Phillip Smith

The psychedelic revolution Is coming to the ballot box

The psychedelic renaissance that has been emerging in recent years will finally get a chance to be ratified by voters on November 3. On one side of the country, Oregon will be voting on an initiative to legalize the strictly regulated therapeutic use of psilocybin, while on the other side of the country, Washington, D.C., will be voting on an initiative that essentially (but not formally) decriminalizes a whole range of plant or fungi-based psychoactive substances, from ayahuasca to peyote and magic mushrooms.

These measures build on nascent efforts to get city governments to ease access to psychedelics, moves that have so far seen success in Denver, which in 2019 made possession of psilocybin mushrooms the lowest law enforcement priority, and Oakland, Santa Cruz, and Ann Arbor, which have followed this year. Most—but not all—of this activity is taking place under the rubric of Decriminalize Nature (DN), which states that its mission is "to improve human health and well-being by decriminalizing and expanding access to entheogenic plants and fungi through political and community organizing, education and advocacy."

The Oregon initiative, Measure 109, however, isn't part of this effort. Also known as the Psilocybin Services Act, it would create a program to allow the administration of psilocybin products, such as magic mushrooms, to adults 21 and over for therapeutic purposes. People would be allowed to buy, possess, and consume psilocybin at a psilocybin service center, but only after undergoing a preparation session and under the supervision of a psilocybin service facilitator.

The measure would direct the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to develop a program and create regulations for it within two years. The OHA, while acting on the recommendations of an Oregon Psilocybin Advisory Board, would also be responsible for determining who could be licensed as a facilitator and what qualifications and training they would need, as well as creating a code of professional conduct for facilitators. And the OHA would also set dosage standards and come up with rules for labeling and packaging.

The measure also bars the establishment of psilocybin service centers inside the city or town limits and gives local governments the ability to ban them in unincorporated areas within their jurisdictions.

The initiative is the brainchild of Portland psychotherapists Tom and Sheri Eckert, who formed the Oregon Psilocybin Society in 2016 and are the co-chief petitioners for the measure. Unlike the broader psychedelic reform movement, their goal is strictly limited to therapeutic ends.

"We see psilocybin therapy as an end in itself. We see the measure as a template and we plan to help organize the new profession and spread the template in the years to come," Tom Eckert said in an email interview.

"A growing body of research suggests that 'psilocybin'—a natural compound found in many species of mushrooms—can, as part of therapy, help relieve a variety of mental health issues, including depression, existential anxiety, addictions, and the lingering effects of trauma," Eckert explained. "Psilocybin therapy demonstrates an excellent safety record and often achieves lasting results after just one or two psilocybin sessions."

While the campaign has an impressive list of endorsers, including Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), the state Democratic Party, four state senators, and a raft of state and national social justice, civil rights, and drug reform groups, it is also catching flak from some in the DN movement.

In a Facebook post, DN Portland lambasted Measure 109: "This initiative would create one more medical model which serves the privileged members in society and makes it harder for the most vulnerable people to heal. The cost and hard-to-access system being created by M109 would make it very difficult for lower income people, indigenous communities, immigrants, undocumented people, people who cannot afford an ID, and non-English speaking populations to gain entry into the closed and privileged system being created by this measure. We are concerned about the implications of an elite group of beneficiaries putting a free medicine that grows naturally out of the ground behind a paywall," Zave Forster from DN Portland said.

"The greatest danger of M109 is that it would create a special class of permit-holders who would be motivated to lobby to prevent progressive measures such as those passed in Denver, Oakland, Santa Cruz and Ann Arbor, which are designed to enable access to the most vulnerable people by enabling them to grow, gather, gift, and share their own entheogenic plants and fungi," the group further argued.

When asked how the campaign responds to critiques like that from Decriminalize Nature Portland, Eckert was terse and blunt: "We don't," he said.

(It should be noted that at the same time Oregonians are voting on the psilocybin initiative, they are also voting on Measure 110, which would decriminalize the personal possession and use of small amounts of all drugs. If Measure 110 wins, then everybody will be able to use and possess all psychedelics for whatever purpose they desire, free from the threat of criminal prosecution.)

Instead, the Measure 109 campaign is relying on a big budget, support from medical figures, and a lack of organized opposition to find a path to victory. The campaign has raised $4.5 million, with more than $3.3 million of that coming from the New Approach PAC, which supports marijuana and drug reform efforts around the country.

One of the major donors to New Approach PAC is David Bronner of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps. "We are extremely appreciative of the support extended by the whole Bronner family," Eckert said. "David is intimately involved as part of our executive committee and is a great friend. Dr. Bronner's is a towering example of a conscious company and [is a] steward of the Earth."

Will Measure 109 win in November? The only known poll on the issue, from DHM Research in January 2019, had it in a dead heat, with 47 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed to the initiative. Eckert said the campaign has done internal polling but didn't reveal any results. "What I can tell you is that it's close," he said. "Back in 2015, when we first took aim at 2020, this was basically 'mission impossible.' Now we have a real and historic opportunity and we're excited to finish the job."

Back on the East Coast, residents of the nation's capital will be voting on Initiative 81, or the Entheogenic Plant and Fungi Policy Act of 2020. That measure would have police treat the non-commercial cultivation, distribution, possession, and use of natural plant medicines (entheogens) as their lowest law enforcement priority. The measure also asks the city's top prosecutor and its U.S. attorney to not prosecute such cases.

It looks likely to win. The measure has been endorsed by the D.C. Democratic Party, and according to a September FM3 Research poll, after reading the ballot language, 60 percent of likely voters supported it. That figure jumped to 64 percent when respondents were given a plain-language explanation of the measure.

The initiative is also well-financed, with the New Approach PAC kicking in more than half a million dollars. There are no registered opposition campaign committees.

For Initiative 81's chief petitioner and Decriminalize Nature D.C. spokesperson Melissa Lavasani, the measure is an outgrowth of her own personal story.

"How I got here was that I healed myself from postpartum depression with psychedelics," she said. "I had no mental health issues like that before, nor did I have any experience with psychedelics. I had an image of psychedelics shaped by propaganda. But then I listened to [podcast host] Joe Rogan when he had [mushroom maestro] Paul Stamets on. My husband grew up in the South and he said it was common to pick mushrooms and eat them, and he said the podcast made a lot of sense. So we decided to give it a try," she related.

"I was insistent on not taking pharmaceutical antidepressants because I saw one friend take his life [after he overdosed] on them and saw others have their personalities changed. I was a career woman and [was] growing my family. I had a lot to lose, but I tried microdosing, and within a few days I was shocked at how quickly it worked. I was interacting differently with people and the change was so profound," Lavasani continued.

"At the same time, I was watching the Denver magic mushroom campaign—and Oakland and Santa Cruz quickly followed—and got inspired. My husband worked for a city council member, and D.C. was at the forefront of marijuana reform, so why not be a leader on psychedelic reform?

"I never thought I would be doing this, but this issue is extremely important. How many people in my demographic are on medications? When you [look] into the research, you see these therapies are extremely effective, so I asked why aren't we acting on this. Our health care system doesn't address these serious mental health issues."

Lavasani acknowledged that passage of the measure would chip only a few flakes from the façade of drug prohibition, but said you have to start somewhere.

"Our measure is a very small step, it's just asking for the Metro police to make it the lowest law enforcement priority so that someone cultivating psilocybin or other substances at home is provided a layer of protection knowing [that] the police won't come after them. I lived in fear and secrecy because I was in possession of a controlled substance. I don't want others to have to do that," she said.

"We are limited in the District because of congressional oversight," Lavasani explained. "We've been talking to allies in Congress while campaigning, and if we win, and the Democrats take the majority in the Senate, we can get restrictive riders removed, and then we can take it further.

"This campaign is a good start, but there's a lot more work to do," she said. "We're okay with it being the first step. When we start talking about psychedelics, the first thing the Black community thinks of is PCP [Phencyclidine]. We have to undo a lot of that, so we're out in the community talking to people about plant medicines and talking about what kind of infrastructure we need to stay safe."

The measure's endorsement by the D.C. Democratic Party showed how attitudes are changing, and quickly, Lavasani said.

"This was a safe yes for the D.C. Democrats," she noted. "They learned a lesson from cannabis reform—when it happened it happened very quickly. Police reform is on the top of everyone's list right now, and this is the only thing on the ballot that touches on that. The majority of the party understood that the small step we're taking is a positive step toward ending the war on drugs. It's a no-brainer—we all know why it exists and it's time for us to make a change."

For David Bronner, both the Oregon and the D.C. initiatives are part of a broader push for psychedelic liberation—and not just natural plant psychedelics.

"In my book, it's strategic because LSD has the most baggage and is the end game, but it's my favorite psychedelic," said Bronner. "Plant medicines that you can grow naturally resonate with voters, and key stakeholders in the DN movement definitely favor natural plant medicines versus synthetic psychedelics. I'm a fan of all of them and have experienced the incredible healing and spiritual power of both. It's important to note that the incredible clinical research with synthetic psilocybin at Johns Hopkins [Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research] for end of life, anxiety, depression, and addiction [lends support to] the DN movement," he added.

And this year's psychedelic initiatives are just the beginning, Bronner said.

"Our hope in future election cycles is to combine broad-based treatment not jail and decriminalization (Measure 110 in Oregon) with the Decriminalize Nature ethos where the cutoffs for plant medicines are much higher or eliminated, and that also has a therapeutic psychedelic program like Measure 109 in Oregon, basically combining all three approaches into single statewide ballot measures in Washington and maybe Colorado in 2022," Bronner added.

But first, the movement needs to rack up a couple of victories this November 3.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for the past two decades. He is the longtime author of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the non-profit StopTheDrugWar.org, and has been the editor of AlterNet's Drug Reporter since 2015. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Legal marijuana is on the ballot in Big Sky Country

Come November 3, Big Sky Country could be among the latest places to free the weed. As is the case in Arizona, New Jersey, and South Dakota, marijuana legalization is on the ballot in Montana in 2020.

In Montana, though, people will be voting on not one but two complementary initiatives. While I-190 would legalize marijuana, CI-118 would amend the state constitution to allow for the age of majority—set at 18—to be raised for purchasing, consuming, or possessing marijuana as it is for alcohol.

I-190 would legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults 21 and over and allow for the home cultivation of up to four plants and four seedlings. It would also designate the state department of revenue to regulate marijuana commerce, from cultivation to retail sales. The initiative sets a retail tax of 20 percent on marijuana and marijuana-infused products for non-medical use.

And that's become a selling point for legalization: It can help fund state spending with the budget stressed by the coronavirus pandemic. A September report from the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research found that tax revenues from legal marijuana sales would generate between $43 million and $52 million a year in the first four years after legalization.

"Following in the footsteps of eleven other states, Montana voters have the opportunity to legalize recreational marijuana for people over the age of 21 by passing both CI-118 and I-190," said an op-ed by the Public Lands Coalition, which wants to see revenues from marijuana support projects like Habitat Montana, which works to "increase access to landlocked public lands." The op-ed continued: "The Montana effort to legalize marijuana differs from other states, though. Roughly 50 percent of the revenue generated from recreational marijuana sales would support state public lands by funding efforts like Habitat Montana. These funds are critical in order to maintain abundant wildlife populations and ensure our outdoor economy continues to thrive."

"Our research has always shown that a majority of Montanans support legalization, and now voters will have the opportunity to enact that policy, which will create jobs and generate new revenue for our state," said Pepper Petersen, a spokesperson for New Approach Montana, which is organizing the campaign for the initiatives. "It also means that law enforcement will stop wasting time and resources arresting adults for personal marijuana possession, and instead focus on real crime."

There is no recent polling to back up Petersen's claims, but a pair of older polls suggest he could be onto something. A February University of Montana Big Sky poll had recreational marijuana legalization winning 54 percent against 37 percent who were not in favor of this. That was up from a March 2019 Big Sky poll that had support at 51 percent.

That's not an especially comfortable lead for a ballot initiative, since organized opposition later in the campaign can eat away at support. And in September, organized opposition emerged in the form of Wrong for Montana. Led by Billings businessman Stephen Zabawa, a persistent foe of marijuana reforms, the group is also supported by the Montana Family Foundation and the Montana Contractors Association.

Zabawa said he had launched a billboard and digital media campaign against the two marijuana legalization measures. "Our message will be well-received, it'll be shared, and it'll be taken from family to family," he said. "I believe that, at the end of the day, the legalization issue will go away in the state of Montana."

Wrong for Montana has reported about $78,000 in donations and has already spent $61,000, leaving a paltry $17,000 to campaign with. New Approach Montana, on the other hand, has raised nearly $7 million in total and still has around $1.6 million in cash to play with. It has spent $2.3 million of this money on a late campaign TV ad blitz for October and November.

The campaign's coffers were filled largely by the national New Approach PAC, which supports various drug reform efforts around the country and has kicked in nearly $2 million, and the North Fund, which has donated $4.7 million. A somewhat mysterious entity whose funders remain unknown, the North Fund has also donated big bucks to a campaign for D.C. statehood and an effort to expand Medicaid in Missouri.

All that money and all those TV ads should help New Approach Montana get over the finish line come November 3. But it will be nail-biting time until all the votes are counted.

Will New Jersey be the next state to legalize marijuana?

New Jersey looks set to be the next state to legalize marijuana. It's on the ballot come Election Day on November 3, the polls are looking good, and while it's not the only state with marijuana legalization on the ballot, the others—Arizona, Montana, and South Dakota—are all out West, and the Garden State should beat them by a few hours.

The New Jersey legalization initiative, Public Question 1, would amend the state constitution to legalize the recreational use of marijuana and its cultivation, processing, and retail sale by a person who is at least 21 years old. It also designates the existing Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC), which currently handles medical marijuana, to regulate all legal marijuana commerce. Retail marijuana sales would be subject to the state sales tax of 6.625 percent, but any other state sales taxes would be prohibited. The initiative authorizes the legislature to let local governments add a 2 percent local sales tax.

It also leaves it up to the legislature and the CRC to address unresolved issues. Those include whether and how home cultivation would be allowed, how much weed people could possess, and detailed retail regulations.

If the measure passes, New Jersey will not only be the first to legalize marijuana this Election Day, it will also be the first mid-Atlantic state to do so, and the first to legalize it via a legislatively initiated voter referendum. Of the 11 states (and the District of Columbia) that have so far legalized marijuana, nine did it through citizen-based ballot initiatives, while in the other two, Illinois and Vermont, legislatures passed legalization bills.

But even though Governor Phil Murphy (D) campaigned on marijuana legalization in 2017 and vowed to get it passed in 100 days, legislative infighting, opposition within the Legislative Black Caucus, and bickering over revenues blocked the legislature from ever getting it done. As a last resort, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) and marijuana reform champion Senator Nick Scutari (D) filed the resolution giving the voters the final decision. It passed with overwhelming Democratic support over strong Republican opposition in December 2019.

And the polls have consistently shown it winning this November. An April poll by Monmouth University of registered voters had the measure winning 64 percent of the votes, while a July Brach Eichler Cannabis Poll shows that 67.6 percent of likely voters showed strong support or somewhat support for legalization via the ballot. An August Brach Eichler Cannabis Poll had support at 66 percent, a barely noticeable decline, and still a number to warm the hearts of legalization supporters.

That latter poll also had a large majority (74 percent) saying the state should make sure that "minorities have fair and equal access to this business opportunity," while another large majority, 71 percent, wanted tax revenues to be used for drug awareness and education. More than half (55 percent) wanted to see higher marijuana taxes.

"The Brach Eichler Cannabis Poll shows that as we get closer to the November election, public awareness and support for the legalization of adult cannabis use is steady or growing," John D. Fanburg, co-chair of the Cannabis Law Practice at Brach Eichler, said in a press release accompanying the poll. "Additionally, we can see that voters are recognizing the importance of addressing the social justice impact of disproportional enforcement and arrests against New Jersey's minority population."

For Ken Wolski, RN, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana—New Jersey (CMM-NJ), supporting the initiative is a no-brainer. Wolski and CMM-NJ are part of a broader coalition, NJ CAN 2020, that is working with HeadCount's Cannabis Voter Project to end marijuana prohibition in the Garden State. Other coalition members include the ACLU-New Jersey, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, the Latino Action Network, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, and the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association.

"Legalizing marijuana is the best way to get the right medicine to most people," Wolski told Drug Reporter in an email exchange. "Legalization will make it much easier for adults to take advantage of the tremendous therapeutic potential of cannabis. No longer will adults need a specific diagnosis and multiple visits to physicians to obtain cannabis. Adults in New Jersey will be able to purchase cannabis over the counter like they purchase aspirin now. NJ currently has some of the most expensive medical cannabis in the country, but increased competition will bring down those prices. Home [cultivation] should also come into play. Easily available marijuana will improve public health," he said.

Wolski is counseling reefer radicals who don't think the measure goes far enough to think again. There will be opportunities to further shape what legalization looks like down the road, he said.

"Unfortunately, some marijuana reform advocates oppose the amendment because it does not address their specific concerns about guaranteeing home cultivation, ensuring that ex-felons can participate in the new legal industry, ensuring reparations for individuals and communities harmed by the war on marijuana, etc.," Wolski explained.

"To those who say the question does not go far enough, I point out that the CRC must follow the regulatory process, which ensures input from the people of the state," Wolski continued. "The CRC will hold public hearings before they draft the regulations, then there will be a public comment period before they adopt the regulations. This will be the time to make opinions about home grow, social equity, affordable licenses, etc., known. The entire process will be transparent. If some of our demands are not met in the first go-round, we can immediately file to amend the regulations. The very first step is to give whole-hearted support for the ballot question, without which, there will be no reform of marijuana laws in New Jersey for the foreseeable future."

And he will be fighting for home cultivation, he said.

"We anticipate arguments in civil and criminal courts that the amendment does, in fact, allow home cultivation," Wolski explained. "We plan to work with the CRC in the development of regulations to ensure that home cultivation is part of [legalizing] cannabis in New Jersey. At the same time, we will continue to work with legislators for a bill to specifically allow New Jersey medical marijuana program patients and caregivers to grow a limited supply of cannabis for their medical needs."

But first, the measure needs to win.

"If the ballot question fails, the war on marijuana will be business as usual, and we will be that much further away from home cultivation, legalization, expungement, social justice, etc.," Wolski warned. "The first step is [a] victory in November that we can build on. We encourage New Jersey residents to join us in our efforts to pass this ballot question."

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for the past two decades. He is the longtime author of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the non-profit StopTheDrugWar.org, and has been the editor of AlterNet's Drug Reporter since 2015. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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