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Denver Psilocybin Decriminalization Activist Pushes Back Against Michael Pollan’s Criticism

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Denver made history on Tuesday after voters approved a ballot measure to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms. But shortly after the final count was released, reform advocates were hit with a New York Times op-ed signed by an unexpected critic telling them to slow their roll.

Despite being written by Michael Pollan, who authored a popular book debunking myths about psychedelics and defending their therapeutic potential, the opinion piece triggered pushback over its suggestion that “ballot initiatives may not be the smartest way” to change psilocybin laws and that advocates should wait for federal approval before legalizing the substance for medical purposes.

“Debate is always a good thing, but I worry that we’re not quite ready for this one,” Pollan wrote of campaigns in California and Oregon that are seeking to get psilocybin reform on the states’ 2020 ballots.

Kevin Matthews, campaign director of Decriminalize Denver, the group behind the city’s successful decriminalization initiative, told Marijuana Moment that he generally respected Pollan and appreciated the cautionary tale his piece offered against flippant consumption of the powerful substance—but he disagreed with the author’s stance on the ballot initiative process and with feedback from the research community opposing voter-led reform.

“Ballot initiatives are a good way to do this because I think sometimes the researchers forget about the average person out there who is currently using,” Matthews said. “There is this underground that exists—and Michael Pollan utilized that underground that exists [for his book].”

“If there’s enough support for the ballot initiative process to make sense, then I think people should go for it.”

Pollan’s argument boils down to this: he personally supports decriminalization—after all, as he noted, he’s illegally used and propagated psilocybin—but he argued that more research is needed on the substance’s “immense power and potential risk” and “consequences of unrestricted use” before activists start broadly changing laws concerning the substance.

It’s a line of messaging that drug policy reform advocates have heard time and again with respect to cannabis from lawmakers who reject legalization because they feel existing research is insufficient.

“We still have a lot to learn about the immense power and potential risk of these molecules, not to mention the consequences of unrestricted use,” Pollan wrote. “It would be a shame if the public is pushed to make premature decisions about psychedelics before the researchers have completed their work.”

The thing about that argument is that researchers have already uncovered evidence that psilocybin can be useful in the treatment of various mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and depression.

Pollan understands those scientific findings well, but his op-ed shifts from lifting up the medical potential of the ingredient to urging caution against acting on those findings through ballot initiatives until researchers are satisfied.

“The more research we need should not impact whether or not we decriminalize it,” Matthews countered. “The more research we need is exploring its anti-addictive potential. One thing I hear is, ‘What are the long term impacts of use?’ We probably need more research there. But there’s no reason for people to go to jail for this if they’re not causing harm to others or themselves.”

The reality is that people across the U.S. are currently being criminalized for use and personal production of psilocybin mushrooms—a situation that can only be alleviated by voter-led ballot measures as long as lawmakers refuse to touch the issue.

After his piece generated considerable pushback on Twitter, Pollan clarified in a tweet that “this piece supports decriminalization, just not legalization now.” That message seemed to have been lost in translation, though, which is understandable given the author’s reference to campaigns that are simply seeking to decriminalize psilocybin before advocating against ballot initiatives.

If Pollan’s op-ed were published prior to the Denver vote, it is easy to imagine a situation where some number of the 1,979 voters who comprised the narrow margin between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ changed their minds because they read an essay from one of the nation’s foremost psychedelic advocates telling them that ballot measures “may not be the smartest way” to advance the issue.

That aside, more careful consideration of broader legalization is an area where Pollan and Matthews agree. After all, voter confusion about whether the Denver measure would allow people to purchase so-called “magic mushrooms” in shops—it does not—likely led some to vote against Initiative 301.

“I think the focus needs to be decriminalization. We should not be talking about necessarily a regulated medical model right now,” Matthews said. “I think decriminalization is the right first step because we need to make sure that people’s individual rights are protected, and really the only way to do that is by decriminalizing and making sure people are not receiving any kind of fines for possession.”

But while Pollan is urging caution, insisting that voters should wait for something akin to Food and Drug Administration approval before moving ahead on broad psilocybin reform, Matthews is striving to ensure that the Denver measure is quickly and effectively implemented, and to further spread awareness about the benefits of psilocybin through educational outreach.

When the first round of votes came out on Tuesday at 7:00 PM MT, showing the initiative behind by about 10 points, the “air got sucked out of the room like a space capsule getting a hole punched in it” at the main campaign watch party, Matthews said. But throughout the night, the gap narrowed. Victory became within reach.

When the final unofficially tally was finalized at approximately 4:20 PM MT the next day, Matthews said he “just started screaming and crying at the same time. Dogs started barking in the background.”

“What a trip,” he said, “no pun intended.”

But as the high of the success waned, Matthews recognized the momentous responsibility ahead of him, as one of the leaders of a historic campaign that will be looked at as activists attempt similar feats across the country. In spite of Pollan’s advice, Matthews has no intention of slowing down now.

California Activists Take First Steps To Decriminalize Psilocybin Mushrooms Statewide

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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Missouri Lawmakers Must Legalize Marijuana With Freedom In Mind, Former Prisoner Says (Op-Ed)

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“It is important that our elected officials consider what path may be best and ultimately fulfill the increasing demand from voters for greater liberty and freedom in our state.”

By Jeff Mizanskey, Missouri Independent

In 1984, I was arrested for felony possession of marijuana for a half-pound of marijuana, for which I served five years of probation.

In 1991, I was arrested for possession of two ounces of marijuana, for which I served 60 days in county prison.

Finally, in 1993, I was arrested as an accessory in a deal for seven pounds of marijuana, and although I had no intention of possession or distribution, a jury convicted me and a circuit court judge sentenced me to life in prison under Missouri’s now-repealed prior and persistent offender statute.

During the next 22 years, American voters came to the realization that marijuana was a very beneficial medicine with a low risk profile, and state by state began passing medical marijuana laws or outright legalization.

Ultimately, then-Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon commuted my sentence after state Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, filed legislation to require parole for marijuana offenders serving life sentences. My case was also supported by a national coalition of people and organizations who were shocked by the harshness of my sentence.

In 2018, Missouri voters passed a medical marijuana proposal at the ballot, which now allows people to obtain a physician’s recommendation for marijuana and has created a legal market for production and sales. The only controversy over legal medical marijuana has been over the restrictions on commercial licensing—85 percent of the over 2,200 applicants for marijuana business licenses were rejected in a process widely seen as arbitrary and unfair.

Now, two different ballot initiative campaigns, backed by different groups claiming to represent the marijuana industry, are competing to again change the Missouri Constitution to legalize recreational marijuana. But both of these proposals have significant flaws. Most significantly, both proposals create limits on personal marijuana possession and allow civil and criminal charges, including felonies, for possession of more than twice the possession limits.

Coupled with tight restrictions on commercial marijuana licensing, Missouri might continue to see a two-tiered system of justice and economic opportunity, where a privileged wealthy few are allowed to profit from legal marijuana sales while poor and politically weak Missourians continue to be sanctioned for the proposed crime of possessing too much marijuana.

By contrast, there is no other item of legal personal property that Missouri law creates a possession limit for, and I’ll point out specifically alcohol, our most dangerous drug, for which there are over 16,000 licenses for on and off premise sales registered in our state and no possession limits for individuals.

In January, the Missouri General Assembly will reconvene, and only the elected representatives of the people have the ability and the political will to consider these issues and take in input from all stakeholders. It is important that our elected officials consider what path may be best and ultimately fulfill the increasing demand from voters for greater liberty and freedom in our state.

Jeff Mizanskey is a resident of Sedalia and veteran of the United States Air Force. In 2015, he was released from a life sentence for nonviolent marijuana charges after then-Gov. Jay Nixon commuted his sentence.

This piece was fist published by Missouri Independent.

Ohio GOP Lawmakers File New Marijuana Legalization Bill

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Indiana GOP Lawmaker Plans Medical Marijuana Bill As Democrats Push Full Recreational Legalization

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“It polls higher than any other issue. We’ve seen 38 other states step up and do the right thing for their citizens. We know it saves lives. We know it offers a better quality of life.”

By Margaret Menge, The Center Square

Democrats in Indiana have launched a campaign to legalize marijuana in the state and appealed to business-friendly Republicans to join to help the state’s economy.

There is some support from Republicans.

“I have a medical cannabis bill ready to go,” Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, said.

He said the bill will be similar to the one he introduced in the last session of the Indiana General Assembly, which would permit the use of medical marijuana by people with “serious medical conditions” as determined by a doctor, and would permit the “cultivation, testing, processing, transportation and dispensing” of medical marijuana by people who hold a valid permit issued by the state.

It also would put the Indiana Department of Health in charge of implementing and enforcing the medical marijuana program.

Indiana is one of just a handful of states that has not legalized medical marijuana.

“It polls higher than any other issue,” Lucas said. “We’ve seen 38 other states step up and do the right thing for their citizens. We know it saves lives. We know it offers a better quality of life.”

In 2016, the national American Legion, which is based in Indianapolis, called on Congress to remove marijuana from Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act and reclassify it to “recognize cannabis as a drug with potential medical value.”

The Legion has also pushed for more research to be done on marijuana related to its potential in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular.

The Indiana American Legion, however, has not taken a position on the issue, and did not discuss the bill Lucas introduced in the last session, spokesperson Josh Marshall said.

He said the issue would have to be reviewed by the organization’s executive committee before any action were taken on the issue in the upcoming session of the legislature, which begins January 3.

Meanwhile, Indiana Democrats are pushing to get the issue on the table.

Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, is set to lead a “community talking circle” at a pizza place in Muncie today to hear from the public about legalizing medical marijuana.

“The reality is that medical cannabis is becoming an accepted and preferred method of treatment throughout the country,” Errington said in a statement from the Indiana House Democratic Caucus on November 29. “Medical cannabis is a safe, non-addictive alternative to opioids that could benefit Hoosiers who live with chronic pain and anxiety disorders, including our brave veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who have sacrificed so much for our state deserve an effective treatment for their pain, rather than a potential criminal record.”

Republicans hold a supermajority in both houses of the legislature and hold every statewide office. But legislative leaders—some of them—have appeared more open on the issue in recent years.

In 2018, the Republican floor leader in the Indiana House of Representatives, Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, authored a resolution calling for an interim study committee to research medical marijuana.

“Hoosiers rightfully want to know what direction Indiana will take,” he said at the time. “I believe it is wise of policymakers to carefully gather public and professional input.”

Lehman told Fox59 last month that he thinks there’s “always room for discussion” about medical marijuana, but that he thought the federal government would have to act first, before Indiana takes action.

This story was first published by The Center Square.

Ohio GOP Lawmakers File New Marijuana Legalization Bill

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DEA Backs White House Plan To Streamline Research On Marijuana, Psychedelics And Other Schedule I Drugs

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The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and National Institute On Drug Abuse (NIDA) say they are in favor of a White House proposal to streamline the process of researching Schedule I drugs like marijuana and certain psychedelics.

The agencies testified at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Thursday, expressing support for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) research plan. While the focus of the meeting was mostly on a controversial move to strictly classify fentanyl-related substances, the Biden administration proposal’s research components would also help address concerns within the scientific community about the difficulty of studying other Schedule I drugs.

DEA said in written testimony that “expanding access to Schedule I research is a critical part of DEA’s mission to protect public safety and health.”

“It is critical that the scientific and medical community study Schedule I substances, as some may turn out to have therapeutic value,” DEA Principal Deputy Administrator Louis Milione said. “DEA supports the administration’s legislative proposal’s expansion of access to Schedule I research. DEA looks forward to continuing to work with the research community and our interagency partners to facilitate Schedule I research.”

In general, what the administration is proposing is to align the research requirements for Schedule I drugs with those of less-restricted Schedule II drugs. Scientists and lawmakers have consistently pointed out that the existing rules for studying Schedule I controlled substances are excessively burdensome, limiting vital research.

Rather than having each scientist involved in a Schedule I drug study obtain DEA registration, ONDCP wants to make it so multiple researchers at a given institution would be allowed to participate under a single registration. The administration also proposed a policy change where a research institute with studies taking place over multiple locations would only require one overall registration instead of needing to have a specific one for each site.

Another change would allow certain researchers to move ahead with conducting their studies after submitting a notification to the Department of Justice instead of waiting for officials to affirmatively sign off on their proposals. ONDCP’s plan would also waive the requirement for additional inspections at research sites in some circumstances and allow researchers to manufacture small amounts of drugs without obtaining separate registrations. The latter component would not allow cultivation of marijuana, however.

“Even experienced researchers have reported that obtaining a new Schedule I registration, adding new substances to an existing registration, or getting approval for research protocol changes is time consuming,” NIDA Director Nora Volkow said in her testimony. “Unlike for Schedule II through V substances, new and amended Schedule I applications are referred by the DEA to the HHS for a review of the protocol and a determination of the qualifications and competency of the investigator.”

“Researchers have reported that sometimes these challenges impact Schedule I research and deter or prevent scientists from pursuing this critical work,” she said.

In an interview last week, Vokow said that even she—the top federal official overseeing drug research—is personally reluctant to conduct studies on Schedule I substances like marijuana because of the “cumbersome” rules that scientists face when investigating them.

When ONDCP first announced its proposed Schedule I policy changes in September, some experts tempered expectations about the practical effects of aligning Schedule I and Schedule II applications. The difference is largely a matter of extra paperwork for the more restrictive category, they contend.

Regardless, several lawmakers who attended Thursday’s subcommittee hearing expressed enthusiasm about the prospects of these policy changes.

“I’m particularly interested in eroding existing barriers of federal law that limit researchers at academic medical centers from studying Schedule I substances,” Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA) said. “So I’m grateful that our research agencies are working to find effective solutions.”

Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) also weighed in, saying that “we all agree that the current scheduling classification system has made it very difficult for scientists to research the effects of scheduled compounds, which may have medicinal properties.”

“For example, we know that compounds in marijuana have legitimate and beneficial medical uses, despite it being Schedule I,” he said. “So I’m encouraged to see that efforts are being made to allow researchers to study the effects of various compounds. In this proposal.”

ONDCP’s intent to streamline research into Schedule I drugs has been notable and seems to be part of a theme that developed within the administration.

For example, DEA has repeatedly proposed significant increases in the production of marijuana, psilocybin and other psychedelics for research purposes, with the intent of aiding in the development of new federally approved therapeutic medications.

NIDA’s Volkow told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview that she was encouraged by DEA’s prior proposed increase in drug production quota. She also said that studies demonstrating the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics could be leading more people to experiment with substances like psilocybin.

But while the production developments are promising, advocates are still frustrated that these plants and fungi remain in the strictest drug category in the first place, especially considering the existing research that shows their medical value for certain conditions.

There has been at least one recent development in the fight to modernize marijuana research. President Joe Biden signed a massive infrastructure bill last month that includes provisions aimed at allowing researchers to study the actual cannabis that consumers are purchasing from state-legal dispensaries instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.

But that’s just one of numerous research barriers that scientists have identified. A report that NIDA recently submitted to Congress stressed that the Schedule I status of controlled substances like marijuana is preventing or discouraging research into their potential risks and benefits.

A federal appeals court recently dismissed a petition to require the DEA to reevaluate cannabis’s scheduling under the Controlled Substances Act. However, one judge did say in a concurring opinion that the agency may soon be forced to consider a policy change anyway based on a misinterpretation of the therapeutic value of marijuana.

Meanwhile, DEA has given hemp businesses that sell delta-8 THC products a boost, with representatives making comments recently signaling that, at the federal level at least, it’s not a controlled substance at this time.

Separately, the Washington State attorney general’s office and lawyers representing cancer patients recently urged a federal appeals panel to push for a DEA policy change to allow people in end-of-life care to access psilocybin under state and federal right-to-try laws.

White House Pressed To Mediate Marijuana Finger-Pointing Between DEA And HHS

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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