Pandemic Puts the Brakes on the Psychedelic Decriminalization Movement

As 2020 began, psychedelics advocates throughout the US looked eagerly towards the election cycle and other opportunities. Major cities like Chicago and Washington, DC, and states like California and Oregon seemed poised to decriminalize naturally-occurring psychedelics. But like so much of life, the movement was dealt a paralyzing blow by the coronavirus pandemic.

Psychedelic activists from coast to coast spent the first months of 2020 gathering voter signatures for ballot initiatives and meeting with city and county council members. But as the virus rapidly spread, mandatory lockdowns have made on-the-ground campaigning impossible, forcing activists to take the movement virtual.

In Oregon, the statewide campaign IP 34 to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use has collected enough signatures to get on the ballot, but organizers are aiming for at least 145,000 signatures by the July deadline, to account for the possibility of some signatures being rejected by elections officials for technical reasons.

“We believed we’d meet our goals in mid-April and qualify the Oregon Psilocybin Services Initiative for November,” the campaign wrote. “But then the world stopped. There’s no other way to say it: The dangers of the coronavirus have put our ability to qualify at risk and we need your help.” They are now asking Oregon voters to request a copy of the petition by mail, sign and return it.

A similar statewide campaign, Decriminalize California, meanwhile, is pushing for more aggressive relief. “Due to COVID-19 it is now completely impossible to gather signatures in person,” they wrote. “We have joined with several other initiatives and are petitioning the state of California to allow for online signature gathering due to extraordinary circumstances.”

Decriminalize California is now circulating a Change.org petition, asking elections officials to allow voter signatures to be collected online. They are also requesting a 90-day extension until July of the deadline to collect these signatures. “COVID-19 has made a vast array of structural dysfunctions obvious—one being that in the age of the Internet, it’s pretty archaic to have to gather millions of signatures in crowded high-traffic areas to get citizens’ voices heard,” they wrote.

The psychedelic decriminalization movement has also made significant gains through legislation at the city council level. Before the crisis hit, cities like Chicago, Illinois; Berkeley, California; Dallas, Texas; and Portland, Oregon each saw local decriminalization activists either introducing resolutions through elected officials or building support to do so.

But COVID-19 health concerns have forced many city councils to cancel or restrict public meetings. Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot cancelled a City Council meeting scheduled for March 18, and instead ordered many government workers to stay home and work remotely where possible. She announced she would limit public access to City Hall to only official personnel.

The next council meeting will likely be conducted virtually, with minimal if any public input. “We’ll just have to wait until the next City Council meeting,” said Chicago Alderman Gilbert Villegas. “It should occur in April. The only question will be how it’s conducted. Could we use video conferencing or Skype?”

The city council of Berkeley, California has cancelled all regular meetings for the month of March, and is on recess through mid-April. Both Berkeley and Chicago have introduced decriminalization resolutions in their city councils. Berkeley had seemed poised to pass its bill after successful committee votes last year.

Portland, Oregon has also cancelled upcoming city council meetings and other official events. Lawmakers there are currently focused on economic stimulus for businesses affected by COVID-19. Lawmakers in Dallas, Texas voted to cancel all in-person city council meetings and boards, and will be holding them instead virtually. Neither city has officially introduced a resolution.

It is unlikely that any city or county legislators will give serious consideration to psychedelic decriminalization initiatives for the time being, with COVID-19 consuming the public discourse. Even if they do, virtual meetings with little if any public testimony will slow further reform. Personal testimony from people who recovered from debilitating mental disorders with the help of psychedelics was critical to reform efforts in Oakland and Santa Cruz.

So 2020 might not be as big a year for psychedelics as expected. But in a way, the pandemic might still help further the cause.

“This crisis really shows that solutions we once considered ‘radical’ are no longer being seen as such,” Tristan Seikel, a co-founder of Decriminalize Nature Dallas, told Filter. “It’s not feasible to deal with a drug overdose epidemic or homelessness as well as a pandemic, you only have resources to deal with one crisis.”

He cited governments that are taking steps to alleviate burdens on their prisons and criminal justice systems, help homeless people, and increase medication access for people with opioid use disorders.

“If we’re smart about how we approach public officials, we need to make the case that because of coronavirus we need to be arresting and incarcerating far less people, and stop putting people in institutional settings,” he said. “We’re hoping people will see the intuitive logic and beauty behind these ideas and continue these policies post-pandemic.”


Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is an editorial fellow at Filter.

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