One year ago on Thursday, activists behind a first-of-its-kind drug policy reform ballot initiative in Denver were anxiously awaiting the results of a local vote that stood to set the city apart from any other in the country. Things didn’t look promising near the end of the night when they were behind—but as the votes continued to trickle in through the next day, it became official: The city had become the first place in the U.S. to decriminalize so-called magic mushrooms.
The Decriminalize Denver campaign defied odds and expectations. Psilocybin was just entering into the mainstream lexicon, there weren’t any large and monied psychedelics advocacy groups chipping in and voter confusion about what it meant to decriminalize—rather than allow retail sales like is the case for marijuana—threatened to derail the bold initiative.
But through a combination of education, outreach and innovation—as well as the open-mindedness of the local electorate—the campaign prevailed. More remarkable than the policy change in Denver, however, is the national grassroots movement it has inspired in the year since the historic vote.
Activists in more than 100 cities across the U.S. have now expressed interest in reforming their own psychedelics policies. Two more cities—Oakland and Santa Cruz—went a step further than Denver and decriminalized a wide range of entheogenic substances such as ayahuasca and ibogaine.
Oregon advocates are close to qualifying a statewide ballot initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use for this November. Washington D.C. activists were approved to circulate a petition to decriminalize various psychedelics in the nation’s capital on Wednesday. A California campaign had hopes of putting psilocybin legalization on the ballot before the coronavirus pandemic. And psychedelics reform bills have been introduced in three state legislatures.
On the congressional level, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) has endorsed the Oregon psilocybin initiative and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) introduced an amendment to encourage research into the medical potential of psychedelics. That was defeated on the House floor, but she plans to file more legislation on the issue.
In other words, a lot has happened in a year. And it is difficult to believe that the movement for drug policy reform beyond cannabis would have organized and spread this quickly were it not for what happened in Denver. Kevin Matthews, who led that campaign and has since launched a national advocacy group called SPORE, told Marijuana Moment that he “always looked at Decriminalize Denver and the Denver Psilocybin Initiative as an experiment for how to change laws around psychedelics.”
“Denver was the first step and we still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “What I didn’t necessarily expect was how quickly the landscape would evolve and how it would be this massive, national—perhaps even global—conversation now.”
The success of the campaign “just shocked people,” he said. “I think it really showed that you have a committed, passionate group of people who are brave enough to step into this space and really put their blood, sweat and tears, energy and, in some ways, livelihoods on the line to progress something. We were another example of that, right?”
More and more examples have formed in the past year, with activists working overtime to convince local legislators and residents that criminalizing people for using entheogenic substances is the wrong path. Instead, the plants and fungi should be viewed through the lens of civil liberties and public health, they say, citing research indicating that these currently illicit drugs hold significant therapeutic potential for the treatment of conditions such as severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
One of the main reform groups that has emerged in the space since Denver is called Decriminalize Nature (DN)—a national hub for campaigns to lean on as they pursue local and state policy changes. Chapters across the country are raising awareness, exploring the ballot process for reform and communicating with lawmakers about the need to take a new approach to psychedelics.
Larry Norris, who cofounded Decriminalize Nature, told Marijuana Moment that “Denver’s success cast light on a space beyond the veil of possibilities.”
“They were the first to bring the important conversation about decriminalization to the table, and in the end, the power of the people prevailed. Even the victory was a great underdog story,” he said. “To come back from behind, after almost every news organization reported the initiative had failed the previous evening, provided great media attention for the larger policy conversation. Their success also gave a boost of confidence to Decriminalize Nature, who was able to share Denver’s victory with the Oakland City Council-Members shortly before the public hearings began in Oakland.”
Oakland activists aren’t stopping at decriminalization, either, with plans now in the works to propose a local regulatory model for a limited retail system for entheogenic substances.
David Bronner, CEO of the activist soap company Dr. Bronner’s, which is funding several psychedelics reform campaigns across the country, told Marijuana Moment that the vote in Denver last year “showed that it’s now politically possible to win our right to life-saving psychedelic medicine at this moment of the cultural psychedelic renaissance, and directly paved the way for Decrim Oakland to make magic happen there, and the birth of now national and international Decrim Nature movement.”
“It set a good precedent of talking about psychedelic medicine in the healing therapeutic frame, with a strong educational component about proper preparation, set and setting, and integration after,” he said.
There have been some reform supporters who have questioned whether decriminalization campaigns could detract from the rigorous, federally authorized studies into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics that are in the works. Author Michael Pollan, for example argued in a New York Times op-ed shortly after the Denver vote that “ballot initiatives may not be the smartest way” to change laws around the substances. He later seemed to walk back that stance somewhat after pushback from advocates, however.
Natalie Ginsberg, director of policy and advocacy at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which is funding and gaining approval for clinical trials into several substances, told Marijuana Moment that for decades, “psychedelic research has been paving the way for psychedelic medicine, but medical access is not enough—decriminalization must go hand-in-hand with medicalization for a healthful society.”
Bronner also contended in a blog post last year that bringing the underground psychedelics world aboveground through a state-licensed treatment model in advance of federal approval “provides an example outside of the traditional pharma model for responsible regulated adult access to psilocybin therapy.”
“It’s also important to understand that the state ballot measure process is the only political mechanism that exists for providing this kind of broad responsible adult access,” whereas psychedelic-based pharmaceuticals could be less accessible, he said.
Advancements are being made in the traditional research realm as well, with Johns Hopkins University announcing last year that it is launching the nation’s first center devoted exclusively to studying psychedelic drugs.
What’s to come in the year ahead? The current pandemic might have created challenges for political campaigns of late, but assuming society returns to some level of normalcy, advocates anticipate an even bigger wave of reform—another year of progress that challenges the status quo of prohibition and demonstrates the need for a psychedelics renaissance.
Bronner predicted that “we’re going to see most large urban cities in America decriminalize mushrooms and plant medicines in the next few years,” adding that he believes Food and Drug Administration approval of psychedelic therapies will happen and Oregon will legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use. That will “pave the way to mainstream acceptance and widespread psychedelic healing of the people of the world by the end of the decade,” he said.
Norris conceded that it’s “uncertain how quickly things will reopen post COVID-19 shutdown and when city councils will be able to address these policies again” and the pandemic “obviously had a great impact on those with ballot initiatives who need to gather signatures.”
“However, many DN teams are working hard behind the scenes to prepare for the eventual reopening. Taking our cue from nature, DN is currently in a phase of nourishing our roots, rather than fruiting and blossoming,” he said, adding that the organization has been holding virtual meetings with activists across the country and globe. “Assuming things resume in a timely manner, we project at least five to seven more cities will Decriminalize Nature by the end of 2020.”
Among some drug policy reform advocates, there’s a lingering question about focusing decriminalization efforts on a singular class of substances, rather than ending the drug war altogether by removing criminal penalties for all currently illicit drugs.
Matthews said he agrees that reform shouldn’t end with psychedelics. “I absolutely support the broader decriminalization of all drugs,” he said. “Our campaign in many ways opened the door for us to have a direct conversation with the city—a very direct conversation with the city—about how it enforces their drug policy. We need alternatives to the current drug policy paradigm.”
“All substances absolutely need to be decriminalized because they’re mostly non-violent and victimless crimes, and we need to focus more on treatment where it’s necessary,” he said. “The psychedelics drug policy movement can very much inform and help galvanize the broader drug policy decriminalization movement. Denver is a good example of that based on the messaging we’ve got from the city.”
Ginsberg at MAPS said that “Denver’s move to deprioritize psilocybin arrests ignited communities across the country to mobilize to deprioritize all entheogenic plants, cacti and fungi, or ‘decriminalize nature’,” adding that she’s “hopeful that these psychedelic movements will join forces with broader coalitions to end the war on drugs and fully decriminalize all drugs.”
“In times of pandemic it’s clearer than ever that mass incarceration, and mass criminalization, are fundamentally incompatible with public health,” she said.
Broader decriminalization campaigns might not yet be taking off at the speed of the psychedelics reform movement, but there are proposed statewide initiatives in Oregon and Washington state to fully end the criminalization of drug possession while expanding treatment services.
In the meantime, Matthews had this to say to activists in the early stages of exploring psychedelics reform:
“Be committed, and that takes discipline. Folks definitely need to explore—both internally, to have experience with these substances to really understand it, and then find the others. That takes bravery because you’re stepping out as a psychedelics user in a sense. Then start broadcasting. Start sharing information. Social media, email your network—broadcast, broadcast, broadcast, and do it with integrity. Be very open about both the therapeutic and medical potential and the risks. That’s very important.”
“If you’re committed, a part of that involves faith and trust in the process,” he said. “This movement certainly has a mind of its own. If anyone out there wants to dedicate their livelihood to this, then they will be supported by the microverse.”
Decriminalization might be on the books now as Denver’s official policy thanks to the vote one year ago, but Matthews and other advocates are still at work educating city officials and ensuring that the change is implemented effectively, with an eye toward justice. A panel comprised of city officials, law enforcement and advocates, which was mandated by the ballot measure, held its third meeting on Wednesday—two months after the group established tracking and reporting criteria for police activity related to psilocybin post-decriminalization.
Now, thanks to Denver voters’ decision last May, the city is home to the nation’s first government psychedelics decriminalization body, but it is not likely to be the last.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.
Marijuana Arrests Decline Nationally For First Time In Four Years, FBI Data Shows
Marijuana arrests in the U.S. declined in 2019 for the first time in four years, a new federal report shows.
While many expected the state-level legalization movement to reduce cannabis arrests as more markets went online, that wasn’t the case in 2016, 2017 or 2018, which each saw slight upticks in marijuana busts year-over-year. But last year there was a notable dip, the data published this week shows.
There were a total of 545,601 marijuana arrests in 2019—representing 35 percent of all drug arrests—according to FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program. That’s down from 663,367 the prior year and 659,700 in 2017.
Put another way, police across the country made a cannabis bust every 58 seconds on average last year. Of those arrests, 500,394 (92 percent) were for possession alone.
“A decline in cannabis related arrests is better than seeing an increase for a fourth year in a row, but the amount of these arrests is still abhorrent,” Marijuana Policy Project Executive Director Steve Hawkins told Marijuana Moment. “There is no reason to continue punishing adults for consuming a substance that is less harmful than alcohol. Arresting adult cannabis consumers has a dramatically disproportionate impact on communities of color, is a massive waste of law enforcement officials’ time and resources and does nothing to improve public health or safety.”
Overall, arrests for drug sales, manufacturing and possession amounted to 1,558,862 for the year—approximately 15 percent of all busts reported to FBI from local and state law enforcement agencies. That’s one new drug case every 20 seconds.
Before 2016, the country had seen a consistent decline in marijuana arrests for roughly a decade. It should be noted, however, that not all local police participate in the federal agency’s program, so these figures are not holistic.
Nonetheless, this data shows that American law enforcement carried out more arrests for marijuana alone than for murder, rape, robbery, burglary, fraud and embezzlement combined.
“At a time when a super-majority of Americans support marijuana legalization, law enforcement continues to harass otherwise law abiding citizens at an alarming rate,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “Now is the time for the public to collectively demand that enough is enough: end prohibition and expunge the criminal records to no longer hold people back from achieving their potential.”
While there’s no solitary factor that can explain the recent downward trend in cannabis cases, there are one-off trends that could inform the data. For example, marijuana possession arrests fell almost 30 percent in Texas from 2018 to 2019, and that seems to be connected to the legalization of hemp and resulting difficulties police have had in differentiating the still-illegal version of the cannabis crop from its newly legal non-intoxicating cousin.
At the federal level, prosecutions for marijuana trafficking declined in 2019, and drug possession cases overall saw an even more dramatic decline, according to a report published by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in March.
Federal prosecutions of drug-related crimes increased in 2019, but cases involving marijuana dropped by more than a quarter, according to an end-of-year report released by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in December.
A study released by the Cato Institute in 2018 found that “state-level marijuana legalization has significantly undercut marijuana smuggling.”
California Governor Approves Changes To Marijuana Banking And Labeling Laws
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a handful of marijuana bills into law on Tuesday, making a series of small adjustments to the nation’s largest legal cannabis system. More sweeping proposals such as overhauling the state’s marijuana regulatory structure will have to wait until next year, the governor said.
Among the biggest of the new changes are revisions to banking and advertising laws. With many legal marijuana businesses are still unable to access financial services, Newsom signed a bill (AB 1525) to remove state penalties against banks that work with cannabis clients.
“This bill has the potential to increase the provisions of financial services to the legal cannabis industry,” Newsom wrote in a signing statement, “and for that reason, I support it.”
Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, have been working for months to remove obstacles to these businesses’ access to financial services at the federal level. A coronavirus relief bill released by House Democratic leaders on Monday is the latest piece of legislation to include marijuana banking protections. Past efforts to include such provisions have been scuttled by Senate Republicans.
In his signing statement on the banking bill, Newsom directed state cannabis regulators to establish rules meant to protect the privacy of marijuana businesses that seek financial services, urging that data be kept confidential and is used only “for the provision of financial services to support licensees.”
Another bill (SB 67) the governor signed on Tuesday will finally establish a cannabis appellation program, meant to indicate where marijuana is grown and how that might influence its character. The system is similar to how wine regions are regulated.
Under the new law, growers and processors under the new law will be forbidden from using the name of a city or other designated region in product marketing unless all of that product’s cannabis is grown in that region. Similar protections already apply at the county level.
For outdoor growers, the new law recognizes the importance of terrior—the unique combination of soil, sun and other environmental factors that can influence the character of a cannabis plant. For indoor growers, it provides a way to represent a hometown or cash in on regional cachet.
Most of the other new changes that the governor signed into law are relatively minor and will likely go unnoticed by consumers. One, for example, builds in more wiggle room on the amount of THC in edibles (AB 1458), while another would allow state-licensed cannabis testing labs to provide services to law enforcement (SB 1244).
The bills were approved by state lawmakers earlier this month, as the state’s legislative session drew to a close.
Other pieces of cannabis legislation passed by the legislature this session were met with the governor’s veto. On Tuesday, Newsom rejected a proposal (AB 1470) that would have allowed processors to submit unpackaged products to testing labs, which industry lobbyists said would reduce costs. Currently products must be submitted in their final form, complete with retail packaging. Newsom said the proposal “conflicts with current regulations…that prevent contaminated and unsafe products from entering the retail market.”
“While I support reducing packaging waste, allowing products to be tested not in their final form could result in consumer harm and have a disproportionate impact on small operators,” Newsom said in a veto statement.
Those changes to testing procedures should instead be considered next year, Newsom said, as part of a pending plan to streamline California’s cannabis licensing and regulatory agencies.
“I have directed my administration to consolidate the state regulatory agencies that currently enforce cannabis health and safety standards to pursue all appropriate measures to ease costs and reduce unnecessary packaging,” he wrote. “This proposal should be considered as part of that process.”
Newsom also last week vetoed a bill (AB 545) that would have begun to dissolve the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, which oversees the legal industry. In a statement, the governor called that legislation “premature” given his plans for broader reform.
“My Administration has proposed consolidating the regulatory authority currently divided between three state entities into one single department,” Newsom wrote, “which we hope to achieve next year in partnership with the Legislature.”
Earlier this month, the governor signed into law one of the industry’s top priorities for the year—a measure (AB 1872) that freezes state cannabis cultivation and excise taxes for the entirety of 2021. The law is intended to provide financial stability for cannabis businesses in California, where taxes on marijuana are among the highest in the nation.
The state’s leading marijuana trade group, the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA), applauded the governor’s moves. All the bills approved by Newsom this week had the industry group’s support.
“We thank Governor Newsom for prioritizing these bills, which seek to reduce regulatory burdens, improve enforcement, expand financial services and enhance the state’s cannabis appellation’s program,” CCIA Executive Director Lindsay Robinson said in a message to supporters on Wednesday. “Like so many, the cannabis industry has faced a series of unexpected challenges and setbacks in 2020. We look forward to continuing to work with the Newsom Administration, and the Legislature, as we pursue a robust policy agenda in 2021.”
Image element courtesy of Gage Skidmore
Mixed Arizona Marijuana Polls Raise Questions About Legalization Ballot Measure’s Prospects
Reform advocates are anxious to see how a marijuana legalization initiative in Arizona will fare this November. But predicting the outcome is complicated by a new pair of dueling polls that show mixed results.
The campaign behind the legalization measure, Smart and Safe Arizona, shared an internal poll on Wednesday with Marijuana Moment that showed 57 percent of likely voters in support for the effort, with 38 percent in opposition.
The survey, which was conducted September 24-29, shows that 83 percent of supporters say they are certain to vote for the measure. Opposition was just as certain, however, by a margin of 82 percent to 12 percent.
Seventy-two percent of Democrats support the legal cannabis initiative, as do 70 percent of independents and 42 percent of Republicans.
But while those results are largely consistent with several surveys this year have shown varying degrees of majority support for adult-use legalization among Arizona voters, a separate poll released on Tuesday that’s being touted by opponents indicates that the margin is slimmer than advocates would hope—with 46 percent of respondents saying they want the policy change and 45 percent saying they don’t.
n= 600 LVs, MOE +/- 4.0%, Survey Conducted 9/8- 9/10
— OHPI (@OHPredictive) September 29, 2020
When the same firm, OH Predictive Insights (OHPI), conducted a poll asking the same basic question about legalizing cannabis in July, 62 percent of likely voters said they favor legalization. The month prior, about 65 percent said they back the legal cannabis ballot measure in a survey from a different pollster, HighGround.
The notable dip based on the new OHPI poll appears to be largely attributable to declining support among people over 55, those who live in rural areas, independents and Republicans.
“As election day nears, voters appear to be focusing on what’s on the ballot. And while the campaign to oppose marijuana legalization is anemic compared to 2016, voters still have concerns about the effort,” OHPI Chief Mike Noble said in a press release, referring to an earlier legalization initiative that Arizonans rejected four years ago after a campaign in which the opposition received significant funding, including from a pharmaceutical company.
#AZPOP #POLL: “As election day nears, voters appear to be focusing on what’s on the ballot, and while the campaign to oppose marijuana legalization is anemic compared to 2016, voters still have concerns about the effort,” says @MikePNoble
— OHPI (@OHPredictive) September 29, 2020
But the reform campaign isn’t deterred. Far from it, actually. In addition to sharing their internal poll, a spokesperson told Marijuana Moment that the memo for the separate survey showing dwindling support actually bolstered its contributions by another $250,000—in the early part of the day alone.
“We’re giving this poll as much credence as we should—none. It’s absurd to think that while Arizona is on pace to sell a record amount of cannabis ($1.25B) to a record number of cardholders, popularity is waning,” Smart and Safe Arizona Campaign Manager Stacy Pearson told Marijuana Moment, referring to purchases in the state’s existing medical cannabis system. “Cash register receipts and internal polling do not align with OH’s prediction.”
“That said, their polling memo has certainly helped our cause. We have generated more than $250,000 in contributions today, and it’s not even noon,” she said on Tuesday morning.
In the campaign’s internal poll, 65 percent of those surveyed believe the measure, Prop. 207, would have a positive effect on the state’s economy, compared to 26 percent who said it would have a negative effect.
The OHPI poll involved interviews with 600 likely Arizona voters from September 8-10. The internal campaign poll involved 800 respondents.
Colton Grace, communications associate for the prohibitionist group Smart Approaches To Marijuana, told Marijuana Moment after viewing only the OHPI poll that it’s “great to see that the support for marijuana legalization—which is never as popular as the industry claims it is in the first place—is dropping rapidly ahead of the vote in Arizona.”
“This effort is no different than that of 2016 in that it is nothing more than a for-profit scheme that benefits a select group of investors while unleashing serious harms on the majority of the state,” he argued.
Another survey released this month from a separate firm showed that a slim majority of voters (51 percent) support the ballot measure.
Under the legalization initiative, adults could possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.
The measure also contains several restorative justice provisions such as allowing individuals with prior marijuana convictions to petition the courts for expungements and establishing a social equity ownership program
Cannabis sales would be taxed at 16 percent. Tax revenue would cover implementation costs and then would be divided among funds for community colleges, infrastructure, a justice reinvestment and public services such as police and firefighters.
The Department of Health Services would be responsible for regulating the program and issuing cannabis business licenses. It would also be tasked with deciding on whether to expand the program to allow for delivery services.
Read the full internal poll from the Arizona marijuana legalization campaign below:
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.