Washington's reputation has once again been put at risk, though this time we can't blame a small band of anarchists with a grudge against the philanthropic efforts of certain corporate coffee chains.
At the beginning of this century the state's voters made pot possession the lowest priority for law enforcement, and then a decade later Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes stopped charging people caught with weed. Those were major progressive wins at the time, but we've since fallen a little behind when it comes to decriminalizing other plants with certain psychoactive benefits.
Last year 56% of Oregon voters approved an initiative to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for medical use. And in the last couple of years, lawmakers in Denver, Oakland, Washington D.C., Santa Cruz, a county in Michigan, and some college towns in Massachusetts decided to decriminalize psychedelic drugs altogether.
Since the phrase "psychedelic drugs" retains the stigma of 1960s hippie culture, we might instead call them *takes a bong hit* ancient plant medicines containing psychoactive compounds that can essentially rewire neural pathways and, alongside guidance from trained medical practitioners, help treat a host of intractable conditions such as addiction, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, at least in those without a history of psychosis or heart problems, *blows out smoke* according to a growing and impressive body of research.
That's not nothing for a class of Schedule 1 substances that the federal government currently defines "as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."
But whatever you want to call them, this new wave of the movement to decriminalize magic mushrooms, iboga, and the plants necessary to brew ayahuasca has only reached our shores in the last year or so, with a few lobbying pushes in Olympia and at City Hall. The other weekend, I even noticed earnest-eyed volunteers handing out flyers and a petition to receptive audiences waiting in line at the Capitol Hill farmer's market. They know their audience.
Supporters tout the promising medical benefits I list above, which could help the city address some of the issues around addiction. But for now, at least, advocates prefer decriminalization to full-on legalization with an elaborate regulatory scheme. "It’s not a capitalist model for a reason. This is a way for folks to grow their own medicine," said Tatiana Luz, co-director and co-chair of education and outreach for Decriminalize Nature Seattle; no relation to Decriminalize Seattle.
Seattle Councilmember Andrew Lewis recently met with members of Decrim Nature to discuss the issue. Over the phone, Lewis said he's "looking into what we can do to have a policy that centers public health and harm reduction instead of a process of criminalization and compelled treatment." While it's still "too early right now" to talk next steps, he said the council might at some point entertain a resolution or an ordinance on the matter.
Just do it
While a slow approach to decriminalizing shrooms et al seems fitting if not overly cautious, the council should just quickly pick this very chill-looking low-hanging fruit and move on with their lives.
When state lawmakers reduced the penalty for drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor in the aftermath of the state Supreme Court's Blake decision, the question of enforcement essentially fell back in the city's lap, so they need to do something soon on the issue anyway. Though decriminalizing all drugs would make the most sense from a public health and civil rights perspective, passing a law to let the hippies drink their funny tea and maybe help a few people get over some longterm health issues seems like something that should have happened in this town 20 years ago.
As it stands, law enforcement doesn't handle tons of these cases anyway. A spokesperson at the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office said referrals or charged cases "solely involving psychedelics are quite rare," amounting to "maybe a couple cases a year, and almost certainly less than a half dozen." Might as well save users the paranoia of looking over their shoulder when they buy a baggie of shrooms to microdose on their hikes or whatever.
Given that other efforts to decriminalize psychedelics haven't faced much in the way of formal opposition, the political costs seem low. As writers for the Washington Post and the New York Times have remarked, those recent political wins grew from a second so-called psychedelic renaissance that blossomed within academia over the last few decades. Thanks to research from those institutions, spearheaded and often funded by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, MDMA is on track to receive Food and Drug Administration approval for PTSD treatment in a few years, and mushrooms are showing great promise to treat a number of chronic issues. Big Pharma and Wall Street are already chomping at the bit to capitalize on new drugs. Loosening restrictions seems inevitable at this point, so we may as well jump on the train early.
Decriminalizing psychedelics might also help crack the Overton Window a little more when it comes to decriminalizing all drugs, as University of Massachusetts law professor Dustin Marlan has argued. But beyond that, for supporters, decriminalizing psychedelics carries the possibility of opening up access to needed medicines to communities that the current health care system has underserved.
Welcome to the Church of Daime
As a guardian in the Santo Daime Church, which originated in Brazil but maintains branches in Washington and Oregon thanks to an exemption from the Controlled Substances Act secured under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Monique Bridges helps run monthly ceremonies where approximately 30 members and "a handful of guests" sing, drink ayahuasca tea (which usually contains DMT), and trip for several hours, she said.
Those interested in participating in the ceremony as a guest must first submit to a "fairly extensive orientation," where church members ask about the prospective guest's medical history. People with histories of heart troubles, prescriptions for certain antidepressants, schizophrenia, or psychosis should not drink the tea because people have bad trips. Really bad trips. In 2018, a 22-year-old man died after drinking the tea at the Soul Quest Church in Florida. He had reportedly drank the tea "at least five times before with no difficult experiences."
After the screening, the guardians ask about the guest's intentions, partly to help direct journeys and partly in an attempt to weed out bad faith actors. If that conversation goes well, the guardian gives the guest basic instructions to prepare for the ceremony: wear light and light-colored clothing; bring mints to cover the taste of the tea and lemon balm teas for any upset stomachs; bring pictures of loved ones or crystals to help focus meditation. Three days before taking the sacrament, guardians advise guests not to take "street drugs," alcohol, or weed, and not to eat some foods such as avocados.
All ceremonies, known as "works" to the practitioners, take place under the gentle and watchful eye of the guardians, who "trip-sit" or provide other "integrative services," such as offering water, tissues, reminders to breathe deeply, and otherwise provide a calm presence so the person on the journey doesn't feel alone.
This kind of "collective shamanism" serves as the foundation for the religious practice.
Reclaiming the psychedelic space for Black and Indigenous communities
In her seven years as a member of the church, Bridges, who also serves as co-chair of education and outreach at Decriminalize Nature, said she has experienced some "miraculous things" with her own healing process and has seen the same in others struggling with addictions to heroin and alcohol.
Over the phone, she told a story of two guys from LA who were homeless and hooked on heroin. They found a Santo Daime Church and started developing a community around the tea ceremony there. One of the guys stopped going for a while, but the church "went out looking for him" and tried to convince him to return. After a while he did. He eventually made his way to the Seattle area and connected with a sober living house. Bridges said he attends local ceremonies "because it’s helping him in his sobriety," but he can’t tell the sober-living place because he'd lose his housing. "He still has to work on his sobriety, but what I’ve seen is that it seems as if he has a different relationship to his internal suffering. It’s more conscious and tangible to him," she said.
Stories like his lead Bridges to see decriminalization as a way to offer these healing medicines to communities the health care system often excludes or mistreats. That route would allow for a "share-grow" model, which would give unlicensed healers like herself the opportunity to share the medicine with those skeptical of the medical establishment and of psychedelics in general.
Lasting stigmatization from the drug war, an early history of exploitative LSD experimentation on Black people, and the overwhelming whiteness of the psychedelic world heavily contribute to a high level of "apprehensiveness" around the medicines in Black and brown communities, Bridges said. Part of her goal in joining the movement involves reclaiming the psychedelic space for Black people and Indigenous communities, from which Santo Daime sprang in the first place.
Raimundo Irineu Serra, a Black Brazilian rubber tapper, founded the religion in 1914 after drinking the tea that the region's Indigenous people drank "for its healing and spiritual purposes."
Serra used the plant and the religion "to lift up his people and other marginalized people so they could feel their worthiness," Bridges said. She sees her attempt to create an inviting space to heal people from communities of color, who suffer disproportionally high rates of trauma, as bringing his project full circle. If the city or state decriminalizes psychedelics, she hopes to start a farm that grows psychedelic plants for ceremonies and produce for the state's food deserts.
Not a panacea
Though psychedelics may play a role in helping the city tackle addiction and generational trauma, Bridges stressed that funding for education, access to housing, supports and therapies for children and adolescents, financial support for young families, and higher wages were also necessary to solve those problems.
"You can’t give someone this experience and then put them right back in the situation they were in. This is about developing community," she said. "I’ve seen a lot of this Western mentality, where people want to extract the compound, put it in a pill, monetize it, and then think that's going to cure everything. But it's not just the medicine. It’s the embodiment of the medicine in relation to community that actually creates the conditions for healing."
She compared the healing to seeds, which thrive under the supervision of attentive caretakers in good soil, just the right amount of sun, and favorable weather conditions. "It’s not just this one approach," she added. "We need systemic change, we need to educate the people about racial equity and what it is to be in community and not having this extractionist-type mentality that’s depleting everything."