While scientific research ploughs ahead proving the medicinal promise of psychedelics, progressive cities around the country—including Denver, Oakland, and maybe even Washington D.C. in the coming election—are decriminalizing psilocybin and other natural entheogens. But dot-com millionaire Michael Zapolin, a.k.a. “Zappy,” wants to see even faster progress on the legislative front: Hence, his ambitious new effort to convince the president to free all psychedelics, nationwide, with a few strokes of a pen.
Zapolin, who made a fortune in domain names like creditcards.com, beer.com, and diamond.com, before turning his attention to psychedelics and filmmaking, hopes to persuade President Trump—or future President Biden—to use the power of the executive branch to legalize psilocybin, ayahuasca, ibogaine, San Pedro, peyote, MDMA, DMT, and ketamine.
“We’re in a mental health crisis,” Zapolin says. “The only way to disrupt depression and addiction is to show someone there is a reality beyond our five senses, and maybe everything isn’t as terrible as you thought when you look at it through this other filter.” Indeed, psychedelics open us up to a reality not available to us on a mundane basis; and it’s this new perspective that researchers have found to be so healing.
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To campaign for ending psychedelic prohibition at the federal level, Zapolin has formed a nonprofit called Mind Army, a group of lawyers, doctors and advocates aiming to raise $2.5 million to pay a lobbying firm and donate to campaigns to persuade the president and high-level congress members to reschedule psychedelics by next spring.
Having just finished a documentary about Los Angeles Laker and ex-Khloé Kardashian spouse Lamar Odom’s use of iboga and meditation to treat addiction, Zapolin says Odom is part of Mind Army’s effort. Efforts to reach Odom were not successful.
It might seem like a long shot for a president to free psychedelics from the Drug Enforcement Agency’s current rules, under which LSD and cannabis are lumped together with heroin as Schedule I drugs, (falsely) labeled as having no medical value. Indeed, Trump claims to have never done a drug in his life, and Biden, himself, has been a supporter of the War on Drugs—although his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, has come around on drug policy, having sponsored the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act to end federal cannabis prohibition.
Zapolin says he thinks that both Trump and Biden are persuadable: Trump does have a history of leniency. Kim Kardashian West persuaded Trump to commute the sentence of a woman convicted of nonviolent cocaine trafficking. And psychedelics touched Biden’s life. His son, Hunter, treated his alcoholism with iboga.
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American drug policy reform may have arrived at a pivotal moment. Black Lives Matter protesters constantly remind Americans of the racism and injustice of the Drug War. And marijuana is legally available for adult use or via medical recommendation in more than 30 states.
And now psychedelics are following the path of cannabis. Grassroots activists in dozens of jurisdictions around the country are looking to replicate the Decriminalize Nature model of psychedelic decriminalization that was successful in Oakland and Santa Cruz, while voters in Oregon will be considering a measure to legalize psilocybin therapy at the state level. Meanwhile, the FDA has fast tracked MDMA and psilocybin to become prescription medicines, in combination with therapy, early this decade.
But beyond these diverse efforts, the president has sweeping power over the entire nation’s drug laws; executive action to legalize psychedelics would be quicker and broader than current efforts.
Rescheduling a drug requires more than a president’s say-so, however. According to several lawyers, the president would need to direct the attorney general, the nation’s top law enforcement official, to work with the DEA, FDA and Department of Health and Human Services to evaluate whether a drug has medical uses and a lower potential for abuse than most Schedule I drugs. If the departments agree, the attorney general could propose a referendum to the president to reschedule the drugs, which the president could sign.
“The DEA and FDA intransigence in rescheduling is, technically, the President’s intransigence,” Potter says. Mind Army, however, wants to go further than rescheduling—which would still mandate that psychonauts have a prescription to consume the medicine, and thus force psychedelics into a pharmaceutical model. “We want psychedelics to be legalized,” says Dustin Robinson, attorney for Mind Army. A legalized substance, be it a drug, supplement, or food item, is one that’s freely available, like Tylenol, Vitamin C pills, or tomatoes. “We want previous psychedelic convictions at a federal and state level to be reviewed for expungement,” Robinson continues. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders promised similar reforms for marijuana.
Zapolin says he is in touch with an aide to president Trump about an Oval Office meeting. Some, however, doubt the viability of Mind Army’s request for executive action. “The president’s powers to legalize drugs under federal law, including psychedelics, is limited,” says Robert Mikos, professor at Vanderbilt and one of the nation’s leading experts on federalism and drug law. The president is bound by international treaties, endorsed by congress, mandating marijuana and psychedelics be on Schedule I. “If you want to legalize, you’ve got to turn to congress,” Mikos says.
Zapolin has heard these counter-arguments; he remains undeterred, convinced of the power of psychedelics to change lives—and by that virtue, to change the president’s mind.
Zapolin has firsthand experience. He grew up middle class in a Boston suburb, and recalls a teen job at Howard Johnson’s, bussing hotcakes and burgers from “dreary faces coming in to eat their slop,” as he says. He’d idly grumble to himself, full of teenage angst, “I might as well swerve my car into a tree.” Then, one day, older waiters gave him mescaline. On the two-mile walk home, the woods came alive, Zapolin’s world expanded. In early adulthood, he kept tripping. A heroic dose of mushrooms at age 18 suggested the world, which had seemed solid, is actually vibrating energy. He realized there are a thousand different ways to think about life, not just the static one presented him in childhood.
Zapolin credits those early trips for his later success. Out of college, Zapolin worked on Wall Street, then struck it rich trading domain names during the first dot-com era of the late 90s and early 2000s. Around 2011, with his newfound wealth and old enthusiasm for mind-altering drugs, he turned his focus toward passion projects in film.
Zapolin’s 2016 documentary The Reality of Truth brought celebrity buzz to ayahuasca, featuring Deepak Chopra, Ram Dass and Fast and Furious star Michelle Rodriguez. Now, Zapolin’s latest documentary Lamar Odom Reborn (currently seeking distribution) could introduce iboga to its widest-ever audience.
Zapolin has lately been meditating with ketamine, guiding friends through ketamine sessions, and founding a nonprofit to get ketamine treatments to those in need.
Zapolin retains an air of a salesman’s confidence in the possibility to change a person’s mind by telling human stories that compel both an emotional reaction and action. Indeed, much of the success behind legalizing both gay marriage at the federal level, and medical marijuana (initially in California, and then piecemeal throughout the country) is owed to the relationships between gay couples, or medical cannabis patients, and those who ultimately came around and took action at the ballot box.
“When I worked on Wall Street, I learned you only speak to the CEO,” Zapolin says. “Do not talk to his accountant, his spouse, his assistant. We don’t want to talk to the head of the DEA or the FDA—we want to talk to the guy who can write the order.”
Reilly Capps is the drugs reporter for Rooster, a Colorado magazine. He co-founded the Denver Mushroom Cooperative, a monthly meeting for growers and users of all types of fungi. A former EMT responding to 911 calls, his writing about drugs has also appeared in the Telluride Daily Planet and the Washington Post. Twitter: @reillycapps