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Hawai‘i Considers ‘Magic Mushrooms’ as Medicine

By Max Dible
February 19, 2021, 4:35 PM HST
* Updated February 19, 4:36 PM
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The Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday temporarily deferred a measure intended to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms in Hawai‘i.

If passed, the islands would join Oregon as only the second state in the nation to remove the drug from its list of Schedule 1 controlled substances. Senate Bill 738 would not render “magic mushrooms” legal for recreational purposes but would clear the way for their use as a potential treatment for conditions like depression.

“This bill establishes treatment centers designated by the Department of Health for the monitored, therapeutic administration of psilocybin and psilocyn to treat mental illness,” said Senator Stanley Chang (D-O‘ahu), who introduced the measure. “This bill establishes a review panel that will track the effectiveness of the treatment and provide findings and recommendations to the Legislature until 2026.”

A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University and published in November of 2020 by JAMA Psychiatry found that more than 70% of patients in the randomized clinical trial responded positively to the drug in ways that were “clinically significant.” More than half of those who participated in the study saw their clinical depression recede into remission.

“Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a substantial public health burden, but current treatments have limited effectiveness and adherence,” the study reads. “Recent evidence suggests that one or two administrations of psilocybin with psychological support produces antidepressant effects in patients with cancer and in those with treatment-resistant depression.”

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The Hawai‘i Department of Health (DOH) submitted testimony on the bill, offering a nod to the drug’s potential medical benefits but opposing its passage nonetheless.

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“Although psilocybin may have benefits for persons with certain mental health disorders based on several small studies, the circumstances for safe and effective administration are far from proven and routine therapeutic administration by DOH creates unnecessary hazards with unknown public health value,” the testimony stated.

The State Department of Public Safety also opposed the measure’s passage, noting it would put Hawai‘i in direct conflict with federal law, which maintains that the active drug in magic mushrooms is worthy of Schedule 1 classification.

As of last year, 35 states and the District of Columbia faced the same conundrum upon deciding to legalize the use of medicinal and/or recreational marijuana. Legal entanglements have ensued — namely impacting how growers and dispensers implement banking practices, and also limiting the ability of the scientific community to conduct broad research — though no state has ever reversed such a law as a result of federal opposition.

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As a psychedelic, however, mushrooms create concern largely absent informed discussions on medicinal and recreational marijuana. Specifically, those concerns involve the dangers they could pose to the general public as a hallucinogenic. The drug has potential side effects that include panic, a disassociation from reality, and psychosis, all of which could prove harmful to the user or those around them in the wrong contexts.

The counter argument is that Hawai‘i would only administer the drug in controlled environments under the care of health professionals.

“Unlike a medicinal marijuana prescription, patients will not be able to purchase and self-administer psilocybin,” Sen. Chang said.

Other common arguments from proponents of decriminalization are that legal drugs such as alcohol cause more harm and present more dangers than does psilocybin, and that micro-dosing magic mushrooms — or taking them in small amounts on a regular schedule — would reduce the potential for negative side effects.

Hawai‘i was slow to implement medicinal marijuana compared to several other states, leading to skepticism there will be the kind of support necessary within the Legislature to put real momentum behind SB 738. Three other state senators — Sen. Laura Acasio, Sen. Les Ihara, and Sen. Maile Shimabukuro — co-sponsored the bill along with Sen. Chang.

“While the Legislature took its time to recognize the benefits of medicinal marijuana, that does not necessarily indicate that it will do the same for psychedelic mushrooms,” Sen. Chang said. “The recent elections have yielded a more progressive Legislature.”

The senator continued to say that his support for recreational use of magic mushrooms, or lack thereof, would depend on what findings the proposed review panel presents to lawmakers over the next five years.

“For now, it is important to remove (the drug) from Schedule 1 status and test its medicinal purposes,” Sen. Chang said. “It does not have a high potential for abuse.”

The Senate Judiciary Commission deferred a public hearing on SB 738 from Friday until Tuesday, Feb. 23, at 9:40 am.

Max Dible
Max Dible is the News Director for both Big Island Now and Kauai Now. He also serves as News Director for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations.
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