On the Ballot: Psychedelic Reform Measures in Oregon and DC

    As election day looms, voters in Oregon and Washington, DC, are about to weigh in on two ballot initiatives looking to dramatically reform laws around psychedelic drugs. A separate measure in Oregon would also decriminalize all illegal drugs.

    Advocates in the two jurisdictions are seeking to follow a wave of city-level psychedelic reform in the past couple years. It started with Denver, which decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms in May 2019. Then followed Oakland and Santa Cruz in California, and just last month, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Those three cities each built on Denver’s measure by decriminalizing all naturally occurring psychedelic plants and mushrooms, without legalizing commercial sales.

    With all of this happening in an election where New Jersey, Arizona, Montana and South Dakota are each voting on marijuana legalization, 2020 may yet be another pivotal year for drug policy reform.

    In Oregon, Measure 109 is on the November 3 ballot. It would legalize psilocybin therapy for people with mental health conditions. In 2018 and 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration designated psilocybin a “breakthrough therapy” for severe depression, intended to accelerate its progress through clinical trials.

    If Measure 109 is approved, the state’s public health authority would create regulations and licenses for special clinics and therapists to give psilocybin to patients under controlled, supervised settings.

    Measure 109 would not reform criminal laws around psilocybin, however—meaning that any use, cultivation, possession, or sales outside of approved medical clinics would remain illegal. This has proved a sticking point for some local psychedelic groups, who have come out against the measure for this reason. And without a clear regulatory structure in place, it’s hard to know how accessible psilocybin therapy would be.

    Will the costs of treatment be prohibitively high for lower-income patients? Will people in all parts of the state be able to visit a local clinic in driving distance? Will people with certain illnesses—or even people with criminal records—be excluded from receiving psilocybin therapy? Such questions won’t be answered until the measure is approved and codified in statutes and regulations.

    Oregonians will have another key decision to make on election night, over Measure 110. This initiative would decriminalize small-scale possession of all illegal drugs—reclassifying it from a misdemeanor to a civil offense. Instead of arrests, people would receive a fine. The fines can be waived if people present themselves to be evaluated at an “Addiction Recovery Center.”

    Measure 110 also seeks to use excess funds collected from marijauna sales taxes to expand addiction treatment services in the state—including acute treatment, peer support and recovery, housing and harm reduction services. Designated Addiction Recovery Centers would evaluate people and connect them with services. If passed, the reform would essentially take effect in February 2021 after the appointment of an oversight board is appointed.

    The measure would not create a perfect landscape. Fines for drug possession can add financial hardship for people already experiencing it. And seeking to get them waived through an addiction evaluation could also become problematic, when most people who use drugs do so without experiencing addiction. While the inclusion of harm reduction services is very welcome, coerced treatment is not—so much will depend on the forms of treatment offered and the way they are offered.

    Nonetheless, Measure 110 would represent a big step forward from punitive drug laws and arrests—and the state’s historic lack of accessible treatment and services.

     

    Washington, DC

    DC could become the first East Coast city to decriminalize psychedelic plants and fungi—and the first in the nation to do so by popular vote. Initiative 81 would apply to the use, possession, cultivation and distribution of naturally-occurring psychedelics, making them the “lowest law enforcement priority” in the District.

    These drugs include psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca containing DMT, peyote and San Pedro cacti containing mescaline, and iboga root bark containing ibogaine. Notably excluded from the reform would be psychedelics like LSD, MDMA, or 2C-B which are synthetic.

    Initiative 81 also demands that federal prosecutors with jurisdiction over DC drop any charges or investigations related to these drugs. Unlike in Denver, the initiative text does not include language preventing the city from spending funds to arrest and prosecute people for psychedelic offenses, however. This resembles a failing of Ann Arbor’s current measure, and may weaken its decriminalization component, though in practice arrests for psychedelics are already relatively low compared to other drugs.

    I-81 also shares an issue in common with all of the psychedelic-specific decriminalization measures of the past two years. By creating a narrow exemption for a group of naturally occurring psychedelics, it reinforces misguided notions that both psychedelic drugs and naturally-occurring drugs are inherently better or safer than other drugs. The initiative says nothing about possession of coca leaf or opium—both of which are naturally occurring.

    Nonetheless, the success of I-81 in the nation’s capital could help to supercharge the US psychedelic reform and wider drug decriminalization movement in the years ahead.

     


    Photo by Francis Storr via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

    • Alexander Lekhtman

      Alexander’s journalism covers the policy, science and culture of drugs. His journey began as an activist with Students for Sensible Drug Policy at New York University, where he served as president, helping organize marijuana legalization and “Ban the Box” campaigns. He was also an organizer for the 2017 New York City Cannabis Parade. His drug journalism career began in 2016, and his work has been published in High Times, Leafly, Merry Jane, AlterNet, Psymposia and Psychedelic Times. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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