As Carlos Plazola speaks of spirituality, of sacred plants and practices, and of his first experience with LSD at the age of 17, you could almost forget that he’s a lobbyist. He sees himself as part of a second generation of decriminalization organizers, just one ripple in a wave of suited activists who swayed government officials to bring about the legalization of cannabis on a promise of public safety, access to medicine, and the prize of tax dollars. But during his time spent lobbying local officials to create a legal framework for the cannabis industry, he couldn’t help but ask himself whether or not he was doing the right thing in the right way.
In October of 2018, Plazola read Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind and had his first psychedelic experience in 37 years: a “mushroom journey,” as he calls it, that changed everything he thought was right about the work he had done in California to normalize cannabis.
“As I began to emerge from the lobbying world, I asked, ‘where did we go wrong with cannabis?’” Plazola tells DoubleBlind. “That’s when I started asking, ‘Why did we cap possession levels to begin with?’ It was fear. ‘Why did we offer all these complex regulatory frameworks?’ It was fear.”
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Together with Larry Norris, co-founder of the non-profit Entheogenic Research Integration and Education (ERIE), they created Decriminalize Nature with a vision for decriminalization that’s as simple as it gets: If something grows out of the ground, let it grow.
If something grows out of the ground, let it grow.
For a brief moment last fall, the internet erupted with joy and confusion at the “news” that Chicago had decriminalized all naturally occurring psychoactive substances, much in the same vein as the original measure put forth by Decriminalize Nature in Oakland. In June, Oakland city council had approved the measure so quickly after Denver had decriminalized psilocybin that it seemed reasonable to expect a domino effect of cities across the country joining a movement to end prohibition. Small towns in California like Santa Cruz and Berkeley were already expected to follow Oakland with their own decriminalization measures (which Santa Cruz did last month), but as one of the largest cities in the country, Chicago took us all by surprise.
The celebratory headlines were thanks to an error on the city’s website, which appeared to show that Chicago city council members of just the committee on Health and Human Relations had voted unanimously in favor of decriminalization. In reality, officials were only in the earliest stages of considering a proposal—put forward by a group of activists leading a Chicago branch of Decriminalize Nature—aiming to set the possession, use, and cultivation of entheogens (i.e. naturally occurring psychedelic plants and fungi with a history of spiritual use) as the lowest law enforcement priority. Although the measure is still pending Chicago’s city council, even this minor victory in the health committee signals that public attitudes toward psychedelics, indeed, are changing.
Chicago is just one part of this movement that’s been quietly making its way through council chambers in nearly 100 cities across the country. Standing at a major historical crossroads, Decriminalize Nature offers an alternative to the fearful narratives that were born out of the Drug War: a new way to decriminalize, at a local level, that doesn’t fall neatly into the pharmaceutical or commercial models we’ve been presented with in the past.
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The focus of the Decriminalize Nature movement, Plazola insists, should come from a place of compassion rather than fear. He believes our relationship with nature has been tainted by over-regulation: Since humans and plants both come from nature, our connections to these substances should not be inhibited by the law.
“We’re not setting limits on how many beers I can have in my fridge or how many poisonous mushrooms I can eat,” Plazola says. “That sounds absurd, but what we’re trying to do is point out the absurdity of it all.”
Unlike statewide cannabis legalization campaigns, Decriminalize Nature’s relatively simple vision focuses on individual communities, with independent chapters all over the country lobbying city councilors to set these banned natural substances as the lowest law enforcement priority. This means that they won’t necessarily be legal and regulated, but that police will pursue all other crimes before they go after someone for growing, possessing, or sharing these plants and fungi.
Their proposal also calls on district attorneys to cease all prosecutions for crimes involving these substances and for the policy to be reviewed after a year. It’s too early to know how these new rules will actually impact the way local police enforce drug laws, however, or whether the DEA will decide to ramp up its operations in localities that pass decriminalization measures. In Denver, just five months after the county voted to decriminalize, the DEA raided a Denver man’s closet, but has yet to charge him with a crime.
For Oakland, the task of convincing elected officials to pass something like this was driven by public testimonies that put a human face on the use of these misunderstood plants.
“When people go on the record before their elected officials to say ‘I broke the law and it helped heal me’ that’s a different level of investment and commitment in this process,” says Norris. “It’s putting your full self into it and people have been willing to take that big step because it’s important to them.”
“When people go on the record before their elected officials to say ‘I broke the law and it helped heal me’ that’s a different level of investment and commitment in this process.”
With the passage of Decriminalize Nature’s measure last June, other chapters have followed Oakland’s example, proving to be most useful in places like Texas and New York, which are among the 23 states that don’t allow for ballot initiatives. Unlike Denver, where the question of decriminalization was presented to county voters at the ballot box, activists in these jurisdictions have to engage directly with those in power in order to change the law.
“We have city councilors here who are willing to talk to us. If we present to them the right kind of information in the right way,” says Tristan Seikel, co-founder of Decriminalize Nature Dallas (DND), which put out a call on social media for testimonials. “I’m confident that they will be supportive.”
Where science is doing the research and activists are doing the legwork, the ask is for elected officials to approach decriminalization with an open mind. The results so far have been just what Plazola says he envisioned: a movement of compassion.
“I personally know people who have benefitted from the use of psychedelics in the past,” says Mayor Jason Cummings of Santa Cruz, where city counselors recently passed a Decriminalize Nature measure. “Given the amount of new information, in addition to the fact that the War on Drugs has proven to be ineffective, I think it’s a good time to consider this.”
When we talk about the mainstreaming of psychedelics today, it’s often presented in the context of FDA-approved clinical trials through institutions like MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies) or Johns Hopkins, where research on psilocybin for a host of psychiatric conditions is a useful launching point for discussion. Rick Doblin, founder of MAPS, has even suggested that activists and scientists have a symbiotic relationship: The grassroots decriminalization movement balances out the more conservative, scientific research movement.
Still, there are certain points of contention between a strict scientific perspective and those who view these substances—both naturally occurring and synthetic—as spiritual conduits that shouldn’t be restricted. Late last year, the activists behind Decriminalize Santa Cruz saw resistance from local officials and law enforcement when they considered adding entheogens like LSD and MDMA to the list of substances they wanted to decriminalize. Though the language in every measure is almost an exact copy of the one passed in Oakland, each city has its own variation. Dallas has added cannabis to the list of entheogens, and Chicago makes mention of how the opioid crisis has affected their community.
“Each locale is going to have its own voice and we want to encourage that because the key to this is empowering people to be directly engaged with their elected officials,” says Norris. But the Santa Cruz proposal to add psychedelics that are synthesized in a lab crosses the very important line defined by the movement’s focus on nature.
Even their preferred use of the term entheogens, a psychoactive substance with spiritual uses, is an attempt to draw distinction from the term psychedelics, which conjures thoughts of recreational use with a broader range of substances.
Plazola admits that it could be argued that something like LSD—derived in part from the ergot fungi, for example—could also be added to the list, but the group prefers to stick to naturally occurring as standard.
As a result, Santa Cruz organizers had to backtrack, which may seem like just the kind of restriction the movement is trying to steer clear of. But defining and popularizing the terminology is all part-and-parcel to destigmatizing these substances.
But even as these terms become more mainstream, with cannabis industry folk from the Green Rush now eyeing psilocybin, we’re forced to ask what decriminalization really means, and whether it’s defined the same way by everyone.
“The Decriminalize Nature model is grow, gather, gift, as opposed to a commodifiable model,” says Taylor Bolinger of Decriminalize Nature Dallas. “We don’t want to be in a position where people are still getting arrested [for possessing a legal substance] because they’re not doing it correctly.”
For the time being, Decriminalize Nature’s current definition of decriminalization excludes possession limits or the sale of entheogens. That is to say, selling these entheogens has not been decriminalized. After all, in a decriminalized environment, citizens could grow them on their own at home, and share them with friends—a deviation from both the underground and regulated markets we’re used to around drugs, from heroin to legal cannabis, for which consumers by-and-large have relied on commercial exchange to procure. In other words, prohibition has fueled commercialism, masking the obvious fact that rather than buy drugs, one could produce them on their own.
As Plazola points out in a recent op-ed, the underground market creates the illusion of scarcity, but the reason we seek out a dealer for something that grows out of the ground is because the law has decided that that particular plant or fungi isn’t allowed to grow there. This makes a plant or fungi like psilocybin mushrooms more valuable, at least as a marketable product, because access to them is limited to those who are willing to take the risk of growing and selling them. In a world where the law doesn’t restrict entheogens from growing anywhere and everywhere, the illusion of scarcity is eliminated and the incentive to buy and sell them goes with it. And so, without a War on Drugs, there is no need for a drug dealer, while by the same token, the complex regulated markets that come with legalization (such as California’s legal cannabis market) are just an extension of the scarcity mentality that exists because of prohibition.
In essence, if everyone is growing shrooms in their closet, no one needs to buy shrooms.
In essence, if everyone is growing shrooms in their closet, no one needs to buy shrooms.
That doesn’t mean there’s no room for businesses to eventually take shape, but if the goal is to achieve true decriminalization, then creating a retailer to replace a dealer is just a clever way of rearranging the furniture—relegating production and sale to some, while maintaining the illusion that production is inaccessible to others (i.e. those who could be empowered to grow their own).
“Entrepreneurs just have to realize that they’re not driving the game,” says Plazola, “We have to get away from profit motive and come from a place of compassion.”
To decriminalize entheogens in the same way a tomato is perfectly legal and unrestricted (whether you buy it from a store, directly from a farmer’s market, or grow it yourself) , we also have to admit that the FDA’s approval of psychedelic-assisted therapy doesn’t mark a revolution in the western pharmaceutical model so much as it re-shapes the use of psychedelics to fit the existing model.
The scientific community isn’t wrong to be cautious. Both researchers and spiritual practitioners know the importance of set and setting, but we can also assume that someone without that knowledge and guidance could have a challenging trip. There’s also the fear that inexperience or a lack of education could lead to irresponsible use like DUIs.
At the same time, the current FDA model would allow only patients with specific diagnoses enrolled in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy to access drugs like synthetic psilocybin, provided by a handful of pharma companies—similar, in ways, to what’s happened with the CBD-based epilepsy drug Epidiolex. It would have the experts in dosing confined to a clinic and leave patients, who suffer from specific qualifying conditions, trying to convince health insurance companies they need magic mushrooms.
Whether or not we believe in the spiritual practices that surround these plants and fungi, those traditions have proven to be among the safest and most effective ways to use entheogens for centuries without FDA approval.
“Many indigenous communities don’t have [modern] regulations for the use of entheogens and yet their children aren’t out there overdosing on peyote, mushrooms, or ayahuasca,” says Plazola. “That’s because it’s built into the culture. It’s because there’s a reverence for nature that we’ve lost.”
“Many indigenous communities don’t have [modern] regulations for the use of entheogens and yet their children aren’t out there overdosing on peyote, mushrooms, or ayahuasca”
The kind of change necessary to return to nature is why it all comes back to the local level. What we’ve seen with statewide legalization efforts for cannabis is undereducated local governments—motivated by fear—working to undermine statewide initiatives and enact local bans after legalization is passed. Engaging those communities before taking on a broader legalization effort lays a groundwork to prevent local panic spurred on by a sudden change.
When Oakland passed its proposal, which many other cities have reproduced with the same language, it included a line which asked its city officials to encourage lobbying for the decriminalization of all entheogenic substances at a state and federal level.
“Going from city to city requires people to sit with their elected officials and reestablish a working relationship with them,” says Plazola. “We’ve all become very cynical about the government and think that it doesn’t work for us anymore, but the truth is that is an act of giving away power. The only form of government we have is the democracy we create.”
United around a common vision, the Decriminalize Nature movement is trying just as much to convince the newly converted as they are pleading with the psychedelic community to remember itself. The community is well past the point of proving that the War on Drugs has been a tremendous failure, but instead rebuilding and restoring what was—a culture fluent in the language of plants.
Miro Tomoski is a Canadian journalist reporting on politics and drug policy. His highway journalism covers American presidential campaigns as well as legalization efforts across the U.S. and Canada. Follow him on the road, on Instagram and on Twitter.
Banner Photo by Sansata via Commons Wiki