An £8 billion boom in magic mushrooms is upon our nation. That’s if you believe a recent article published in The Telegraph, which spoke highly of the potential fortunes that a legal psychedelic industry could usher into the UK if they were to be legalised. Of course, this argument spiralled the same way any centre-right outlet discusses the legalisation of drugs: a psychiatrist feared that psychedelics’ medical regulation will somehow mean that people will be able to waltz into clinics and get their doses with no therapy sessions at all, becoming some form of legal drug suppliers.
The article is tempered by psychedelic researchers and politicians’ insights, who have moderated calls for the de-scheduling of psilocybin so it can begin to be medically prescribed. There are no further details on why this is better than its legal regulation, or what sort of stringent requirements for its application it may need.
The fears about the permeation of psychedelics into British society – or anywhere in the West – are completely unfounded. It seems clear, both from this story and the dominant narratives on psychedelics, that this class of drugs will be made imminently available. What is left to understand is what exactly this industry will look like. If we want to make predictions on how an industry of legal magic mushrooms, MDMA, LSD or whatever psychedelic you want would look like in the UK; just look at how the cannabis market developed here.
Cannabis’ “legalisation” almost half a decade ago has created such stringent access pathways, such high clinical efficacy requirements and so few publicly subsidised prescriptions, that patients have no option but to fork out hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds per month to legally access their medicine. Of the estimated 1.4 to 1.8 million patients with unmet cannabis needs, only a handful currently have an NHS prescription for their medicine. The rest are forced into criminality.
And why should it be any different? The profits of the legal industry are flowing through Britain: despite such limited patient access, the UK is set to become the second largest European market for cannabis, with tens of thousands of unlicensed medical products available on the market for those with the financial privileged position to afford them. Others with less means need to continue to access the illegal market, which is repeatedly demonised by politicians, legal cannabis companies and news outlets such as The Telegraph.
Even the decriminalisation of simple possession of cannabis is anathema: both leading parties somehow agree that cannabis devastates communities and ruins lives, despite the steady flow of positive medical research headlines
Politically, there is little to no appetite to change laws to authorise home cultivation to address sky-high costs. Even the decriminalisation of simple possession of cannabis is anathema: both leading parties somehow agree that weed devastates communities and ruins lives, despite the steady flow of positive medical cannabis research headlines.
This is ample enough evidence that a British legal psychedelics market would likely go down the same path of seriously limited clinical applications, and sky-high price tags for those that want to and can afford to access it. The fact that most cannabis patients, who were supposedly the reason why cannabis was medically legalised in the first place, still cannot access their medicine legally, doesn’t seem to be a major issue.
Now, there’s growing evidence that highly medicalised and unaffordable access to psychedelics will be the norm worldwide.
Oregon, which passed Measure 109 in November 2020 allowing for adults to access psilocybin therapy only at “state-licensed treatment centres”, just issued its first license this May. The cost of these psilocybin-assisted treatment sessions was also made public.
A decently strong experience would cost upwards of $3,500 USD: when quizzed about the costs, the clinic justified that the majority of the costs come from the therapeutic part of the treatment; a gram of psilocybin apparently costs around $15, plus 15% state tax. But, seeing as you’re unable to buy the drug without receiving medical treatment, you’re limited in your options. Hey, at least there are group discounts.
Australia, much to the surprise of researchers, advocates and clinical professionals, became the first country to de-schedule MDMA and psilocybin for treating medical-resistant depression. The rush to be the first to legalise must have been a motivator: there isn’t a single product that’s been approved or even considered by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Even the exact wording of the TGA’s authorisation shows how limited its application will be:
“psilocybine [sic] in combination with psychotherapy for treatment-resistant mental illness in medically controlled environments in certain circumstances”. (emphasis added)
The lack of licensed products creates a financially similar situation to that of the UK. Estimates for the costs for these psychedelic therapies are around $25,000 to $30,000 AUD, with the psilocybin itself costing roughly $1,000 to $2,000 for a “standard course of treatment”.
All drugs are expensive in Australia, but even by Antipodean standards, the prices are eyewatering.
Creating another legal yet inaccessible market needs to be properly challenged by psychedelic advocates, researchers, activists and policymakers. We see the consequences of the lack of social, racial and financial considerations within the British cannabis market: people have been priced out of the market, and locked up if they try to access it in other ways. While the psychedelic market isn’t as marked by such a racist enforcement of its criminalisation as cannabis is, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to build a fairer and more just model of legal regulation.
Decriminalisation of possession is the bare minimum that needs to accompany any legislative change for psychedelics, accompanied by a serious discussion about the decriminalisation of home cultivation and social sharing. This is not a lot to ask, given that these drugs have been traditionally consumed and shared for thousands of years, and recreationally consumed for hundreds more (at least in the West), with few harms to justify such restricted forms of access.
Given that the psychedelic vanguard is so obsessed with “doing it right this time”, let’s take the time to build and propose models of regulation that facilitate access to those that need it, implement educational standards on how to use them safely, and stops arresting people that use them in informed manners.