Panel Discusses Coalition Building to Unlock Therapeutic Effects of Psychedelics


On Feb. 2, 2022, the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy hosted a panel discussion on the therapeutic potential of psychedelic substances and the possibility of using collective action to encourage legal access to these treatments. The event was co-sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School; the Yale Program in Psychedelic Science; the Yale Psychedelic Science Group; and the Yale Health Law and Policy Society.

The event was moderated by Mason Marks, Senior Fellow and Project Lead at the Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation (POPLAR), a new initiative based at Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center. The panel included Ismail Lourido Ali, Director and Counsel of Policy and Advocacy at the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelics Studies (MAPS); U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon; Dr. Sharmin Ghaznavi, Associate Director and Director of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics; and Melissa Lavasani, Founder and Executive Director of the Psychedelic Medicine Coalition. 

Marks kicked off the event by giving a brief overview of the present “psychedelic renaissance,” during which promising research on the potential therapeutic effects of psychedelics like MDMA (“ecstasy”), psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”), and ketamine has led to a reconsideration of their legal status. This reconsideration is occurring at the federal level through the FDA, and at the state and local levels through ballot initiatives and legislative action. Marks began the conversation by asking the panelists how they got involved in this project and what their priorities were.

Ali shared a personal history of his discovery of psychedelics as a young person, which stemmed from and helped him process the difficulty of his experience as a Muslim child of immigrants. This discovery, coupled with a growing understanding of the realities of the war on drugs, led Ali to a career in drug policy and psychedelic advocacy. Lavasani shared a personal story about mental health struggles and dissatisfaction with the conventional healthcare system, which led her to seek out underground psychedelic treatment and eventually become a full-time advocate for psychedelic medicine. Ghaznavi shared that her interest was piqued fairly recently by reading the burgeoning scientific literature on the promise of psychedelic medicine. Finally, Blumenauer described his long-term involvement in ending the war on drugs and expanded upon two recent successful Oregon state ballot initiatives — one decriminalizing personal drug possession and another legalizing psilocybin services. 

Each panelist spoke about particular issues in which they have been involved. Highlights included Ismail Ali commenting on the process of pushing MDMA through FDA approval for PTSD, Ghaznavi emphasizing the importance of therapy and holistic support in treating mental health problems with psychedelics, Blumenauer sharing details of legal and political strategies for change, including lawsuits against the DEA, and Lavasani detailing the fight for decriminalization in D.C. and the importance of building political alliances through personal storytelling. 

As the discussion continued, audience members and panelists stressed the need for a broader vision of psychedelics beyond the confines of the medical care. Responding to a question about how to get involved, panelists emphasized local legislative efforts, community building, and work to destigmatize the use of psychedelics as key to effecting change. They also pointed to professional associations like the Psychedelic Bar Association as routes to further involvement. 

Despite their different backgrounds and perspectives, the panelists agreed on the importance of building broad coalitions to continue pushing forward science and policy in search of a more just and equitable future for those who seek psychedelic therapy.