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Experts Discuss Psychedelics Policy in the Global North at Harvard Law School Webinar

The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics is housed at Harvard Law School.
The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics is housed at Harvard Law School. By Julian J. Giordano
By Elise D. Hawkins and Joshua Park, Contributing Writers

The Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation at Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center hosted a virtual panel on psychedelics in Europe, Australia, and North America on Monday.

Co-hosted with the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, the event — titled “Psychedelics in the Global North” — is the first of a three-part series that will later explore psychedelics in the Global South and the role of psychedelics in Indigenous groups. The conversation featured four experts from the regions and was moderated by American researcher Beau Kilmer, a senior policy researcher at RAND Corporation.

Speaking from the Australian perspective, Wayne Hall — emeritus professor of Health and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Queensland — said the Australian government was supportive of clinical trials for MDMA — commonly known as ecstasy — and psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, respectively.

“In the past, I’ve advocated for government funding for clinical trials on these drugs,” Hall said. “And the Australian government several years ago, in fact, set aside 15 million Australian dollars for the conduct of these clinical trials.”

Pamela Kryskow — the medical lead of mental health nonprofit Roots To Thrive, which offers psychedelic-assisted therapy — discussed developments in the Canadian psychedelics space.

“There’s a strong recognition — especially in British Columbia and I think across Canada — that drug use is really a healthcare issue and a healthcare treatment, and not a criminal or a policing issue,” Kryskow said.

Kryskow also noted the significance of Canada’s federal healthcare system, which dictates that legal decisions made by the federal government are also binding at the province level. She characterized developments in medicinal psychedelics as a largely centralized, national issue.

In contrast to the liberal approaches taken by Australia and Canada, David J. Nutt, director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit in the Division of Brain Science at Imperial College London, said he is disappointed by the United Kingdom’s more cautious approach.

“We actually know these drugs do make people’s brains different in a positive way. But has that made any difference in the U.K.?” Nutt asked. “The British government is almost actively avoiding confronting the need to do this research.”

Nutt highlighted recent studies supporting psilocybin’s ability to reduce the effects of depression. In one study, the mean depression scores of patients dropped so dramatically following a single dose of psilocybin that it amounted to what Nutt called “the most powerful single dose treatment of resistant depression there has ever been.”

Margriet van Laar, head of the Drug Monitoring and Policy department at the Trimbos Institute — a Dutch mental health research organization — pointed out increased positive media attention regarding psychedelic drug research.

Highlighting a series of developments in the Netherlands, van Laar drew attention to the legalization of ketamine as a treatment for depression and the creation of a state commission to examine the plausibility of legalizing MDMA for medicinal use.

“These are exciting times in the Netherlands in this field,” said van Laar.

Kryskow concluded by discussing the importance of moving quickly in psychedelic research and policymaking.

“We have to remember patients have access to this right now. Online, everywhere. And so us moving too slow is not serving the patients at all,” Kryskow said. “This is not a molecule in the lab. They have access to this and we have a public duty to get the data out there and show up and lead this.”

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