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What’s next for psychedelic decriminalization?

March 4, 2020
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There’s a fast-expanding movement that aims to help people with PTSD, mood disorders, substance-use disorders, chronic pain, cluster headache, psychological distress associated with life-threatening illness, and more. 

The movement to decriminalize entheogenic plants—psychedelics—is young, but has already succeeded in three cities, with many more in the works. The force behind this tide is an organization called Decriminalize Nature (DN), who uses an open-source format to help communities all over the world start healing. 

They’ve already led the charge to success in Denver, CO, and Oakland, CA, and last month Santa Cruz, CA, joined in as well. We talked to two of the founders to get a feel for the motivating forces of the movement, how it’s different from the cannabis legalization movement, and what’s next on the agenda.

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Denver, Oakland, and Santa Cruz decriminalize

Let’s take a look at what the Decriminalize Nature (DN) team has already done. Denver was the first city to take the leap, passing Initiative 301 in May of last year, which prohibits the city from “spending resources to imposing criminal penalties” on adults 21 and over for use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms, and moves imposing penalties to “the city’s lowest law-enforcement priority.” 

Oakland was up the next month, decriminalizing entheogenic plants in general, which includes mushrooms and a full spectrum of entheogenic plants—psychedelics like iboga, ayahuasca, and cacti (similar to peyote), as well as others. It relegates the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties for growing, using, or possessing entheogenic plants by adults as “amongst the lowest law enforcement priority for the City of Oakland.” 

And in January 2020, Santa Cruz joined the party, unanimously ruling to make the personal possession and use of entheogenic plants and fungi a low priority for law enforcement. 

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Santa Cruz mayor Justin Cummings told Leafly via email: “The decriminalization of these plants and fungi is an opportunity to allow members of our community who benefit mentally, physically, and spiritually from these substances to live without persecution by our local law enforcement.” He also noted the powerful therapy potential and importance of further research.

You may have noticed that none of these resolutions mention anything about moving toward the sale, regulation, or distribution of these plants. This is quite intentional—instead of a traditional marketplace, DN’s vision for entheogenic plants is centered around community, and they hope to avoid many of the present-day challenges with the legalization of cannabis.

The philosophy behind the movement

Carlos Plazola, Decriminalize Nature’s Co-Founder, Chair, and National Co-Lead, said the model for creating a structure for the commodification of goods is “driven either by creating taxation to pay for service, or they’re driven by folks who are interested in profiting.” 

Believing that entheogens should be legal and the exchange of them regulated, DN reverses the profit model completely: “Our process is really a bottom-up process that is focusing on compassion and healing as the main objective; a mission, so to speak,” said Plazola. “We encourage people to grow their own, gather their own, gift their own, and to build community that way as well. In a perfect world, there will be no such thing as a black market.” 

He stresses the personal nature of consuming entheogens: “Do you want to do it in a church, under a spiritual type of ceremony? Want to do it with an indegenous healer? You know, are you coming out of prison and you want to get restorative justice centers to offer you healing services? Are you going through a 12-step program and you need to do alcoholic recovery?”

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The movement’s gaining momentum

When asked if there has been any pushback, Plazola noted, “Because it’s about healing, not about profit or taxation, people are really receptive. It turns out that everybody wants the community to heal. We’re suffering from severe mental health problems and a shortage of services for people, and so this could be a solution. City leaders are pretty supportive.”

And that’s just the beginning. Larry Norris, ND’s Co-Founder, board member, and National Co-Lead, said the next city they’re focusing on is Berkeley. “Hopefully within the next few months, we’ll have a final vote,” he said. “Chicago could be having their final vote soon.” 

And the surge continues: “I know that there are a lot of other cities that are working on this—Hallandale Beach, Florida, has already talked to the city council, Seattle’s making some good moves, in Spokane there’s a ballot initiative. It’s happening. Portland has a ballot initiative,” said Norris. There’s also a movement in Washington, DC, proposed by a woman who healed her postpartum depression using psychedelics. 

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Norris explained that there are about 15-20 cities actively engaged, with many more working to get there. Each city does things a little differently, such as Dallas, Texas, which added cannabis to their resolution, and Chicago emphasized the need to combat the opiate crisis. The DN movement has even gone global—there are folks reaching out from Ireland, Chile, Germany, and the Netherlands, and even Russia downloaded a DN graphics package.

DN offers their resources in an open-source format, meaning people will be given free materials to enable them to essentially just change paperwork to their city’s name. They also offer webinars at least monthly to answer questions about the decriminalization process, as well as private Facebook groups and a Slack channel. All of their graphics are available for free, giving organizers tools to help new DN chapters build a community.

“We’re really trying to empower the people to engage with their city council members, to be involved in democratic process, to really stand up for what’s helped them and heal them,” said Norris. 

Plants with purpose

While these plants have great potential for healing several mental health issues—and the research holds upNorris said that some people are anxious about doing them under the observation of a traditional therapist. To address the need for experienced guidance and support, they have a nonprofit called Entheogenic Research, Integration, and Education (ERIE), of which Norris is the Executive Director.

ERIE provides educational support to the movement and organizes community “integration circles” where people can come together and share their often transformational stories. Norris said not all therapeutic forms of taking entheogenic plants need to involve traditional therapy, but can also include “approaches and services that aren’t therapy, but are therapeutic.” 

Norris hopes for a future that includes community gardens that grow entheogens. “We need the biodiversity, there’s all this concrete everywhere,” he said, adding that the movement presents an “opportunity to engage with planting and connecting with nature.”

He also mused on the potential for intergenerational and intercultural dialogues—with elders helping young people to navigate these plants, like many cultures around the world do in rite of passage ceremonies. 

“We’re talking about a relationship that’s been severed for thousands of years for many people … that have been in their ancestral lineages for a long time across the world,” he said. He noted how such a long history speaks to the safety of these drugs, which is comparable to cannabis.

If you’re interested in getting involved with the movement to decriminalize entheogens, reach out to Decriminalize Nature, and they’ll send you a welcome packet with all kinds of information about how to get your city rolling, or they’ll connect you with a local chapter that already is.

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Meg Hartley

Meg Hartley is an Alaska-grown writer who lives and loves in Long Beach, California. Check out more of her work via HowILostAllMyF-cks.com and by following her on the socials, @howilostallmyfs.

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