A top adviser to the Oregon state government on its legal psilocybin therapy program has quit amid complaints that he could financially benefit from his position. The controversy raises uncomfortable questions about the role of businesses in making the program’s rules.
Tom Eckert resigned as chair of the Oregon Psilocybin Advisory Board on March 10. It was Eckert, along with his late wife Sheri, who cofounded Oregon’s successful Measure 109 campaign to legalize psilocybin therapy.
After voters approved the measure in November 2020, the state government recruited the Advisory Board to help it develop the rules and regulations to implement it. The Board has already begun releasing draft regulations—including proposed rules for psilocybin products and testing and required training for healers or “facilitators,” as Filter has reported. No rules are final yet, and they must be approved by the Oregon Health Authority.
On February 16, local outlet Willamette Week detailed Eckert’s business portfolio—including InnerTrek LLC, a business he founded in March 2021, which will sell training courses to psilocybin facilitators.
At its most recent meeting on February 23, the Advisory Board unanimously voted to approve a transparency amendment, to require verbal disclosure of personal and professional conflicts of interest at its next meeting. Eckert resigned after that, reportedly writing that he doesn’t want anything to “distract from the work.” The Board will also decide at its next meeting, on March 23, if it should approve an amendment requiring all members to disclose their conflicts of interest every year.
“He has structurally created the ability to set himself up to make a profit.”
The situation has angered some advocates. “[Eckert] wants to start a for-profit company to train facilitators while also being the one in charge of making recommendations about what kinds of requirements go into the training,” Bryan Kim, co-founder of Decriminalize Nature Portland, told Filter. “So he has structurally created the ability to set himself up to make a profit and be guaranteed to do so.”
Eckert’s relationship with the Dutch-based Synthesis Institute, including what Vice reported as his personal relationship with its CEO, has also come under scrutiny. Synthesis sells both psilocybin “retreats” and facilitator training courses—potentially costing $1,000 and $20,000, respectively. Eckert has brought Synthesis representatives to speak before the Advisory Board, praising their expertise.
“He was hiding personal intimate ties to profiteers in the psychedelic space,” Kim said. “They had to set up a conflict of interest [policy] because he was caught doing this and not disclosing it, and when they set up the conflict of interest disclosure requirements he quit rather than follow them.”
Members of the Advisory Board contacted by Filter did not respond to requests for comment. Jonathan Modie, a representative for the Public Health division of the Oregon Health Authority, told Filter that it does not set policies for how the Board chooses to govern itself, and that it will respect its decision either way. “OHA expects all board members to adhere to Oregon ethics law,” he said.
Oddly enough, Eckert seemingly wrote his Board position into the psilocybin law itself. The text of the measure approved by voters states that the state government must appoint to the Board “One of the Chief Petitioners of this 2020 Act”—Tom and his late wife, Sheri Eckert, were the only two.
Eckert may not have been the only member of the Advisory Board with business conflicts.
Kim worked directly with the Eckerts in the early days of the Oregon psilocybin campaign, but eventually split from the campaign in 2019. He chose to leave, he said, because leadership changed the proposed ballot language to remove a provision that would have reduced criminal penalties for psilocybin. His organization has continued pursuing decriminalization of psilocybin and other entheogens at the local level in Portland.
“It was right when they got a bunch of money from a group called New Approach PAC,” Kim said. “It’s a corporate advocacy [committee] that takes money from companies that are trying to profiteer from the medical marijuana and alternative health spaces, and lobbies for favorable regulations and legislation in such a way that will benefit them in the future.”
“By giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to these campaigns to make sure they win, they are ensuring [their people] like Tom Eckert are in places to pass favorable regulation for them and cut them in on the profiteering,” he continued, “which is why you see Tom Eckert looking to start his own profiteering training company.”
But Eckert may not have been the only member of the Advisory Board with business conflicts. “I’m a bit confused with this requirement to recuse because board members were selected, were appointed, in many cases knowing that they had plans to start businesses,” said Board member Ali Hamade at the February 23 meeting. “So, knowing that, why would we want to prevent those appointed board members from voting knowing that some of them had clear plans from the beginning?”
“Decriminalization is the only way to bring costs down and create access for everybody.”
The implication that business interests regulating psilocybin isn’t seen as inappropriate or corrupt is why local advocates like Kim are looking beyond the new psilocybin therapy program, and fighting for decriminalization of personal use, cultivation and communal use of psilocybin.
“I don’t think conflict of interest disclosures will make a fundamental difference,” he said, “because the point of that board is to create a licensing system and a licensing system has inherent barriers to access … decriminalization is the only way to bring costs down and create access for everybody.”
Update, March 17: This article was updated to add Jonathan Modie’s comment, which was received after publication.
Photograph by Dick Culbert via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0