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Decriminalize Nature Feels Growing Pains as Local Groups Clash with Board

Decriminalize Nature Feels Growing Pains as Local Groups Clash with Board

While the national leadership of the activist group Decriminalize Nature has supported dozens of local chapters to push for the reform of laws governing psychedelics, some of those chapters are now breaking away due to disagreements over guiding principles and conflicts with board members. As some groups and individuals shed their association with Decriminalize Nature, others are stepping into new relationships with the organization as DN’s goals evolve. 

When Decriminalize Nature was founded in ear​​ly 2019 during the early days of the psychedelic decriminalization movement, it took a stridently open source approach to organizing. Local chapters were encouraged to pursue their own strategies and policies within a big tent that, according to organizers, came to include 100 active grassroots initiatives across the country.  

Fast forward to August 2021, when the national board of Decriminalize Nature (DN) released a new set of guidelines for its local chapters, asserting that the national organization owns the trademark for its name and can assess whether local groups are adhering to its core principles. 

[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.]

Some of those principles are controversial, particularly DN’s insistence on the decriminalization of all psychedelic plants, including peyote, despite the protests of the Native American Church which believes that such a move could push the cactus towards extinction. Also of concern to some activists is DN’s rejection of all possession limits in laws governing psychedelic plants, a position which has put the organization at odds with other activists behind legislative efforts to decriminalize psychedelics in California and elsewhere. 

Some previously-affiliated groups, and leading activists within them, say that these positions impacted their decision to break away from DN. They also argue that DN is violating some of its own core principles including its stated commitment to transparency, open-source information sharing, and decentralization of leadership, which the group describes as  “not seeking to consolidate power and control among few people but instead training and supporting others to emerge as leaders in the movement.” Detractors say their experiences with DN do not reflect those principles.    

Some formerly affiliated DN groups and members say that control over selecting leaders for local chapters was taken away from them and national DN board members instead appointed outsiders. “It’s not open source like it claims in the handbook,” says Tatiana Q, a member of a local DN chapter in Seattle which has broken away from the national organization. 

Detractors also cite DN’s alleged lack of flexibility in support of incremental decriminalization, the national board’s position on peyote, and its historic lack of support for decriminalization of all controlled substances as factors in their departure. 

In addition, some former DN chapter members also allege that DN’s national board has moved in to take control of, or take credit for, local campaigns, including decriminalization efforts in Massachusetts and Seattle, Washington.

Diversity of Views as a Movement Expands

DN guidelines for its chapters are not currently published publicly and instead are shared with DN chapters by email. The guidelines were made available to Lucid News by a member of a local chapter.  

According to current DN national board members, the guidelines are intended to clarify the organization’s guiding principles and mission and also ensure that groups using the DN name are aligned with its mission. 

In the period leading up to the guidelines’ release in August 2021, several local DN chapters took actions to distance themselves from the national network. Some, like the Washington D.C. chapter, say they took this step  because the chapter had succeeded in passing psychedelic decriminalization initiatives in their cities and because decriminalization of just psychedelic plants was too narrow a focus for the work members are pursuing now. 

Local DN chapters working in the Washington state cities of Seattle and Tacoma, and the Massachusetts towns of Somerville, Cambridge, Easthampton, and Northampton, have broken away from the national DN organization entirely – or have seen key organizers leave their chapters to establish or join other activist organizations. Some of these organizers cited miscommunication and misalignment with DN co-founders Carlos Plazola and Larry Norris as contributing to their decision to distance themselves from the organization. 

The tensions between DN and its local chapters have surfaced during a period when the prevailing sentiment within the broader decriminalization movement for psychedelics is positive and forward-looking with growing support for local and statewide legislation and ballot measures. 

Some activist groups are forming new alliances with DN. Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), which recently announced a newly-formed partnership with DN, have found points of alignment and are forging ahead in collaboration with the organization. “There are a lot of DN supporters in SSDP,” says Jason Ortiz, the organization’s executive director, “and a lot of chapters work closely with DN chapters. It seems like a really natural alliance.”

Some activists declined to comment for this article and expressed discomfort about publicly criticizing DN because they don’t want to detract from what they see as the movement’s growing momentum. Others consider the realignment of DN local chapters as part of a healthy diversification of campaign strategies that reflects the movement’s growing maturity.

National Control over Local DN Chapters

While the national board of DN claims trademark ownership over the name of the organization, board members say that anyone can start a Decriminalize Nature chapter. Since 2020, DN’s website has included resources for organizers of local chapters, including downloadable packets of logos and an organizer’s handbook last updated in September 2020. To obtain the packet, and the right to use the DN logo, users submit their contact information and click a checkbox agreeing to use brand elements in alignment with the Decriminalize Nature Logo and Branding Agreement, which is included on the same page. 

While DN’s branding assets are readily available, the guidelines circulated to DN chapters point to a tightening of identity, branding, and positions. Julie Barron, a founder of Michigan Psychedelic Society, Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor (DNA2) and Decriminalize Nature Michigan (DN MI), joined DN’s national board in 2021. Barron says that she and other members of the board helped develop the new guidelines.

“I was part of DN when it truly was open source, when the idea really was to take the DN name and run with it,” says Barron. She adds that DN “was an amazing resource and support,” providing coaching that supported them as they forged a path toward decrim that fit their city. 

“But some organizations don’t align with the DN ethos,” explains Barron. “We have basic principles that we believe in. Organizations need to align with those to use the name.”

“As a board we put our foot down and said that these basic principles do need to line up,” she adds. Barron clarified that she is speaking as an individual rather than for the board, but that her principles do align with the board’s. 

Barron had no comment on DN’s position on peyote. She noted, however, that the organization’s work with SSDP has shifted its focus to the decriminalization of all drugs, not just plant substances. “That relationship [with SSDP] brewed and was cultivated within our Michigan movement,” says Barron who notes that the two groups joined forces to create the Michigan Initiative for Community Healing (MICH). “Our core points are the decriminalization of all entheogenic plants and fungi, the defelonization of all substances, allowing testing of all substances, and allowing some limited medical, therapeutic, and spiritual use.”

When asked about conflicts local chapters have had with the board, Barron says that issues have been more related to personalities “not meshing. People’s trauma triggering each other that can be really challenging. When we’re talking about things as passionately as we are, that can be the result.” She adds that the local chapters’ non-compliance with the goals of the DN national board “led to confusion at the national level.”

Barron reiterates that following the guidelines is a decision that each local chapter has to think about, but argues that DN’s successes are unparalleled in the decriminalization movement. “No other group has seen that level of success,” she says. “While people need to figure out where they sit and what feels right for them, this model is powerful. It’s the thing we are seeing that works the best.” 

In response to a request for comment, Plazola pointed Lucid News towards a recent interview he did with Spanish ayahuasca advocacy group Plantaforma. In the interview, Plazola argues  that DN works like a “mycelial network.” He traces the group’s success to its three organizing principles: decentralization of leadership, information sharing for groups within the network, and transparency. He also points to the use of education and social media as integral to DN’s achievements.

Local activists can start a DN chapter without permission from the board or even their knowledge. “We have leaders emerging every day [who] we don’t even know,” Plazola told Plantaforma. 

In the same interview, Plazola notes, however, that the national board exerts control over the local chapters. “If you don’t have controls on a movement then it’s not a movement,” he told Plantaforma. “You need a set of ethos and a set of values that define the movement. So the name is trademarked [and] we own the trademarks.”  

“If they choose to organize under the ‘Decriminalize Nature’ name,” Plazola says affiliated chapters or groups must embrace the DN position not to support possession limits as proposed by some state legislators considering psychedelic decriminalization bills – including pending legislation proposed in California where DN is based. 

“We require they agree to follow the ethos which include[s], for example, no limits on nature for natural persons and no closed task forces as part of the legislative initiatives. This is [to] protect the fundamental energy of the movement,” says Plazola. “If other groups want to advance the ethos, we will support them.” 

Groups wishing to use the DN name and logos must sign a statement that they will uphold the positions set forth in the guidelines, including supporting the decriminalization of all psychedelic plants and fungi including peyote and opposing possession limits. 

Plazola says local chapters that use the DN name have autonomy, but only if they share the positions of the national organization. “As long as people are following the ethos, the values and the principles of the organization,” says Plazola, “they can do whatever they want – as long as they’re advancing the cause.” 

But what happens when chapter members have different perspectives on DN decrim strategies? According to the guidelines, local groups who are not compliant will prompt the board to take action, which “may include the suspension of the use of the name Decriminalize Nature™ by the local group.” 

Speaking to Lucid News, Plazola suggests that groups who seek out DN affiliation agree to be affiliated with the organization’s positions in exchange for support. “The DN movement advances an ethos around protecting the sacredness of the plant medicine allies. To this end, we don’t try to control which groups advance the ethos,” says Plazola. But more often than not, it is groups that have opted to organize under the name of ‘Decriminalize Nature’ that lead their local movement since we offer them open source info, support and guidance.”

In his interview with Plantaform, Plazola said that DN plans to continue to expand both within the U.S. and internationally.  “The goal eventually is to go to the federal level and change the laws around plant medicines,” Plazola told Plantaforma. “Our hope is eventually to work with … other countries to build an international movement.”

DN’s goals of a unified international decrim movement could face challenges at home, where some of the tactics used by board members have proven controversial, or been abandoned by previously affiliated groups. 

Plazola has lashed out against those with different approaches. As Lucid News has reported, Plazola has published private emails in an attempt to discredit fellow activists, disparaged philanthropist David Bronner, and encouraged opposition to Oregon Measure 109 which decriminalized the adult use of psilocybin. 

Barron argues that much of the conflict surrounding DN is driven by personality conflicts. “When we’re talking about these things passionately, that can be challenging. DN is a disruptor with positive intentions.” 

“I want to sit down and have discussions and figure this out,” she adds. “We’re all on the same team, and infighting is making it harder for everyone.” 

Disputes Over Local Leadership

Local chapter members who have distanced themselves from DN say that their disputes are centered on ideological differences. If you visit the cached version of the website decriminalize natureseattle.org, you’ll be redirected to Psychedelic Medicine Alliance of Washington (PMAW). The site notes that “Decriminalize Nature Seattle is shifting gears.” Tatiana Q, a member of both groups, says that while DN Seattle still exists, members only use it to promote local educational events because they don’t support the national organization’s decrim tactics.  

“We didn’t change the name to Decriminalize Nature Washington because of the history we have with DN. They’ve made it clear ideologically what they’re looking for and we don’t fit that bill,” explains Q, who says the group wanted to focus on statewide decrim initiatives that didn’t mesh with DN’s philosophies. Q says the group objected to the board’s support for decriminalizing peyote and also had personality conflicts with founding board member Plazola. 

“Other groups have met the same fate,” adds Q, who notes that PMAW focuses on statewide decriminalization of psychedelic plants, excluding peyote. “We basically accomplished our goal in Seattle,” says Q, referring to the city’s successful passage of a city council resolution to decriminalize psychedelic plants and fungi last year.

Beyond these issues, Q says the DN board overstepped when she says they gave control of the chapter to previously unaffiliated members in 2021. 

“I don’t know the full story, and I don’t doubt Carlos was confused and felt ambushed,” Q says, “but I don’t think it justifies what happened.” According to Q, this is an example of how local chapters no longer have the autonomy to form their own policy positions and leadership teams.

Q notes that DN Seattle started hearing from DN’s board in January 2021, when Q and another member headed the group. Plazola and Norris asked them to turn over DN Seattle’s leadership to Richard Saguin and Lonnie Wells, who they referred to as the “board of DN Seattle.” According to Q, there had been friction between national DN’s board and DN Seattle’s leadership prior to this decision.

According to Saguin, the requested change in DN Seattle leadership was sparked by turnover in both DN Seattle and Entheo Society of Washington, created by DN Seattle member Leo Russell. “Leo Russell and the original Decriminalize Nature Seattle team chose to drop the ‘Decriminalize Nature’ name in July/August of 2020 and became the Entheo Society of Washington,” says Saguin. Q has a different view and says that the two organizations never officially merged. 

“Lonnie Wells and I asked Decriminalize Nature HQ in October 2020 if we could form a new Decriminalize Nature Seattle,” says Saguin, “and after interviewing us, Decriminalize Nature HQ gave us their blessing since the name was now available as no one was leading it.”

“Carlos and Larry were encouraging [Richard and Lonnie] to write letters to the city council saying they were DN Seattle,” counters Q. “We got emails from people asking what was going on, because we were advocating to council at the same time.” A meeting between DN Seattle and the national DN-appointed leadership “went poorly,” Q continues. The two men “said that they had been told they were the leadership in Seattle, and that we had given it up, and we were explaining that we hadn’t.” 

Communication issues and confusion about who Decriminalize Nature Seattle was – and is – persists. Saguin says that he and Wells are actually Decriminalize Nature Seattle, pointing Lucid News to Instagram, Twitter, and the site decriminalizenatureseattle.com (note the “dot com” at the end of the address, not “dot org”), which redirects to DN’s national page. Saguin says that Q is part of another group, Decrim Nature Seattle. 

Saguin explains that he and Wells were against an early version of Seattle’s decrim resolution.  This version was drafted by the former team at the DN Seattle chapter that Q was part of –   which Saguin calls “Decrim Nature.” That early version of the Seattle decrim resolution initially called for forming a taskforce to assess the efficacy of the legislation. 

“The formation of the taskforce was essentially writing the Decrim Nature team into power over entheogens, which we disagreed with,” says Saguin. The taskforce provision was later removed from the resolution, which passed unanimously in October 2021. The final resolution also excludes peyote, which Saguin notes “directly opposes the mission of Decriminalize Nature.” 

See Also

To make matters more confusing, Q notes that the name “Decrim Nature Seattle” has always been interchangeable with “Decriminalize Nature Seattle.” 

Q notes that she was not an active member of the group when the disagreement about the resolution occurred. “A lot of what happened was because our former leader, who has not worked with us since March of 2021, was not being transparent with people.” Q adds that many of the communication issues started before she joined the group and were glossed over by DN Seattle’s leadership. The earliest available archived version of the webpage, from March 28, 2021, gives more information on the transition. 

“There was an effort by Decriminalize Nature HQ to unify the groups in January 2021, but unfortunately there was not a meeting of the minds with the new leadership of the new Decrim Nature Seattle group,” argues Saguin, referring to the taskforce the early resolution draft called for. “Decriminalize Nature HQ was not the divisive force in any of this.”

Lucid News reached out to Russell, the original organizer of the DN Seattle chapter and founder of Entheo Society of Washington, to clarify what took place during this meeting, but did not receive answers by time of publication. 

Saguin says that his and Well’s board-approved DN chapter ​is active. “Decriminalize Nature Seattle is currently focusing on working towards a decriminalization ordinance in Seattle,” says Saguin. “We are also working towards state decrim as part of another group that does contain members of PMAW.” Saguin did not respond to a follow-up request for clarification on how the Seattle ordinance would differ from the city’s decrim resolution that already passed. 

Saguin adds that his DN Seattle chapter is connected with diverse communities, such as “Vietnamese, Pasifika, Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, Teochew, Korean, Latinx, and LGBTQIA” and is particularly focused on bringing them together and “making space for BIPOC and immigrant voices and supporting decolonization in psychedelics, cannabis, and decriminalization.” PMAW say that they also focus on equity and “dismantling … outdated and harmful drug war policies” that have disproportionately impacted BIPOC communities.

Guidance or Overstepping?

DN national board members, including Plazola and Norris, say they have provided guidance to chapters creating frameworks for local and state legislation, sometimes speaking at municipal meetings when decriminalization is on the agenda. Norris previously told Lucid News that this support does not counter the decentralized model of the organization, but rather “empowers leadership.”

Barron, a therapist, notes that she appreciated the support she got from the co-founders for efforts in Ann Arbor, as she “came to this entire political arena with no experience.”

Barron says that Michigan Psychedelic Society, the group she led that eventually aligned with DN, was in agreement with DN’s ethos, which she explains as “the love for humanity and nature, an unalienable right to develop one’s own relationship with nature, and grassroots and bottom-up organization,” and found Plazola and Norris to be “an amazing resource and support.” 

“We didn’t need to reinvent the wheel,” says Barron. “They walked me through the whole thing, without forcing their ideas but allowing us to create something that worked for our city.” Ultimately, Barron set up Decriminalize Nature Michigan to pursue statewide decriminalization. 

Oversight Versus Autonomy

Though the national DN board often steps in to work with local chapters and says it encourages new chapters to “reach out to discuss strategies, tactics, and goals,” the increasing large number of DN-affiliated organizations across the country present an ongoing challenge of balancing autonomy with control. Some critics of DN also allege that national leadership has taken credit for work that local groups have done.

“Currently the board is isolated,” says Chacruna founder Bia Labate of the DN national board. “Many people that follow them have their hearts in the right place, but are either naïve to the drug reform movement or unaware of [DN’s] disrespect to the majority of the Native American leadership in the United States and Mexico, and their conflictive approach.”  

“They have a large presence online but not on the ground in their home community,” Labate  adds. “They tend to represent publicly all achievements in the field of decriminalization as their own.” 

James Davis says that he experienced DN leadership attempting to take credit for the work of a local chapter in a way that brought them into conflict. Davis is a volunteer leader for Bay Staters for Natural Medicine (BSNM) and previously a leader of a DN Massachusetts local chapter. Davis says BSNM is a grassroots, volunteer-run organization that led successful decriminalization efforts in Somerville, Cambridge, Easthampton, Northampton and several other cities. He says more campaigns are ongoing across the state.

“We have chosen to no longer affiliate with Decriminalize Nature’s national chapter because Carlos Plazola has lied about his role in Somerville, attacked me in correspondences with volunteers I introduced to him to help him in good faith, and attacked my character for writing the Massachusetts measures in a way that ends all drug possession arrests, not just for psychedelic plants,” says Davis. 

Davis adds that Plazola and Norris overstated their involvement in Somerville’s decriminalization resolution in interviews, including an article in Lucid News. In that article, Plazola and Norris said they supported the DN MA team early in the process of moving decriminalization forward in Somerville, including identifying that city as the first target for decriminalization efforts in Massachusetts. 

“I had never corresponded with Carlos Plazola,” Davis says. “I wrote the Somerville measure. I organized friends and neighbors to make calls. I lived in Somerville. That’s why it happened here. And yet he claimed to have ‘picked Somerville.’ That is a bold-faced lie.” 

Davis previously stated in a story covered by Lucid News that “Larry and Carlos deserve a shout out” for their work in Ann Arbor, “but so [did] the many unsung heroes who worked their tails off for a brighter future.” Bay Staters also referred to DN as their “state partner” in a Facebook post from November 2020.

Lucid News made repeated attempts to speak with current DN MA chapter members. In a Facebook message thread in February 2020, Jake Boynton, a Massachusetts-based member of the local chapter , said it is still an active chapter and agreed to be interviewed. Follow-up emails and calls from Lucid News to Boynton were not returned. 

The website and contact email for the DN MA chapter provided on the Facebook page point to the national organization. The Twitter account affiliated with the chapter has no tweets and also links to the national DN website. The future of the local Massachusetts chapter appears uncertain as local activists and the DN national board collectively navigate the future of the psychedelic decrim movement in all its complexity. 

CORRECTION

This article has been updated to correct a reference to Leo Russell as a founder of DN Seattle; he was a member but not a founder.

• • •

This is part 1 of a 2-part series. In part 2 (click here) we examine policy positions Decriminalize Nature’s board has taken on peyote that have proven controversial. We also look at what the future might hold for the larger grassroots psychedelic decriminalization movement as more organizations step into this work.

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.

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