The road to the decriminalization of psychoactive drugs goes through religion

The town of Hazel Park, Michigan made national headlines last week after its city council voted unanimously to decriminalize entheogens, or natural psychoactive drugs consumed for religious reasons. Substances like psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, and ibogaine remain illegal at the state and federal levels, but cities like Hazel Park are invoking their religiosity by decriminalizing entheogens locally.

To understand the term entheogen and its relationship to the broader effort to decriminalize psychedelic drugs, consider that in 1978, Dr. Carl Ruck, professor of classical studies at Boston University, sought to distinguish the use religion of the recreational use of psychedelics. Psychedelic drugs became associated with what many perceived as the teenage rebellion of the 1960s and the counterculture of the early 1970s. The federal government criminalized the use, possession, sale, and cultivation of these drugs, although many continued to use them for recreational and sacramental purposes. To honor the latter, Ruck created the word entheogen by combining the Greek word “entheos”, often translated as “god within”, with “gen” from the word hallucinogen.

The term has developed over the past few decades, driven by several factors. Chief among them is what activists and supporters often call the Psychedelic Renaissance. As journalist and author Michael Pollan wrote in his 2018 New York Times bestselling book How to change your mind: what the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, death, addiction, depression and transcendence, growing interest in psychedelics is sweeping the nation as researchers and therapists examine the medicinal and therapeutic benefits of these ancient plants. Based on their initial findings, venture capitalists and corporations are also increasingly interested, resulting in millions of dollars of investment in psychedelic research.

At the same time, Americans across the country have used psychedelic drugs for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to the pursuit of religious, spiritual, or mystical experiences, as well as for their purported psychopharmacological benefits. Their effects were reinforced by a 2006 decision, in which the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the members of União do Vegetal (or Plant Union), a small religious group in South America, can legally consume a psychedelic tea called hoasca (or ayahuasca), an otherwise illegal psychoactive drug, during fortnightly rituals.

Based largely on the Supreme Court’s decision, three years later a lower court ruled that members of a similar religion in Oregon had the religious right to consume what they call Daime, a variation of basic ingredients used to create ayahuasca. In these decisions, the judges did not invoke the word entheogenbut reinforced the larger idea that under certain circumstances Americans had the legal right to use otherwise prohibited psychoactive drugs.

While entheogenic use of psychoactive substances predates the Psychedelic Renaissance, the two have come together in the form of Decriminalize nature movement, which encourages local governments to essentially decriminalize the use of entheogens by making prohibition enforcement one of the lowest police priorities.

This movement received its first victory in May 2019, when voters in Denver, Colorado narrowly approved Ordinance 301, a ballot initiative “designed to decriminalize the use and possession of mushrooms containing the hallucinogenic compound psilocybin. For the first time since the Federal War on Drugs, a city has effectively decriminalized the use of a psychedelic drug. Motivated by this victory, the movement to decriminalize psychedelics then spread, more than a dozen cities and counties have followed Denver’s lead.

Despite their similarities, subsequent decriminalization bills have notable differences. Chief among them is that almost all of these initiatives explicitly invoke the category of entheogens, resulting in a wider range of decriminalized substances.

Hazel Park, for example, decriminalized all entheogenic plants, which the city defined as follows:

“the full spectrum of plants, fungi and natural materials and/or their extracted compounds, limited to those containing the following types of compounds: indole amines, tryptamines and phenethylamines; which can benefit psychological and physical well-being, support and enhance religious and spiritual practices, and can restore man’s inalienable and direct relationship with nature.

This classification is significant because it both sanctifies and broadens the category of decriminalized substances.

Towns like Hazel Park are just one part of the great psychedelic renaissance, where activists, clinicians and practitioners are working tirelessly to legitimize the use of psychedelic drugs. The category of entheogen—which has tied it to our nation’s long-standing commitment to religious freedom—proves a powerful tool in implementing this movement at the grassroots level.

Alvin J. Chase