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In some places where the marijuana decriminalization and legalization movement took hold, voters are being asked a new question: Should psychedelic mushrooms be next?
When Melissa Lavasani began suffering from postpartum depression after the birth of her second child, she tried a variety of treatments: talk therapy, cupping, and acupuncture. “Things were spiraling,” she said. Worried that pharmaceutical antidepressants would create a long-term dependency, she learned of a new treatment option when she listened to a podcast featuring Paul Stamets, a mycologist (fungi expert) and evangelist for the healing potential of psilocybin, the main component of magic mushrooms.
When Lavasani tried microdosing psilocybin to treat her depression, she immediately felt better. “But it was nerve wracking,” she said. “I was well aware I was in possession of a Schedule 1 drug. I knew I was breaking the law. I was fearful I would lose my job, lose my children.”
Now Lavasani has also become an evangelist for using psilocybin for therapeutic purposes, organizing a Nov. 3 ballot initiative that asks Washington, D.C. voters to effectively decriminalize plant-based medicines. The initiative asks D.C. police to place home growing, possession, and gifting of psychedelic plants and fungi among its lowest law enforcement priorities and requests that the D.C. attorney general stop prosecuting these cases.
D.C. voters aren’t the only ones considering a hallucinogenic fungi-related ballot initiative this year. On the other side of the country, Oregon residents will weigh in on two measures: one that would decriminalize personal use of most common drugs, including magic mushrooms, and another that would create a program for the supervised, therapeutic use of psilocybin in clinical settings. If the measures pass, these places would join the ranks of Oakland, Santa Cruz, Denver, and Ann Arbor—all cities that have taken steps to decriminalize magic mushrooms in the past year.
Many of these places were also the forerunners in the marijuana decriminalization and legalization movement. Oregon was the first state to decriminalize cannabis in 1973, while Colorado, along with Washington state, was the first to legalize recreational cannabis in 2012. Cities like Oakland and Denver were among the first to establish functioning legal markets for the drug. The movement grew to other places, driven largely by ballot measures, with recreational pot sales allowed in 11 states and medical use of marijuana permitted in 32 states and the District of Columbia.
The gradual acceptance of marijuana set the stage for other drugs like mushrooms, said Heather Trela, a researcher who studies cannabis policy at the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York.
“Marijuana broke the glass ceiling,” she explained. “Legalizing that drug wasn’t the catastrophe some people were expecting. Mushroom campaigns will certainly benefit from that pathway being cleared already.”
But the measures aren’t without critics. In Oregon, for example, medical organizations have warned about the dangers of moving ahead with offering patients treatments that aren’t fully vetted by the federal government.
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican who is one of the most vocal opponents of D.C.’s attempt to legalize marijuana, urged city voters not to take the same attitude towards psychedelics that they did towards pot. “This is a bald-faced attempt to just make these very serious, very potent, very dangerous—both short-term and long-term—hallucinogenic drugs broadly available,” Harris said in an interview with the New York Post.
Some of the factors that helped marijuana gain legal status through ballot initiatives in states across the country won’t be as helpful for mushrooms. For starters, marijuana is the most popular recreational drug on the market, with close to 35 million people defined as regular users who consume at least once a month—meaning there’s a lot of potential voters who’d like to see it legalized. The data on regular psychedelic drug users isn’t as reliable; the best estimates come from an annual survey of around 67,500 people conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which has found an average of 0.1% of respondents to be current psychedelic users—scaled up to the U.S. population, that’s less than 350,000 people.
Because the potential user base is so small—and it seems unlikely to substantially increase due solely to decriminalization—ballot initiative organizers can’t make financial arguments about tax revenue, a major selling point for recreational marijuana. They also can’t make as clear an argument that psychedelic legalization is a knock against the War on Drugs, another common refrain in the pot legalization movement. (Although some researchers have argued that labeling some drugs as “good” and other drugs as “bad” inherently perpetuates the drug war.)
In places like Denver, where voters decriminalized mushrooms in 2019, only 11 cases for mushroom possession were prosecuted in the three years leading up to the ballot initiative, and numbers are similarly low in other places. “Mushrooms have never been a huge priority for law enforcement,” Trela said. “The data doesn’t exist to show disproportionate arrests of people of color in this case as it does for marijuana.”
Sam Chapman, the campaign manager for Yes on 109, one of the ballot initiatives in Oregon, said that “cannabis is not psilocybin from a historical or political context” but that “cannabis legalization helped show the general public how big a failure the War on Drugs has been.” The biggest lesson mushroom campaigns can take from marijuana legalization, he said, is ensuring that people of color have equitable access to therapy and licensing if it becomes available—a stumbling point of some marijuana legalization efforts where critics have noted that the people who have reaped the benefits of the new market have been largely white and male.
But organizers say they aren’t worried that they lack the financial and social justice arguments of the cannabis movement—because the chief benefit is the drug’s medical uses. “There’s a lot of scientific education that needs to be done for these campaigns, more so than with cannabis,” said Lavasani in D.C. “This isn’t a recreational party drug. It’s a therapy for people when no other solution works.”
Psilocybin, the naturally-occurring psychedelic component of magic mushrooms, has been utilized for thousands of years by Indigenous tribes for medicinal and spiritual purposes. (The current psychedelic movement has been criticized for failing to include Indigenous voices.)
Clinical research and recreational use of the drug skyrocketed in the 1960s, followed by a swift crack down in 1968, when President Richard Nixon declared drugs to be “public enemy number one” and placed psychedelics like both LSD and mushrooms, along with marijuana, in the “Schedule 1” category—meaning they have “no accepted medical use” and a “high potential for abuse.”
More recently, the FDA gave psilocybin a “breakthrough therapy” designation for patients who have treatment-resistant depression, an action meant to speed drug development. Research into psilocybin has been severely stymied since the 1960s, but institutions like Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and the University of California in Los Angeles have made significant strides in recent years showing the potential uses of psilocybin in treating depression and anxiety, PTSD among veterans, and eating disorders. Researchers are hopeful about a number of other applications for diseases like smoking and drug addiction, Alzheimers, and multiple sclerosis.
That new research is changing the perception of psychedelics—but there’s still a lot of stigma, said Ismail Ali, the policy and advocacy counsel for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit research organization. “Right now one of the things that prevents people from publicly talking about psychedelic initiatives is because of this association with rowdy or hedonistic or non-establishment-friendly ideologies and communities,” Ali said. “There’s potential that if there's more visibility coming from [state and local initiatives], it would be easier for researchers and potential patients … to get good accurate information because it's less stigmatized to openly talk about it.”
Oregon’s Measure 109 might have the greatest chance of passing, Trela said, simply because it is so narrowly focused on the use of psilocybin in therapeutic contexts—and it therefore “cuts off slippery slope arguments.” But medical organizations have raised questions, most notably the American Psychiatric Association and the Oregon Psychiatric Physicians Association, which argue that because psilocybin therapeutic treatment is not yet approved by the FDA, the measure “makes misleading promises to Oregonians who are struggling with mental illness.” The groups warn that “determining medical treatment by ballot initiative” is unwise—and that "regulating an experimental treatment” during a pandemic will be too much for state public health officials to handle.
If the initiative does pass, mushrooms won’t be available to just anyone. The measure establishes a two-year rule making period during which state health officials would compile clinical research, create training and certification requirements, and set protective measures for patients. Therapy with psilocybin would then become a three-step process: patient screening, a psilocybin therapy session conducted under the supervision of a licensed facilitator, and a followup session to discuss the experience.
But Nicole Cirino, a psychiatrist who is the president of the Oregon Psychiatric Physicians Association, told the Statesman Journal that as written the measure doesn’t require the person who administers psilocybin to be a doctor. "The people who are actually treating mental health in Oregon ... are not the ones supporting this measure," she said. "Wait for the science. Trust the experts."
Chapman, the measure’s campaign manager, stressed that the initiative is not approving retail sale of mushrooms, and that “no one will be taking psilocybin home with them.”
“Mental health is not a partisan issue,” Chapman said. “From terminally ill cancer patients dealing with end of life anxiety to our veterans returning home with depression, so many Oregonians stand to benefit from having access to this new breakthrough option.”
Should Oregonians choose to create the first ever statewide program for psilocybin therapy in November, Chapman said that it will set up 2022 as a “huge year” for putting mushroom propositions on the ballot. The initiative will “absolutely … set the stage for other states to follow suit,” he said.
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.