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:
Louisiana Senate And House Both Approve Significant Medical Marijuana Expansion
The Louisiana Senate approved a bill to significantly expand the state’s medical marijuana program on Wednesday, and a committee advanced separate legislation on banking access for cannabis businesses.
The expansion proposal, which the House of Representatives approved last week, would allow physicians to recommend medical cannabis to patients for any debilitating condition that they deem fit instead of from the limited list of maladies that’s used under current law.
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee advanced the proposal last week and now the full chamber has approved it in a 28-6 vote. Before the bill heads to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for signature or veto, the House will have to sign off on an amendment made by the Senate to require dispensaries to record medical marijuana purchases in the state prescription monitoring program database.
As originally drafted, the bill sponsored by Rep. Larry Bagley (R) would have simply added traumatic brain injuries and concussions to the list of conditions that qualify a patient for a marijuana recommendation. But it was amended in a House committee to add several other conditions as well as language stipulating that cannabis can be recommended for any condition that a physician “considers debilitating to an individual patient.”
Under current law there are only 14 conditions that qualify patients for marijuana.
“House Bill 819 is the new standard for medical marijuana programs. The bill allows any doctor who is licensed by and in good standing with the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners to make medical marijuana recommendations for their patients,” Bagley told Marijuana Moment. “The bill also ends the Legislature’s task of picking medical winners and losers each session, and instead allows doctors to recommend medical marijuana for any condition that a physician, in his medical opinion, considers debilitating to an individual patient.”
Bagley also introduced a House-passed bill to provide for cannabis deliveries to patients, but he voluntarily withdrew it from Senate committee consideration last week and told Marijuana Moment it’s because he felt the medical marijuana expansion legislation would already allow cannabis products to be delivered to patients like other traditional pharmaceuticals.
The delivery bill would have required a government regulatory body to develop “procedures and regulations relative to delivery of dispensed marijuana to patients by designated employees or agents of the pharmacy.”
It’s not clear if regulators will agree with Bagley’s interpretation, as doctors are still prohibited from “prescribing” cannabis and marijuana products are not dispensed through traditional pharmacies. That said, they recently released a memo authorizing dispensaries to temporarily deliver cannabis to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s possible officials will be amendable to extending that policy on a permanent basis.
State lawmakers also advanced several other pieces of cannabis reform legislation last week.
A bill introduced by Rep. Edmond Jordan (D) to protect banks and credit unions that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by state regulators cleared the full House in a 74-20 vote.
That measure was approved by Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and International Affairs on Wednesday, setting it up for floor action in the chamber.
Also last week, the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee unanimously approved a resolution to establish “a task force to study and make recommendations relative to the cannabis industry projected workforce demands.”
Text of the legislation states that “there is a need to study the workforce demands and the skills necessary to supply the cannabis industry with a capable and compete workforce, including physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners.”
Legislators have until the end of the legislative session on June 1 to get any of the measures to the governor’s desk.
Former Attorney General, Lawmakers And Police Leaders Call For Federal Marijuana Legalization Waivers
A task force comprised of former lawmakers, federal prosecutors and reform advocates issued a series of recommendations on Wednesday about criminal justice policy changes that should be enacted, and that includes creating a waiver system to allow states to set their own marijuana policies without federal interference.
The Council on Criminal Justice task force was established prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but its new report said the health crisis has “underscored the urgency” of the recommendations. While the group is far from the only criminal justice-minded organization to push for cannabis reform, it’s especially notable because of the backgrounds of its membership.
Sally Yates, who served as deputy attorney general and interim attorney general, is on the task force. So is former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R), former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and former Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey. Mark Holden, who was senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries, and David Safavian, general counsel of the American Conservative Union, are also members.
Together, the group agreed on 15 reform recommendations.
While they didn’t endorse federally legalizing cannabis outright, the group said the current conflict between local and national policy is untenable and should be addressed in the interim by creating waivers for states to proceed with marijuana legalization without the fear of federal intervention.
“The federal government must act to resolve this conflict and confusion, by creating an environment that respects sovereignty and by providing a responsible framework in which states can make policy choices,” they said. “Without federal action, the cannabis industry will continue to operate without consistent guardrails and guidance for testing, labeling, and marketing—to minors and all consumers.”
“The Task Force concludes that neither a federal crackdown nor a hands-off approach is advisable. In the absence of cannabis rescheduling, or its legalization at the federal level, the Task Force recommends that Congress and the Administration develop a state waiver process or contractual framework. Without it, states and the industry will continue to exist under an illusion of sovereignty where circumstances can change at any moment. A balanced and thoughtful accommodation from the federal government would provide confidence to states, stabilize the market, and help address many of the myriad safety and health problems.”
To implement the recommendation, the group wants the federal government to create an interagency task force including representatives of the Departments of Justice, Treasury and Health and Human Services, among other agencies. Members would be charged with creating policies and standards on best public health practices regarding issues such as product availability, testing, labeling, marketing and child-resistant packaging.
It would also lay out guidelines for banks that work with the cannabis industry as well as guidance, grant funding and assistance to aid law enforcement efforts to crack down on illicit marijuana distribution. Also recommended is an expansion of National Institute on Drug Abuse-supported research on the potential benefits and risks of cannabis as well as the effects of regulatory legal models.
New federal legislation “should provide guidance and assurances to all stakeholders legally operating under the waiver and/or contractual agreement, shielding them from civil and/or criminal liability,” the report says.
Our task force report is the culmination of hard work by the 14-member task force, composed of key leaders in the criminal justice field.
— Council on Criminal Justice (@CouncilonCJ) May 27, 2020
Beyond marijuana, the Council on Criminal Justice task force also proposed eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all federal drug crimes in order to reduce the prison population, automatically sealing public criminal records for non-violent federal convictions “including simple possession of controlled substances, following a conviction-free period of no longer than seven years” and establishing “independent oversight of the federal prison system.”
Due to the high rate of substance use disorders in prisons, the task force also recommended enhancing access “to evidence-based treatment services” that can “help break the cycle of substance use and incarceration.” Medication-assisted treatment would be an example of such a service, the report said.
“The pandemic engulfing the world has exposed more fully than ever the deficiencies in our nation’s criminal justice system, and how those deficiencies endanger people, communities, and public safety,” Nutter said in a press release. “Let us honor the pain, suffering, and loss of life that has occurred during this crisis by sharpening and refocusing our work for change.”
Another task force that advocates are eyeing was recently formed to make criminal justice recommendations to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The candidate and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who dropped out of the race in April, teamed up to create the group, and most members are in favor of marijuana legalization, in contrast to Biden’s current position. It remains to be seen whether they will formally recommend adopting broader cannabis reform as part of the former vice president’s platform.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Marijuana Dispensaries Excluded From New York’s Coronavirus Loan Program
Not only are marijuana businesses excluded from federal coronavirus relief funds, but medical cannabis dispensaries in New York are also ineligible for a new COVID-19 loan program that the state is offering.
Under the New York Forward Loan Fund (NYFLF), marijuana shops are specifically excluded, alongside payday loan providers, pawn shops, strip clubs, liquor stores and astrologers. Information pages about the program don’t provide a reason for why dispensaries are considered ineligible.
“The working capital loans are timed to support businesses and organizations as they proceed to reopen and have upfront expenses to comply with guidelines (e.g., inventory, marketing, refitting for new social distancing guidelines) under the New York Forward Plan,” a description of the program states.
This eligibility requirement restrictions come despite the fact that most states, including New York, have deemed cannabis businesses as essential services that can continue to operate during the pandemic.
For the industry in the Empire State, the loan exclusion is another gut punch in a crisis. There have been widespread calls from stakeholders, advocates and legislatures to provide the market with equitable relief from the federal Small Business Administration and, while that so far has not panned out, there’s been hope that states could help fill the gap.
“Given that cannabis businesses are ineligible for federal relief, it is unconscionable for the state of New York to deny them access to state-based relief efforts,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “These businesses have been going above and beyond to provide continuous healthcare, protect jobs, and generate revenue for the state under terrible conditions just like other essential services.”
“Leaving them in the lurch like this is a tremendous disservice to the people who risked their health to provide medical cannabis to the people that need it, and will stunt the ability of the industry to recover and grow at a time when the economy needs it most,” he said.
Katie Neer, chair of the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association and director of government relations for Acreage Holdings, told Marijuana Moment that it’s “unfortunate that medical cannabis operators, which are licensed and regulated in New York, and help thousands of patients manage a wide range of ailments, conditions, and illnesses, continue to be lumped in with other so-called ‘sin’ businesses, like pay-day loan stores, massage parlors, and strip clubs.”
“The reality is that New York’s medical cannabis program, established by the governor and Legislature in 2014, is one of the most restrictive in the nation,” she said. “As a result, the industry was struggling prior to the pandemic, even as it was deemed ‘essential’ and continues to serve patients throughout the crisis.”
“While we are eager to participate in the economic recovery at both the state and federal levels, accessing capital has long been a struggle for cannabis operators due to cannabis remaining a federally illegal schedule I drug. We applaud the state’s $100 million New York Forward Loan fund to support small businesses, but we regret not being able to participate due to inconsistencies between state and federal law. To that end, we urge the US Senate to include the SAFE Banking Act in the next federal aid package, which would improve the cannabis industry’s access to capital and ensure that state administered efforts like this one can include state-legal cannabis operators.”
It’s possible that because this loan program is the product of a private-public partnership involving several large national banks, the cannabis exclusion could be related to perceived risks associated with providing financial services to a federally illicit market.
While New York might not be extending state-level relief to cannabis businesses, lawmakers in Massachusetts are actively considering legislation that would establish a coronavirus relief program for marijuana firms and other companies that are left out of federal aid.
In the meantime, at the federal level, the House passed a COVID-19 package that does contain language that would protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. Advocates argue that this would mitigate the spread of the virus in a heavily cash-based industry.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) also introduced a bill last month that would extend SBA access to marijuana companies.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) was recently asked why the state hasn’t legalized cannabis for adult use as a means to generate much-needed tax revenue during the pandemic. He said it’s a policy change he expects will happen, but it’s a “complicated issue and it has to be done in a comprehensive way.”