Advocates in Washington State say they’re looking forward to trying again to enact state-level psychedelics reform during the coming legislative session, especially after an effort earlier this year to broadly decriminalize psilocybin was watered down by lawmakers into a far more limited pilot program for mental health. But for now, much of the activity happening across the state is focused on local frontiers, with organizers working to pass measures in at least six municipal jurisdictions.
Efforts are currently underway in the cities of Olympia, Bellingham, Spokane and Tacoma as well as King and San Juan counties, according to Psychedelic Medicine Alliance WA (PMAW), a main backer of statewide reform efforts and the point organization for the King County campaign. The local groups, many of which are still in the early stages and still putting together draft legislation, hope to build off psychedelics decriminalization measures passed in 2021 by Seattle and Port Townsend officials, as well as Jefferson County’s adoption of a decriminalization resolution this past May.
Kody Zalewski, a PMAW co-director, told Marijuana Moment the grassroots strategy in Washington was inspired in part by municipal psychedelics reform in cities across Massachusetts—a movement that now aims to force the state legislature to consider a psychedelics legalization initiative before potentially putting the issue on the 2024 ballot.
“You need that grassroots support. You need to show that there’s public appetite for this change somewhere,” Zalewski said, adding that often state lawmakers look to local matters as an indicator of public sentiment. “It’s really building up that grassroots support and showing that, you know, there’s an appetite for this and it’s not going to jeopardize your career in politics.”
PMAW organizers, then allied as the organization Decriminalize Nature Seattle, previously led advocacy for a local Seattle resolution to decriminalize noncommercial activity around a wide range of psychedelic substances, including the cultivation and sharing of certain entheogenic plants and fungi. The City Council passed the measure unanimously in 2021, making Seattle the largest U.S. city ever to adopt such a reform.
Just a few months after the Seattle resolution passed, local leaders in the city of Port Townsend unanimously approved a similar resolution. And in May of this year, overlying Jefferson County adopted a decriminalization measure of its own.
Looking forward, Zalewski said, “we think we have some pretty friendly environments for outreach to municipal governments.”
There are active efforts to decriminalize psychedelics throughout Washington State in:
San Juan County
Reach out if you want to get involved! 👀
— Psychedelic Medicine Alliance WA (@pma_wa) November 13, 2023
One jurisdiction they think is among the most promising places to move forward with psychedelics reform is Olympia, the state capital. Organizers there are preparing a resolution they hope will be introduced in the new City Council after the dust of the recent election settles.
A leader of that effort, Ekaterina Henyan, told Marijuana Moment the proposal will seek to decriminalize certain psychedelics along a “grow, gather, gift” model that’s become common in local reform efforts across the country. Noncommercial cultivation for personal use, as well as sharing substances among adults, would be deemed among the city’s lowest law enforcement priorities.
“As of our very first draft that we are starting with, we are including psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, mescaline and iboga,” Henyan said, but she noted that the local group, for now organized under the name Decriminalize Nature Olympia, will revisit that list in meetings next month and with members of the City Council.
She’s personally in favor of adding MDMA and LSD to the list, but ultimately her goal is to encourage a consensus resolution that garners broad support. “It’d be great to have that included,” she said of the other substances, “but this is where I’m going to refer back to our team and say, ‘Hey, what do we all feel about it? What are we ready to push forward?'”
Decriminalize Nature Olympia began as a community meetup around interest in psilocybin and other psychedelics. Gathering at restaurants and other venues, the group has held meetings that have drawn as many as 45 people, Henyan said.
“After hosting…50 meetings, I just saw an amazing community, and the group of people come together and really tackle things,” she said. “I recognize the team of educators, healthcare professionals, [and] entrepreneurs that are coming to the table.”
The group, which began formal meetings under the Decriminalize Nature Olympia name in October, has partnered with the organization Decriminalize Nature, in Oakland, a group that has supported various other local reform efforts. Henyan said the alliance has helped volunteers better understand how to engage the community as well as officials in Olympia.
The Olympia group’s steering committee will begin a deep dive into their proposed resolution next month, and Henyan is hoping to engage a wide group of stakeholders. That includes members of the City Council and hopefully local law enforcement, among others. She said she reached out to all members of the council back in July and heard back from one, whom she didn’t identify, though things have been quiet since.
“One way that we arrive at this resolution is with all involved parties,” Henyan said. “Why not come up with something that everybody is excited to pass?”
She’s also contacted the Olympia Police Department, though after being referred to who she was told is the appropriate person at the department, she hasn’t heard back. For now the group is holding open a section of the resolution that would discuss law enforcement matters in hopes of hearing directly from officers. “I don’t want to do something that’s going to be negative in our community,” Henyan said. She’s optimistic that interest from City Council might encourage police to come to the table.
Like others involved in local efforts, Henyan believes reform at the municipal level is part of a process that will eventually lead to decriminalization of psychedelics statewide.
“I do believe that this happening in Olympia is a very, very significant event,” Henyan said. “Not only is it the third city in the state that would be moving in that direction, but we’re talking about our capital.”
Starting locally also feels more approachable than trying to tackle statewide reform head-on.
“That’s crazy that you have to spend $10 million just to get a voter initiative out there. Why? Why is it that way?” Henyan said. “Why can’t we just have conversations at the local level, talk about the needs and actually help our elected officials make the right choices—informed choices?”
Decriminalizing at the local level “sets up a path for the county level to happen, the state level to happen, and hopefully federally at some point,” she continued. “The long-term result to all of this is the right to access, and I’m excited and curious to see how that part is going to unfold.”
On the eastern side of the state, the group Enlighten Spokane is “at the very beginning stages” of formally organizing, having formed earlier this month, said co-leader Jenny Hansen. The group’s chief goal is education, she and others in the group told Marijuana Moment, with a belief that a better understanding of the healing potential of psychedelic-assisted therapy and will help people see the need for structural reform.
Hansen’s background is handling intake and screening for the nonprofit Heroic Hearts Project, which military veterans access facilitated psychedelics sessions to help address PTSD and military trauma.
“These medicines are right there, and yet because of the legal landscape, people can’t access them—some of the people that need them the most. We need access,” she said. “We need to deprioritize law enforcement coming after these people like they’re criminals just for growing or using, because I think many of them are using them to treat a condition of some sort or reduce their anxiety, reduce their depression.”
Hansen is aware that a local measure deprioritizing enforcement of state psychedelics laws doesn’t take them off the books. Asked about that apparent tension, she replied: “Small bites.”
“If you’re a beginning hiker, you’re not gonna climb up to Mt. Whitney,” she said. “You’ve got to train, you’ve got to do smaller hikes first, just a little bit, get to know the terrain down at the base, and then you slowly work your way up.”
“When the more local efforts keep popping up—like California, you’ve got Santa Cruz, you’ve got Oakland, all these different cities—it’s really hard for officials to ignore that,” Hansen said. “So it’s just taking a small bite with something that we’re still relatively unfamiliar with, and then we’re going to work our way forward.”
The group initially mulled trying to pass a decriminalization measure across Spokane County, but they ultimately decided to focus instead on the Spokane City Council. The city, which is home to two universities, is a bluer shade of the county’s political purple and generally seen as more open to the idea of safe access to psychedelics.
“As far as the temperature goes in Spokane, I think it’s very—I think it’s there,” said Cendy Ortiz, an Army veteran and Enlighten Spokane member who described herself as an advocate and a proponent. “But I think it’s very underground. It seems like there’s people open to it once you start talking to them about plant medicine in general.”
Ortiz said the more she’s learned, the more she’s become a proponent of psilocybin in particular. “It just blew my mind with how healing and how—you know, opened my mind has become, and my heart, and I have just transformed as a person because of it, and in such a positive way.”
Among the veteran community, “I’ve seen so many of my battle buddies struggling with mental health. I’ve had several in my battalion commit suicide,” she said. “If this wasn’t such a stigma, if this wasn’t such a control thing, I would be happily, you know, bringing them on board, educating them, showing them how they can access this medicine for themselves.”
While she doesn’t have personal experience with ibogaine, she said she’s talked to veterans who talk about “everlasting positive benefits from that experience” after using the substance in therapy in other countries.
“I really just think that the more we can educate people, the better it will be,” Ortiz said, “because once you start learning about how wonderful some of these medicines are, and how helpful, it’s hard to argue.”
Enlighten Spokane co-leader Randall Hansen, who wrote the book Triumph Over Trauma, about psychedelic medicine, said he feels a sense of urgency to remove barriers to accessing psychedelics. He pointed to the often-cited statistic of 22 veteran suicides per day in the United States and said he believes that’s a gross undercount due to inaccuracies such as recording suicide deaths as accidental overdose deaths. He said a closer number could be 40 to 44 deaths.
“What fires me up is if I do the math and I do 44 a day and just do the past 20 years,” he said, noting the toll of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, “how many lives were lost because these things weren’t available?”
“If you want to do it legally, anyone—veteran or non-veteran—you either have to go to a state, Colorado or Oregon, where some of these things are decriminalized, or to a city that’s done that, but for most people they have to go out of the country,” Randall Hansen said. “Heroic Hearts Project has to spend $5,000 to send a veteran to Peru when they could do that for a fraction of the cost here in the U.S. if these medicines were legal.”
Meanwhile, at the county level, organizers at PMAW hope to extend Seattle’s decriminalization measure to all of King County.
“We’ve spoken with councilmembers in the past,” Zalewski said, “and we’re hopeful to get this accomplished in 2024.” But he added that because the King County Council is “in a transition period” after the recent election, “that’s all I can say now.”
Zalewski and others said that amid the local efforts, they’re also looking forward to the start of the new legislative session and another push at passing a statewide law allowing noncommercial psychedelics use. Supporters had high hopes last year—introducing the measure with nearly half the state Senate listed as co-sponsors—and Zalewski said that enthusiasm hasn’t faded.
“We do feel that’s an easier lift this next legislative session,” they said. “We feel we’ve done a lot of outreach efforts with folks at the state level, and many of them are more comfortable with it than they were last time. I know there were members of the Republican Party who, back in 2022, they were very skeptical of this. And we had some of our veterans come in and talk to them, and then they became supporters.”
Cities have taken the lead in psychedelics decriminalization in recent years since Denver voters decriminalized the use and possession of psilocybin in 2019. Massachusetts has seen at least five jurisdictions pass decriminalization language: Salem, Somerville, Cambridge, Easthampton and Northampton. And four cities in Michigan have adopted similar measures: Ferndale, Detroit, Ann Arbor and Hazel Park.
Last month, leaders in Portland, Maine, adopted a similar psychedelics resolution, which also applies to sharing substances without compensation.
In California, the city of Eureka adopted a resolution last month to decriminalize psychedelic plants and fungi. It’s at least the fifth local jurisdiction in the state to embrace the policy change, along with San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Cruz and Arcata.