An ambitious campaign to decriminalize psychedelics in Washington, D.C., is one step closer to placing their measure on the November ballot with the formal submission of tens of thousands of voter signatures.
Organizers have been scrambling for weeks to collect enough signatures from D.C. voters by Monday’s deadline amid historically difficult circumstances: a global pandemic, months of stay-at-home orders and protests over racism and police violence that filled the streets of the nation’s capital. But with the help of innovative signature-gathering techniques and allies flown in from across the country, advocates said they had successfully submitted upwards of 35,000 signatures—more than enough to qualify the initiative.
If approved by voters, Initiative 81 would make enforcement of laws against plant- and fungus-based psychedelics among the “lowest law enforcement priorities” for the Metropolitan Police Department. It would not, however, legalize or reduce penalties for the substances.
The measure would apply to all natural entheogenic substances, including psilocybin, ayahuasca, ibogaine and DMT.
“Today is a milestone for D.C.,” Melissa Lavasani, chairwoman of Decriminalize Nature D.C., the organization behind the measure, said in a press release. “Voters in our nation’s capital have made clear that they are ready to end another piece of the war on drugs and to support their neighbors who, like me, have found relief in entheogenic plant and fungi medicines.”
Lavasani, a mother of two, has said psychedelic therapy helped her recover from postpartum depression. She told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Monday that removing stigma around psychedelics could help other patients find relief.
“A lot of people here are using these substances on the down low. It’s not something we’re open about,” Lavasani said. “My frustration when I was treating myself, I didn’t feel like I had resources to reach out to… What we’re trying to do here is not only get this initiative passed but try to create a community that’s really inclusive.”
Elections officials now have 30 days to validate the petitions, the final step before the measure is formally certified for November’s ballot. A total of 24,712 signatures are needed to qualify the measure, a Board of Elections representative told Marijuana Moment on Monday.
Decriminalize Nature D.C. has already independently verified more than 27,000 of the collected signatures, said Adam Eidinger, a longtime drug reformer and the campaign’s treasurer. “According to our validation, we have exceeded [the required] number by more than 2,000 signatures—at least,” he told Marijuana Moment.
— 🔥Adam Eidinger 🌊 (@aeidinger) July 6, 2020
Polling suggests D.C. voters are open to the idea. According to a survey released in April by campaign organizers, 51 percent of respondents initially said they supported decriminalizing psychedelics, while 27 percent were opposed. After being read pro and con arguments about the initiative, support rose to 59 percent, while opposition increased to 32 percent.
Most who were surveyed said they hadn’t used psychedelics themselves. Ten percent of respondents said they had personally used psilocybin or magic mushrooms, and 23 percent said someone close to them has. Only single-digit percentages of voters said they or someone close to them had experience with ayahuasca, mescaline or ibogaine.
Majorities of respondents, however, said they or someone in their life had experienced mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. Nearly a third said they knew someone who has experienced PTSD, which a growing body of research suggests could be effectively treated with psychedelic therapies.
“D.C. residents who benefit from entheogens include those suffering from mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and other traumas, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and patients in end-of-life care,” the campaign said in a statement Monday.
Find us at Church ST NW & 14th St NW! pic.twitter.com/BDvqonnfm6
— DecrimNatureDC (@DecrimNatureDC) July 4, 2020
Despite apparent support for the measure, qualifying it for November’s ballot was a daunting task for activists, who had to update their tactics amid coronavirus-related social distancing.
In March, organizers asked elections officials to allow them to gather signatures electronically, but neither the mayor nor the D.C. Council acted on that request.
Instead, the Council passed a novel bill that allowed a hybrid approach: Organizers could distribute petition forms electronically, but voters would have to print a physical copy in order to sign it. From there, residents could simply snap a photo of the signed document and return a digital copy to the campaign.
Officials also, for the first time, allowed people to sign their own petition sheet instead of having to use one controlled by a separate person—a longstanding prior policy that contributed to initial signature gathering difficulties during a time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
Eidinger told Marijuana Moment the campaign received nearly a thousand signatures through email alone. “We have 980 signatures collected through email,” he said. “That’s the first signatures ever collected through email in the United States.”
Help put #Initiative81 on the ballot! Just download, print, sign, take a photo, and email us your petition. Download the PDF of the official #Initiative81 petition with Instructions: https://t.co/DKIuEakgUd pic.twitter.com/mWPT3yvzaN
— DecrimNatureDC (@DecrimNatureDC) July 1, 2020
The campaign also sent petitions by postal mail to every registered voter in the District in order to reach people at home, and signature-gatherers petitioned voters at demonstrations and on sidewalks and street corners across town.
Organizers also had help from activists from across the country, including those behind Denver’s successful drive to decriminalize psilocybin, who flew to Washington in recent weeks to help gather signatures.
— DecrimNatureDC (@DecrimNatureDC) July 5, 2020
“Despite unprecedented challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, D.C. voters from all 8 wards signed the petition to support common-sense reforms to police priorities that would help ensure that D.C. residents using natural plant and fungi medicines are not targeted by law enforcement,” the campaign said in a press release.
Lavasani, the mom behind the decriminalization campaign, said that with signature gathering now out of the way, the focus shifts to winning over voters. “For our campaign, today is also the beginning of the next phase to make Initiative 81 law,” she said. “We look forward to engaging and educating D.C. voters so that on November 3, D.C. says ‘Yes on 81’!”
Momentum for similar reforms is building across the United States, and Lavasani said a win in the nation’s capital could help propel the issue forward.
“I can see the Capitol from my house,” she said. “I think it’s really important to acknowledge that this could lay the groundwork for national reform.”
Here’s a status update on other drug policy reform campaigns across the country:
An Oregon effort to decriminalize drug possession and increase funding for treatment officially made it onto the ballot last week.
Another Oregon campaign to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use turned in what advocates believe are more than enough petitions to qualify, but some submissions must still be validated by the state.
In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort turned in 420,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot last week.
Organizers in Nebraska last week submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.
Montana activists recently turned in more than 130,000 signatures to qualify a pair of marijuana legalization initiatives for the November ballot.
Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative could get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.
The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.
And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.
A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.
North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.
Washington state activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.