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.
Lindsey Graham Challenger Jaime Harrison Backs Legalizing Marijuana
The Democrat mounting a well-funded bid to oust Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) says he supports legalizing marijuana.
“I think we should legalize, regulate and tax marijuana like we do alcohol and tobacco,” Jaime Harrison argued this week. “There is simply no medical reason to lock people up over this issue. In essence, this is about common sense.”
The former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman said that the issue is also a matter of criminal justice reform.
“We know that marijuana arrests, including those for simple possession, account for a large number of drug arrests. The racial disparities in marijuana enforcement—black men and white men smoke marijuana the same rates, but black men are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession—is just unacceptable,” he said in an interview with CNBC. “Across the country, we are finding that states are legalizing marijuana and medical marijuana, and it’s just time for South Carolina to lead on this issue.”
Federal campaign finance disclosures filed on Wednesday show that Harrison, who also served as an aide to Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and a lobbyist with the Podesta Group, outraised Graham for the second quarter in a row.
The state Democratic party, on Harrison’s last day in office as chair in 2017, approved a resolution endorsing a pending medical cannabis bill in the South Carolina legislature.
“Caregivers and patients are searching for treatment options for unmet medical needs, particularly for epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, cancers, and the effects of chemotherapy,” the measure said. “The cannabis plant in various forms including oils, creams, drops and liquids has shown some promise in treating these medical conditions.”
A South Carolina Senate committee advanced a medical marijuana bill last year but it never ended up advancing to a floor vote.
In 2018, the state’s Democratic primary voters approved an advisory medical cannabis ballot question by an 82 percent to 18 percent margin.
Graham, for his part, opposes marijuana legalization and hasn’t brought any pending cannabis legislation up for hearings or votes in his panel, which handles criminal justice issues.
That said, he has cosponsored a handful of reform bills in past years. For example, in 2016 he signed onto legislation to protect medical marijuana states from federal interference and reschedule cannabis, and in 2017 he cosponsored a bill to remove CBD from the list of federally banned substances.
He has a mixed record when it comes to votes on cannabis amendments.
In 2015, Graham voted against an Appropriations Committee amendment that would have allowed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend medical cannabis to patients; but the next year he reversed himself and supported a similar measure. Also in 2016, he backed an amendment to prevent the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws.
Shortly after it was announced he would be taking over the Judiciary panel’s gavel, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) joked that he would be sending marijuana-infused brownies to congratulate Graham, a quip that the incoming chairman seemed to appreciate.
While South Carolina typically isn’t seen as a state where Democrats are likely to pick up a U.S. Senate seat, this year’s contest between Harrison and Graham is attracting attention from national political observers due to the outsized funding haul the challenger has been able to bring in so far.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.
GOP Congressman Withdraws Amendment To Block D.C. Psychedelics Decriminalization
A GOP congressman filed an amendment to a spending bill on Wednesday, seeking to undermine a local Washington, D.C. ballot initiative to deprioritize enforcement of laws against a broad class of psychedelics.
But while Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) made the case that his proposed measure represented a reasonable compromise—making it so only psilocybin mushrooms would be low police priorities and only if a doctor recommended them for medical reasons—he ultimately withdrew the amendment rather than force a vote.
“This amendment deals with Initiative 81…which would make the use of hallucinogenic drugs a low priority for enforcement in the District of Columbia,” Harris said in his opening remarks before the House Appropriations Committee.
The congressman added that he’s particularly concerned about the scope of the ballot measure, acknowledging that “there is limited data that psilocybin may be useful in some circumstances” but asserting that the same can’t be said of the other entheogenic substances such as mescaline that would be covered under the activist-driven initiative.
Watch the debate over Harris’s D.C. psychedelics amendment below:
It should be noted that while activists behind the initiative submitted their signatures last week and believe they have more than enough to qualify for the November ballot in the nation’s capital, the Board of Elections has yet to certify them. Harris acknowledged that but said “I suspect it might be [qualified for the ballot] by the time” the spending bill goes to a bicameral House and Senate conference committee that will finalize the Fiscal Year 2021 Financial Services and General Government bill for delivery to the president’s desk later this year.
It’s not clear if he was signaling that he planned to reintroduce his amendment, which also stipulates that driving under the influence of psychedelics would be prosecutable, on the House floor or if he plans to work to get a senator to tack it onto that chamber’s version of the legislation, which deals with funding for D.C.
“I think the District of Columbia is different from other cities because we have people coming in from all over the country—and we certainly, I would hope, don’t want to be known as the drug capital of the world,” he said.
There was some debate on the measure by the panel. House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee Chairman Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) voiced opposition while the subcommittee ranking member, Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA), and Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) spoke in favor of the proposal.
“If the district residents want to make mushrooms a lower priority and focus limited law enforcement resources on other issues, that is their prerogative,” Quigley said. “Congress has allowed jurisdictions in California and Colorado to exercise their sovereign right to set policy on mushrooms, the District of Columbia too should be allowed to use their local funds to support their local needs and their priorities.”
Graves argued that “we all can agree that policies that increase the availability of psychedelic drugs in our nation’s capital, that’s dangerous.”
“As the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia, it should be a place where Americans come to see their government at work, for history, maybe go to a Braves-Nats game—it shouldn’t be a destination for illegal drugs,” he said.
McCollum said the amendment serves as another example of Congress attempting to impose excess regulations on D.C. and argued in favor of statehood for the district.
“Now we’re not even allowing the District of Columbia to move forward and decide whether or not this is a good idea,” she said. “I oppose the amendment.”
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) celebrated the amendment’s withdrawal with a taunt on Twitter, saying, “Regular #homerule offender @RepAndyHarrisMD tried to bar DC from using its own funds to enact a proposed ballot initiative on entheogenic plants + fungi or any similar law, but then withdrew it before the committee could defeat it.”
That prompted Harris to reply that the “process of educating Congress about how dangerous this initiative is has begun. DC has enough of a drug abuse problem without becoming the drug capital of the country.”
The process of educating Congress about how dangerous this initiative is has begun. DC has enough of a drug abuse problem without becoming the drug capital of the country. "Warrioronthehill" should be fighting AGAINST drug use, not FOR it.
— Rep. Andy Harris, MD (@RepAndyHarrisMD) July 15, 2020
Harris’s office didn’t respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment about whether he withdrew the amendment because he sensed he didn’t have the votes to pass it in committee.
In his closing remarks at the markup, the congressman said that his measure “is more than just mushrooms. That’s my whole point.”
“Mushrooms is psilocybin—that has a medical use. This includes mescaline, peyote, three other substances [that] have no medical use at all,” he said.
Melissa Lavasani, who proposed the D.C. ballot measure and is part of the Decriminalize Nature D.C. group working to pass it, said in a press release that “our campaign is about helping D.C. residents by enacting common sense reforms to police priorities that ensure that those using healing plant and fungi medicines are not law enforcement targets.”
This isn’t Harris’s first go at pushing for legislation that leverages Congress’s control over the D.C. budget to interfere in local drug policy issues.
Harris has been a consistent opponent of cannabis reform, repeatedly backing a long-standing congressional rider that bars D.C. from using its tax dollars to implement a legal marijuana marketplace. Last year, however, it was not included in the annual spending bill as introduced by House Democratic leaders and the congressmen didn’t attempt to introduce an amendment to reinsert it. It was included in the Senate version and was included in the final enacted bill following conference committee negotiations, however.
The Drug Policy Alliance sent a letter to committee leadership in advance of Wednesday’s hearing, urging them to oppose any attempts to interfere in D.C.’s ability to vote on the psychedelics reform initiative.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.
Colorado Marijuana Regulators Propose ‘Franchise’ Business Model For Equity Applicants
Colorado marijuana regulators are looking for feedback on a proposal to create a franchise cannabis business model to promote equitable participation in the industry by people from communities harmed by the war on drugs.
When legislators initially approved a bill to create an accelerator program for marijuana businesses, it was only designed to give eligible entrepreneurs an opportunity to share a cannabis facility with an existing company. But following stakeholder meetings, regulators laid out a proposal to let those entrepreneurs functionally serve as franchises of current larger marijuana businesses, operating out of separate facilities but sharing branding, advertising and intellectual property under certain conditions.
“The Division contemplates certain components of this alternative ‘separate premises’ model will be similar to a franchisor-franchisee business relationship,” the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division said in a notice last month.
In order to participate under the new model, the division said it would require a series of disclosures, including initial investments from both parties, terms of any financial arrangements and obligations for the licensee such as non-compete requirements.
Additional requirements could still be developed. For example, the department is considering whether franchisees should be offered reduced or waived rent to use facilities owned by existing businesses that agree to be “endorsement holders.” Regulators are also contemplating limitations for the amount of money a franchise can charge an accelerator licensee as a fee for use of their facilities, as well as liability rules.
“Available incentives for accelerator-endorsed licensees to support the ‘separate premises’ model may also include fee reductions resulting from increased financial assistance and no-cost rent arrangements, and reduced accelerator-endorsed licensee liability,” the division said.
Beyond potentially collecting fees from licensees, the benefit of becoming an endorsement holder under this separate premises model seems to be that they get to indirectly expand their business and exposure while supporting entrepreneurs who might not have the immediate resources to break into the industry.
That said, some advocates are weary of the proposed based on past experience.
“While accelerator programs sound good on paper, they so often create terrible long term power dynamics for smaller businesses that we can not endorse this approach,” Jason Ortiz, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, told Marijuana Moment.
“Any relationship that puts a small business owner at the whim of a larger conglomerate makes us concerned that the power dynamic there does not favor the smaller business, who will now have their operation tied to the success of the larger entity,” he said. “We instead encourage any business to invest in grant based programs that allow for smaller businesses to operate on their own premises and to run their business how they see fit.”
At the same time, Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment that the proposal “looks like it could create a lot of opportunities for people to get into the industry without having large amounts of capital and could generally lower the barriers of entry significantly.”
“Judging from the comments in the feedback solicitation, it appears that the possibility of predatory or unfair franchise relationships is at the front of the Marijuana Enforcement Division’s priorities and it intends to make it very difficult for endorsement licensees to exploit accelerator licensees,” he said. “However, we’ve learned from the shortcomings and abuses in other equity programs around the country that it is important to continually monitor and assess these programs to ensure their effectiveness.”
Stakeholders can fill out an online form to submit input on the proposal. A hearing to finalize the rulemaking is tentatively set for July 30.
At the same time, the division is also working on the implementation of a bill that defines who qualifies as a social equity cannabis business applicant for the accelerator program. Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed that legislation, which also gives him authority to streamline pardons for prior marijuana convictions, last month.
The division is scheduled to hold a separate hearing on implementing the new bill on July 28.
Photo courtesy of Kimberly Lawson.