An Air Force Academy Cadet Pleaded Guilty to Using Magic Mushrooms. Is DoD Ready for the Drug's Legal Rise?

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Psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis marketplace
A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis marketplace on May 24, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

A cadet at the Air Force Academy pleaded guilty Friday to one specification of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice for using psilocybin -- a natural psychedelic compound found in certain mushrooms that remains a federally outlawed drug.

Seth Misukanis, the cadet, faced the special court-martial where he was was given a reprimand for violating the military's laws and agreed to leave the academy in an "unpaid status pending a decision on disenrollment," according to a news release from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

But even as the academy meted out the punishment, magic mushrooms and their active ingredient psilocybin were largely decriminalized in Colorado last year, and amended state laws allow for residents to grow, use and share them without any serious penalties.

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The incident is another example of how the military and the federal government are lagging behind states when it comes to legalizing and decriminalizing drugs. So far, the vast majority of states have legalized marijuana in a medical or recreational form, a trend that the Department of Defense is still grappling with when it comes to recruiting and disciplining troops who get high.

And while many of the service branches have only recently started to amend their policies to cope with the rise of legal marijuana, some experts believe the military will have to prepare for the slow acceptance of magic mushrooms as well.

Mason Marks, the senior fellow and lead of the Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation at Harvard Law School's Petrie-Flom Center, told Military.com in an interview that psilocybin is clearly growing in popularity as various states and cities promote new laws to decriminalize and legalize the drug.

"The pieces of legislation are growing, they're being replicated pretty rapidly," Marks said. "It does seem like there is a cultural change."

The Drug Enforcement Administration says the effects of taking magic mushrooms include hallucinations and "an inability to discern fantasy from reality," according to a fact sheet. The enforcement agency also says side effects include "nausea, vomiting, muscle weakness, and lack of coordination" and an overdose can lead to "more intense 'trip' episodes, psychosis, and possible death."

Denver, Colorado, was the first city in the U.S. to decriminalize psilocybin back in May 2019. The change began to spread to cities in California and Massachusetts, as well as Washington, D.C.; Seattle; and Detroit.

In 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize the drug for therapeutic use. In 2022, Colorado became the second state to legalize the use of psilocybin mushrooms.

According to Psychedelic Alpha, a website that tracks legalization and decriminalization efforts of the drug, there is currently legislation in more than 20 states related to psychedelic drug policy reforms. More than a dozen municipalities have already instituted local reforms as well.

Some states such as Hawaii, Texas, Maryland and Connecticut presently have working groups studying the drug for medical use, according to a map from Psychedelic Alpha.

Despite those state and local efforts, psilocybin remains a Schedule I controlled substance under the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration alongside heroin, LSD, ecstasy and marijuana, and is not allowed for use by service members and those wishing to join the military.

Marijuana, although becoming less taboo and legalized on a state-by-state basis, still remains outlawed on the federal level as a Schedule I drug.

The majority of states have legalized marijuana for medical use, recreational use or both. Only 10 states currently do not allow marijuana use in any form -- Indiana, Wisconsin, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas, according to MJBizDaily, a trade publication that follows the industry.

While the military has zero tolerance for other Schedule I drugs such as ecstasy, heroin and methamphetamines, recruits in some service branches have received waivers for marijuana as it has grown in popularity.

The Air Force anticipated only 50 cases annually when it announced a new pilot program last year that would allow some applicants who tested positive for THC, the active compound in marijuana, a chance to retest and possibly enlist.

But the Air Force Recruiting Service told Military.com earlier this month that, within the first year of the program, the service encountered triple that number -- granting 165 waivers after candidates retested and were shown to be free of THC.

The program is one of the Air Force's latest attempts to remove barriers to service after missing its active-duty enlisted recruiting goals for the past fiscal year, by roughly 11%. It was the first time since 1999 the service hadn't reached its projected numbers.

Marks told Military.com it's possible that if psilocybin grows in popularity, it could harm the service branches' recruiting efforts.

"If enough cities and enough states start decriminalizing or legalizing, then that could affect them," Marks said. "I could see how that could affect the applicant pool for military service."

Misukanis' case is particularly interesting, according to Eric Carpenter, an associate professor of law at Florida International University who specializes in military justice.

The Air Force Academy cadet faced a special court-martial, which "precluded the judge from imposing a sentence of confinement or punitive separation against Misukanis," according to the Air Force Academy.

While he does still face separation from the school, his only punishment was a reprimand. Other specifications of the UCMJ were dropped due to the cadet's plea deal, including one specification of wrongful use of cocaine as well as two specifications of false official statements.

"He had a plea deal, but it's a federal conviction that will follow him around," Carpenter told Military.com in an interview. "He got a really light sentence."

While use of the drug while in uniform remains outlawed and may lead to future legal issues, there are extensive studies looking into the positive effects of psychedelics, such as psilocybin, especially for veterans who leave the service and suffer with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

Military.com reported that the Department of Veterans Affairs is mulling how to expand research into psychedelic drugs like MDMA and psilocybin across the veteran population.

The VA is restricted from conducting large-scale studies into MDMA and psilocybin because they are listed as Schedule 1 drugs by the DEA. But Military.com reported that, according to the VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal, department researchers have received waivers to support ongoing studies and have conducted research funded with private donations rather than federal money.

VA scientists are interested in exploring the protocols for psychedelics-assisted therapy and how the department can support the research nationwide, as well as build the infrastructure needed for larger clinical trials, according to Elnahal.

Additionally, there is legislation in Congress that would require the Department of Defense and VA to study the use of marijuana to treat PTSD, depression and chronic pain in service members and veterans.

The legislation, part of the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act, also would require the Pentagon to conduct clinical trials on MDMA and psilocybin for PTSD, traumatic brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Military.com previously reported.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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