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.
New Hampshire Marijuana Legalization Effort Runs Up Against New Republican Legislature
“Eventually it will get passed. But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”
By Christian Wade | The Center Square
Marijuana advocates are continuing a push to legalize the drug for recreational use in New Hampshire, but the effort faces an unlikely path in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
A bipartisan bill filed in the state House of Representatives this month would, if approved, legalize recreational cannabis for adults over 21 and set up a system of regulation and taxation for the drug that would allow retail sales. It’s similar to proposals filed in previous legislative sessions, all of which have failed to win approval.
“The battle continues,” said Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, D-Concord, a primary sponsor of the bill. “We keep refining it and negotiating and trying to come up with something that could potentially get to the two-thirds vote needed to override the governor’s veto.”
The proposal would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of weed and would authorize regulated cultivation and retail sales. Adults would be allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants at home. A state-run cannabis commission would set regulations and oversee the new industry. The proposal calls for a 9% tax on recreational pot sales.
But the measure faces a steep climb in the state legislature—which swung back to the GOP in the November 3 elections—not to mention the threat of a veto by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who opposes legalization.
McWilliams acknowledges the measure faces long odds in the biennial legislative session and said lawmakers who support the effort lack the votes to override a Sununu veto. But she said the effort is building more support with every passing year.
“Eventually it will get passed,” she said. “But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”
While marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law, she said there’s a chance the new Democrat-controlled Congress and White House could lift the federal prohibition on pot.
Nationally, 68 percent of Americans back the legalization of marijuana, according to a recent Gallup poll, which noted that support has been inching up steadily over the years.
To date, 15 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territory of Guam have legalized recreational marijuana. Thirty-six states have medical marijuana programs.
New Hampshire has often been described as a “cannabis island” with neighboring states and Canada allowing recreational marijuana cultivation and retail sales.
While the Granite State decriminalized marijuana possession in 2017, recreational growing and sales are not authorized.
In 2014, the Democrat-controlled House approved a legalization bill but it failed to pass the Senate. Similar proposals have been refiled every session, but have failed to gain traction.
The state has also allowed medical marijuana dispensaries since 2013, but cultivating the drug for personal use is still a felony.
Lawmakers approved a bill in 2019 that would have allowed medical pot patients to grow their own supply, but Sununu vetoed it, citing public safety concerns.
This piece was first published by The Center Square.
American Medical Association Asks Court To Overturn Medical Marijuana Vote In Mississippi
Two medical associations are throwing their support behind a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the medical marijuana ballot initiative that Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved in November, arguing that it creates “risks to public health” and places a “burden” on physicians.
The American Medical Association (AMA) and its state affiliate, the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA), recently filed an amicus brief backing the legal challenge being considered by the state Supreme Court, which was brought by the city of Madison just days before the election.
The lawsuit argues that legalization proposal is invalid because of a state law that dictates the percentage of signatures required per district to qualify a ballot initiative.
While Mississippi’s secretary of state and attorney general have strongly criticized the suit, calling it “woefully untimely” and contesting the merits, AMA and MSMA are backing the challenge nonetheless.
“Making sure the constitutional amendment map is followed is always important, but given the nature of the initiative at issue and the substantial ramifications it poses for Mississippi’s public health and the medical community, particular care is warranted here,” the brief states, according to a blog post published by AMA on Friday.
The groups further argue that, outside of the statutory concerns outlined in the suit, the medical cannabis legalization initiative “poses significant risks to public health and puts a burden on Mississippi physicians.”
“While it is possible there may be beneficial medicinal uses of marijuana, numerous evidence-based studies demonstrate that significant deleterious effects abound,” the brief states, adding “without question, the public health risks are immense.”
Additionally, because marijuana remains federally illegal, the voter-approved measure would put physicians in “quite the pinch,” it says. “Yet physicians will be expected by their patients (though perhaps not required by Initiative 65) to sign off on certifications to receive their supply. Perhaps no liability will lie under state law, but what about federal law?”
In fact, federal courts have ruled that doctors have a First Amendment right to discuss medical cannabis with their patients without risking federal sanction.
“As everyone knows, all it takes to file a lawsuit is a piece of paper and a filing fee, so even if a physician is judged correctly and immunity is appropriate, the matter will still have to be litigated,” the AMA and MSMA brief continues. “And with increased exposure and litigation comes increased costs, not least of which is rising professional liability insurance premiums.”
The legal challenge brought by Madison cites a state law stipulating that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that policy went into effect when Mississippi had five congressional districts, and that’s since been reduced to four, making it mathematically impossible to adhere to.
Advocates see desperation in the court filing, with the medical associations now making a last-ditch effort to overturn the will of voters.
“These are cynical attempts to undermine the democratic process,” Carly Wolf, state policies coordinator for NORML, said. “Legalization opponents have shown time and time again that they cannot succeed in either the court of public opinion or at the ballot box.”
“Thus, they are now asking judges to set aside the votes of over a million Americans in a desperate effort to override undisputed election outcomes,” she said. “Whether or not one supports marijuana legalization, Americans should be outraged at these overtly undemocratic tactics.”
Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said “AMA’s position is woefully out of step with both public opinion and scientific consensus, as well as with the opinions of the majority of physicians.”
“It is regrettable that this organization would go on record in attempting to nullify the vote of a supermajority of Mississippi voters,” he said.
It’s also not especially surprising that these particular groups would join in this legal challenge given their earlier attempts to get voters to reject the reform initiative.
Weeks before the vote, AMA and MSMA circulated a sample ballot that instructed voters on how to reject the activist-led cannabis measure. The mailers said the associations were “asking for you to join us in educating and encouraging our population to vote against Initiative 65.”
Ultimately, however, nearly 74 percent of Mississippi voters approved the legalization initiative.
It will allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. It includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.
Marijuana Moment reached out to AMA and MSMA for additional information about the brief, which has not yet been posted on the state court’s public docket, but representative did not immediately respond.
The Mississippi case is just one example of legalization opponents asking the courts to overturn the will of voters who approve marijuana reform.
In South Dakota, another legal challenge against the constitutionality of a legalization initiative is playing out. In this case, plaintiffs—with the backing of Gov. Kristi Noem (R)—are claiming that the recreational marijuana measure violates a state statute requiring that proposals that appear on the ballot on deal with a single subject.
Over in Montana, opponents of a voter-approved initiative to legalize cannabis for adult use attempted to get the state Supreme Court to invalidate the proposal ahead of the vote, but the justices rejected that request, arguing that they failed to establish the urgency needed to skip the lower court adjudication process. They didn’t rule on the merits, however.
The plaintiffs then announced they were pursuing action in a lower court, arguing that the statutory proposal unlawfully appropriates funds, violating a portion of the state Constitution that prohibits such allocations from being included in a citizen initiative.
Separately, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in September that a medical marijuana legalization initiative could not appear on the state’s November ballot following a legal challenge, even though activists collected enough signatures to qualify.
The court determined that the measure violated Nebraska’s single-subject rule that limits the scope of what can be placed on the ballot before voters. Activists have already introduced a new initiative that they say will satisfy the court’s interpretation of state law—and their also working on a broader adult-use legalization measure.
New York Governor Releases More Details On Marijuana Legalization Proposal
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has released more details of his marijuana legalization proposal, including plans to reinvest in communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
Following his State of the State address last week, in which the governor said enacting the reform could boost the economy while promoting social equity, he unveiled an outline of his agenda that provides more insights into what the state’s legal cannabis market could look like. Next, he’s expected to release the full budget proposal on Tuesday, which will contain much more detailed legislative language.
The State of the State Book released on Friday says Cuomo’s upcoming proposal would create an Office of Cannabis Management to regulate the program, establish national standards and best practices to encourage responsible marijuana consumption and provide for “robust social and economic equity benefits to ensure New York’s law will create an egalitarian adult-use market structure that does not just facilitate market entry but ensures sustained market share for entrepreneurs in communities that have been most harmed by cannabis prohibition.”
Notably, it also states that the plan will “correct past harms by investing in areas that have disproportionally been impacted by the war on drugs, understanding that expunging past cannabis convictions helps to correct the injustice faced on the day that someone was arrested, but fails to correct the lasting harms that arrest has had on citizens, families, and communities.”
That’s important, as the governor in past years has pushed for marijuana tax revenue to be put into the state’s general fund, rather than specifically allocating resources for community reinvestment, as some lawmakers and advocates have urged.
That said, it remains to be seen exactly how the governor’s forthcoming budget will go about “investing” in communities that have been harmed by past prohibition enforcement and whether it will be deemed adequate by legislators and activists who have balked at his past proposals.
Cuomo has included legalization in his last two annual budget plans, but the issue has consistently stalled over details in negotiations.
That said, the legislature will have more influence this year after Senate Democrats secured a supermajority in the November election. If Cuomo were to veto any bill over details he didn’t like, they could potentially have enough votes to override him.
The governor’s new outline also talks about making investments in research into harm reduction and education campaigns to deter youth use and impaired driving.
“Cannabis legalization will create more than 60,000 new jobs, spurring $3.5 billion in economic activity and generating an estimated $300 million in tax revenue when fully implemented,” the document says.
A separate section describes plans to bolster the state’s hemp industry.
To accomplish that, Cuomo will call together a workgroup “composed of hemp growers, researchers, producers, processors, manufacturers, and trade associations to make recommendations for the further development of hemp as a multi-use agricultural commodity and a mature cannabinoid wellness market.”
“The hemp workgroup will explore ways to provide more opportunities for New York growers and manufacturers and work to help facilitate the development of safe New York products that will meet the needs of informed consumers,” the plan says. The group’s recommendations could build upon regulations for hemp and CBD that were developed last year.
But for many advocates, it’s recreational legalization that has the spotlight this session. And to that end, New York lawmakers have made comments in recent months that indicate they feel the reform is inevitable, despite differing opinions on the specifics.
The top Republican in the New York Assembly said last month that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this coming session.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance next year, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.
Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.
The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.
Legislators prefiled a bill to legalize cannabis in New York earlier this month. The legislation, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Liz Krueger (D) and 18 other lawmakers, is identical to a version she filed last year that did not advance.
Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana were recently prefiled in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.