Following a Seattle task force’s recommendation that the city decriminalize psychedelics as a possible way of curbing opioid deaths, City Councilmember Andrew Lewis renewed his commitment to introducing an ordinance by the end of this year that would put possession of the substances at the bottom of the city’s law enforcement priorities.
“For myself, it is a priority to at least introduce an ordinance this year,” Lewis told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview. “And frankly, if there’s sort of a consensus and there’s lightning in a bottle, I don’t think it’s inconceivable that an ordinance could be passed this year. I think it’s actually pretty reasonable.”
Decriminalization of psychedelics—and eventually, all drugs—was one of five policy recommendations unveiled in recent weeks by the Overdose Emergency Innovative Recovery (OEIR) task force, convened and led by the organization VOCAL-WA and other community organizers. Lewis and another councilmember, Lisa Herbold, led a majority of their colleagues in formally asking the task force in June to “add to their work plan an examination of public policy governing psychedelic medicines.”
Another group, Decrim Nature Seattle, is calling on the City Council to pass an ordinance decriminalizing psychedelics. The group submitted a draft ordinance earlier this year.
Statewide reform advocates, meanwhile, are gearing up for a push to decriminalize all drugs in Washington through a prospective 2022 ballot measure announced earlier this week.
Lewis hosted a symposium about psychedelics last Wednesday, featuring experts—including doctors, academics, advocates and a person in recovery from substance use disorder—who spoke mostly about the potential therapeutic use of psychedelics and their relatively low risk of harm compared to commonly abused drugs such as opioids.
The councilmember spoke to Marijuana Moment after the symposium to discuss his interest in psychedelics reform, what’s ahead for Seattle and the possibility of a state-level policy change. Below is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: To get things started, how did you get involved in exploring decriminalization in the first place? Why is that something that’s important to you?
Andrew Lewis: I generally do not think that the criminal legal system is a good place to deal with issues related to addiction and substance dependency. So just as a starting point, I would say that I have a longstanding interest in developing systems where we figure out how we are going to have treatment-based, harm reduction-based approaches to substance addiction instead of carceral or court-supervised regimes. We know now, obviously, there were incredibly strong political and racist motivations behind those that had nothing to do with any kind of policy consideration.
I think that we started—in the ’90s and then going into the 2000s—seeing sort of this progressive movement to change to a system of acknowledging treatment is going to be a way we’re going to deal with drug policy. But there are still sort of these criminal nexuses, so we’re going to do it through court supervised treatment settings. I’m not going to completely write that off. I think that, depending on the model and depending on the judge who’s doing it, there can be a lot of success. But it’s the culture of that is—it’s still hard to do, and there’s a lot of space for implicit bias and other things to hamper a system like that to be equitable.
So that kind of brings us to where we are now in sort of this new wave. Like, kind of a public health best practice of diversion completely away from the criminal legal system—decriminalization of possession and use as something that the criminal legal system should not be spending its time on. Speaking very generally, that’s kind of my overall view.
That conceded, as I said at the symposium, I really did not know a whole lot before this year, scientifically, about psychedelics. I didn’t know necessarily that they weren’t addictive. I guess I’d never really thought about it too much. Typically the public policy challenges that we’re presented with don’t intersect with psychedelics as presenting public policy problems. By that I mean, I don’t get emails from constituents that are like, you know, “Some guy, high on psilocybin, just, you know, broke into my car.” There’s a lot of focus on the public safety and public policy area on meth, on opioids, but there hasn’t been as much of disorder associated with these substances.
MM: What led you to get involved with Decrim Nature Seattle and their goal of decriminalizing psychedelics in the city?
AL: Earlier this year, I think all of us on the council got hit up by Decrim Nature sort of individually. And I was really, really impressed by the organization, how they kind of presented their policy goals, the potential of these substances. So I kind of went through this process of incrementally learning more about these substances, by continuing to engage with them, by talking to other experts, talking to other people just in my life, like friends from law school, friends from the city attorney’s office, nationally people who I know in public policy—just kind of being like, “Hey, what do you think of this?”
I was expecting, frankly, there’d be a little bit more of a weird stigma or kind of reactive and reflective prejudice based opposition from [broadcast news station] KOMO or local conservative media. I’m sure there’s been some grumbling, but I was surprised. I give a lot of credit on that to Michael Pollan and some other writers who are sort of credible messengers for white boomers. There was sort of this consensus of people who you wouldn’t necessarily expect that are like, “Oh yeah, totally! Why wouldn’t we do that?”
So then I kind of took it to the next level. There was this OEIR task force that was gearing up. I went to my colleague Councilmember Herbold, who chairs the Public Safety Committee. I assume that’s probably where this work will go through, actually, and I serve on that committee. So I basically just queued up: “OK, we should get into this, and probably the way we should start is let’s get this on the work plan.”
I’ll be completely honest, our bandwidth is limited as a council. We can only do so much stuff at once. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed that there’s a lot of insanely pressing things we’re dealing with right now around public safety and almost everything else. So, I’m seeing this taskforce coming along, asked Councilmember Herbold, and she enthusiastically agreed and was like, “Let’s ask them formally to incorporate this into their work.”
MM: I know you said earlier this year that after the recommendations came in, you would “almost certainly” be introducing an ordinance to make psychedelics the lowest-level law enforcement priority. Is that something you still plan to do?
AL: Yeah, I would say this is my personal goal: to introduce an ordinance like that this year—before the end of this year. And I feel comfortable saying that on the record. There’s other things beyond my personal control in terms of queuing up exactly how quickly that can happen, mostly due to the fact that we’re butting up against budget. For myself, it is a priority to at least introduce an ordinance this year.
And frankly, if there’s sort of a consensus and there’s lightning in a bottle, I don’t think it’s inconceivable that an ordinance could be passed this year. I think it’s actually pretty reasonable.
MM: How does this fit in with state-level reform? The approach you’re describing seems to sort of parallel what [City Attorney] Pete Holmes’s office did with respect to deprioritizing cannabis possession before it was legalized at the state level.
AL: Yeah, exactly. And expectation-setting is really important, because what I tell people all the time, they’re like, “Oh, Seattle’s gonna decriminalize,” and I’m like, “Yeah, I mean, we sort of will.” I have to keep saying that we can’t, strictly speaking, do it to the extent of what I think people are expecting.
But the state can, and I honestly think we’re in a position where I think we could see movement pretty quickly from the state. Let me put it this way: I am not getting beat up a lot by constituents that are emailing saying, you know, “The streets are going to run wild with people that are strung out on psychedelics!” For that reason I think that you could conceivably see the legislature do it without punting it to the voters.
MM: You feel that way even after seeing how lawmakers handled both the state Supreme Court’s decision in Blake and the bill last session that would have removed penalties around possession and funded treatment?
AL: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s hard to look at last session for too much precedence. Mostly because that kind of came through at the end of the session; it was kind of rushed. Frankly, it’s a heavy lift. You’re the legislature, tasked with completely redesigning our social contract around how we treat substance dependency. But then it’s like, you have to reconcile that new system with how the criminal legal system interacts with it.
I think you were seeing that towards the end, where you’ve got some great leaders in the legislature like [state Sen.] Manka Dhingra. If we could just make Sen. Dhingra the czar mandating from on high how that system would work, there are a few people who better understand how you could create a system that harmonizes the interplay between the criminal legal system and treatment regimes or whatever. But she had to grapple with a lot of people who don’t want to look soft on crime and people that just frankly didn’t have the bandwidth to download that many that much of a systems redesign issue in such a short amount of time.
I’ll tell you what I’ve been surprised by—and maybe it’s all happening behind the scenes so I just haven’t seen it—but I thought there’d be a lot more work during interim to parse things out. Maybe I’m just not privy to it. But I do think that there is going to be some appetite for at least doing some kind of psychedelic carveout. I do think at a certain level, we should be able to grab low-hanging fruit when we can, if there’s a consensus, because there are really big implications for psychedelics.
MM: One of the things some of us saw we might see in the early OEIR recommendations was something about safe consumption sites. You might know that Rhode Island just passed a pilot program this session. Is that something that, as a councilmember, is on your radar at all for Seattle?
AL: The council has funded safe consumption sites several times. And I support them, a majority of my colleagues support them. I think it’s certainly part of the answer to reduce the harm from public opioid use and to save people’s lives. But in the United States generally there’s all sorts of massive friggin’ barriers that you’re well aware of. The legal status of a lot of these schemes is in flux.
So all of that is to say, the council continues to pass proposals to do it, and it continues to run into implementation problems from the executive. I think that’s probably the cleanest way to put it. And I don’t think it’s from a lack of interest from the executive, I think that they’re trying. It’s just that there’s all sorts of legal and practical hurdles to getting stood up. Obviously we had a completely wasted four years from the Trump administration, which was, of course, incredibly hostile to the concept. I think that’s just where it is. I do think there’ll be more recommendations that will be promulgated from the task force.