The city of Ferndale just approved a bill to decriminalize psychedelic plants and fungi. It’s the fourth city in Michigan to take this step. And so many municipalities across the United States have now done so that it’s hard to keep count.
City council meetings have become key forums for rolling back the drug war, while federal lawmakers drag their feet despite mounting evidence of the therapeutic power of psychedelics. City-level reforms require winning over fewer people and politicians than in larger jurisdictions, and cities are more liberal than rural counties—both important factors behind this local-level momentum.
Since 2019, a wave of decriminalization measures has swept through the country.
On February 27, the council of Ferndale, a city of 20,000 in the Detroit metropolitan area, unanimously approved a resolution decriminalizing entheogenic plants and fungi (the measure was lumped in with other unrelated actions and voted on as a package). The text states that “planting, cultivating, purchasing, transporting, distributing, engaging in practices with, or possessing Entheogenic Plants … shall be the lowest law enforcement priority for the City of Ferndale.” It applies to any substances containing indoleamines, tryptamines, and phenethylamines—including psilocybin, DMT and mescaline.
The measure was championed by Decriminalize Nature Ferndale, a local chapter of the national Decriminalize Nature campaign. Based in the Bay Area, Decriminalize Nature first led the successful effort to decriminalize naturally occurring psychedelics in Oakland, California, in June 2019. Its influence quickly spread, as it began advising smaller groups in over 100 other cities and forming a decentralized network. The language of the original resolution adopted in Oakland has been replicated—with slight modifications—in multiple cities, now including Ferndale.
In May 2019, just a month before Oakland’s wider decriminalization, Denver had made history as the first city to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, specifically. It did so through a ballot initiative put to voters, rather than the council route.
Below the surface is a mycelial mass of sometimes-conflicting ideas for how best to move forward.
Since then, a wave of decriminalization measures has swept through the country. Big cities—including Washington, DC, Detroit and Seattle—have followed in the footsteps of Denver and Oakland, as well as small towns. And on the state level, Colorado voters approved a ballot measure in 2022 to decriminalize naturally occurring psychedelics and establish legal psilocybin therapy. Oregon voters had approved psilocybin therapy two years previously, in 2020; after many implementation hurdles, the state may be able to open its first centers later this year.
It’s clear that psychedelic decriminalization has powerful appeal in many regions. But below the surface of the movement is a mycelial mass of sometimes-conflicting ideas for how best to move forward.
“Naturally Occurring,” or Just Occurring?
The nature of “nature” is a central political question for advocates. The term “naturally occurring” has become widespread in local resolutions ever since Decriminalize Nature sparked the groundbreaking win in Oakland.
But the terminology has at times been divisive, both inside and outside the psychedelic movement. Heroin and cocaine, of course, are derived from “naturally occurring” plants but are not covered by these resolutions. And then there are psychedelic substances with a long history of use and strong therapeutic potential—like LSD or MDMA—that are excluded because they’re synthetically produced.
California Senator Scott Wiener (D), for one, has tried to bridge this gap with legislation that would have decriminalized both synthetic and naturally occurring psychedelics. But the bill was ultimately gutted by his colleagues, with police groups raising false claims that LSD would cause an increase in violent crime.
Peyote: Decriminalize or Leave It Be?
Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, is a cactus native to the Rio Grande region of northern Mexico and southern Texas. It contains the psychedelic compound mescaline. Peyote is an important part of the culture and religious practices of Indigenous groups throughout North America—such as the Wixárika people of Mexico, who make a traditional pilgrimage to the Sierra de Catorce mountain range each year to search for peyote.
Drug policy reform approaches to peyote have been inconsistent. In California, Oakland decriminalized it, and Santa Cruz followed. But some Indigenous leaders have argued that the movement is bringing unwanted attention to peyote, encouraging over-harvesting that will threaten its natural habitats.
After backlash, Santa Cruz then effectively recriminalized peyote. But Decriminalize Nature has stood by its position of decriminalization—and in 2022, it opposed Sen. Wiener’s statewide bill in part because didn’t include peyote. The 2022 Colorado ballot initiative decriminalized mescaline but exempted peyote (mescaline is also found in the unrelated San Pedro cactus).
Balancing opposition to criminalization with protection for both Indigenous rights and peyote habitats is an ongoing challenge. In September 2022, leaders of the leaders of the Native American Church of North America, whose practices include sacramental use of peyote, met with US senators and representatives to request federal funding for habitat preservation measures.
Buy and Sell, or Grow and Gift?
Current laws must change, agrees the psychedelic movement. But what to replace them with is a hot debate. In Oregon now regulates psilocybin as a therapeutic tool. But some Decriminalize Nature advocates opposed the measure because of barriers to who can purchase psilocybin and where—and because the drug that grows freely in dirt will now sell as part of a therapeutic package costing thousands of dollars.
Decriminalize Nature co-founder Carlos Plazola captured the feeling in a December 2019 article, in which he urged the movement to learn from the problems with cannabis legalization in California and elsewhere. Plazola instead supports a “grow, gather, gift” model where these substances are not exploited for profit.
Of course, no city can choose to legalize commercial sales of psychedelics without its state government acting first. To date, there has been no successful state-level effort to legalize psychedelics sales through retail dispensaries.
“Lowest Priority” for Police, or Defund?
When politicians talk about changing criminal laws, police listen. And that’s been a feature of the psychedelic decriminalization journey.
In October 2020, activists in Ann Arbor, Michigan, succeeded in advancing a decriminalization measure through the City Council. But just before the vote, lawmakers removed a line stating “City funds or resources shall not be used in any investigation, detention, arrest, or prosecution” of psychedelic charges. No explanation was given, and oddly enough the police chief complained during the council meeting that making this amendment would give cops more work to do.
In December 2021, city lawmakers in Port Townsend, Washington, also agreed to advance a psychedelic decrim bill—but amended the proposal presented by activists after closed-door meetings with the police chief. The result was a line that let police enforce existing drug laws in public spaces, and instructed them to avoid enforcing psychedelic penalties “when reasonably possible.”
The truth is that psychedelics comprise a much smaller portion of drug-war enforcement than other drug types. But in years to come, expect more of these tactics from politicians who will resist taking away any power from cops. Cities, again, can only go so far to protect psychedelic users from criminalization without action from state governments.
Personal Use or Community Use?
As more cities decriminalize psychedelics, some advocates are working to change how we think about personal and communal use. Alcohol has bars; marijuana now has cannabis cafes; even tobacco has cigar lounges. What about psychedelics? The experience of tripping together—whether at a music festival, with a small circle of friends, or in a religious or spiritual ceremony—is central to the culture of these drugs.
But many psychedelic reforms don’t explicitly recognize this. In Oakland, the city resolution is ambivalent about whether or not people can gather in one building and trip together—it doesn’t provide explicit protections, but police have chosen not to go after these activities if there aren’t drug sales going on. Decriminalize Nature has tried unsuccessfully to have city lawmakers approve a “community healing initiative” resolution, which would affirmatively protect psychedelic groups from state and federal cops.
And in Oregon, the issue of communal use—in a religious or spiritual setting—motivated advocates to submit a proposal to permit psilocybin access in a spiritual or religious setting, with fewer restrictions and lower costs to participants than the state’s therapeutic model. Despite strong public support, Oregon’s psilocybin policy advisory board axed the religious proposal in a closed-door meeting. Oregon will still allow for group psilocybin therapy, but not true communal use.
The List So Far
As these and other important questions—like personal possession limits, for example—occupy advocates’ minds, the momentum for decriminalization continues. Here’s a list of all the US cities that have so far chosen to decriminalize psychedelics in various ways:
January: Santa Cruz, California
October: Ann Arbor, Michigan
November: Washington, DC
January: Somerville, Massachusetts and Washtenaw County, Michigan
February: Cambridge, Massachusetts
April: Northampton, Massachusetts
October: Seattle, Washington; Easthampton, Massachusetts; and Arcata, California
December: Port Townsend, Washington
March: Hazel Park, Michigan
September: San Francisco
November: State of Colorado
February: Ferndale, Michigan
Photograph by TherapeuticShroom via Pixabay