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News / Health / Health Wire

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

By John Woolfolk, The Mercury News
Published: October 30, 2023, 9:03am

An East Bay pilot’s midair meltdown last week in which he tried to shut off the jet engines and later told police he’d been depressed and recently took magic mushrooms may prove a setback for the quest to make California the third state to legalize psychedelic drugs.

It’s unclear from court documents what if any role psychedelic mushrooms may have played in pilot Joseph Emerson’s erratic outburst as a cockpit passenger on the San Francisco-bound Horizon Air flight.

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

Legalization advocates however say it’s unfair to blame the pilot’s plight on psychedelics, given the uncertainties about 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 state Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat who plans to reintroduce legislation to legalize hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline and DMT. “People overwhelmingly use them without engaging in violence. This situation is an extreme outlier and this guy should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Wiener’s SB 58 would have legalized personal possession and use of hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline, found in peyote cactus, and DMT, for adults 21 and older. Advocates, including some veterans groups, cited recent studies that suggest the substances can successfully treat depression and anxiety. They note the FDA has designated psilocybin a “breakthrough therapy” to accelerate research.

Psychedelics are legal in Oregon where Emerson now faces charges of flight crew interference, reckless endangerment and attempted murder after Sunday’s flight made an emergency landing in Portland. Colorado also decriminalized psychedelics.

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

A group called Decriminalize California meanwhile is gathering signatures toward a possible 2024 ballot measure that would allow for the possession and consumption of an unlimited amount of magic mushrooms and psilocybin-infused products for anyone in California over the age of 21.

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

“At this point, it’s just the statement of a man who is obviously mentally unstable and any statements given are suspect,” Munevar said. “Will this hurt our initiative efforts? It’s going to activate some opposition as well as encourage more support from our side. So a bit of both. Regardless we carry on.”

Both state and federal law enforcement affidavits backing the charges against Emerson say he had talked to police about taking hallucinogenic mushrooms. But the accounts differ.

The state affidavit said Emerson told 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, revised Thursday after an FBI special agent viewed recordings of police interviews, said the officer and Emerson “talked about the use of psychedelic mushrooms and Emerson said it was his first-time taking mushrooms,” but gave no time frame. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon said that remains under investigation.

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

But Mills said it’s possible mushrooms could have triggered a manic episode in someone with underlying psychological condition, something that also can happen with other substances, even caffeine.

The pilot incident isn’t the only one to raise questions about the safety of psychedelics. The Microdose, an independent newsletter of the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, noted a trial is underway in Canada for a man accused of driving his truck into pedestrians in June 2021 who testified he took psychedelic mushrooms the day before 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 newsletter wrote.

The California Coalition for Psychedelic Safety said California emergency rooms have seen an 84% increase in hallucinogen-related cases since 2016. Several of the group’s members have lost children to bad mushroom trips. In one case, a 16-year-old boy in 2020 ran off the 40-foot deck of the family home after eating psilocybin mushrooms. That same year, a 21-year-old man who took magic mushrooms at college choked to death trying to drink from a jug of protein powder.

Mills said he hopes the airline incident and other tragedies don’t stop research into psychedelic medicines, which he said studies suggest are the “single most important breakthrough in mental health.”

While the parent group isn’t opposed to any therapeutic use of psychedelics, Parker said “we need legislation that prioritizes the public safety and well-being of individuals seeking the potential benefits of psychedelics.”