychedelic in a supervised setting—with plans to expand the program to include mescaline, ibogaine and DMT.

Alaska House and Senate committees are considering legislation that would create a task force to study how to license and regulate psychedelic-assisted therapy in anticipation of eventual federal legalization of substances like MDMA and psilocybin.

Lawmakers in Hawaii are also continuing to advance a bill that would provide some legal protections to patients engaging in psilocybin-assisted therapy with a medical professional’s approval.

New York lawmakers also said that a bill to legalize psilocybin-assisted therapy in that state has a “real chance” of passing this year.

An Indiana House committee, meanwhile, approved a Republican-led bill that would fund clinical research trials into psilocybin that has already cleared the full Senate.

Bipartisan California lawmakers also recently introduced a bill to legalize psychedelic service centers where adults 21 and older could access psilocybin, MDMA, mescaline and DMT in a supervised environment with trained facilitators.

A Nevada joint legislative committee held a hearing with expert and public testimony on the therapeutic potential of substances like psilocybin in January. Law enforcement representatives also shared their concerns around legalization—but there was notable acknowledgement that some reforms should be enacted, including possible rescheduling.

The governor of Massachusetts recently promoted the testimony of activists who spoke in favor of her veterans-focused bill that would, in part, create a psychedelics work group to study the therapeutic potential of substances such as psilocybin.

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