Mushrooms, meetups and mainstreaming the movement to decriminalize drugs

Once at the vanguard of drug liberalization, Washington has fallen behind as others have legalized some psychedelics. Now one group of activists wants to catch up, and then some.

A man scoops mushrooms out of a clear baggie.

A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles earlier this year. (Richard Vogel/AP)

Seventeen men and women, young, old and middle-aged, recently gathered at a bed-and-breakfast in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood for a “psychedelic recovery” session. One by one they talked about their addictions — to heroin, cocaine, alcohol, pornography, TV, digital screens — and how they had overcome them or were working to overcome them with the clarifying, mind-focusing help of psilocybin mushrooms and other mind-altering substances

“I was a heroin addict for 20 years,” says Todd Youngs, a recovery coach who helped lead that session, as he does a much larger group called the Seattle Psychedelic Society. "I've been clean for 10 years. Ayahuasca [an Amazonian infusion that contains the powerful hallucinogen DMT] was largely responsible for aiding that process. It delivered to me the key ingredients of willingness, honesty and open-mindedness, which are not compatible with addiction. It gave me hope that I could actually change, that I could follow through on my principles."

In the nearby Capitol Hill neighborhood, a dozen people gathered at a bagel shop for a "psychedelic meetup," informally swapping tales and tips from their own drug-assisted seeking and finding. Only one even remotely fit the old-hippie stereotype of a happy holdout from the “psychedelic revolution" of the 1960s; he found he was able to replace Adderral, a common prescription for ADHD, with regular microdoses of psilocybin, which “didn't mess up my life the way Adderral did.”

Another attendee, a former police officer and crane operator who definitely doesn't fit the stereotype, wondered if psychedelic therapy and diet will do for her degenerative myelitis what doctors who "just want to throw pills at problems" have failed to do. 

These gatherings and thousands more like them are instances of the “psychedelic renaissance,” as hailed by author Ben Sessa in 2012 and popularized by Michael Pollan’s hugely influential 2018 book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, the movement gained more steam in June when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health gave cautious encouragement to using psychedelics in research, even though they fall under the most severe federal prohibition. Then, in September, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine announced the creation of a new center dedicated to researching psychedelics. 

Meanwhile, in an elegant bungalow in northeast Seattle, a small circle of activists and "psychonauts" — among them a medical doctor, Youngs and another recovery coach and a veteran journalist who now devotes himself full-time to the psychedelic healing cause — gathered under the rubric Decriminalize Nature Seattle to hash out a political strategy.

Should they try to persuade the Seattle City Council to decriminalize magic mushrooms and their active ingredients, psilocybin and psilocin, as Denver voters did in May? Should they seek decriminalization of all "plant-based" psychedelics — including ayahuasca, peyote and igobaine — as the Oakland City Council did soon afterward? Or should they go for broke and try to decriminalize personal possession of all illicit drugs — for which they have to look all the way to Portugal for a precedent?

As it did years before with marijuana, Seattle is preparing to step up to the vanguard of drug-war reform. At their meeting, the Decriminalize Nature Seattle members made three decisions: They would attempt direct persuasion rather than public pressure, trying first to bring the King County Board of Health to their side, then the Seattle City Council. At the urging of former Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata, who is advising them, they decided to wait until 2020, when the new council elected earlier this month will be seated. And, by a 4-3 vote, they decided they would seek decriminalization of the personal possession and use of all so-called recreational drugs, not just psychedelics.

That last choice remains controversial even within the group. “I preferred to just go for psychedelics,” says one member, journalist-turned-campaigner Eric Swenson, “to have a sure win rather than a probable loss through overreach.” Recovered addict Youngs opposes “laissez-faire decriminalization of all hard drugs. Trafficking groups will hide under that cover.”

I preferred to just go for psychedelics, to have a sure win rather than a probable loss through overreach.
— Eric Swenson

But Hila Corazon, the recovery coach who proposed the blanket-decriminalization goal, sees it as a matter of equity: “Even in the psychedelic community, a lot of people want to separate ‘good drugs’ from ‘bad drugs.’ A lot of privileged people already have their access and want to be safe.” Meanwhile, using other drugs would still expose the less privileged to arrest and prosecution. “We’re trying to aim a little bit high," Corazon explains. "I think the incremental approach is a reasonable plan. But I also think we should go for it all and then cut back if we need to. If we talk to these new council members and they just aren't buying it, we can taper back.”

Wherever the effort winds up, it will follow a path blazed 16 years ago when Seattleites passed Initiative 75, making marijuana for personal use “the city’s lowest law enforcement priority.”­ I-75 was a prelude to full legalization statewide, approved by voters in 2012, and a template for the new wave of similar measures across the West directed at psychedelics.

In addition to the recent actions in Denver and Oakland, statewide initiative drives are currently underway in California, in hopes of decriminalizing psilocybin, and in Oregon, where advocates hope to legalize it, but only for use in “supervised, licensed facilities.” Previous drives in those states failed to get enough signatures, but Ryan Munevar, campaign director of Decriminalize Nature California, argues it still makes sense to seek reform statewide rather than city by city, and by initiative rather than resolution. “A statewide measure really changes things,” he explains. “And resolutions don’t have as much strength as initiatives. They can be flipped like that, if you have a pissed-off city attorney.”

Munevar adds that he’s heard from people in Hawaii and Nevada interested in launching decriminalization campaigns there. On October 16, a Chicago City Council member introduced a resolution endorsing psychedelic therapy and research and directing police to stop enforcing laws against psilocybin and other natural psychedelics.

I think the incremental approach is a reasonable plan. But I also think we should go for it all and then cut back if we need to.
— Hila Corazon

Corazon, the recovery coach, says the Cascadia Psychedelic Community, which she founded, is one in a network of more than 100 local psychedelic societies stretching from San Francisco to Norway, Britain, Spain, Holland, Portugal, Hungary, the Czech Republic “and even Nashville.” At an international conference last year, representatives of those societies traded notes on decriminalization, legalization and intracommunity challenges, including efforts to guard against sexual abusers operating as therapists.

Closer to home, the Port Townsend Psychedelic Society, which seeks to decriminalize all “entheogenic plants and fungi” throughout Jefferson County, has already made its case to the local health board, city council, mayor, police chief and county commission. "So far, everyone has been curious, open-minded and helpful," says Erin Reading, a member of the campaign.

All in all, says Corazon, “we’re happy to be getting a second or third or 11th chance, whichever it is,” to realize the full medical and social potential of psychedelics.

The first chance came serendipitously, in 1943, when a Swiss chemist named Albert Hoffmann accidentally absorbed a bit of lysergic acid diethylamide, a prospective respiratory stimulant he had developed, and experienced a psychedelic trip. Hoffmann went on to synthesize psilocin, psilocybin and other hallucinogens and to hail LSD, his original "problem child," as a valuable aid to meditation and psychotherapy.

In the 1950s and early ’60s, psychotherapists reported bracing, even “miraculous” results using LSD to treat alcoholism, depression and anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Even Bill Wilson (“Bill W.”), the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, tried it and hailed its potential; Cary Grant announced his 60 sessions with LSD had made him “a happy man.” Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life magazines, and his wife, the conservative icon Clare Booth Luce, were enthusiastic psychedelic samplers and boosters. One of Luce’s headline writers coined the term “magic mushrooms.”

Then, what Licata calls “bad marketing” — in the form of countercultural excess and the messianic antics of the psychedelic researcher-turned-showman Timothy Leary — “got in the way.”

Fantastic, sometimes fabricated tales of LSD-induced suicides and other horrors became media staples. President Richard Nixon, fearing (rightly) that chemically assisted mind expansion might encourage dissent and war resistance, declared the first War on Drugs. Drugs proved handy scapegoats and political cudgels — just as they would in the 1980s, when the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations rekindled the war. In the 1972 campaign, Nixon’s supporters falsely but successfully tarred Democrat George McGovern as the candidate of “acid, amnesty [for draft resisters] and abortion.”

And so psychedelics joined heroin and marijuana on the federal Schedule I list of drugs with "no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse." Funding dried up and research died for nearly three decades. Studies restarted, quietly, in the late ’90s and have accelerated since. Better-controlled formal trials and extensive, if covert, treatment experience have supported the earlier findings.

The new John Hopkins center will explore psilocybin’s effectiveness at treating opioid addiction, Alzheimer's disease, PTSD, chronic Lyme disease, anorexia, and alcohol use in people with major depression. MDMA (Ecstasy), an amphetamine derivative with effects resembling the classic psychedelics, has proven so effective at treating PTSD in early trials that FDA approval for general use is widely anticipated by 2021.

Contrary to what their Schedule I listing presumes, LSD and psilocybin have in seven decades shown virtually no addictive or fatal overdose potential (though they can trigger severe psychological effects in vulnerable individuals, especially in casual, unguided use). Now these drugs are getting another chance in the courts of politics and public opinion.

But is decriminalization even needed in the relatively liberal, tolerant venues like Seattle where it’s most likely to succeed?

I thought, we're doing more harm to people who need help, who are already marginalized.
— Dan Satterberg, King County Prosecuting Attorney

In King County, Swenson argues, decriminalizing small quantities of all controlled substances “would just codify what’s already in place.” Last year, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, who says his bedside reading includes How to Change Your Mind, announced that his office would no longer file charges for seizures of less than 1 gram, about five average heroin doses.

It was a practical decision with humane consequences, Satterberg says: “I was facing a $3 million budget cut. [These cases] took us almost a year to file. They took the police six months to process.... At the end of the day they got gross misdemeanors [and jail time]. Simple possession, because it doesn't lead to prison, isn’t eligible for drug court. It’s a long due process trail that would lead to no real result. Until we're ready to make the process more helpful, I thought, we're doing more harm to people who need help, who are already marginalized.”

Dropping those filings eliminated 15,000 total days a year of costly jail time, adds Satterberg. And it freed up funds to extend to Burien the popular Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which connects offenders with caseworkers.

But prosecutorial forbearance lasts only until policies or officeholders change. During Seattle's recent city council races, public outcry erupted against official "tolerance" of conspicuous drug use and drug-related crime, along with homeless encampments and general disorder. Expect more of the same when Satterberg and Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes seek reelection.

Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell expresses the same sort of sympathy for low-level drug offenders as Satterberg. But he already wants to reverse the policy his predecessor instituted last year of not charging drug seizures of less than 2 grams — perhaps the most liberal threshold in the country.

That forbearance has sent the wrong message, says Cornell. “We're hearing that folks are really taking advantage of it, and it's creating harm for more vulnerable populations. I'm looking at something other than telling the community this is how you break the law.”

Anyway, says Cornell, police in Snohomish County have continued busting low-level drug offenders “at the same rate.” They just cycle through jail without being charged. And without the hammer of prosecution, he contends, his office can’t nudge them into diversion and treatment programs. (Cornell vows not to resume charging them unless he gets more funding for those programs.)

Regardless, prosecutions for psychedelic drugs have long been few and far between in King and Snohomish counties. Cornell says he’s only heard of a few, all involving MDMA, and recalls prosecuting only one MDMA case in the five years he handled gun and drug cases as an assistant U.S. attorney. Dan Katzer, a spokesperson for the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, says he saw few MDMA and no LSD or psilocybin cases in the four years he spent processing the office's seized drug samples for testing.

Members of the Port Townsend Psilocybin Society, meanwhile, fear that decriminalization could bring unwanted attention. “Our main resistance thus far,” says campaigner Erin Reading, “has been concerns that since the energy spent enforcing laws regarding psychedelics is already negligible, we should consider whether bringing attention to them is the right move” — especially in a place like the Olympic Peninsula, where magic mushrooms, mushroom hunters and mushroom culture already thrive below the radar. Still, she says, “we believe it's time to have this conversation, and especially to decriminalize these plants before they are legalized” — and, like cannabis, commercialized.

That conversation is likely to spread in the coming months. With a new, even more liberal and presumably sympathetic city council now anointed, the Decriminalize Nature Seattle advocates are preparing to make the civic rounds. Swenson says they plan to sound out the police, City Attorney's Office and health department, as well as the council. Corazon and her colleagues in the Cascadia Psychedelic Community plan to reach out to the broader public in April 2020, when they are scheduled to host the first Cascadia Psychedelic Community Conference at Town Hall.

Broad-based psychedelic awakenings have been predicted before and gotten squelched. But a new generation of healers, researchers and psychonauts hopes the "second or third or 11th" time's a charm.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.