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:
Top Trump Campaign Spokesman: Marijuana Must Be ‘Kept Illegal’
Asked in a new interview about President Trump’s position on changing federal marijuana laws, a top reelection campaign aide said the administration’s policy is that cannabis and other currently illegal drugs should remain illegal.
“I think what the president is looking at is looking at this from a standpoint of a parent of a young person to make sure that we keep our kids away from drugs,” Marc Lotter, director of strategic communications for the Trump 2020 effort, said in an interview with Las Vegas CBS affiliate KLAS-TV.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Virginia Marijuana Decriminalization Gets Closer To Governor’s Desk With New Amendments
One week after bills to decriminalize marijuana in Virginia were passed by both the House and Senate, they advanced again on Wednesday in committee votes, where they were revised in an effort to ease the path to the governor’s desk.
The goal was to make the language of the bills identical, with lawmakers hoping to streamline the process by avoiding sending differing pieces of decriminalization legislation to a bicameral conference committee to resolve differences.
The House of Delegates and Senate were under pressure to approve their respective versions of decriminalization ahead of a crossover deadline last week. After clearing floor votes in their respective chambers, the Senate-passed bill was sent to the House Court of Justice Committee, while the House’s legislation was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Those panels amended the bills and advanced them on Wednesday, with senators voting 10-4 to advance the revised legislation and delegates voting 8-5. However, the Senate panel also struck a part of the text of a compromise substitute version concerning a record clearing provision while the House committee accepted the substitute as offered.
That means it will be up to the Finance Committees to resolve the remaining differences if lawmakers hope to skip the conference step prior to full floor votes in both chambers.
Regardless of the unexpected complication, advocates said the new committee actions represent a positive development.
“Fortunately, the patrons were able to reach a consensus and move the bills forward,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Virginians have waited long enough for this important step, one that will dramatically reduce both marijuana arrests and the collateral consequences that follow such charges.”
The legislation as amended would make possession of up to one ounce a civil penalty punishable by a $25 fine without the threat of jail time. Currently, simple possession is punishable by a maximum $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
A provision that would have allowed courts to sentence individuals to up to five hours of community service in lieu of the civil penalty was removed with the latest revisions. The bill also stipulates that juveniles found in possession of cannabis will be treated as delinquent, rather than go through a less punitive process for a “child in need of service.”
Language providing a means to seal prior records for marijuana convictions was successfully reinserted into the House Courts of Justice Committee-passed bill after it was previously removed and placed in a separate expungement bill. That latter legislation is stalled, so lawmakers put it back into the decriminalization measure via the substitute to ensure its enactment.
The Senate Judiciary moved to delete that section, however, creating complications for avoiding a conference committee.
Meanwhile, the House Rules Committee voted in favor of a separate Senate-passed resolution on Wednesday that calls for the establishment of a joint commission to “study and make recommendations for how Virginia should go about legalizing and regulating the growth, sale, and possession of marijuana by July 1, 2022, and address the impacts of marijuana prohibition.” That vote was 12-5.
That’s a significant step, as the legislature is generally reluctant to enact bold reform without first conducting a study on the issue.
While Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is in favor of decriminalization, including a call for the policy change in his State of the Commonwealth address last month, he’s yet to embrace adult-use legalization. That said, Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who is running to replace the term-limited governor in 2021, said he’s optimistic that Northam will come around on the issue.
Herring organized a cannabis summit late last year to hear from officials representing states that have already legalized marijuana. That’s one tool he said the governor could use as he considers broader reform.
Also on Wednesday, the House Courts of Justice Criminal Subcommittee advanced another Senate-passed bill to formally legalize possession of CBD and THC-A medial cannabis preparations that are recommended by a doctor, an expansion of the current policy simply offers patients arrested with it an affirmative defense in court.
For now, Virginia seems to be on the path to become the 27th state to decriminalize marijuana, and the first to do so in 2020. Last year, three states—New Mexico, Hawaii and North Dakota—also approved the policy change.
Alabama Lawmakers Approve Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill
An Alabama Senate committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would legalize medical marijuana in the state.
The legislation would allow patients with qualifying conditions to purchase cannabis products from licensed dispensaries. It would be a limited system, however, prohibiting patients from smoking or vaping marijuana.
The Senate Judiciary Committee cleared the bill in a 8-1 vote, with one abstention. The next stop for the legislation will be the Senate floor.
The proposal would establish the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission, which would be responsible for overseeing a patient registry database, issuing medical cannabis cards and approving licenses for marijuana dispensaries, cultivators, transporters and testing facilities.
This vote comes two months after a panel created by the legislature, the Medical Cannabis Study Commission, issued a recommendation that Alabama implement a medical cannabis program.
The full Senate approved a medical cannabis legalization bill last year, but it was diluted in the House to only provide for the establishment of the study commission. Sen. Tim Melson (R) sponsored both versions of the legislation and served as chairman of the review panel.
The current bill has been revised from the earlier version. For example, this one does not require patients to exhaust traditional treatment options before they can access medical cannabis.
The committee also approved a series of amendments by voice vote, including several technical changes to the bill. Another one would shield physicians from liability for recommending medical cannabis. One would clarify that employees are ineligible for workers’ compensation for accidents caused by being intoxicated by medical cannabis, which is the same standard as other drugs.
Watch the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee debate and vote on medical cannabis below:
Members also agreed to an amendment creating a restriction on who can be on the cannabis commission.
While it’s not clear how the House would approach the bill if it advances to the chamber this year, the speaker said this week that he’s “in a wait and see mode” and commended Melson for his work on the measure. The state’s attorney general, meanwhile, sent a letter to lawmakers expressing opposition to the reform move.
Under the measure, patients suffering from 15 conditions would qualify for the program. Those include anxiety, cancer, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder. Patients would be able to purchase up to a 70-day supply at a time, and there would be a cap of 32 dispensaries allowed in the state.
Prior to the vote, committee heard from a series of proponents and opponents, including parents who shared anecdotes about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis for their children. Interest in the reform move was so strong that an overflow crowd has to be moved to a separate hearing room.
“Sometimes people are not able to empathize with others who have gone through something. I guarantee you if one of relatives, members of the legislature, went through something like the testimonies that we’ve heard today, they would want it,” Sen. Vivian Figures (D) said. “But they would probably have the means to fly somewhere and get it.”
One thing we're watching on Goat Hill today is the medical marijuana bill. Alabama is one of only 17 states where medical cannabis remains illegal. https://t.co/V8CK8nm6mm
— Alabama Democrats (@aldemocrats) February 19, 2020
There would be a number of restrictions under the bill when it comes to advertising. It would also require seed-to-sale tracking for marijuana products, set packaging and labeling requirements and impose criminal background checks for licensed facility employees.
A nine percent tax would be levied on “gross proceeds of the sales of medical cannabis” sold at a retail medical cannabis dispensary. Part of those funds would go toward creating a new Consortium for Medical Cannabis Research, which would provide grants to study the plant.
Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee also approved a bill to decriminalize marijuana.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.