At this point, it's almost a commonplace to say that a psychedelic renaissance is underway. Microdosing has been a thing for years now, scientists around the world are reporting exciting spiritual and therapeutic research results, and venture capitalists are beginning to edge their way into what they hope is the next lucrative drug commodity market.
This year, Oregon and the District of Columbia have psychedelic reform initiatives still in the signature-gathering phase. While hobbled by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, both could still make the ballot this year. (A similar campaign in California recently bit the dust, citing said pandemic.)
The late April Psychedelic Liberty Summit sponsored by the Chacruna Institute for Plant Medicines, was yet another manifestation of the rising interest in psychedelics. "We provide public education and cultural understanding about psychedelic plant medicines and promote a bridge between the ceremonial use of sacred plants and psychedelic science," the institute says in its mission statement. It envisions "a world where plant medicines and other psychedelics are preserved, protected, and valued as part of our cultural identity and integrated into our social, legal and health care systems."
Originally set for San Francisco, the two-day series of wide-ranging panels and presentations instead went virtual in the face of pandemic social distancing requirements. "Attendees" viewed remotely as panelists covered topics ranging from "Sacred Peyote Conservation" to "Psychedelic Medicalization: Unpacking the Landscape of Drug Development and Commercialization" to " How Can We Ensure Respectful, Safe, Ethical, Inclusive and Sustainable Sourcing for Psychedelic Plants and Materials?" and beyond.
Numerous panels were devoted to advancing the cause of ending psychedelic prohibition, and weighing heavily on those involved were questions about just how to proceed. Should reform initiatives target a single psychedelic, as the Oregon therapeutic psilocybin initiative does, should they target all psychedelics or only natural ones (sorry LSD and MDMA), or should the target be broader drug decriminalization?
Similarly, what role should private investment capital play? Are there lessons to be learned from the commodification of cannabis under state-level legalization? And just how should legal or decriminalized psychedelics be made available to the public? Attempts to answer these questions were a central theme of the summit, and what was clear was that although reform thinkers share a common general goal, there's a breadth of opinion about the details.
For Dale Gieringer, long-time head of California NORML and one of the authors of the groundbreaking 1996 Prop 215 campaign that legalized medical marijuana in the state with bare-bones language, psychedelics are a different ball game.
"I don't think marijuana and psychedelics should be legalized on the same model," said Gieringer. "Marijuana is pretty safe even for novices, but psychedelics need to be treated with more respect. This is not something that should just be sold over the counter to adults from the very get go; first time users should be informed of certain cautions, and we need a new paradigm for distributing psychedelics, maybe something more like drug user clubs, with nonprofit organizations -- not commercial operations -- in charge of manufacturing, distributing, and educating users on the use of psychedelic drugs, as well as being responsible for any harmful effects of the drugs."
Gieringer pointed back to Prop 215 and the reefer revolution it unleashed as he urged initiative campaigns to keep it simple.
"I advise the movement to be cautious about overprescribing elaborate regulatory regimes. We didn't do that with marijuana; we just had a set of principles that people shouldn't be arrested for using or cultivating for personal use. We did that deliberately; we knew it was going to be very complicated in a federal system and we left it to government to fill in the details," he said.
"Prop 215 was a very short initiative," Gieringer reminded. "The Oregon initiative has 71 pages and you still can't have psilocybin mushrooms in your house or use them outside one of these organizations that gets set up under the initiative."
That's the wrong approach, he suggested: "We should go back to a broad initiative that embraces the notion that people should be able to use psychedelics for spiritual, medical, and personal illumination in general, and leave it to the state and federal government to fill in the details."
And not just do it one hallucinogen at a time.
"We ought to approach this more broadly and not just do one drug at a time," he argued. "If we do psilocybin, what about peyote? What about ayahuasca? What about everything else? I favor a broader approach making psychedelics available to people want them on a private use basis. Let's think globally and act locally and wait for our eggs to hatch here. Let's go for simple initiatives that give people direct access to psychedelics."
Any such movement for psychedelic legalization or decriminalization -- as opposed to broader drug legalization or decriminalization -- will need to be self-generating and self-supporting, argued Sean McAllister, a Denver-based attorney who was chairman of the board for Sensible Colorado when that group led the nation's first successful marijuana legalization initiative in 2012 and a consultant for Decriminalize Denver, the group behind the city's 2019 psilocybin initiative.
"Unlike cannabis, psilocybin has only been used by an estimated two to five percent of the population, and only one tenth of one percent are current psychedelic users," he noted. "That's a much smaller pool, and any drug reform initiative requires the support of those who do not use. We're asking the majority to protect our rights, so we have to convince the majority our movement makes sense and won't endanger the public safety or health."
By including reporting requirements for psilocybin-related law enforcement encounters and other public safety and public health impacts via the mayor's psilocybin review panel, on which McAllister sits, the Denver initiative was helping lay the educational groundwork for doing that convincing, he argued.
"We'll write a report at the end of the year assessing the impacts of the initiative, but really nothing has changed," McAllister reported. "Law enforcement was concerned people would be dealing psilocybin on the streets and getting high on the streets, but our community is pretty self-regulating. There's been no explosion or public health or public safety problems. We hope that our report will be of great value to other cities looking to decriminalize psilocybin and to the movement as we attempt to change laws across the country."
But that movement won't be able to count on the largesse of traditional drug reform funders, McAllister warned, noting that statewide initiative campaigns cost millions of dollars.
"There is just not that much interest in psychedelics only," he said. "The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) believes in legalizing all drugs; it doesn't believe in drug exceptionalism. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is primarily focused on MDMA and PTSD. We don't have tens or hundreds of thousands of people in prison, so we don't have the same social justice issues around psychedelics. The ACLU isn't going to lead our movement. We have to step up and build our own organizations and come together as a movement."
"There are a lot of benefits to decriminalizing psychedelics that we need to study further, and it's fascinating to see all these movements for decriminalization popping up around the country, but at the same time I'm ambivalent about it because there's also simultaneously a movement to just decriminalize all drugs," said Jag Davies, who has long stints as a communications specialist for the DPA and MAPS under his belt.
"And I don't think drug decriminalization is as big a deal and as revolutionary as it's made out to be," Davies continued. "Right now, we have a national poll showing 55 percent support for decriminalizing all drugs."
Even though the argument that "marijuana is safer" was used to great benefit in the Colorado marijuana legalization campaign, Davies warned of its hazards.
"One of the mistakes made with marijuana reform messaging is framing it as a safe or safer drug," he argued. "All drugs are the same in that criminalization isn't an effective policy and is counterproductive to public health, but at the same time there will be some difference in how we think about policies. We need to think about who is benefitting and who is left behind. The benefits of decriminalizing more dangerous drugs are much greater," he added, pointing out that the other Oregon initiative would do just that.
In any case, psychedelic warriors should be part of a greater effort, Davies said.
"Drug decriminalization is perhaps a more effective strategy to reduce the harm in the long term," he said. "Even if you're a psychedelic exceptionalist, it's beneficial to join forces with the broader drug reform movement and the criminal justice movements and get the buy-in from those communities before you make your move."
David Bronner, the Cosmic Engagement Officer (CEO) of Dr. Bronner's natural soaps, straddles both worlds. He has long supported broad drug reform efforts and this year is putting a million dollars into the Oregon therapeutic psilocybin initiative.
"Having a well-structured therapeutic model makes it accessible to the average person who is not familiar with psychedelics," Bronner said. "The Oregon model is very much about accessing therapy and likewise making sure there is only minimal taxation -- enough to cover the cost of the program -- but keeping it limited in size and scope, so you can make a good livelihood but not have a hundred chain clinics."
"These are preventative measures so we don't see what happened with cannabis and with there being some kind of controls," he added. "The polling says people aren't familiar with mushrooms and want to see strict controls on access, that it can't be accessed outside the therapeutic model."
What Bronner was alluding to -- the undesirability of turning something ineffable like marijuana or psychedelics into just another capitalist commodity -- Steve DeAngelo addressed head on. And he's particularly well-positioned to: A long-time marijuana movement activist, he founded one of the first dispensaries in the nation, Harborside in Oakland, but also the Arcview Group, the first dedicated marijuana investment network, creating a Faustian bargain with profit-seeking capital.
"With Arcview, we hit on the energy of free enterprise to power the social change we wanted, and a lot of the progress we made is because we did invite the investor class in, but it came at a cost, a significant cost," he said. "Prior to Arcview inviting the investor class in, the movement was driven by people who loved cannabis, but we attracted a lot of people whose motivation was not love of cannabis but love of making money."
"I expected the energy to come but was a little taken aback at the urgency and ferocity of it," DeAngelo continued. "Cannabis lovers took investment money and then ceded control to investors. I saw a lot of people who had spent their lives representing the plant start to lose power, their livelihoods, and their influence over how to explain cannabis to the rest of the world. I fear we could see a lot of the same thing with psychedelics. If that happens, the way these substances are taught to the world is going to change. We could see a model for psychedelics more geared to return for investors than toward a meaningful experience for an individual or for positive social change."
"Psychedelics have always been part of my path and one lesson I learned is that intention drives result," DeAngelo said. The consciousness with which we approach something will have a profound influence on what happens. On a psychic level, on a cosmic level, a different vibration is created when psychedelics are evangelized for the aim of making more money than with a motive of love and sharing and bringing about social change. I'm much more comfortable with a message from people who love psychedelics than people who love money."
And so it goes as the nascent psychedelic liberation movement emerges. There is great debate over tactics and strategies, but a commonality of purpose linked to human liberation and social justice. The path forward is uncertain, but it is one we will make as we walk it.