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Somerville Is First Mass. Community To Move To Decriminalize Psychedelics

Psilocybin mushrooms growing in the Netherlands.  (Peter Dejong/AP Photo)
Psilocybin mushrooms growing in the Netherlands. (Peter Dejong/AP Photo)

After a violent event left him devastated and suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, 31-year-old Alex Karasik of Somerville was looking for help. The medications his doctor prescribed made him feel worse, and four years after the incident, he was unable to work or focus.

"I wasn't able to sleep, and I was in a really dark place mentally," Karasik said.

Eventually he found something that he says did work — but it's illegal.

Karasik uses psilocybin mushrooms, which contain a psychedelic compound that can prompt an altered mental state, or what some users describe as a spiritual experience. A growing body of research suggests it may show promise for treating mental health issues.

"I had a profound experience," Karasik said. "Immediately after I felt that a lot had been repaired in a short time. I respect this substance and what it does."

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Karasik soon found himself advocating for psychedelics, or entheogenic plants, which is what he did before the Somerville City Council this week.

"I was nearly killed in a robbery in Chicago four years ago, and I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. And a lot of my life plans were derailed," Karasick testified during Thursday's council meeting. "Through a combination of therapy and psilocybin mushrooms, over time I have overcome my experience, and I'm happy to say that I'm in a much better place mentally."

That testimony came before a unanimous vote by the council to support a resolution that takes a step toward decriminalizing entheogenic plants. Somerville is the first Massachusetts community to make such a move.

The resolution says Somerville agencies and employees, including police, should not use city resources to assist in enforcing laws against the use and possession of entheogenic plants by adults. The resolution does not authorize the commercial sale of entheogenic plants and does not allow driving while under the influence of them.

"This is just another tool in the tool box in terms of what we have available to help with many of the afflictions that are affecting society today," said Councilor Jesse Clingan, one of the sponsors of the resolution.

Emerging research on psychedelics indicates that the substances may help treat a variety of mental health issues and substance use disorders, although critics say there is still not enough evidence to fully understand the side effects of mind-altering drugs, especially when taken by those with severe mental or physical illnesses.

Under federal law, it is still illegal to grow or possess psilocybin mushrooms without a special license from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Somerville residents from the advocacy groups Bay Staters of Natural Medicine, Decriminalize Nature Massachusetts and Heroic Hearts Project submitted a letter to city councilors citing studies that show the benefits of psychedelics. The letter mentions other cities and states that have decriminalized psychedelic plants, and eight state lawmakers who have committed to studying further how to treat controlled substances as an issue of public health, rather than public safety.

"As our community confronts record-shattering opioid abuse, depression, and
suicide, decriminalization represents a huge step forward for public health and criminal justice," the group's letter to the city council reads. "Designated a 'breakthrough therapy' by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), psilocybin
mushrooms and other natural psychedelics are profoundly effective in treating these ailments."

While the resolution focuses on psychedelics, it also mentions all controlled substances saying that "it should be the policy of the City of Somerville that the arrest of adult persons for using or possessing controlled substances shall be amongst the lowest law enforcement priority for the City."

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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