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Decriminalizing Psychedelics – Change Your Mind, Then Change the Law

The decriminalization of psychedelic plant medicines is sweeping across the US. What started as cannabis law reform is now starting to change the way society views drugs in general – including natural psychedelics like peyote, huachuma (San Pedro cactus), ayahuasca, iboga, and magic mushrooms.

Dozens of US states now have some kind of decriminalization, medical regulation or legalization for cannabis, and that number is set to keep growing.

This first wave of acceptance towards psychotropic plants is now starting to include psychedelics, with successful psychedelic decriminalization efforts in both Denver and Oakland earlier this year.

Decriminalization means simply that the activity in question is no longer illegal, but this can be wide-ranging in practice. When it comes to psychedelics, decriminalization could mean anything from a total freedom to buy, sell, grow, and take psychedelics; to police forces agreeing not to arrest people for possession of small quantities of psychedelics.

The organization leading the campaign to decriminalize natural psychedelics in the US is called Decriminalize Nature – and they now have grassroots efforts taking place in hundreds of cities.

Anyone can get involved. If you’re interested in changing drug laws in the US, and especially if you think that cognitive liberty is a basic human right, and that humans have no business restricting access to the natural entheogenic plants that our ancestors have used for centuries… you may want to get behind the Decriminalize Nature movement.

Read on and find out exactly how you can expand this movement, in 3 easy steps!

What is Decriminalize Nature?

Decriminalize Nature is a grassroots movement across the US, that organizes itself on the level of individual cities. One of the first decriminalization initiatives was in Oakland, where the now famous Decriminalize Nature Oakland formed out of a group of city councillors and activists. It became a nonprofit organization, and started campaigning the city for psychedelic reform.

After successful efforts in both Denver and Oakland, Decriminalize Nature has now become a national movement, with dozens of other cities starting to launch their own campaigns. All it takes to sign up is to send an email to the Oakland organizers, to receive an information packet that will help you set up your own chapter (or connect with one that already exists).

The core philosophy of Decriminalize Nature is that the government has no legitimate authority to restrict your access to plants and fungi – and that it should be a basic human right to grow and ingest natural substances. Its other tenets can be summarized like this:

  • Personal freedoms (like access to plants and fungi) should exist without legal regulation
  • It should be impossible to patent a natural plant or fungus
  • Natural plant medicines are inherently sacred, and acknowledging this is required to enjoy their healing properties
  • Research into plant medicines should be led by communities, through nonprofit organizations and collectives
  • Indigenous wisdom should be protected and highlighted
  • Full decriminalization is the best way of making psychedelic plants and fungi available to everyone who needs them
  • Communities that have been most damaged by prohibition of plant medicines will be helped most by full decriminalization
  • The habitats in which psychedelic plants and fungi grow must be protected

What Does Decriminalize Nature Want?

The aim of Decriminalize Nature is to totally decriminalize all entheogenic plants and fungi. This means it will no longer be illegal to grow, pick, eat, or share psychedelic plants and fungi. There will also be no regulations about how people can access them; rules about natural psychedelics will be solely at the discretion of the community.

Decriminalize Nature believes that achieving their goals will ultimately help to improve a connection to nature, and benefit human health and wellbeing, according to the mission statement.

They aim to achieve this kind of full decriminalization by campaigning through local government. Decriminalize Nature hopes to start a chain reaction of cities freeing themselves from psychedelic prohibition. Although natural psychedelics are still illegal on the federal level, cities (and even states!) can pass laws that stop all criminal proceedings against people for using or growing psychedelics.

Ultimately, this could spread across the country, restoring natural rights and bringing the benefits of natural plant medicines to everyone!

Decriminalization vs Legalization?

But why is decriminalization, specifically, important to this movement? Why not aim for other approaches, like legalization (where psychedelics are regulated like alcohol), or medicalization (where psychedelic therapy is the only legal option)?

The answer is that Decriminalize Nature believes there are too many risks associated with other forms of psychedelic policy, and that decriminalization is the safest and most ethical option.

Drug prohibition, the state most of us currently find ourselves in, has seen countless people around the world killed, maimed, and imprisoned over its 50+ year history. It is now historical record that drug prohibition was founded in racism and classism, and had no basis in science or public health.

Decriminalize Nature believes that any attempt to change drug policy must also keep this in mind, and seek to repair some of these damages – while also maintaining our rights to access psychedelic plants and fungi, and make them freely accessible to all.

“Without decriminalization of Nature first and forever, legalization is just prohibition outside of strict regulatory frameworks.” – Larry Norris, PhD candidate, co-founder and Board member of Decriminalize Nature, and co-founder and executive director of ERIE (Entheogenic Research, Integration, and Education)

The Problems with Psychedelic Legalization

Legalization, although it would stop people from being sent to prison for using psychedelics, opens up an ethical can of worms.

Much like how alcohol legalization restricts you from making your own drinks, or selling without a license, legalization can be surprisingly restrictive. Legal regulation of psychedelics could potentially make certain activities illegal, such as growing your own plants.

It can also allow for corporatization and monopolization of substances, which would reduce their availability even further. Companies, such as Compass Pathways in the US, are already attempting to patent natural psychedelic substances, or specific preparations of them. The legalization of cannabis in several US states has come with many problems associated with corporatization; in Colorado, for example, licenses to sell cannabis are expensive, giving bigger corporations an advantage over small independent businesses.

Because Decriminalize Nature emphasizes our basic right to have full access to natural substances, according to them legalization has too much risk of restriction and exploitation. Carlos Plazola, Chair of Decriminalize Nature, warns how psychedelic legalization could lead to the same failures we are seeing in the legal cannabis market:

“From this strategy of appeasing politician’s fear [around cannabis] were born the three horsemen of the apocalypse on healing plants. The three horsemen emerged as Scarcity, Complexity and Greed. Together they are destroying the sacred relationship between humans and cannabis, and are poised to destroy our relationship to entheogenic plants and fungi – if we, as advocates, repeat our mistakes.” Carlos Plazola, Decriminalize Nature Chair

What About Medicalization of Psychedelics?

Medicalization is one specific form of legalization that has a large number of supporters in the mainstream psychedelic movement. However, this still comes with regulatory problems. If a psychedelic like magic mushrooms get a medical license, the government (or at the very least, health authorities) will control who can produce them, who can administer magic mushroom therapy, and who can receive magic mushroom therapy.

Psychedelic-assisted therapy could be unfairly restrictive, and expensive. The government would be free to put overly harsh controls on who is licensed to give therapy, and how it could be administered. Many people would potentially be excluded from therapy due to high costs – initial estimates of MDMA therapy (before it becomes covered by insurance) suggest it could cost you $15,000 for a treatment course.

Research into psychedelic therapy is a large driving force of the psychedelic movement, and some members of the community are becoming convinced that medicalization is the best option. But Decriminalize Nature feels that medicalization is just a form of legalization that involves more restrictions and government control over natural substances. They believe that everyone should be free to access the healing powers of natural substances, not just a privileged few who meet the government’s criteria:

“While we support the advancement of medical approaches for those who need it, we also understand that this approach has high barriers of cost and cultural ethos, and is unavailable for most.” – Larry Norris, Decriminalize Nature

Why Psychedelic Decriminalization Best Supports Cognitive Liberty

Compared to the alternatives, decriminalization is simpler. There would be no central regulation of natural psychedelics whatsoever. Instead, people would be free to grow, use, and share psychedelic plants and fungi – and the only restrictions would be within individual communities.

Decriminalize Nature believes that decriminalization has the most potential to restore our rights to grow and use plant medicines, while also preventing any future criminalization. It’s also the approach that potentially has the best chance of addressing the damages of the war on drugs, by allowing those communities that have been hardest hit by prohibition to start a healing process.

Some people might be concerned about the safety issues of allowing free use of psychedelic plant medicines. However, responsibility and safety are core principles of the Decriminalize Nature movement – they have laid out guidelines for how communities can organize themselves to make sure plants and fungi are taken with respect and with human wellbeing in mind. Ideally, safety and harm reduction will still be at the forefront of psychedelic communities.

Decriminalize Nature even argues that without restrictions and regulations, it would allow people to more freely educate each other about the risks of natural plant medicines. Ask yourself this: has alcohol regulation protected people appropriately from the risks of alcohol? Is our drinking culture, responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year worldwide, what we want to aim for? It’s possible that community-led research and education could have a more powerful protective impact than government regulations that are rarely based in science and healthcare.

“We feel decriminalization is a risk reduction strategy where those who need support, integration, and education can seek them out without fear of persecution. In addition, we feel community is essential to safe and responsible practice and through decriminalization those who have been forced into the underground can feel safer to emerge and share information and resources.” – Larry Norris, Decriminalize Nature

However, “decriminalization” does not always mean the same thing, and it is a word that is sometimes used in situations that do not involve full freedom. Some countries have decriminalized some activities related to drugs, but still put people in prison for others…

Decriminalization of Drugs in Portugal

In 2001, all drugs were “decriminalized” in Portugal, in an effort to combat their epidemic of harmful opioid use. Portugal has since become the most high-profile drug decriminalization case study worldwide. However, this isn’t the kind of decriminalization that Decriminalize Nature is aiming for.

In Portugal, it’s still illegal to manufacture, import, and sell drugs. If you’re caught with more drugs than “an average user consumes over a ten day period,” you’ll be considered a drug dealer and sent to court.

Also, if you are caught with enough substances for personal use, you’ll likely still find yourself ending up with administrative fines. Repeat offenders could be put into rehabilitation schemes, or even restricted from certain jobs or locations.

Although the Portuguese system has been an amazing improvement over prohibition (drug-related harms to public health have dramatically decreased), it is still a long way from blanket decriminalization. It still comes with a bunch of regulations and restrictions, and people are still not explicitly free to grow psychedelic plants and fungi (this could potentially be considered manufacturing).

Several other countries currently have decriminalization efforts in place, although these are wide-ranging, and none of them reach the kind of blanket freedoms that Decriminalize Nature is aiming for. The majority of worldwide decriminalization policies only involve cannabis, and not any other plants or fungi. Most involve at least some kind of punitive framework, sometimes masquerading in civil rather than criminal law. Drug charity Release condemns these systems in its report on worldwide decriminalization:

“Coercive and punitive regimes founded in the civil law can cause as much damage as criminalization. This is why we must ensure that the models implemented are evidence-based and humane.” Source

What Decriminalize Nature wants could be described as radical – a form of decriminalization with no legal restrictions or regulations.

The Timeline of Psychedelic Decriminalization in the US

Although the decriminalization of natural psychedelics is still in its infancy in the US, Decriminalize Nature has catalyzed two enormous policy victories.

Firstly, in May 2019, Decriminalize Denver successfully won a city-wide vote on the decriminalization of magic mushrooms in Denver, Colorado; although it’s not yet clear what this will mean in practical terms. Although it’s likely the police will at least agree to stop prosecutions of people in possession of small quantities of psychedelics, enforcement of this could take a variety of forms.

Around the same time, Decriminalize Nature Oakland managed to get their city to pass a resolution that officially made psychedelic enforcement the very lowest of the city police’s priorities – effectively decriminalizing all psychedelic plants and fungi. Not only does the resolution state that possession and use is no longer to be punished, but also anyone growing, buying or distributing natural psychedelics should also be the lowest priority of the police. It also eliminates funding for any law enforcement efforts involving psychedelics – ensuring that even the most determined police officers would lose their power to penalize psychedelic users.

The success in Oakland, introducing perhaps one of the most comprehensive decriminalization legislations in the world, was achieved by bringing together a community that represents the rich diversity of Oakland, and presenting well-structured arguments to city councilmembers with the help of activists, policy-makers, community organizations, medical practitioners, and social scientists. Most importantly, Decriminalize Nature Oakland showed persistence and tenacity:

“An additional benefit of this approach that we didn’t expect was that many individuals have expressed a renewed confidence in what they perceived as broken system of governance. By empowering the grassroots, individuals on the local level can participate in active change. This is a both a reminder that the elected government officials work for the people, and that they also desire to do the best for their communities.” – Larry Norris, Decriminalize Nature

Following these major legislative landmarks, Decriminalize Nature has kick-started efforts in dozens more US cities. Most notably Portland, Chicago, Santa Cruz, Berkeley and Dallas have been developing decriminalization efforts in their cities. Santa Cruz and Berkeley are expected to vote on resolutions in early 2020. A statewide psilocybin decriminalization effort is also underway in California, with a vote expected sometime in 2020. Hundreds of people across the country have registered their interest in starting a grassroots movement in their city, illustrated by this graphic:

The Temptation of Licensed Therapy

As well as all this positivity, there has been at least one bittersweet story in the US decriminalization movement. The Oregon Psychedelic Society (OPS) have been developing a ballot measure that would decriminalize magic mushrooms in the state. However, in September 2019 the OPS announced that after months of fundraising and campaigning, they would be altering the ballot measure to remove the decriminalization aspects. Instead, the ballot would only concern the therapeutic use of magic mushrooms in specially licensed centers.

The revised OPS ballot measure would criminalize everyone who uses, grows, picks, or shares magic mushrooms outside of a licensed therapeutic center. The measure even ensures that it would overrule any individual cities that passed decriminalization measures in Oregon.

As discussed earlier, Decriminalize Nature is opposed to medicalization that doesn’t consider the wider picture of drug policy. This is because a focus on medical use often ignores those who are most harmed by the criminalization of natural psychedelics, and doesn’t restore our basic rights to grow and use plants and fungi for healing.

In a statement from September about the decision of OPS to backtrack on their initial promises, Decriminalize Nature Portland has explained why this switch to a licensed therapy model is not helpful:

“In changing course, they have not only betrayed the people who gave money to their group based on a lie of decriminalization, but they have abandoned the thousands of Oregonians who will not be able to afford access to therapeutic-only psychedelic medicine.

There are three key reasons why these changes deserve to be critiqued: the bill is now worse for people of color, it is worse for the poor, and it is worse for civil liberty and personal freedom.” Source

In October, Decriminalize Nature Oakland also commented on the OPS situation, clarifying why they are opposed to the change in the ballot measure:

“While we believe everyone’s intentions are good, we also believe any act of legalization or decriminalization must incorporate, or lead with, full decriminalization of all entheogenic plants and fungi on the Federal Schedule 1 list.” Source

It also appears that the ballot change was partially due to pressure from Dr. Bronner’s, a soap company that donated a large sum to the campaign in order for it to be able to switch the ballot wording at such late notice and obtain the required number of signatures. Dr. Bronner’s has previously donated large sums to companies, like MAPS, that focus on medical models of psychedelic regulation.

According to the OPS, their new ballot measure provides a framework for magic mushroom therapy that would allow services to be available to people without medical contraindications (although it’s unclear how this would be decided), and that would make it “impossible for pharma and big corporations to overrun this emerging space.”

OPS are using an argument that is often used to defend medicalization: The argument that we don’t understand enough about psychedelics to use them safely, and Western researchers should be in charge of their availability and use. But this approach ignores the history of medicinal psychedelic use, and the limitations of Western science:

“While some may say ‘we need more research,’ that comment often neglects and dismisses 11,000 years of practice worldwide and privileges the view of the Western scientific/medical research community, which only became interested in the last few decades.” – Larry Norris, Decriminalize Nature

The fact remains: the OPS initiative is no longer a decriminalization effort, and people in Oregon who were hoping for equal and free access to magic mushrooms will now be bitterly disappointed.

How You Can Decriminalize Nature in 3 Easy Steps!

If you want to get behind decriminalization of drugs in the US, starting with the decriminalization of natural psychedelics, you are invited to join the Decriminalize Nature movement.

While it might seem daunting to overturn decades of draconian drug laws, keep in mind that decriminalization efforts like the ones in Denver and Oakland were started by grassroots volunteers. These passionate, well-informed people campaigned to help their cities see the logic of their arguments, and they won big. It doesn’t take much to create a dramatic culture shift around society’s relationship to psychedelics. All it takes is drive and a little assistance to get started advocating for rational, evidence-based drug policy in your locale!

Decriminalize Nature Oakland offer anyone who’s interested in joining the movement the resources they need to either set up a chapter in your city, or join ones that are already active.

Here’s how to get involved:

Step 1: Email Decrminalize Nature here and receive their Welcome package.

Just send an email to [email protected] to get your starter bundle of information.

This will include basic information about Decriminalize Nature, such as their philosophy and core values, and recent information about ongoing and successful legal cases.

Step 2: Join the private Facebook group and your local Slack channel.

Your information bundle will give you access to a private Facebook group and Slack channel where your efforts can be coordinated with others. Follow the instructions to join these groups, and before you know it you’ll be talking to a community of local campaigners.

If there is not yet an existing Decriminalize Nature group in your area, you’ll be given guidance to help start up your own chapter!

Step 3: Start organizing at your local level.

Now you’ll be ready to get involved with local campaigning, or set up your own chapter. Time to get to work and start making a difference!

Even if you are not a citizen of the United States, by joining the Decriminalize Nature movement, you will tap into a wellspring of expertise teaming with effective grassroots strategies on how to start a movement in your country. Join the community now and you could be part of the growing wave of psychedelic freedom fighters around the world!

What Do You Want the Psychedelic Future to Look Like?

We’re going to have to keep asking ourselves some important questions as psychedelics march further into the mainstream. What do we want the acceptance of psychedelics into Western culture to look like? Who should be able to access them? What should they be used for?

Decriminalize Nature has answered these questions clearly: They are looking towards a future where everyone has the freedom to grow, use, share, and learn about psychedelic plants and fungi. They envision a society where psychedelic knowledge and safety is community-driven, rather than restricted by centralized government.

Some people will harbor reservations about this approach. They might ask questions like “Shouldn’t we put psychedelic medicines in the hands of doctors,” or “Wouldn’t a regulated legal market better protect people from tainted or poor quality substances?”

Whatever your answers to these questions are, presumably the reason you have read this far is because you are interested in changing the way psychedelics are viewed in our society. Getting involved with grassroots movements to change the face of drug policy is perhaps the best way of building the world you want to see.

About the author, Patrick

Patrick Smith is a biologist and writer who has been working in the psychedelic community for several years. Twitter: @rjpatricksmith

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2 Comments

  1. Paul Antico on 12/31/2019 at 2:26 AM

    Good and informative article, Patrick. A few notes and additions: Decrim Nature achieved the relatively fast outcome in Oakland because Carlos Plazola already knew the Oakland Council Members for years. We should not underestimate the value that brought to the table in making this extraordinary and wonderful result happen.

    “Plazola’s mission was helped by the fact that he was a longtime aide to former Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente and knew all the council members.”

    “Councilman Noel Gallo, who introduced the measure, said he had “known him for a long, long time.”

    [source: https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-oakland-decriminalize-mushrooms-psychedelic-plants-20190622-story.html%5D

    Also, we here at Decriminalize California are taking the voter initiative approach (as Denver did) for the entire state, and were not mentioned as part of the overall movement to decriminalize psilocybin in your article. Our initiative will not only decriminalize, but eliminates existing penalties under state law for adults for psilocybin-related activities including, possession, distribution, transportation, and sale of psilocybin. The measure also allows adults to cultivate psilocybin mushrooms subject to certain limitations, such as requiring the mushrooms to not be publicly visible. And as part of our initiative language, we specify no additional taxes are allowed, other than regular sales tax.

    We support Decriminalize Nature and the rising tide raises all boats. We are all in this together. We need lots of support to get the requisite signatures (close to 1,000,000 to be safe) and pass this measure. Decriminalization, at the very least, levels the playing field and removes gatekeepers, such as is the attempt of measures like PSI2020 in Oregon.

    For those that want to volunteer and support our statewide efforts, go to our website: http://www.decrimca.org

    Mush love!

    Paul Antico
    Communications Director
    Decriminalize California
    http://www.decrimca.org

    • Patrick Smith on 01/10/2020 at 6:03 PM

      Hi Paul, thanks for your feedback and for bringing the Decriminalize California efforts to my attention. I have now included a link to your campaign in the article.

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