Psychedelics decriminalization could be coming to the nation’s capital, where advocates recently submitted a ballot initiative to make entheogenic substances among the city’s lowest law enforcement priorities.
In Washington, D.C., members of the group Decriminalize Nature D.C. met at a pizzeria last Wednesday to organize the campaign, which will dually pursue the policy change for substances like psilocybin, ayahuasca, mescaline and ibogaine through the 2020 ballot process and legislatively through the District Council.
The effort is being led by Melissa Lavasani, a mother of two whose personal experience overcoming depression and other mental health challenges by using psychedelics inspired her involvement.
As the team waits to hear from the city’s Board of Elections about whether the measure can proceed, Lavasni said members will focus on raising attention to the issue and demonstrating that there’s public support for psychedelics reform. D.C. is uniquely positioned to advance the conversation nationwide, she told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Thursday.
The following interview with Lavasani has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: Tell me about how the Wednesday meeting went.
Melissa Lavasani: I think about 100 people were there. It was a really positive reception. It was my first time talking about it publicly and I was extremely nervous. But we had advocates there, we had regular citizens, we had D.C. government officials and attorneys—there’s a wide variety of people that are interested in this. It was nice to see the diversity, and it’s kind of exciting.
MM: Right now, there’s this ballot initiative. Are you exploring a legislative approach through the Council as well?
ML: Yes, absolutely. This is definitely a two-pronged tactic here. We are talking to Council about potentially getting a bill through that way, legislatively.
But we know that this is kind of a sensitive issue with people, especially in a city like Washington, D.C., where it’s a liberal town but people have some conservative ideas. We want to show that there is public support for this as well, so in a way, we’re educating people with the ballot initiative and getting people on board with this.
But in that, we’re also showing our legislature that there is public support. It’s kind of like, ‘hey if you guys aren’t going to do this, we’re going to just pursue the ballot initiative and we’re going to have a vote and it’s going to pass.’
MM: What makes psychedelics reform in D.C. unique from other cities like Denver and Oakland that have pursued the policy change?
ML: D.C. is special. We’re a city, we’re a state. We kind of function in multiple ways and we don’t have control of the laws we have here, Congress approves everything we do. The Harris rider [which bars D.C. from reducing penalties for Schedule I drugs] really prevents us from actually decriminalizing it. All we’re asking here is that we just make this a lowest priority for law enforcement, and that’s really all we can do right now until we get statehood.
There’s now like 100 cities that are pursuing this and I think we have an opportunity to set a precedent for the country, and I feel like the world is really watching us as well. D.C. gets extra attention and a lot of the focus is on the federal level, especially the executive right now. It would be nice for people to know that there’s people living here and there’s normal people with normal problems. It makes us a little more human. But also, it’s kind of like, we have an opportunity to really change how we view health in general and mental health especially.
MM: Do you anticipate facing legal challenges to the initiative?
ML: I don’t know. We might run into challenges.
Right now we’re at the stage where the Board of Elections is evaluating whether this an appropriate subject, and if they deem this not to be an appropriate section, we will pursue litigation. That’s our first hurdle legally. But we don’t know what we’re going to say.
We have a hearing February 12 and we’ll see what they say then. But really, this is about educating. I think if we do a really good with educating D.C. Council on how effective these treatments are, I think we can get everyone on the same page.
MM: If your group is successful, do you expect it to shift the conversation around psychedelics in Congress?
ML: I hope so. I really hope so. Especially since I am a mom to two little kids, I just feel like we’re shifting the conversation from these are dangerous substances to this is actual practical. We could flip our medical model on its heard here, and this is one step closer to that. Because what we’re doing now doesn’t work.
There are people who are sick and tired and really dying all over the country, and Congress should be looking at this.
MM: I heard you have a meeting with a councilmember coming up. What can you say about that?
ML: I’m meeting with Charles Allen, who is the Ward 6 councilman and his committee is the Judiciary Committee, so this falls under him. I haven’t even broached the topic of this with him. It’s just like get a feel, let’s educate him on my experience and he’s a father to two children as well. I’m hoping this is relatable in a way and we’ll see what he says.
MM: Is David Bronner of Dr. Bronner’s providing funding for the campaign like he is for other decriminalization efforts?
ML: He has dedicated around $100,000 for this and he’s committed. He’s focusing on D.C. right now, and this is important to him and he knows there’s potentially a lot of visibility on this issue if this happens in D.C., and that can spread very quickly nationally and influence other jurisdictions into doing this. He really wants this to happen and we have his full support.
MM: Can you share your story about how you ended up getting involved in this reform movement?
ML: My first experience with depression my entire life was after my first daughter was born in 2014. I had a pretty traumatic birth with her—her heart stopped multiple times during labor and I had to have an emergency C-section where my epidural wore off so I felt the entire procedure. I wasn’t sure I was going to bring home a baby at that point so it was one of those crazy moments in your life, but she came out totally fine after a pretty dramatic entrance.
Those kind of experiences, I think you put them away in your head and you power through like moms usually power through things. It affected me in a way that nothing else have affected me before, and I felt completely numb from being a new mom, I wasn’t connecting to my new baby. I saw all the other new moms around me in the community just being in this joyous state that I couldn’t relate to, so I isolated myself and just wouldn’t leave my house for days on end. That experience drastically improved when I went back to work and I got into my routine again.
With my second pregnancy, I developed very painful sciatica, a nerve issue in your spine that causes pain to run up and down your body. I was having chronic pain every day, I was crawling up the stairs, I couldn’t even stand up straight. I developed what’s called antepartum depression, which is depression during pregnancy.
I remember I was at a checkup around five or six months and my normal physician wasn’t in the office. It was a newer physician in the practice, she walked in the door and she simply asked me how I was doing and I burst into tears. The floodgates opened. As soon as I looked up, she was handing me a prescription to antidepressants. I raised some concerns about this and she said, ‘trust me, it’s totally fine. It’s healthy for you, it’s fine for the baby. Just take this until you deliver the baby and then you’ll get off of it.’
I was very hesitant to get on anything at this point. You go from one kid to two kids, your family dynamic is changing. I was worried about how everything was going to affect my career, my marriage, and I thought if I started taking this medication, I was just going to add another issue that I had to deal with down the road, so once again I powered through.
I delivered a healthy baby, but very soon after that, my depression really amped up. I assumed it would just go away on its own like it did the first time, but it absolutely did not. It got a lot worse. I developed anxiety, paranoia, delusions, I was hearing voices—it was pretty crazy—and then at the very peak, I was suicidal. My husband just didn’t know what to do. I went to therapy and I would find excuses to not go, I was refusing antidepressants.
And I had a friend of mine who said just listen to this Joe Rogan podcast with Paul Stamets, who’s now a pretty famous mycologist. His story about curing his stutter with one trip on mushrooms kind of blew my mind. Out of all my years of partying pre-children, I had never dipped into psychedelics before. My sister had one bad mushroom trip and she scared me from any kind of psychedelics. I was skeptical but at that point in time, I knew this was a life-or-death situation for me, so I began microdosing and I had amazing results with it. Within a week or so, a lot of my symptoms were going away and I felt like a normal person again.
I live in Washington, D.C., the federal government is here, I’m educated, I have a very normal job—I was scared. I was scared for losing my job or losing my kids and just losing everything I worked really hard for so the microdosing was a little inconsistent. While it did make me feel better, I could never get past the threshold of feeling cured.
Almost serendipitously, another friend of my had recommended this ayahuasca shaman who she had gone to. I saw a drastic change in here when she did her own ceremony with him, so I was like why not, let’s give it a shot. I did a couple ceremonies with ayahuasca and my entire life turned around. My marriage was improving, I was enjoying life, I was enjoying my children. I actually got a new job in this time period, I was motivated again. It was shocking how effective these things worked for me and how quickly they worked.
On a whim, I was doing research about this stuff because it’s fascinating to me, I was looking at what’s going on in the brain and reading scientific articles that I barely understood and Decrim Denver popped up. I just googled the guy that was starting it, Kevin Matthews, and I reached out to him. I said, you know this is really interesting, nobody is working on this stuff in D.C. and I didn’t know at what capacity I could contribute to this or even if I had the time to do this. I’ve got two little kids and job of my own.
Kevin connected us with a few other people and it didn’t really go anywhere because things got busy in my life, but then Adam Eidinger contacted me because he had contacted Kevin Matthews and he said you have to call Melissa. Adam and I have had numerous conversations and my message resonated with him. He said I think you’re going to be a really important part of this. I’m quote-unquote a normal person with a normal life who’s had experience with this. I kind of break the mold with people who use psychedelics in a way. And I started to open up about my experiences within my own circles and I was getting really positive feedback.
During my depression, I didn’t want to talk about anything with anyone. I felt even worse opening up at that time, but now that I’m out of the cloud, it was almost like people could really relate to this experience whether they use psychedelics or not.
MM: What do you think changed psychologically after you started using psychedelics for treatment?
ML: I think with depression, you start to develop all of these toxic thought patterns and you have a lot of negative self-talk and really bad self-worth. It was almost like immediately—and it sounds kind of nuts—but you can feel the pathways in your brain redirecting you in a different way. It’s almost like your brain is telling you, you don’t get to go in this direction anymore, you’re going this way and this is the right way. That was the most profound thing for me.
It was almost like my body wanted me to be in that depressive state, but my mind was like, no we’re not letting you do this when I was treating myself.
Read the proposed D.C. psychedelics decriminalization ballot initiative text below:
Marijuana Businesses Could Get Federal Disaster Relief Funds Under New Congressional Bill
Marijuana businesses impacted by recent natural disasters or that have experienced financial distress due to the coronavirus pandemic would be eligible for federal relief programs under new legislation introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate on Thursday.
Because cannabis remains federally prohibited, the Small Business Administration (SBA) has explicitly denied the industry—and businesses that work indirectly with it—access to its relief programs like other markets. That means, for example, marijuana farmers in states like California and Oregon that have seen their crops destroyed by wildfires are fully dependent on state and local assistance.
The new Small Business Disaster Relief Equity Act would resolve that problem, stipulating that disaster- or COVID-related services, grants, loans and tax benefits that are made available through federal agencies or congressional legislation cannot be denied to cannabis businesses solely because of the nature of their work, as long as it is in compliance with state law.
What’s more, the bill states that the the heads of federal agencies that administer disaster relief such as SBA “shall, to the greatest extent practicable, allow State-legal cannabis businesses to retroactively apply for such disaster assistance.”
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR) filed the companion bills.
“Cannabis businesses in Oregon hurt by the blazing wildfires or any other disaster shouldn’t be shut out from federal relief simply because the federal government is stuck in yesteryear,” Wyden said in a press release. “These legal small businesses employ thousands of workers and support our struggling economy. If they need federal support, they should get it. Full stop.”
SBA recently confirmed to Marijuana Moment that while it opened a disaster relief loan program for Oregon businesses damaged or destroyed by the wildfires, the cannabis industry isn’t eligible. People working in the state-legal market whose primary residences were impacted could still apply, however, but not if they conduct their business from home.
Blumenauer, cochair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said that many marijuana companies in his state “have faced catastrophic disruptions because of wildfires.”
“There’s no reason why these legitimate businesses shouldn’t have access to the federal support meant to help businesses survive unprecedented disasters,” he said. “Our legislation will help ensure these businesses and their workers are not left behind.”
According to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, 20 percent of marijuana businesses in the state were encouraged to evacuate due to the fires. Regulators are also asking cannabis business owners to fill out a survey so they can get a better sense of how extensive the damage is.
As of this week, seven cannabis business have been destroyed by the fires and at least a dozen have been damaged, Oregon Live reported.
“Whether you’re for or against state-legal cannabis, we can all agree that families in all of our communities are struggling to keep the lights on and stay afloat during this turbulent time—and that they need and deserve support,” Merkley said. “That includes thousands of small business owners, workers and their families who rely on state-legal cannabis businesses for their livelihoods.”
“We have to make sure those families won’t be shut out from critical assistance that can make a real difference,” he said.
The timing of the natural disasters in Oregon isn’t ideal, either, as consumer demand for marijuana products has been up amid the pandemic. In July, the state broke its record for cannabis sales, with about $106 million in medical and recreational cannabis purchases. Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis said in a report on Wednesday that “since the pandemic began, the increase in recreational sales have been more than 30 percent above forecast.”
Blumenauer in April led a letter with 34 bipartisan members of Congress calling on House leadership to include language in COVID-19 stimulus legislation to allow marijuana businesses to access federal disaster relief. He followed up by filing standalone legislation—the Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act—that would address the problem specifically when it comes to coronavirus relief.
Wyden similarly led a letter with nine other senators in April, asking the chamber’s leadership to extend federal assistance to the cannabis market. Civil rights groups and industry stakeholders have also made these calls to action in recent months.
“It’s ridiculous that legal businesses here in Oregon are being denied critical wildfire aid because of outdated policies handed down from Washington, D.C.” DeFazio said. “Cannabis businesses employ thousands across Oregon and are a vital economic engine for our state. This important legislation will ensure that these businesses are eligible for the same aid as every other business impacted by the 2020 wildfires.”
Read text of the marijuana disaster relief bill below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Congressional Research Service Analyzes Marijuana Expungements And Cannabis Immigration Issues
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) released new two reports on marijuana policy—one dealing with the immigration implications of federal prohibition and the other looking at expungements provisions in pending legislation to deschedule cannabis.
For the immigration-focused report published last week, CRS outlined how being convicted of a marijuana crime, admitting to using cannabis (even in a legal state) or working in the marijuana industry can carry four “key consequences” for non-citizens. They can be deemed inadmissible to the U.S., deported, lose immigration relief benefits and be denied naturalization.
The threat of inadmissibility for state-legal cannabis activity even extends to people who simply invest in the market, CRS said. The report makes a point of reiterating several times that just because something is legal under state law doesn’t mean there are carve outs in federal immigration statutes.
There are also immigration relief benefits that individuals could lose out on because of marijuana-related activities. They include the “waiver of certain criminal inadmissibility grounds, cancelation of removal, voluntary departure, withholding of removal, protection under the Convention Against Torture, asylum, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA),” the report states.
With respect to naturalization restrictions, CRS points out that the Trump administration in 2019 issued a memo clarifying that having a cannabis conviction or admitting to working in the marijuana industry “can bar an individual from establishing [good moral character], even if the marijuana-related activity did not violate applicable state or foreign laws.”
CRS also recognized in the new report that legislation to federally deschedule marijuana—the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—would help resolve the immigration dilemma, as the bill “would prohibit the denial of any immigration benefit or protection to aliens who have participated in any marijuana-related activity.”
The MORE Act was initially expected to be scheduled for a House of Representatives floor vote this week, but following pushback from certain Democratic lawmakers who felt it would look bad to advance the bill before approving additional COVID-19 relief, it was postponed. Now it’s expected to receive a vote later in fall, likely after the election.
In a separate report also released last week, CRS looked specifically at the MORE Act’s expungement provisions.
The bill would mandate that federal district courts expunge the records of individuals with federal marijuana convictions within one year of the bill’s enactment. It would also allow individuals with cannabis-related convictions to petition courts to have their records cleared prior to the one-year review period.
The Capitol Hill research office noted that federal marijuana convictions represent just a small fraction of the country’s total cannabis convictions, with most being carried out at the state, county and local levels. Relatively few federal cases are for possession alone; most are for trafficking-related charges. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, cannabis trafficking convictions are on the decline, with fewer than 2,000 cases occurring last year.
“The expungement provision in the MORE Act could raise several issues for policymakers,” CRS said. “The legislation would only address expungement of criminal records related to federal marijuana offenses; it would not provide relief from convictions for marijuana offenses in state courts.”
But CRS also floated potential solutions such as providing “an incentive for states to adopt uniform laws regarding the expungement of convictions for state level marijuana offenses.”
“For example, Congress may place conditions on federal criminal justice funding, such as the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program, or provide funds to states to help them implement expungement programs. Congress may consider providing guidelines to states on how to structure their expungement programs,” the report states.
CRS also noted that while the courts could be compelled to expunge records, the bill doesn’t address the fact that certain private companies harvest data on arrests and convictions when they’re publicly available.
“Policymakers might consider whether federal courts should be required to send lists of criminal records that would be expunged under the MORE Act to private background check companies in their respective districts to notify them of the expungement,” the report said.
CRS has dedicated significant time to exploring cannabis policy issues lately. Earlier this month, for example, it released a separate report that identified multiple problems caused by conflicting federal and state marijuana laws.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Oregon Marijuana Sales Spike Could Continue As Consumers ‘Permanently Adjust Their Behavior’ Following COVID
Record-setting Oregon marijuana sales continue to be a bright spot in the state’s coronavirus-slowed economy, state analysts reported this week, but a convergence of unknowns—including the end of federal coronavirus relief and a possible rise in cannabis prices due to devastating wildfires—could still mean a rocky road ahead for consumers.
“Marijuana sales continue to be strong,” Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis wrote in a quarterly revenue forecast published on Wednesday. “Since the pandemic began, the increase in recreational sales have been more than 30 percent above forecast.”
The increase tracks with other more established cannabis markets, such as those in Colorado, Washington and Nevada, which have also seen “strong gains” since the pandemic, the office said. “There are a number of likely reasons for these higher level of sales and expectations are that some of these increases will be permanent.”
Analysts also expressed a rosier outlook on the future of the state’s marijuana market than they did in last quarter’s report, which acknowledged a spike in sales since the pandemic began but concluded that business was eventually “expected to mellow” as incomes fell and bars reopened. Officials now forecast Oregon will see “somewhat more” in sales than previously projected.
The state has recently seen a string of record-setting months for cannabis sales. Over the summer, monthly cannabis sales had averaged more than $100 million, according to an Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) report.
The projected uptick in sales will mean an extra $30 million in marijuana tax revenue for the state during its two-year budget period ending in 2021. Total adult-use cannabis taxes for that period are now forecast to end up at more than $276 million.
“Factors leading to increases in sales include higher incomes due to federal support, increased stressors in everyday life, reductions in other forms of entertainment or recreational opportunities, and simply more time on one’s hand be it due to a COVID-related layoff, or increased working from home,” the report said.
“A key question is now that the federal aid is gone and other entertainment options return in the months ahead, will some of this increase in sales in recent months subside?” the Office of Economic Analysis wrote in the new report. “In a recent meeting of our office’s marijuana forecast advisory group, the broad consensus was that yes, some of these sales will come off, but not entirely so. And the longer the pandemic lasts, the more likely customers will permanently adjust their behavior as they become accustomed to their new routines and buying patterns.”
For now, the bulk of the increases appear to be driven by existing consumers. While “indications are that the customer base is broadening some as the market grows due to more users trying an increasingly socially acceptable product and ongoing converts from the black market to the legal market,” the report said, the increase “is more likely to be due to larger or more frequent sales to existing consumers than due to more consumers alone.”
“One item to watch moving forward are prices,” analysts wrote. “In recent years the supply of marijuana has greatly outstripped the demand, leading to lower prices. This is great news for consumers. Given that marijuana is a normal good, lower prices have led to larger quantities sold. But now that demand has increased, while supply has held steady, and with the potential impact of the wildfires right as growers are prepping for harvest, this balance in the market may shift… As such, it may be that prices rise, or at least not decline like they have in recent years.”
As far as tax revenue goes, any price increase would likely lead to more money for the state, “as the decline in quantity sold is not large enough to outweigh the price impact,” the report said.
How cannabis revenue is spent would also be affected by a drug decriminalization ballot proposition, Measure 110, that voters will decide in November. While the initiative isn’t expected to change the amount of taxes collected, it would redirect marijuana tax funds to expand drug treatment programs. “Whether current programs receiving marijuana tax revenue would ultimately see budgetary impacts,” analysts said, “would remain up to the Legislature should voters approve the measure this fall.”
Measure 110, which broadly seeks to reframe problem drug use in medical rather than criminal terms, is one of two key drug-reform measures on Oregon’s ballot in less than six weeks. The other would legalize the therapeutic use of psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms. That measure would be the first of its kind in the U.S., although Canada has recently granted some patients immunity from that country’s prohibition on psilocybin.