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Decrim Movement Split Over Peyote, Possession Limits, and Tactics

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Decrim Movement Split Over Peyote, Possession Limits, and Tactics

This article is part 2 of a series. For part 1, click here. Series author Ali McGhee spoke with Ken Jordan, Lucid News editorial director, on Twitter Spaces about this series on Tuesday, April 26. Click here to listen.

Decriminalize Nature, the national organization that has brought together local chapters to advocate for the decriminalization of psychedelics, is proud of its guidelines. These guidelines emphasize its commitment to ensuring equitable access to all plants and fungi containing psychedelic compounds that are currently on the Schedule 1 list of controlled substances. The group also advocates for decriminalization of these substances without possession limits that are sometimes part of state initiatives. 

Among the plants that DN calls for decriminalizing is peyote, a controversial stance among psychedelic activists and one that has thrown DN’s national board of directors into the spotlight, including public disagreements with other leaders and organizers in the field. 

Citing widespread concern that the overharvesting of wild peyote threatens the plant with extinction, several groups have cut ties with DN citing the organization’s stance on peyote as a central factor. Nathan Howard, of the Plant Medicine Healing Alliance (PMHA), a national organization that focuses on decriminalization efforts in Portland and Oregon, notes that “people, including DN’s founders, have gone in different directions because of things like what we’ve seen with the National Council of Native American Churches (NCNAC), which has made really clear requests not to include their sacred medicine” in decrim efforts.

Howard adds that “peyote is trending in the wrong direction.” He says that personality clashes between DN leadership and other individuals and groups have caused fractures within the organization that has affected the larger psychedelic advocacy movement. 

Bia Labate, Chacruna founder and spokesperson, criticizes DN’s continued conflicts with the NCNAC and others over peyote. She says Chacruna does not currently foresee a future relationship with DN. “We originally supported DN with feedback, published a few articles, with a few live interviews, supported the City Council meetings in Oakland, and spread their word, as well as invited them to our events,” Labate says. “However, we no longer collaborate with them.” 

Howard says he sees most policy initiatives at the state and local level aligning with the NCNAC’s wishes and evolving into independent groups instead of local DN chapters. “Santa Cruz and Seattle removed peyote from the list, as did our measure in Portland,” says Howard of the local chapters who had views that are different from DN leadership. “There’s a complete policy picture emerging here. Groups are getting the policies right, but some are changing their names. To many of us it seems this is mostly about a couple of people who are moving from what feels like a divisive, binary framework rather than from a healing, listening place.”

The Heroic Hearts Project, which offers programs for veterans interested in psychedelic medicine, has respected the NCNAC’s stance on peyote. It has also shifted away from working with DN’s national board to collaborating directly with locally-based affiliate organizations. “We’re the co-sponsors of the California bill, which purposely left out peyote” at the request of the NCNAC, says founder Jesse Gould of California Senate Bill B519, California’s proposed decriminalization bill. “There are arguments on both sides,” he adds, “but we felt it was still a good bill without having that.”

The Issue of Incrementalism 

Decriminalize Nature is against the inclusion of possession limits on entheogenic plants and fungi, a position the organization describes as “full decriminalization.” The more incremental approach some groups have taken at the local and statewide level, which embraces some possession limits and omits peyote, means they do not align with DN’s guidelines. 

These conflicting views were highlighted recently when two competing psychedelics ballot initiatives were introduced in Colorado. The first ballot initiative takes an approach similar to California’s SB519, and includes possession limits but does not include peyote. A week later, a competing DN-backed ballot initiative was filed which has no possession limits.

“There’s an unwillingness to compromise or appreciate the political realities that shape our conversations,” Howard says, referring to DN. “PMHA allies are trying to get a bill passed through the California Assembly, but the bill would have died unless we included some sort of caps – we proposed high caps with allowance for aggregating amounts for communal use.”

“We need to compromise for the greater good, and the diverse advisory team came up with language that we feel was a great compromise, expanding caps for those who are supporting groups,” continues Howard. “There are two leaders of a branch of DN in Oakland that are unwilling to make that compromise, or appreciate what is politically feasible when trying to pass something in a state with over 30 million residents and with hundreds of pieces of legislation.”

Jason Ortiz, Executive Director for the SSDP, agrees that the incremental approach is more likely to get pending legislation across the finish line. “I have found that there is this thread that if a policy isn’t perfect, we shouldn’t do it at all,” he says. “People look at a bill and say, ‘It doesn’t do X, so I’m opposed.’ The issue of radical change versus incremental change was definitely coming to a head during cannabis legalization, and it was almost getting to the point where we wouldn’t have supported legalization then. It’s about being incremental, but also comprehensive.” 

Melissa Lavasani, former Chairwoman of local chapter DNDC, in Washington, D.C., dissolved that organization after the passage of Initiative 81, which declares that police shall treat the non-commercial cultivation, distribution, possession, and use of entheogenic plants and fungi among the lowest law enforcement priorities. Lavasani now heads the Psychedelic Medicine Coalition, which she says supports “any reform that moves the needle in a positive way” within federal and state governments interested in reform.

“The discussion had to expand past decrim and natural plants,” says Lavasani. “I had to broaden what we were going to pursue policy-wise because there is other progress to make out of the decrim argument, which is also incredibly important.”

“We understand that while decrim is incredibly important, as it opens a window to access across all demographics and potentially protects practitioners working directly with the community, it’s not always attainable in any given jurisdiction,” Lavasani continues. “Some lawmakers hear the word decrim and their minds are flooded with the hysteria and propaganda created by the war on drugs, which potentially threatens the chance of passing reform. If we open the conversation with a focus on educating our government officials, meeting them where they are, and focusing on what’s realistically attainable, we can then slowly chip away at policies and broaden what we can do with psychedelic reform.”

New Groups Step Into Decriminalization without the DN Name

Other organizations are stepping into efforts to pass decriminalization measures with no past or present affiliation to Decriminalize Nature. One of these, Decriminalize Massachusetts, is working to decriminalize all drugs at the state level. Founder Peter Lakov collaborated with both independent group Bay Staters for Natural Medicine and locally-based DN chapter Decriminalize Nature Massachusetts, but ultimately decided to create something different from either. 

“If I used their name I would tie myself to a structure and have limitations imposed,” he says, noting that the Massachusetts decriminalization bill H.2119, which Lakov hopes will come up for a vote this summer, will remove penalties for possession of all controlled substances beyond either a $50 fine or a needs screening “to identify health and other service needs,” including substance use and mental health disorders, lack of housing or food, or need for civil legal services, in which case the fine would be waived. 

Lakov also decided not to join Bay Staters because he says they’re focused on both decriminalization and legalization simultaneously and work on a city by city level. Decriminalization means that drugs remain illegal, but enforcing penalties becomes the lowest priority for law enforcement. Legalization changes the legal status of a formerly illegal substance, and makes it subject to regulation.

Lakov is hopeful that H.2119, which just got its first Republican co-sponsor, will pass with bipartisan support. Neither Bay Staters nor DN MA has endorsed the bill. 

He adds that Bay Staters were responsible for much of the success of local decriminalization measures so far in Massachusetts cities like Cambridge, Northampton, and Easthampton. If DN MA helped these efforts at all, says Lakov, “it was a decreasing curve” that dropped off early in the process. 

According to Lakov, Decriminalize Massachusetts doesn’t feel like they’re in competition with either organization. He notes that DN MA, which Lucid News could not reach despite repeated attempts, is more focused on educational initiatives. As for Bay Staters, “We agree to disagree on some points, the work we both do is going to help the movement. It’s valuable to have more than one organization working on this.”

“We’re helping to expand the vision of what’s possible,” Lakov adds. 

New Alliances Focus on Policy, not Personality

Other groups are moving toward alliances with DN’s national board and affiliate chapters, including SSDP, which announced recently that it was forming a partnership with DN “to promote compassion and community based healing public policy” in campaigns across the U.S. 

According to Ortiz, this alliance will pair the organization’s “youth leaders” with DN’s “community practitioners” to work towards their shared drug policy goals of decriminalization and reparations. Their efforts are currently focused on Michigan, where the local DN and SSDP chapters have crossover membership, and will use that experience to model other collaborations.

Ortiz says that SSDP appreciates Decriminalize Nature’s impact on drug policy reform, despite the personality clashes between DN leadership and other groups. “It was clear instantly that there were polarizing opinions on DN, and 95% were personality conflicts. SSDP is a policy organization, and I wasn’t personally a part of personality conflicts. I wanted to start focusing on the law.” 

While SSDP’s official position is to advocate for the decriminalization of all drugs, Ortiz says he encouraged the group to accept DN’s narrower focus on psychedelics so the organizations could work together. Ortiz notes that “DN was filling a void of grassroots organizing in this space. It seemed like poor strategy to approach this as if we were players in different spaces. They’re pushing resolutions all over the country, and they can help us be more effective pushing ours.” 

“There were concerns among our staff that they are psychedelic exceptionalists,” Ortiz adds. “My thought is we should engage them in conversation and try to change that.” While some in SSDP were hesitant, many members were already involved with DN. 

“SSDP wants to work with anyone willing to help us end the war on drugs,” he says. He adds that DN leadership has agreed in conversation to help push the decriminalization of all drugs. Currently, the ballot measure DN and SSDP are working on in Michigan, the Michigan Initiative for Community Health (MICH), includes the defelonization of all drugs. “That’s is not the same as decrim,” he notes, “but it’s a step in that direction.” Defelonization means that penalties for drug possession are lowered from felonies to misdemeanors, while decriminalization removes penalties for possession. 

Ortiz clarifies that SSDP has taken no stance on the decriminalization of peyote. “The peyote cactus is unique in all drugs in that it’s the only endangered species on the Controlled Substance list,” he says. “If we want to figure out the best way to talk about environmental conservation, we can add that to the policy we push, but I’m not convinced we should keep things criminal across the board.”

“We don’t generally have single-drug campaigns,” Ortiz continues. “The idea that we would want to do this one drug at a time doesn’t make sense. We are a multi-drug organization.” 

The Case of Colorado

Pro-decriminalization organizations, even those discouraged by in-fighting, remain hopeful about the future of decrim, especially as more and more decriminalization bills pass across the country. 

What does the diversification of the decriminalization movement look like on the ground? Competing ballot measures recently filed in Colorado highlight key differences in approaches to psychedelic decriminalization and legalization. 

The first measure was filed by New Approach PAC, a D.C.-based political action committee under the executive directorship of Graham A. Boyd, the political director of Dr. Bronner’s and the co-founder and executive director of the Psychedelic Science Funders Collaborative. New Approach has filed measures supporting legalization of marijuna and entheogenic plants and fungi in multiple states and the District of Columbia.

Rick Ridder, a spokesperson for New Approach’s campaign and the president and co-founder of RBI Strategies, a consulting and research firm, explains that the proposed Natural Medicine Health Act “pursues a two tiered approach for access to natural medicines. Ridder says this would allow state regulators time to prepare a robust regulatory process,” initially creating “regulated therapeutic access to psilocybin” and psilocyn, following the FDA’s designation of psilocybin as a breakthrough therapy for the treatment of depression. 

“Then beginning in June 2026,” Ridder says, “the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies could expand the policy change to include three other natural medicines – dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ibogaine, and mescaline (excluding peyote) – all of which demonstrate unique healing and therapeutic properties.”

According to Ridder, the act would establish “natural medicine access programs” regulated by the state’s Department of Regulatory Agencies and used by approved healing centers “and other permitted entities.” It would also require the creation of an advisory board to support implementation.

The proposed Colorado legislation also includes a section on the establishment of “procedures, policies, and programs” to ensure that “the regulatory access program is equitable and inclusive,” particularly for members of communities “that have been disproportionately harmed by high rates of controlled substances arrests,” as well as people who have “faced barriers to healthcare,” veterans and people with “a traditional or Indigenous history with natural medicines.” 

“We have significant grassroots support,” notes Ridder. “One of our proponents is Kevin Mathews, the leader of the Denver psilocybin initiative. In addition, our steering committee has members who have worked closely with decrim activists.”

The second measure, filed by local DN Chapter Decriminalize Nature Colorado, focuses on decriminalization of psychedelic plants and some substances. It would allow adults 21+ to possess, cultivate, gift and deliver psilocybin, psilocyn, ibogaine, mescaline (excluding peyote) and DMT.

DN Colorado and Boulder County’s founder, Nicole Foerster, was previously involved with Denver’s successful psilocybin decriminalization initiative in 2019, the first of its kind in the nation. After the successful passage of that legislation, Foertster stepped into a leadership role in Boulder. She explains that the proposed DN-backed ballot initiative has wide support “from a coalition of Colorado activists” who say they see New Approach’s move to file a measure as “an out-of-state corporate interest co-opting a local movement to serve their interests.” 

“We do not support the regulatory framework proposed by the Natural Medicine Health Act or the process by which they are engaging with our community,” Foerster says. “There is, however, broad support for decriminalization first. And that is what we are advocating for. We believe no one should go to prison for the possession and use of these medicines.”

Foerster adds that while DN Colorado does not support the Natural Medicine Health Act, “the two initiatives do not necessarily ‘compete’ in language, only in strategy, values, and organizing philosophy. If both win, they would both become law. The addition of our initiative would ensure that all personal use is actually protected from criminalization as the Natural Medicine Health Act has a lot of vague language around this piece.”

Foerster claims that the Natural Medicine Health Act does not respect traditional uses of psychedelic substances by Indigenous groups. “We believe that the expediting of regulatory frameworks for the treatment of mental illnesses proposed by out of state corporate interest bypasses the traditional and Indigenous uses of these medicines and voice concern that no one should have to buy into a practice they have practiced for centuries.”

The Natural Medicine Health Act includes a personal use section, which states that penalties should not exceed more than four hours of free drug education or counseling or a fine not in excess of $250 for cultivation. Foerster says her group is critical of that language and finds it too vague. “We question whether or not it is robust enough to provide those protections especially given that the intention of the [act] is to commercialize the medicines by creating a regulated access program which is in direct conflict with the intentions of many who have used these medicines for centuries,” Foerster explains. 

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In response to this critique, Ridder notes that “The Natural Medicine Health Act ends criminal prosecution simply for the personal use and possession of natural medicines, because no one should be arrested for trying to heal. The measure includes a series of guardrails to promote safety. It does not allow for the sale of natural medicines for recreational use.”

The fate of both Colorado measures could foreshadow possible outcomes in other states where initiatives from competing organizations go head to head. “Decriminalize Nature Colorado and the Natural Medicine Health Act conflict in philosophy, strategy, and underlying value,” argues Foerster. “Both initiatives are participating in direct democracy. Both will be petitioning to be on the ballot in 2022. Colorado voters get to make the decision to help petition for both, neither, or one. Colorado voters get to make the decision to sign for both, neither, or one. If both get on the ballot, Colorado voters will have the decision to vote for both, neither, or one.”

“We are witnessing the beauty of democracy and citizen driven petitioning,” she continues. “But we are also witnessing the ability for major funding and out of state corporate interest to dictate local politics. And as it is our right and responsibility, we are responding by campaigning for what grassroots communities have expressed they want to see reflected in policy.” Lucid News reached out to clarify funding sources for DN Colorado’s measure, but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Foerster insists that the New Approach’s connection to Bronner, with whom Plazola in particular has publicly been in conflict, has little bearing on DN Boulder County’s filing, or its mission and goals. “It is important to not see this as another rendition of the tension present in the space between the CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Soap Company and Decriminalize Nature National,” arguing again that the issue is, rather, about corporate versus community interest.

Organizers will be watching as voters in Colorado decide whether to pursue decriminalization, medical uses, or neither.

Looking Ahead

Whatever the decision made by Colorado voters on the two ballot measures, the movement for psychedelic decriminalization is going strong even as activists sort through their disagreements. 

“Decriminalization is happening everywhere,” says Barron. “It’s growing and spreading, and it keeps me so invigorated in this movement. DN is making connections with great organizations – both on the national level and smaller groups with local focus. It’s a beautiful coming together.”

“And I think DN is also growing out of the psychedelic exceptionalism that was there at the beginning,” continues Barron. We have a beautiful developing relationship with SSDP that was cultivated with our Michigan movement. We’ve focused on what works, and now we’re expanding it.” 

For Howard, thinking of the future helps keep present conflicts in perspective. “We’ll look back in a couple of years or decades and a lot of these dramas will be swept aside,” he notes. “The history that gets written will show that a nation woke up after more than 50 years of the War on Drugs. This is a time of powerful positive transformation, and as such it isn’t surprising that we’re faced with emotional challenges as a part of the process.” 

According to Howard, creating infrastructure, including community-sponsored and regulated ethics and best practices, is the next step. “There’s no melodrama that will stop this or make people discouraged,” Howard says. “By the end of the decade, I’m hopeful we’ll see a science-based, heart-centered federal policy for all entheogens, and the beginnings of the deconstruction of the prison-industrial complex.” 

Labate agrees that creating and promoting “best practices” and “ethical standards” is an organic next step. “A lot of really good organizations are emerging and the community is progressively self-organizing,” she says.

For Ortiz, getting more people trained in community organizing is vital. “We need more people who know the process, and we need people power to push back on what’s happening with the financial situation,” says Ortiz. “We can’t go back and build a network a year from now. We’ve seen tremendous amounts of money pouring into psychedelics.”

“The FDA can allow companies to sell psychedelic therapy without decriminalizing anything. We should be pulling in more folks to really engage and build capacity,” notes Ortiz. “An organization like DN already has chapters all over the country and can align a lot of power very quickly.” 

Gould recognizes that infighting can potentially hinder the cause of decriminalization, but is optimistic that productive conversations will continue. “Clashing can potentially hurt since we’re already working against stigma,” he says. “It doesn’t look good for anyone, but there’s not necessarily one monolithic approach to this. People will vote for what they think.” 

That diversity of thought, says Gould, might end up helping to strengthen the decriminalization movement. “You can already see the creativity in the legislative process in bills that passed in Texas versus Oregon or California,” he says. “They are all unique, and they all push the movement forward.” 

Gould says he recognizes that veterans will continue to play a foundational role, uniting otherwise divided groups and bringing them to the table. “The veterans’ story seems to be the glue that makes this a bipartisan issue,” he says. “We have a pivotal voice in a lot of these policies.”

Gould also appreciates conscious efforts to make the decrim movement more inclusive and equitable. “Even if there is tension, this is one of the first movements to consider all of the voices of previously marginalized groups, so I do respect that,” Gould adds. “People are generally sincere in their desire for a better world.”

This article is part 2 of a series. For part 1, click here

Series author Ali McGhee spoke with Ken Jordan, Lucid News editorial director, on Twitter Spaces about this series on Tuesday, April 26. Click here to listen.

CORRECTION: Colorado ballot proposal; peyote was not included among the plants to be decriminalized.

Image: Nicki Adams

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