In March, Tom and Sheri Eckert, married therapists from Beaverton, Oregon, a Portland suburb that's home to Intel and Nike, drove into the city and hosted a gala for magic mushrooms. They were fundraising for the Oregon Psilocybin Society (OPS), the nonprofit they run together to advance the study and use of psilocybin, the trip-inducing compound in magic mushrooms. The affair was glamorous by the standards of events devoted to psychedelic drugs, held in the Kridel Grand Ballroom at the Portland Art Museum, inside a building that had once been a Masonic temple. It was attended by high-profile luminaries in the world of drug policy and research. Some had flown in from abroad: Mark Haden, the executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in Canada, spoke to the audience, as did Robin Carhart-Harris, the head of psychedelic research at the Imperial College of London. Jeff Shipley, a sauerkraut salesmen and a Republican state lawmaker in Iowa who favors psilocybin decriminalization, was in the crowd as well.
This was, Tom Eckert hoped, the beginning of a project that would lead to Oregon becoming the first state in the U.S. to legalize psilocybin-assisted therapy. The details are still being worked out ahead of a potential ballot measure in 2020, but the basic idea is to allow anyone 21 years or older to take psilocybin in a supervised setting (which might be a hospital, a small clinic, or a retreat), under the guidance of a licensed facilitator. According to the OPS website, the nonprofit received nearly $80,000 from the fundraiser. And OPS will need every penny to gather the 100,000-plus signatures to officially get this on the ballot, and then approved by voters.
After consultation with other reformers, the couple has tweaked the ballot measure to have clearer and more ambitious language than they had previously submitted last year. Now instead of also seeking to decriminalize psilocybin, as Denver and Oakland have already done, they want to legalize the drug, setting up a regulated, "therapeutic" framework. They lost a section about decriminalization because the Drug Policy Alliance, Tom said, is spearheading its own campaign to do so in states around the country, including in Oregon, and he feared duplicating the organization's efforts, or stepping on its toes.
The Eckerts have been operating pretty quietly in the background of the psilocybin reform movement since 2015, when they were inspired to take action after reading one of Michael Pollan's feature articles in the New Yorker about the strides universities are making with psilocybin trials, especially when it comes to cancer patients facing "existential dread." Their efforts to convince voters that shrooms shouldn't just be legal but regarded as a type of therapy make their campaign arguably a harder sell than others. It could be one, however, to set a precedent.
The pair have entered what's becoming a growing field of players responsible for shifting the dialogue around magic mushrooms. Nonprofits like Denver's SPORE have begun to crop up, pro-psychedelic thinkers like Pollan have gained mainstream celebrity, and some members of Congress, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, support making it easier for academic researchers to study the fungus.
"This is a new issue for a lot of people," Shipley said. "And people have a tendency to make split-second judgments. I think OPS is truly a leader in advocacy for their professionalism, and quite frankly their elegance in introducing this issue to the larger public."
Mark Haden, the MAPS director and an adjunct professor in the School of Public Health and Population at the University of British Columbia, said if the Eckerts proved successful, it could provide a unique case study, in that you could judge their approach alongside decriminalization efforts in places like Colorado and California. (Haden also sits on OPS's advisory board.)
Many people believe that psilocybin could have real benefits in mental-health treatment. In October, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) awarded psilocybin a "breakthrough therapy designation," allowing researchers to study it for depression treatment. Under the Eckerts' proposal, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) would regulate psilocybin, even though it is federally classified as a Schedule I drug. That means it's designated by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), along with cannabis and heroin, as having no medical benefits and a high potential for abuse. Delia Hernández, an OHA communications officer, acknowledged that the agency "would need to create a new program to implement the work required of the agency," but it "does not have a particular position on this proposed measure."
The couple doesn't want the drug to become the property of the medical establishment. Tom emphasizes that one doesn't have to be sick or suffering to give psilocybin a whirl, just as you don't have to be diagnosed with a mental illness to seek out talk therapy. It's all focused on "healing," Tom said, and totally "outside of the pharma-driven medical system."
"This is a more public health–based approach than decriminalization," Haden said. "It is an access model."
The granular specifics, like how you would become a licensed psilocybin therapist, have to be ironed out. But the format of what psilocybin therapy would look like is pretty well-established in the Eckerts' eyes. Tom told Oregon Public Broadcasting, "You take the compound, and you generally lay down with headphones and eye shades, and you listen to music that is previously curated to enhance the experience."
Although this is the first campaign of its kind, it seems unlikely to be the last, even if it ultimately fails. As Matt Lamkin, an associate professor of law at the University of Tulsa, wrote in Scientific American, "psychedelic medicine is coming."
"It appears psychedelics may be legalized at the federal level—as FDA-approved medicine—even before cannabis reaches that status," Lamkin said. The claim that psychedelic drugs have "no currently accepted medical use," in the view of the DEA, he continued, "will be hard to maintain if the FDA approves these drugs as treatments for conditions like PTSD and depression."
For now, however, the Eckerts have to await an official ballot title (the attorney general's office in Oregon has until September 6 to decide, though commenters can seek a review in the Oregon Supreme Court), and then collect their signatures.
"The coalition is strong and the horizon here in Oregon is unprecedented," said Tom. "We do see it as a template for the rest of the country, and the world."
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