Exploring Oregon’s Measure 110 and The Future of Drug Policy Reform

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By Rebecca Martinez

Taking a deep look at what Measure 110 did and didn’t do in Oregon, and speaking with one of the measure’s Chief Petitioners, Anthony Johnson, on the future of drug policy reform.

“There’s never been a better time to be a drug policy reform activist,” says Anthony Johnson, a Chief Petitioner of Oregon’s Measure 110. Amid a sea of despairing headlines, it’s refreshing to hear a streak of optimism, especially from someone who has been working in public service for over twenty years.

Measure 110, also known as DATRA (the Drug Abuse Treatment and Recovery Act), received 58% of the Oregon vote in November. Similar to Portugal’s drug approach, the measure decriminalized the personal use and possession of all drugs. In addition, it allocated cannabis tax dollars and prison savings to pay for expanded drug treatment and other vital services. This progressive policy was passed alongside Measure 109, which created a legal statewide psilocybin therapy program.

Measure 110 was implemented statewide on February 1st, 2021. Addiction recovery centers and services must be available in each of the state’s 16 coordinated care organization regions by October, 2021.

What Measure 110 Does:

  • Removes criminal penalties for low-level possession of drugs. The amounts are as follows:
    • Under 1 gram of heroin
    • Under 1 gram, or fewer than 5 pills, of MDMA
    • Under 2 grams of methamphetamine
    • Under 2 grams of cocaine
    • Under 40 units of LSD
    • Under 12 grams of psilocybin
    • Under 40 units of methadone
    • Fewer than 40 pills of oxycodone
  • Allocates $100 million in state funding to expand behavioral health, addiction, recovery, housing, peer support and harm reduction services and interventions.
  • Establishes an Oversight and Accountability Council, made up of people who have direct lived experience with addiction, along with service delivery experts.
  • Reduces the criminal penalty for larger amounts of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. 
  • Replaces the misdemeanor charge for small possession (which held a maximum penalty of 1 year in prison and a $6,250 fine) with a fine of $100. This fine can be waived by completing a health screening within 45 day of receiving a citation.
  • Nearly eliminates racial disparities in drug arrests, according to an independent analysis.

The Measure Does Not:

  • Legalize or create a regulated supply of drugs.
  • Change the criminal code related to drug manufacture and sale.
  • Change the criminal code for other crimes which may be associated with drug use, such as theft and driving under the influence. 
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What About Other Drugs That Aren’t Listed?

I spoke with John Lucy, a Portland-based attorney focused on cannabis and business law, to clarify. He explained that Measure 110 covers all controlled substances, Schedule I through IV. The defined amounts in the bill language were provided for the more well-known drugs. So in short, Measure 110 really does make simple small possession a Class E violation for most drugs (with some A misdemeanors for larger quantities of the drugs listed that don’t meet commercial drug offense guidelines).

To be more specific, substances such as GHB (Schedule I and III), 2C-B (Schedule I) and Fentanyl (Schedule II) are now all class E violations, subject to the new $100 citation.

Why Measure 110 Matters for Racial Justice

The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission (OCJC) is an independent government body which is responsible for research, policy development and planning. In 2020, the Secretary of State released a Racial and Ethnic Impact Report, which explored the potential impacts of Measure 110. The findings make it easier to understand why Oregonians voted overwhelmingly in favor of this measure.

According to analysts, Measure 110 is slated to:

  • Prevent 8,000 arrests. 
  • Reduce drug convictions of Black and Indigenous Oregonians by a whopping 94%. 
  • Save between $12 million to $48.6 million from ending arrests, jailings, and convictions.

Also noteworthy are the more systemic solutions that could come from this measure. According to the OCJC’s report:

“This drop in convictions will result in fewer collateral consequences stemming from criminal justice system involvement, which include difficulties in finding employment, loss of access to student loans for education, difficulties in obtaining housing, restrictions on professional licensing, and others,” the report says, adding: “Other disparities can exist at different stages of the criminal justice process, including inequities in police stops, jail bookings, bail, pretrial detention, prosecutorial decisions, and others.”

Q & A with Anthony Johnson on Current and Future Drug Policy Reform

Photo of the three chief petitioners of Oregon's Measure 110. Haven Wheelock, Janie Marsh Gullickson, and Anthony Johnson.
The three chief petitioners of Oregon’s Measure 110. From left to right: Haven Wheelock, Janie Marsh Gullickson, and Anthony Johnson.

I spoke with Chief Petitioner of Measure 110, Anthony Johnson, about the treatment-not-jails approach and where he hopes the drug policy reform movement will go next.

Rebecca Martinez: It’s a little late, but congratulations on the passage of 110. What a huge accomplishment!

Anthony Johnson: It’s a step in the right direction. Oregon took a big sledgehammer to the failed drug war. But I would say there is still more work to be done around the criminal justice element, making sure that harm reduction, treatment, and recovery programs are fully funded. And there’s still more work to be done expunging past criminal offenses that people have suffered from.

RM: Do you foresee new organizations being formed under this measure, or will the funding go to expand existing ones?

AJ: Right off the bat, at least with the initial funds, it will go to groups like Central City Concern and Bridges to Change that set up sober housing living situations and want to expand their programs so they can help people find places to live, get job training and experience, and be able to move on with their lives. Programs like that can expand. There could be rural organizations that understand there are places in Oregon where people have to travel hours to receive drug treatment. Groups could get funding for mobile units and meet people where they are. And then we have organizations like Outside In, who may want to expand the ability to provide NarCan, or fentanyl-testing supplies so that lives can be saved.

So in the short term, it will be organizations that are already up and running, doing good work and have experience applying for these types of funding sources. Over time, I could see new organizations established based upon lessons learned and the needs of the community.

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RM: When it comes to drug testing [as in checking for purity, not to be confused with urine drug testing], is this something we currently have in some form, and if not, is it legal and allowed under this new program?

AJ: Right now, organizations can get funding to expand programs to test drug supplies. There are organizations working today in Oregon that provide test strips so people can test their own drugs and make sure they are not fentanyl. I’m unaware that this conflicts with federal law if a group is just supplying testing equipment. It’s a little different than say, a safe consumption site where there is a violation of federal law happening on site. It’s more like, “Here’s your kit,” and you’re on your way.

When we talk about the interplay and all these issues of impact, I want to highlight one point, and I believe we did this effectively during the campaign. I hope this can reverberate all throughout Oregon: When people talk about drug policy changes, ultimately it is not about the drugs. It is about the people. Our loved ones. No matter where you live, who you are, you have family members using drugs, most likely illegal drugs, but definitely legal drugs, be it alcohol, tobacco, or prescription drugs.

Knowing the truth about these drugs, treating them without stigma so that when people who do have an issue, they’re willing to come forward and there are resources available to them. Ultimately, what do you want for yourself or a loved one? How do you want to be treated? Do you want them arrested, put in jail, fired, given a scarlet letter “F” labeling them a felon for the rest of their lives so they can’t get certain housing opportunities? Or do you want them treated with dignity and provided resources if they need help. Remember that the majority of drug users actually don’t need help and can lead productive lives.

When mainstream media stories are written, headlines are going to be as inflammatory as possible. The photo’s gotta be needles and lines, razor blades, if they can they throw some guns in the picture too, but that’s not a realistic representation of life in America. As we move forward, we want to be compassionate, empathetic, end the stigma, and treat people how we want to be treated.

When people talk about drug policy changes, ultimately it is not about the drugs. It is about the people.

RM: I have two immediate family members who have been incarcerated. Is there a pathway to ending sentences for people who are serving time for substances that are no longer illegal? Or, is it: “What’s done is done”?

AJ: Something could be done about it, for sure. And we were able to accomplish some of this work with cannabis. We could have something passed that provides a study saying, “Who is in prison for these substances that are now decriminalized?” Or, “The offense was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor and their prison time should be reduced and they should be let out.”

For whatever reason, there’s often some reluctance around that. I don’t quite understand it. The way I see it, when we legalize cannabis or drug possession, voters and society are recognizing that the state has made a mistake. Cannabis shouldn’t have been illegal in the first place. These small amounts of drugs should not be a felony or a misdemeanor. So, why are people in prison and why do people have criminal records when the state made the mistake?

It will take further legislative changes to accomplish this. We still have such a huge stigma around drugs. Cannabis has taken 25 years. It may be due to coronavirus and other concerns, but really there’s been no movement on further decriminalizing drug possession yet.

RM: What do you want to see moving forward?

AJ: What I want to see, what I’m working for and will continue advocating for, is automatically expunging old convictions. Automatically releasing people from prison. Following Measure 91 [Oregon’s Legal Marijuana initiative, on which Anthony was also Chief Petitioner], one of the most proud moments of my activist career was reading an article on OPB.org in which a man said he cried tears of joy because his cannabis delivery conviction could finally be expunged from his record, after following him for 30 years of his life.

Now, six years later, I am still proud of that, but I am struck that we didn’t go far enough. He was in a position to hire an attorney, pay the court fees, pay for the filing. [But] expunging your criminal record should not depend on your ability to hire an attorney. The law is the law. It should just be off everybody’s record. It should not be based on how much money you have or whether you know how to jump through legal hoops.

RM: Have you heard interest from people in other states who want to create models designed after 110? Given what you know now, what would be the dream model that you believe could be pushed through in more progressive states?

AJ: I have been in touch with people interested in enacting similar policies, and even city or countywide changes where statewide is not feasible. The cannabis movement did the same thing with local efforts. I definitely support anything that moves the issue forward. I became an activist over 20 years ago and I definitely see a key change in where we are and we are definitely going to move forward in other states. My dream model would be largely based in Oregon.

Now, the possession limits of what you decriminalize should be examined and should be realistic around peoples’ usage. One of the critiques I heard a lot from addiction doctors was that the possession limits we decriminalized in Measure 110 were, really, too low for a lot of users.

Even potentially, so long as someone is not selling, [general possession] could be decriminalized. Automatic expungements of past offenses and early prison release, and I think there should be funds allocated for treatment, harm reduction and recovery for those who need it.

This should be looked at as an extension of our healthcare needs. States should also be looking into studies into the medicinal benefits of various psychedelics, be it psilocybin mushrooms or MDMA. Slowly but surely, we are getting research moving forward at the federal level, but it is really up to the states to move these things forward.

In the future, something like 109 and 110 could be combined.

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RM: What’s your take on city resolutions such as Decrim Nature or the Plant Medicine Healing Alliance?

AJ: I support anything that moves the issue forward and educates people. My one caveat [about Decrim Nature and the Plant Medicine Healing Alliance] is I don’t want anybody to possess larger amounts of these drugs [in Oregon] than what Measure 110 allows, believing they are okay under state law because of a city resolution. A city cannot make something legal that the state has made illegal.

This is a problem with not having a city court, and this is something I look at when we are planning future drug policy reform measures. Cities that have their own city court, such as Columbia, Missouri where I went to undergrad and law school, can pass a measure and force the city prosecutor and police to keep that case within city courts and not send it to county or state [court], or refer it to the feds. So in these places, you can actually change the law [at the city level].

The city can’t make, say 28 grams of psilocybin mushrooms legal if the state says 12. It could be de facto legal, if the district attorney chose not to prosecute people, but DA’s change and it may not always be that way. [It’s then up to] local police discretion… it could be “lowest law enforcement priority,” but they could still arrest you.

RM: If it is on the discretion of the police, is it worth putting resources into these city-based resolutions? The last thing any of us wants is blood on our hands or anyone having a brush with the law because they thought they had legal protection when they didn’t.

It is imperative for all advocates to do what they can to be open. Lowest law enforcement priority measures are symbolic measures. If you are not actually changing the law, people can still be arrested and convicted. There could still be a lot of good out of that, but we need education that helps people realize this doesn’t actually change the criminal code. It’s up to advocates to make sure people know the truth of the matter. We don’t want to do harm. That said, if anything is moving the issue forward, I tend to support it. My focus is on changing the law, but I support anything that’s chipping away at the drug war. We should be honest about the pros and cons.

We want to let science, truth, and common sense guide us. We need to be truthful about what a lowest law enforcement priority measure does.

Expunging your criminal record should not depend on your ability to hire an attorney. The law is the law. It should just be off everybody’s record.

RM: What would you say to those who are pro-psychedelics who are new to the idea of broader drug policy reform?

This is something I’ve battled within cannabis legalization, which I’ve been involved in for over 20 years. Early on, and still to this day, there was cannabis exceptionalism. People had the attitude of, “Don’t arrest us [cannabis users]. Arrest these other people who use heroin, or meth, or these other drugs.” And now we’re seeing the same thing with psychedelics.

In the end, I believe people need to do their best to be empathetic to the situations people are born into, how they’re raised, the traumas they go through, and the drugs that are used.  If you were born in a different city, state, whatever… you may have used different drugs than what you use today.

When I first told people in cannabis activism that I was working on 110, they were like, “You’re not going to decriminalize meth, right?”

Bottom line is: Arresting and convicting people, whatever the drug is… it’s counterproductive. Throwing someone in jail and taking away their education, housing and job opportunities is not good for them or society. We have to set aside our feelings about drugs because we believe some substances are better than others and that [certain] people should be treated better than others. We all have circumstances and hardships. No matter the drug of choice, arresting, criminalizing and stigmatizing them is a counterproductive policy.

We always need to come back to that. We need to appeal to people’s compassion and empathy. We cannot arrest and jail our way out of people using drugs.

RM: You make an important point. You’re touching on the question of: What does punishment do to us? Does it move us closer or further from the society we want to have?

We have to change the conversation. Imagine the headlines you’d see if other drugs caused the consequences we see with alcohol. Car accidents, death, abuse, other accidents, all these bad decisions people make… if that was another drug, just imagine the headlines, every day. People committing crimes, getting in wrecks with alcohol in our systems. But for better or worse, it is accepted in our society.

But if someone came to you and said they used alcohol and thought they needed help, that is [also] totally acceptable in society. And it should be. That’s where we want to get with all drugs. No matter the substance someone uses. If people seek help, they should get the help they need. Ultimately, we need to end the stigma. It’s difficult when even people within drug policy reform have their own stigmas around certain drugs. I’m a different advocate in 2021 than I was in 2000.  Everyone has their own journey, but I definitely see the light at the end of the tunnel.

We got a strong majority of the vote [in Oregon]. Drug decriminalization got a higher percentage of the votes than Jeff Merkeley, who is a very popular senator! This is more popular than we think. We’ve got to thank Dr. Carl Hart, who is braver than most, for paving the way.

I believe in ten years, in this discussion around decriminalization, stigma and use, we’re going to be in a much better place than we are now. It’s not just electoral victories, it’s conversations we have publicly like this one, conversations with our friends and family, we can just chip away at it.

I’m actually very hopeful. Drug policy reform is two steps forward, one step back. But as scary and maddening and the world can be, I’ve never been more optimistic about what we can do. I’m proud that Oregon’s been playing our part and other states are following suit.

I believe in our lifetime we are going to end the drug war.

Learn more about Measure 110 at healthjusticerecovery.org.

About the Author

Rebecca Martinez is a Portland, Oregon-based writer, parent and community organizer. She is a co-founder of the Fruiting Bodies Collective, an advocacy group, podcast and multimedia platform exploring the intersections between healing justice and the psychedelics movement.

Psychedelics Today’s 5th Birthday Party

Psychedelics Today is turning 5 years old!

On Thursday, May 13th, we’re celebrating 5 whole years of making Psychedelics Today and you are all invited to come celebrate with us! 

We’re hosting a live, virtual birthday party on 5/13 starting at 7:30 pm EST on Twitch. We’ll start with a conversation between Joe, Kyle, and our newest edition, Michelle, on the origins of Psychedelics Today, how Joe & Kyle met, why they wanted to start a psychedelic podcast and media company, how they created their Navigating Psychedelics course, and so much more! We’ll also be opening it up to questions from the audience, so if you’ve been meaning to ask us something, Thursday evening is your chance!

Then after about an hour, we’ll be winding down (or ramping up) with a live vinyl DJ set from dr. bouchard. So mark your calendars and get ready to celebrate our birthday with us! It’s totally FREE and guaranteed to be a super chill evening full of psychedelic insight, music, and more! 

Can Psychedelics Provide Relief for Autistic Individuals?

By Jasmine Virdi

There is a growing community of neurodivergent and autistic folks using psychedelics, but how does it help them? We took a deep look at the growing body of research and anecdotes to find out.

Current estimates have it that between 1-2% of the world’s population is autistic. In addition to higher levels of social anxiety, depression, and ADHD, autistic individuals meet unique challenges as they seek effective therapeutic treatment methods available to them; psychedelic-assisted therapy is now seen as an attractive alternative for this often sidelined and marginalized population.

There are promising signs that indicate psychedelics could help autistic individuals manage social anxiety, recover from trauma, reduce depression and anxiety, as well as work through the unique hurdles on their path. However it may be the case that for people with lower-functioning capabilities, psychedelics might not have nearly the same effect. Despite innumerable anecdotal reports from individuals who have benefited from psychedelics in a multitude of ways, there is still a significant lack of research regarding how psychedelics could be useful for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnoses.

What Is Autism?

Before delving into how psychedelics can be helpful for autistic individuals, it is first important to understand what autism actually is. Defining it can be tricky because there is still no agreed upon mechanistic, neurological basis for the condition. Despite this, there is research to suggest that neurodivergent brains exhibit higher levels of functional connectivity, believed to contribute to the intense sensitivity to sensory input and sense of overwhelm that autistic individuals experience in certain environments.

Moving away from stereotyped definitions of ASD as a social impairment, many believe sensory processing issues to be at the core of autism. Typically, autistic individuals have hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sounds, touch, and lights, among other stimuli. As such, autism is characterized by unique, atypical ways of interacting with and processing information. Even so, everyone inherits their own unique neurocognitive version of autism, and although autistic individuals share basic neurological features as well as a common diagnosis, behaviors and traits can vary dramatically from person-to-person.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), defines autism in terms of deficits in social communication and interaction, and repetitive patterns of behavior and/or interests that are present (but not always noticed) in the early developmental period. However, such definitions of autism have led to false stereotypes. Looking at autism through this lens of pathology, scientists have long sought out a “cure.” However, pathologizing autism in this way is both harmful and damaging.

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In his book, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, Steve Silberman reflects historically how the controversial roots in early psychology have led to widespread misunderstanding of what autism is, and how our societal failure to embrace neurodiversity has been inherently damaging. Further, Silberman speaks to the fact that embracing neurodiversity can benefit our existence in that neurodivergent individuals are often endowed with unique, specialized ways of seeing the world.

Within psychiatry, autism is classified as a “disorder,” however, in recent years this conception is being actively challenged by advocates of neurodiversity. When defining autism, Nick Walker, queer autistic scholar and Associate Professor of Somatic Psychology at California Institute of Integral Studies, makes a distinction between what he refers to as the “neurodiversity paradigm” and the “pathology paradigm.” Walker describes the neurodiversity paradigm as a perspective that “recognizes neurodiversity as a naturally-occurring form of human diversity.”

Comparatively, autistics are marginalized through the pathology paradigm, which rests on the assumption that there is only one “right” way to be and that if you stray from the dominant conception of normal there is something wrong with you. He adds, “In the context of a society designed around the sensory, cognitive, developmental, and social needs of non-autistic individuals, autistic individuals are almost always disabled to some degree.”

Although certain features of autism can be disabling, many of the challenges that autistics face aren’t necessarily related to their diagnosis, but rather, arise from the way in which society treats those who don’t fit the mold of  “normal.” Many autistic individuals grow up feeling that their way of inhabiting the world is flawed because they do not conform to certain, socially-conditioned ways of being.

Difficulty meeting certain social expectations often ends in social rejection, stifling autistic individuals’ ability to interact with others. Accordingly, autism is often misrepresented as a social deficit by those who are ignorant of the fact that social difficulties in autistic populations are simply by-products of the heightened intensity of their sensory experience. Through the lens of neurodivergence, autism is a neurotype, and labelling it as a “disorder” reflects a value judgement more than anything else.

Looking Into the Research on Psychedelics and Autism

In the early 1960s, when LSD was beginning to be used experimentally in research and psychotherapy, a series of controversial studies were published around treating young children who were believed to have severe forms of autism and childhood-onset schizophrenia (COS) with LSD. Due to misconceptions surrounding autism, it was previously thought to be closely related to juvenile schizophrenia.

The driving justification for experimenting with a powerful psychoactive substance on children was that all other treatment methods had previously failed. Scientists gave a total of 91 children, aged between six and ten, LSD at differing dosage levels and fluctuating frequencies of administration with different treatment schedules, finding that the most effective results were produced at doses of 100 micrograms given daily or weekly for extended periods of time. Undoubtedly, such a study would be unacceptable to an ethics committee today.

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Positive outcomes were reported with the use of LSD, with researchers summarizing the most consistent effects as improved speech, increased emotional responsiveness, frequent laughter, positive mood, and a decrease of compulsive behavior. In one such example, researchers observed that the children “appeared flushed, bright eyed, and unusually interested in the environment.” Despite these promising results, positive outcomes were largely dismissed due to the fact that the study designs were greatly flawed, and were not as scientifically rigorous as those of today’s standards because they lacked experimental controls.

Since this early research, there have been very few studies that have looked into the clinical uses of psychedelics for autistic populations. One of the first to do so was clinical psychologist and MDMA researcher Alicia Danforth’s 2013 doctoral dissertation, which explored how autistic adults experience the subjective effects of MDMA. Danforth looked at qualitative data collected via online surveys from 100 autistic individuals who had taken MDMA alongside a comparison group of 50 autistic individuals who were MDMA naïve.

MDMA is sometimes referred to as an “empathogen” or “entactogen” because it is a substance that has the ability to facilitate experiences of increased empathy, oneness, emotional connectivity, and emotional openness. In part, MDMA is able to do this because it encourages the release of oxytocin, sometimes referred to as “the love hormone,” which is associated with social connection and enhancing responses to positive emotions while decreasing the ability to perceive negative facial cues.

The group who had taken MDMA reported sustained benefits such as improvement in social anxiety and healing from trauma. Most notably after MDMA use, 91% of participants reported increased feelings of empathy and social connectedness, while 86% felt that communication came more easily with the effects lasting two years or longer for 15% of individuals.

Building on the positive trends identified in her dissertation, in 2016 Danforth published a paper detailing the rationale behind and protocol for a pilot study using MDMA-assisted therapy to treat social anxiety in autistic adults. In 2018, Danforth and her team conducted the first randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment with psychedelics and autistic adults.

Broadly speaking, social anxiety is characterized by a heightened fear of what others think about you, feeling an intensified fear of scrutiny alongside the avoidance of social interactions. Research has shown that social anxiety commonly co-occurs with ASD, and part of Danforth’s rationale behind the study was to explore MDMA as a treatment modality for individuals with an increased need.

One of the principal aims of the study was to explore the safety of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for reduction of social fear and avoidance for individuals with ASD, finding no evidence of harm to participants. Although the study was small in size, recruiting only 12 participants, results were promising. Participants took part in two full-day sessions in which they were either given MDMA or a placebo. The study used the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale to measure changes in social anxiety. Subjects who received MDMA showed a significantly greater reduction in social anxiety than the placebo group. Reductions in social anxiety symptoms were long-lasting, still holding true at a 6-month follow-up.

In her work, Danforth is careful to emphasize the fact that MDMA and other psychedelics do not “cure” autism, rather when used in a psychotherapeutic setting, they can help to alleviate social anxiety and manage other concomitant issues prevalent in autistic populations.

Reflecting on the study, Danforth shared that there were substantial recruitment delays. As anxiety and depression are both common in autistic adults, many participants were ruled out because they were using conventional psychiatric medications such as SSRIs. In addition, many of these adults were often unemployed and living in social isolation, less likely to have access to information about the study.

Beyond this small study, Danforth also created guidelines to psychedelic practitioners working with neurodivergent individuals on how to be mindful of surroundings so as to create an “autism-friendly” treatment space, such as paying careful attention to lighting and taking extra measures to minimize noise. 

Beyond the scope of autism, there is a growing body of research that has sought to examine how psychedelics affect social behaviour more generally. A 2020 study done by a team of researchers from McGill University examined the effect of LSD on social behavior in mice, whilst measuring their brain activity.

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Under the influence of low doses of LSD, the mice became notably more social and friendly towards unfamiliar mice. While it was already known that LSD activates serotonin 5-HT2A receptors, this study illuminated that LSD’s activation of the 2A receptors also triggered a cascade activation of the AMPA receptor and the protein complex mTORC1, working together to encourage social interaction. This is important because dysregulation of mTORC1 has been linked to autism and social anxiety disorders more generally.

Obviously, behavior and brain function in mice cannot directly be translated to that in humans, however, understanding the foundational mechanism of LSD’s prosocial behavioral effects opens up the door for future research. It also advances the understanding of how the substance could be useful to autistic populations, as well as those that suffer from general social anxiety.

An earlier study conducted in 2013 also showed that both psilocybin and ketamine altered the way that the brain responds to fearful faces. People under the influence of these two psychedelics were less able to identify negative expressions when presented with images of people with angry or upset expressions.

In the same vein, a 2010 study done with MDMA demonstrated that the substance reduced people’s accuracy in distinguishing negative facial cues. Not only does MDMA enhance emotional openness and connectivity, it also impairs the capacity to notice negative emotions in others’ facial expressions. Similarly, LSD has been shown to have an effect on emotional processing, enhancing feelings of trust, closeness to others, and emotional empathy, while weakening the ability to detect sad and fearful facial expressions.

In addition, psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA, all work to reduce the activity of the amygdala, a brain region that is associated with emotional processing and stress response. Brain imaging studies with autistic individuals have shown that the amygdala is differentially activated when presented with anxiety-inducing stimuli compared to the general population.

Psychedelics’ ability to enhance states of social connection and empathy joined with their simultaneous capacity to diminish the detection of negative facial expressions make them a promising therapeutic modality for those that suffer with social anxiety disorders, including autistic individuals.

Even though research into psychedelics and autism is still very limited, we can still draw much insight from psychedelic research into non-autistic individuals and the body of anecdotal evidence that is growing quickly as more and more neurodivergent people share their healing stories.

Beyond Social Anxiety: Navigating Neurodivergence with Psychedelics

For Aaron Orsini, author of Autism on Acid: How LSD Helped Me Understand, Navigate, Alter & Appreciate My Autistic Perceptions, editor of the new anthology Autistic Psychedelic: The Self-Reported Benefits & Challenges of Experiencing LSD, MDMA, Psilocybin & Other Psychedelics As Told By Neurodivergent Adults navigating ADHD, Alexithymia, Anxiety, Asperger’s, Autism, Depression, PTSD, OCD & Other Conditions, and co-founder of the online community for neurodivergent individuals, Autistic Psychedelic, experimenting with LSD led him to understand and appreciate his autism, allowing him to “bridge the neurotypical divide.” 

Aaron Orsini’s new book, Autistic Psychedelic, is an anthology of self reported benefits and challenges of neurodivergent folk exploring psychedelics

The altered state produced by psychedelics helped Orsini better understand how he was prioritizing sensory input, realizing that he had been stuck in a particular mode of seeing and experiencing the world, awakening a deep sense of interoceptiveness.

Interoception is the awareness of what is going on inside one’s own body at any given moment and the ability to take action based on one’s inner experience. For example, noticing dryness in the mouth might serve as an indication that we are thirsty, encouraging us to take action by drinking water. In general, autistic folk tend to have lower interoceptive awareness when compared with average populations.

“If my body was a car, psychedelics allowed me to realize that my fuel light was low, that I needed food, rest, or felt a certain way,” Orsini says. “By being able to notice and interpret the cues coming in, I became able to navigate any situation.”

Speaking about his initial experience with psychedelics, Orsini shares, “ I felt connected to myself, nature, and other people—it was a relief from repetitive thinking, and from there it became the foundation upon which I could rebuild my relationship with myself, my physical and mental wellness, and lead a functional life.”

Orsini draws on the concepts of “monotropism” and what he calls “polytropism” to explain how psychedelics were able to modulate his consciousness. Monotropism, believed to be a key feature of autism, refers to a cognitive strategy in which one has a narrow set of interests and is only able to focus one’s attention on a limited number of inputs at a given time. On the one hand, monotropic thinking can lend itself to deep thinking and flow states, however, it is also limiting in that information which exists outside of the attention tunnel often gets filtered out, and it can be hard to disengage with a given task or activity when one is so fully absorbed in it.

Comparatively, polytropism designates the proclivity to process multiple inputs at once. Naturally, both types of cognitive processing have their pros and cons, however, when it comes to autistic individuals, polytropic processing is generally harder to access. In Orsini’s experience, LSD was able to occasion a state of polytropic awareness, which he committed himself to working with after his psychedelic experience. 

By facilitating novel perceptions, psychedelics could also help autistic individuals learn to embrace their neurocognitive disposition and unique way of inhabiting the world. Many autistic people engage in a behavior referred to as “masking” in which they camouflage certain challenges by observing and mimicking neurotypical ways of acting in social situations. In some sense, masking is a survival strategy used to conceal behaviors that are felt to be socially unacceptable. Often, masking is the result of trauma, as individuals feel they need to hide their true selves in order to fit in.

“Autistic behaviors could be patterned off of early life traumas that are likely because of the sensitivity inherent to an autistic individual,” says Orsini. “I might not have been through war, but I was prone to a more intense sensory experience.”

Independent of neurotype, psychedelics allow for a reappraisal of our default modes of seeing, and a breaking free from the rigid patterns of perception that become habitual. In mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and OCD, an interconnected group of brain regions referred to as the default mode network (DMN) linked to introspective functions such as self-reflection and self-criticism, tend to be overactive.

Psychedelics have been shown to dampen the function of the DMN, allowing for a kind of “reset” in the brain in which it becomes easier to separate ourselves from ways of thinking and seeing the world that have become ingrained. If psychedelics are beneficial to the general population in this way, why can’t they also be valuable to autistic folk for the same reason?

To date, there is no evidence to suggest that having an ASD diagnosis is a contraindication for psychedelic use. “In general, whether it is in a research or retreat setting, there is less certainty on how to navigate autism and so it is often sidelined,” says Orsini. “However, there is nothing obvious about autism that makes it a contraindication or makes it less safe to explore these toolsets.”

Unfortunately, more often than not, larger subsets of the population get attention first, and according to the World Health Organization, a whopping 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression. Comparatively, autistics make up a minority population that often gets overshadowed.

Expressing his hopes for future psychedelic research, Orsini shares, “What I’d like to see is keeping autistics in the conversation when it comes to their ongoing access, and keep them in the domain of people that are considered for early clinical trials.” Additionally, when psychedelic-assisted therapy becomes legalized throughout the US, just as it has in Oregon, Orsini hopes that medical or retreat centers don’t exclude autistic people.

A Future Therapeutic Modality for Autistics: Psychedelic-Assisted Immersion Therapy

Based on his extensive self-experimentation with LSD, Orsini proposed a model therapeutic approach for navigating neurodivergence with psychedelics called: “LSD-assisted immersion therapy.” Immersion therapy is different from conventional psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy in that it is formulated with the idea of facilitating social and interpersonal learning as opposed to a purely inwardly-directed experience. In this context, Orsini suggests that a moderate dose of the substance is preferable so as not to elicit a full blown mystical experience.

Moving beyond a therapist dyad, LSD-assisted immersion therapy, or more generally psychedelic-assisted immersion therapy, involves ingesting the substance in a group setting. “If I was to have this LSD, and simply reflect on my social challenges in isolation, I may come to an intellectual conclusion, but it is not the same as actually being involved with other people,” says Orsini.

“I envision a future setting in which individuals who are seeking to work on interpersonal issues and skills would be able to do so in the comfort of other individuals who are equally familiar with them,” says Orsini. “These issues have to do with one’s personal self inventory, but there is a natural therapeutic component to engaging with others in an enhanced state.”

Experiencing challenge around social interaction isn’t specific to autistic individuals, and psychedelic-assisted immersion therapy, or simply psychedelic group therapy, has the potential to help a wide range of people. Current clinical studies into the therapeutic potentials of psychedelics often overlook an important dimension of real-life psychedelic use, namely, the social dimension.

To some extent, psychedelic insights can be like training wheels on a bike. Once a person is able to access a specific way of thinking in the psychedelic state, it becomes much easier to cultivate the same state in day-to-day life. In the case of autism, people might feel more confident and empowered in daily life, finding comfort in the level of social connection that they were able to achieve in the psychedelic state.

Although pushing for the legalization and acceptance of psychedelics through the lens of medicalization is somewhat of a necessity, there is an inherent problem-solving dynamic that emerges in which psychedelics are viewed exclusively as tools that are effective in treating given issues. However, looking at psychedelics through the lens of neurodiversity, they need not be used to target a given concomitant issues associated with autism, rather they can simply help people understand and embrace their differences. Healing happens when we can move beyond a narrow view of how society should be and encourage people to flourish as they are, instead of attempting to make everyone conform.

*Even though this article speaks to the benefits of autistic adults using psychedelics, it is no way advocated that such individuals should seek to self-medicate. In sharing his story, Orsini makes it clear that he is not advocating for others to self-experiment as he did, rather, his aim is to spark interest in researchers to find more data on this in hopes of providing relief for others.

About the Author

Jasmine Virdi is a freelance writer and editor. Since 2018, she has been working for the fiercely independent publishing company Synergetic Press, where her passions for ecology, ethnobotany, and psychoactive substances converge. Jasmine is also a writer for Psychedelics Today, Chacruna.net, Lucid News, and Cosmic Sister. She is currently pursuing an MSc in Spirituality, Consciousness, and Transpersonal Psychology at the Alef Trust with the future aim of working in psychedelic integration therapy. Jasmine’s goal as an advocate for psychoactive substances is to raise awareness of the socio-historical context in which these substances emerged in order to help integrate them into our modern-day lives in a safe, grounded and meaningful way.