In 1973, Oregon became the first state in the country to decriminalize personal possession of cannabis. Following a decades-long trajectory of progressive drug policy, Oregon is now leading the country with a handful of initiatives that have recently qualified for the November ballot: IP34 a.k.a. PSI 2020—The Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative to legalize psilocybin therapy with a licensed practitioner—and IP44 a.k.a. DATRA—The Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act to decriminalize personal possession of all drugs. In addition to these statewide measures, Decriminalize Nature Portland is also aiming to decriminalize naturally occurring entheogens on the local level by lobbying city council.
The confluence of all three campaigns makes Oregon a hotspot for drug policy reform efforts, leading to what the chief petitioners hope will become complementary legislation come November. “Oregon is setting the example for the rest of the country and the world,” says David Bronner, CEO (cosmic engagement officer) of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, who’s donated $1 million to PSI 2020, $325,000 to DATRA, $250,000 to Decriminalize Nature DC, and has stated support to help Decriminalize Nature Portland with a ballot measure (the group doesn’t take corporate donations). “We’re wanting to bring the medicine and healing to the masses,” he says. “I think every approach has its virtues.”
While tension exists among psychedelic and drug policy activists about the best way to herald reform, the shared goal is for people to have access to medicine or treatment without criminal penalties. “The therapeutic model is the most comfortable for a lot of people and also really effective, with the Johns Hopkins and NYU [psilocybin] studies showing that,” says Bronner. “But at the same time, we don’t want to see people not able to access medicine outside that therapeutic context—they should be able to take the medicine at home and in a forest with responsible education around set and setting, intention, preparation, and integration.”
Psilocybin’s potential to treat conditions like depression, end-of-life anxiety, and addiction—whilst also, in some cases, inducing a scientifically-defined “mystical experience”—is well documented. Psilocybin—the psychoactive component in shrooms—is also on the FDA fast track to becoming available as a prescription medication in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy early this decade.
If passed, PSI 2020 would authorize the state to regulate a formal licensing program that, after a two-year development period, would allow people to access psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. Already, the campaign has secured leaders in the psychedelic field like Françoise Bourzat, author of Consciousness Medicine who bridges shamanic wisdom with western medicine, to join PSI 2020’s chief petitioner Tom Eckert in co-chairing the Training Program Advisory Board. As for sale and production of psilocybin medicine, license holders would only be able to have a single grow site and five retail centers—with a ban on branding and marketing—in order to counter Big Weed-style “corporate takeover.”
“The therapeutic model is the most comfortable for a lot of people and also really effective…But at the same time, we don’t want to see people not able to access medicine outside that therapeutic context.”
“The power of PSI 2020 is that it takes the spirit of rigor from the FDA clinical trials and applies it to a therapeutic setting which will broaden its treatment impact,” Bronner says in an op-ed originally published in the MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) Spring Bulletin (Bronner also occupies a board seat with MAPS). “But the FDA approval route, while resulting in the kind of medical access point we need, will not afford health insurance-covered access to anyone without a narrow qualifying diagnosis…[whereas] PSI 2020 would allow affordable access to anyone who might safely benefit and is not contraindicated (e.g. schizophrenic).” Moreover, he adds, PSI 2020 is complementary to both the Decriminalize Nature approach and DATRA.
Last summer, PSI 2020 had received some criticism, specifically from psychedelic decriminalization activists, such as Bryan Kim, director of public outreach for Decriminalize Nature Portland, for removing language from the proposed legislation that would have decriminalized psilocybin alongside legalizing it in therapeutic contexts. The stated reason for this removal of the decriminalization language was so that PSI 2020 would make way for and “complement,” rather than compete with, DATRA. “The two measures work in parallel and don’t conflict,” says Tom Eckert. “All these efforts are compatible,” adds chief petitioner Sheri Eckert. “They all promote a public health approach in relation to drug policy, rather than an outdated criminal model.”
DATRA, too, however, has been critiqued for only decriminalizing psilocybin up to 12 grams—enough for personal possession, but not enough if you’re a larger-scale cultivator or provider to anyone outside the would-be therapeutic PSI 2020 program. “DATRA is very much an incremental step in the right direction,” says chief petitioner Anthony Johnson, a former criminal defense attorney. “We take what is currently a misdemeanor offense and turn those drug offenses into civil infractions.” While that may not go as far as what many drug policy reform advocates want, it’s something that voters support, says Johnson, noting that as with the progression of Oregon’s cannabis policy over time, there’s room to expand upon and further reform the law once the initial legislation passes.
Using the example of Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs in 2001 in an effort to treat drug use as a healthcare rather than criminal justice issue, DATRA would take excess cannabis tax revenue above $45 million (for context, Oregon’s cannabis taxes last year brought in $103 million, with projections for this year hovering around $120 million) to fund drug treatment and recovery centers, along with traditional housing and job placement.
Those caught with any drug, from psilocybin to heroin, within the personal possession limits would be subject to a $100 fine, which could be waived if they get a health assessment through a drug treatment center.
“During a time of the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, I think that this measure shows that it is right for the time,” says Johnson. “With the coronavirus, people have been using drugs more and feeling isolated—they’ll need treatment more than ever. And with the protests, more and more people are realizing that we don’t need to arrest and prosecute people for every single offense. Nonviolent drug offenses don’t need to have a law enforcement answer.”
Indeed, DATRA plays a vital role in the debate over psychedelic exceptionalism—the idea that less physically harmful or addictive substances are inherently better than other drugs. That is to say, by decriminalizing psilocybin and heroin in one foul swoop, DATRA equalizes the drug hierarchy and levels the playing field: removing law enforcement penalties (even if only for small-scale offenses) itself is a form of harm reduction.
“With the coronavirus, people have been using drugs more and feeling isolated—they’ll need treatment more than ever. And with the protests, more and more people are realizing that we don’t need to arrest and prosecute people for every single offense.”
“I think that this is a dismantling of the War on Drugs,” says Melissa Lavasani, chairwoman of Decriminalize Nature DC. “We need to redefine what we see as medicine and not prosecute people who have some kind of issue with drugs that is maybe caused by a mental illness.” With places like Oakland, the birthplace of the Decriminalize Nature movement, and Oregon as examples, Lavasani says she sees DC as “a place of happy medium,” with room for both a medical model and decriminalization model. In fact, if and when Decriminalize Nature DC passes entheogenic decriminalization, the group has also agreed to a hybrid model by which they’ll also work on a broader all-drug decriminalization bill.
“There are people who would be more comfortable walking into a clinic with a licensed therapist,” Lavasani says, and at the same time there are others who prefer the option to go rogue—which is why a Decriminalize Nature approach in Portland, with no possession limits, may fill in the gaps where activists might otherwise want both DATRA and PSI 2020 to go further.
“I think everyone would prefer that it was legal, nobody wants to do this in a clandestine fashion,” says P, a licensed professional counselor in Portland, who facilitates underground psilocybin therapy. While she says that some in the underground community may be cautious of the government becoming involved in the therapy licensing—that is, if PSI 2020 passes, the government will require psilocybin therapists to be licensed by one of a handful of government-authorized training programs—she says the program overall will “make it more viable and easier for people to access in the future—and that, I think, is exciting.”