Will pilot’s bad trip be sobering setback for California quest to legalize psychedelic mushrooms?

San Francisco lawmaker plans to re-introduce bill that won bipartisan support but was vetoed by Newsom

An East Bay pilot’s midair meltdown last week, in which he attempted to shut down the jet engines and later told police he’d been depressed and had recently taken magic mushrooms, may be a setback in California’s quest to become the third state to legalize psychedelic drugs.

According to court documents, it’s unclear what, if any, role psychedelic mushrooms played in pilot Joseph Emerson’s erratic outburst as a cockpit passenger on the Horizon Air flight bound for San Francisco.

Opponents of the legalization effort, on the other hand, say it’s a cautionary tale in the debate over whether California should decriminalize the use of psychedelics, which advocates and recent research suggest may have therapeutic benefits in treating depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse.

“This event serves as a wake-up call to the powerful and mind-altering effects of these drugs, as well as the potential consequences when they are not managed appropriately,” said Beth Parker, a Marin County lawyer with the parent organization California Coalition for Psychedelic Safety and Education, which opposed the state’s legalization effort. “As California considers legalizing psychedelics, we must proceed cautiously.”

Legalization supporters, on the other hand, argue that blaming the pilot’s plight on psychedelics is unfair, given the uncertainties surrounding Emerson’s mental crisis and the potential benefits suggested by recent scientific studies.

“Anyone can abuse a substance — legal or illegal — and do something horrific,” said San Francisco Democrat Scott Wiener, who plans to reintroduce legislation to legalize hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline, and DMT. “The vast majority of people use them without resorting to violence.” This is an extreme outlier, and this individual should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

For adults 21 and older, Wiener’s SB 58 would have legalized the personal possession and use of hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline, found in peyote cactus, and DMT. Recent studies suggest that the substances can successfully treat depression and anxiety, according to advocates, including some veterans groups. They point out that the FDA has designated psilocybin as a “breakthrough therapy” to expedite research.

Psychedelics are legal in Oregon, where Emerson is now facing charges of flight crew interference, reckless endangerment, and attempted murder following an emergency landing in Portland on Sunday. Psychedelics were also decriminalized in Colorado.

In California, the bill received bipartisan support in the legislature but was opposed by law enforcement and other groups. In vetoing the proposed legislation, Gov. Gavin Newsom stated that he couldn’t sign it because it lacked therapeutic guidelines such as dosing information. He did, however, encourage lawmakers to try again, calling psychedelic therapeutics “an exciting frontier” and predicting that “California will be on the front-end of leading it.”

Meanwhile, a group called Decriminalize California is collecting signatures for a possible 2024 ballot measure that would allow anyone over the age of 21 to possess and consume an unlimited amount of magic mushrooms and psilocybin-infused products.

The group’s campaign director, Ryan Munevar, attributed the governor’s veto to his ambitions for national office.People should be skeptical about whether mushrooms influenced the pilot’s behavior, according to him.

“At this point, it’s just the statement of a man who is obviously mentally unstable and any statements given are suspect,” he said. “Will this jeopardize our initiative efforts?” It will both activate some opposition and encourage more support from our side. So a little bit of both. Regardless, we continue.”

Both state and federal law enforcement affidavits supporting Emerson’s charges state that he told police about taking hallucinogenic mushrooms. However, the accounts differ.

According to the state affidavit, Emerson informed an officer and medical personnel that “he had consumed’magic mushrooms’ approximately 48 hours prior to the incident on the plane,” and that an officer “did not observe Emerson to be outwardly under the influence of intoxicants.”

The federal affidavit, which was revised Thursday after an FBI special agent reviewed recordings of police interviews, stated that the officer and Emerson “talked about the use of psychedelic mushrooms and Emerson said it was his first-time taking mushrooms,” but provided no time frame. According to a spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office in Oregon, the matter is still under investigation.

The time frame would be crucial. The hallucinogenic effects of psilocybin mushrooms wear off in six to eight hours, according to Nathaniel Mills, a licensed psychologist at the Sacramento Institute for Psychotherapy who supports the therapeutic use of psychedelics. So Emerson would have been unlikely to be high from mushrooms eaten two days earlier.

However, Mills believes mushrooms could have triggered a manic episode in someone with an underlying psychological condition, which can happen with other substances, including caffeine.

The pilot incident is not the only one that calls into question the safety of psychedelics. The Microdose, an independent newsletter of the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, reported that a trial is underway in Canada for a man accused of driving his truck into pedestrians in June 2021, who testified that the day before he took psychedelic mushrooms to escape mental turmoil.

“There are several case studies published in medical journals in which the drug triggered manic or psychotic episodes in individual patients, and these can persist long after psilocybin has been eliminated from the body,” the article said.

According to the California Coalition for Psychedelic Safety, there has been an 84% increase in hallucinogen-related cases in California emergency rooms since 2016. Several members of the group have lost children as a result of bad mushroom trips. In one case, a 16-year-old boy in 2020 ran off the family’s 40-foot deck after consuming psilocybin mushrooms. The same year, a 21-year-old man who had taken magic mushrooms in college died after choking on a jug of protein powder.

Mills expressed hope that the airline incident and other tragedies will not halt research into psychedelic medicines, which he claims are the “single most important breakthrough in mental health.”

While the parent organization does not oppose any therapeutic use of psychedelics, Parker stated that “we need legislation that prioritizes public safety and the well-being of individuals seeking the potential benefits of psychedelics.”

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