Who's driving the US decrim juggernaut?
The answer is local activists and out-of-town money, and they don't always agree.
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A fungal revolution is spreading its spores through the US. Psychedelics - led by magic mushrooms - have been legalized in two US states, there are limited judicial exemptions in another three, and active legislation in 18 states, with California and Massachusetts’ governments set to vote on bills shortly. There’s even more legislation at the city level, and maybe even some movement at the federal level.
Who is driving this? A brilliant article from Psychedelic Week, the newsletter of lawyer Mason Marks, lays out the landscape, and explains that it’s a mixture of big philanthropic funding and local decrim activists. Sometimes they get along, other times they don’t.
The big psychedelic philanthropists fund a Political Action Committee called New Approach. Launched in 2014, its raised $35 million in funding from philanthropists like David Bronner (heir to Dr Bronner Soap), Austin Hearst (heir to the Hearst family fortune), Blake Mycoskie of TOMS shoes, Robert Parsons of GoDaddy, Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey, Sean Parker of Napster and other ‘bobos’ (bohemian businessmen, as David Brooks called them). This Tripsitter article dives into New Approach, which has also been a big funder of cannabis decriminalization policies:
And then there are the local activist groups – like Decriminalize Nature Oakland, SPORE, local Psychedelic Societies and indigenous groups.
These two different groups – out-of-town big money and local activists – sometimes have aligned objectives, and indeed sometimes the local players receive funding from the out-of-town millionaires. But sometimes they clash. Mason Marks writes:
New Approach’s strategy has been controversial. By funding local lobbyists and political strategists, the PAC pumps millions into state-level campaigns. Their tactic of colonizing other state ecosystems has drawn criticism from grassroots communities who feel strong-armed by the PAC.
In Oregon, groups like the Portland Psychedelic Society and Decriminalize Nature Portland worried that New Approach-backed Measure 109 would create an overly-complex and expensive system, making psilocybin inaccessible to many, aside from wealthy out of state tourists. So far, the program rollout has been problematic.
New Approach has, in the past, tended to support psychedelic legalization or decriminalization through the medical or supervised model, as in Oregon. However, this can end up cumbersome and expensive – in Oregon, a supervised psychedelic session is estimated to cost around $5000 because of all the costs of running a business that is still illegal at the federal level.
Local activities tend to push for decriminalization of possession and ‘gifting’ – they want individuals and communities to be free to use sacred plants how they want, without commercial mediation, and worry that outside interests are pushing for the commercialization of psychedelics and the domination of the market by big corporate players. That’s why indigenous protestors took to the stage at the end of the MAPS Psychedelic Science conference. They were activists from Colorado who felt sidelined by the decrim process in that state, which was funded by many of the big funders of MAPS.
You can hear more about the tussle between these two groups in this podcast, about the decriminalization movement in Denver, the first place in the US to decriminalize psychedelics:
I haven’t met him but I don’t think David Bronner is motivated by money. To me, he’s a wealthy hippy idealist who genuinely thinks psychedelics will save humanity, like many of the big funders and researchers in this space. He’s been trying to unite the tribes by funding all sides – New Approach and local activist groups. He outlined his ‘unified theory’ of medicalization and decriminalization happening side back in 2020, in an article which ends with the rallying cry:
we should power all these movements and cultural leverage points, not just the FDA approval route, and that all together they will get us sooner versus later to a responsible post-prohibition world, psychedelically healed and opened, and ready to enact collective policies and behavior change that truly can make a heaven on Earth. All-One!
This is not a gold rush for Bronner, I think, it’s a utopian, millenarian movement of spiritual and sexual revolution . [Update, in response to this article and Mason Marks’ original article, David said he wasn’t aware of the Massachusetts decrim proposal but he ‘asked allies there what the filing was about… They relayed to even do this exploration they had to formally file first. Conversations are happening in all directions to see if it is viable, and if so the policy will reflect input from all stakeholders and iterate / learn from / improve on CO, on both decrim and regulated access, within Mass’s single issue constraints.’
Finally, to complicate matters further, there are people and groups campaigning for safeguards, harm reduction and harm education. Not many, and at this stage not very well funded or mobilized compared to the psychedelic juggernaut. There’s a group of five mothers, all of whom lost their children to psychedelic-related accidents or suicides. This group doesn’t argue against psychedelic decriminalization or legalization, and sees these drugs may have therapeutic benefits, but they don’t want decriminalization without education. They feel their children died because they took psychedelics (often for the first time) without being properly informed about the risks or the best way to reduce those risks. One person in that group is Kristin Nash, who lost her son William to a psychedelic-related accident. She wrote this Op-Ed laying out her argument for amendments to California’s decrim bill to improve education around risks.
I personally support that harm education effort, though I also sympathize with those who suffer from mental illness or chronic pain and want to access psychedelic therapy without breaking the law and without spending $5000 a session. Is it possible to put in place safeguards to protect and educate first-time users, while enabling long-term psychedelic users to get cheap, legal access?
It’s a fascinating, complicated time in the western world’s relationship to drugs policy. This week, Scotland’s (probably outgoing) government declared ‘the war on drugs has failed’ and called for the decriminalization of possession of all drugs – this is a decision taken in Westminster, so is unlikely to happen anytime soon. If the war on drugs has clearly failed, the post-prohibition peace isn’t looking so great either. In both Oregon and Portugal, which pioneered the decriminalization of all drugs, there are concerns about how that’s playing out. Oregon has ‘botched’ the decriminalization of drugs, according to the pro-legalization Economist, because it didn’t have enough medical and rehabilitation support in place for heroin and meth addicts. Something similar seems to have happened in Portugal, where city residents complain about addicts shooting up in the street, and there is a possibility decriminalization could be rolled back there.
Meanwhile in Australia… but I’ll save that for the paid subscribers. All subscriptions support our research on challenging psychedelic experiences, and you get access to our community chat, free invites to events like my online talk this coming Wednesday, and access to our amazing archive of stories.
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