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.
Congressman Files New Marijuana Banking Reform Amendment To Large-Scale House Bill
The House sponsor of a bill to protect banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses announced on Friday that he is seeking to attach an amendment containing the reform to a broader bill dealing with research and innovation in the tech and manufacturing sectors.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), sponsor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, has expressed interest in finding another vehicle to pursue his proposal after it was stripped from a separate defense bill late last year. The congressman’s legislation has cleared the House in five forms at this point, only to stall in the Senate.
His latest attempt to get the reform enacted is by filing an amendment with the SAFE Banking language to the America COMPETES Act, which does not deal specifically with cannabis issues as drafted but was introduced in the House this week.
“Cannabis-related businesses—big and small—and their employees are in desperate need of access to the banking system and access to capital in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner and compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace,” Perlmutter, who is retiring from Congress after this session and committed to passing his bill first, said in a press release.
I have filed #SAFEBanking as an amendment to #AmericaCOMPETES b/c cannabis-related businesses – big and small – are in desperate need of access to capital & the banking system in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner & compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace.
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) January 28, 2022
“The SAFE Banking Act is the best opportunity to enact some type of federal cannabis reform this year and will serve as the first of many steps to help ensure cannabis businesses are treated the same as any other legal, legitimate business,” he said. “I will continue to pursue every possible avenue to get SAFE Banking over the finish line and signed into law.”
It remains to be seen whether the America COMPETES Act will serve as a more effective vehicle for the cannabis banking bill than the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), where the language was successfully attached on the House side but later removed amid bicameral negotiations. Perlmutter said at the time that Senate leadership, which is working on comprehensive legalization legislation, was to blame for the decision to remove his amendment from the proposal.
The new SAFE Banking Act amendment will still need to be made in order by the House Rules Committee in order to be formally be considered on the House floor when the body takes up the research and innovation package. The deadline to file amendments was Friday, and the panel is set to take them up starting on Tuesday.
Even some Republicans are scratching their heads about how Democrats have so far failed to pass the modest banking reform with majorities in both chambers and control of the White House. For example, Rep. Rand Paul (R-KY) criticized his Democratic colleagues over the issue last month.
In the interim, federal financial regulator Rodney Hood—a board member and former chairman of the federal National Credit Union Administration (NCUA)—recently said that marijuana legalization is not a question of “if” but “when,” and he’s again offering advice on how to navigate the federal-state conflict that has left many banks reluctant to work with cannabis businesses.
Ohio Lawmakers Will Be Forced To Consider Marijuana Legalization As State Validates Activist Signatures
Ohio activists have collected enough signatures to force the legislature to take up the issue of marijuana legalization, the secretary of state’s office confirmed on Friday.
This comes about two weeks after the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) submitted a final round of signatures for the measure. The petitions’ formal validation triggers the legislative review of legalization, but it does not require lawmakers to enact the reform.
The legislature now has four months to consider the campaign’s cannabis reform proposal. Lawmakers can adopt the measure, reject it or pass an amended version. If they do not pass the measure, organizers can then collect an additional 132,887 valid signatures from registered voters to place the issue on the ballot in November.
CTRMLA previously submitted petitions for the initiative but the state said they were short some 13,000 signatures, requiring activists to go back and make up the difference.
“We are ready and eager to work with Ohio legislators over the next four months to legalize the adult use of marijuana in Ohio,” CTRMLA spokesman Tom Haren said in a press release. “We are also fully prepared to collect additional signatures and take this issue directly to voters on November 8, 2022, if legislators fail to act.”
The measure that lawmakers will be required to consider would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and they could also have up to 15 grams of marijuana concentrates. Individuals could grow up to six plants for personal use, with a maximum 12 plants per household.
A 10 percent sales tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, with revenue being divided up to support social equity and jobs programs (36 percent), localities that allow adult-use marijuana enterprises to operate in their area (36 percent), education and substance misuse programs (25 percent) and administrative costs of implementing the system (three percent).
A Division of Cannabis Control would be established under the state Department of Commerce. It would have authority to “license, regulate, investigate, and penalize adult use cannabis operators, adult use testing laboratories, and individuals required to be licensed.”
The measure gives current medical cannabis businesses a head start in the recreational market. Regulators would need to begin issuing adult-use licenses to qualified applicants who operate existing medical operations within nine months of enactment.
The division would also be required to issue 40 recreational cultivator licenses and 50 adult-use retailer licenses “with a preference to applications who are participants under the cannabis social equity and jobs program.” And it would authorize regulators to issue additional licenses for the recreational market two years after the first operator is approved.
Individual municipalities would be able to opt out of allowing new recreational cannabis companies from opening in their area, but they could not block existing medical marijuana firms even if they want to add co-located adult-use operations. Employers could also maintain policies prohibiting workers from consuming cannabis for adult use.
Further, regulators would be required to “enter into an agreement with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services” to provide “cannabis addiction services,” which would involve “education and treatment for individuals with addiction issues related to cannabis or other controlled substances including opioids.”
With respect to social equity, some advocate are concerned about the lack of specific language on automatic expungements to clear the records of people with convictions for offenses that would be made legal under the legislation. That said, it does include a provision requiring regulators to “study and fund” criminal justice reform initiatives including expungements.
Ohio voters rejected a 2015 legalization initiative that faced criticism from many reform advocates because of an oligopolistic model that would’ve granted exclusive control over cannabis production to the very funders who paid to put the measure on the ballot.
Activists suspended a campaign to place another measure on the 2020 ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Aside from the new voter initiative, state lawmakers from both parties are separately working to advance marijuana reform.
A legalization bill that was the first of its kind to be introduced in the Ohio legislature last year would legalize the possession, sale and cultivation of cannabis by adults. It’s being championed by Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D).
A pair of Ohio Republican lawmakers similarly filed a bill to legalize marijuana in the state in December. Reps. Jamie Callender (R) and Ron Ferguson (R) first announced their plan to push the legislative reform proposal in October and circulated a co-sponsorship memo to build support for the measure.
There are also additional local reform efforts underway in Ohio for 2022.
After voters in seven cities approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession during last November’s election—which builds on a slew of previous local reforms in the state—campaigns are now looking to enact decriminalization in Marietta, Rushville, Rutland, Shawnee, McArthur and Laurelville.
Ohio marijuana activists already successfully proved that they turned in enough valid signatures to put a local decriminalization initiative before Kent voters after having missed the 2021 ballot due to a verification error on the part of county officials. That measure is now expected to go before voters this November.
Top Federal Drug Official Says Marijuana Use ‘Stable’ Among Youth At Prohibitionist-Hosted Panel Sponsored By D.A.R.E.
A top federal drug official participated in a panel hosted by a prohibitionist group and sponsored by D.A.R.E.—and she again reiterated that data shows youth marijuana use has remained stable “despite the legalization in many states.”
While National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow expressed concerns about certain cannabis trends related to potency, commercialization and use by pregnant women, she affirmed that surveys funded by her own federal agency have demonstrated that adolescent marijuana use is “stable,” despite repeated arguments from prohibitionists that legalization would lead more young people to experiment with cannabis.
The event was hosted by Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), an anti-legalization group. SAM President Kevin Sabet and the organization’s co-founder former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) led the discussion.
“The higher the content of THC, the greater the likelihood that you will become addicted to the drug… The content of THC has gone up at least 4-fold.”
– Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) January 28, 2022
Sabet said that data on youth use has showed varying results in states that have legalized cannabis and asked Volkow to weigh in on the issue. She replied that federal data “have not been able to see large differences in terms of prevalence” of cannabis consumption among young people in legal and non-legal states.
The official made similar comments in an interview with Marijuana Moment late last year.
That said, Volkow said that they have seen some differences when it comes to consumption rates among adolescents for edible cannabis products.
“But the effects are not large, and one of the things that also certainly surprised me [is] the rate overall, the prevalence rates of marijuana use among teenagers, have been stable despite the legalization in many states,” she said, adding that there are some concerns about increased frequency of use and limitations in data collection with respect to dosages being taken.
Volkow also commented on a recent federally funded survey that found illicit drug use by young people has taken a significant plunge in the last year, though she largely attributed that to the reduced social interaction resulting from COVID-19 policies across the country.
“Interestingly what we’ve observed during the COVID pandemic is, across schools in the United States, the prevalence of drug use has gone down,” she said, “which likely very much reflects the fact that kids don’t have the opportunity to interact with others, and drug taking at that stage is a peer pressure behavior.”
The official also briefly addressed the fact that she feels criminalizing people over drugs in the first place is the wrong policy approach—a point she’s made repeatedly in interviews and blog posts.
She said that “criminalization has created a system for that allows a structural racism to be implemented, you can control people, and that’s a horrible policy. This criminalization actually opens up our eyes that well, yes, we need to change that.”
However, she said that “liberalizing and making the drugs widely available, with no counter messaging,” is not the alternative she would recommend.
“We need to provide them [addicts] with treatment, so just to say ok we are going to liberalize everything… and not support treatment for those people under those conditions, I actually think it is quite irresponsible.”
– Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of NIDA
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) January 28, 2022
While the SAM-hosted event did not touch specifically on psychedelics policy, Volkow has also recently discussed that issues, especially as data has shown an increase in use of the substances among adults.
She said people are going to keep using substances such as psilocybin—especially as the reform movement expands and there’s increased attention being drawn to the potential therapeutic benefits—and so researchers and regulators will need to keep up.
Volkow also mentioned that NIDA is “pleased” the Drug Enforcement Administration recently announced plans to significantly increase the quota of certain psychedelic drugs to be produced for use in research.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.