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How Ann Arbor Decriminalized Psychedelic Plants and Fungi

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How Ann Arbor Decriminalized Psychedelic Plants and Fungi

The city of Ann Arbor, Michigan has joined the California cities of Oakland and Santa Cruz in decriminalizing entheogenic plants and fungi. Ann Arbor’s City Council unanimously passed the resolution after a campaign organized by Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor (DNA²), which had support from DN’s board of directors. The resolution is adapted from the DN resolution that passed in Oakland in 2019. 

Ann Arbor’s resolution, passed on September 21, makes it the city’s lowest priority to investigate and arrest anyone for possessing, distributing, cultivating, transporting, or engaging in practices with entheogenic plants or plant compounds, including ayahuasca, iboga, psychedelic fungi, and mescaline. 

While Ann Arbor’s resolution only applies to the city, Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit said in a statement to DNA² on the group’s Facebook page that he supports the decriminalization of all entheogenic plants and does not plan to prosecute the use or possession of entheogenic plants in any other part of the county. It’s a move that technically puts Ann Arbor in front of Oakland and Santa Cruz, which have not yet approved county-level decriminalization.   

The executive director of DNA², Julie Barron, emphasizes that the unanimous vote was the result of an organized, supported effort by the group with the help of DN’s board, as well as the City Councilmembers that sponsored the legislation. 

Barron also founded the nonprofit Michigan Psychedelic Society (MPS) four years ago. Decriminalization has been one of its goals since its creation. “Once we started seeing Decriminalize Nature Oakland in the national spotlight more and more, we knew that we had a model to follow,” she says. “We pulled a team together and worked to adapt Oakland’s resolution specifically for Ann Arbor.”

The group worked for several months, beginning in June of 2019, before doing any outreach to the Ann Arbor City Council in late 2019 and early 2020. Early efforts included building a website and creating publication materials and organizing two fundraisers. 

“We tried to be as official as possible, because we were working to garner support for the resolution through Council and the community of Ann Arbor,” says Barron. “And we wanted people to take us seriously.” She adds that there was a great deal of public support for the resolution.

Barron credits DN co-founders Carlos Plazola and Larry Norris, who the group reached out to about six months into the process, for their critical support as DNA² gathered materials and adapted the resolution. 

“Those guys were the greatest gift to us,” says Barron. “They walked us through everything and provided us with a wealth of information, knowledge and resources. They kept guiding us back towards DN’s principles, which are so much about just trying to make these plants and fungi available to people, as they should be.”

Norris, who received an undergraduate degree in biopsychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan and also had his first entheogenic experience in Ann Arbor, sat in on the team’s steering committee sessions, listening and sharing insights from DN’s experiences elsewhere. He emphasizes that DNA² led the process. 

“DN’s decentralized model empowers leadership,” says Norris. “Now they have the wisdom of how this process works and can help become a regional center in the county and in Michigan, empowering local leaders themselves to support the DN process.”

According to Barron, Plazola and Norris advised that the group remove any mention of peyote in the resolution, instead using the term “mescaline.” 

“We did that really early on as soon as we were aware of the broader issue,” says Barron. “DN was very clear about that.” Lucid News has reported most recently on the controversy surrounding peyote within decriminalization efforts and the tactics of DN national leaders here.  

Once they had their materials together, Barron says that DNA² reached out to Ann Arbor Councilmember Anne Bannister. Barron says Bannister was the first to come on board after she met Barron and fellow activist Chuck Ream at Ann Arbor’s annual Hash Bash. 

“I’m so proud of this vote, and really optimistic about the research particularly,” says Bannister, who introduced the resolution along with council member Jeff Hayner. “I’ve heard from so many therapists saying they really need access to these medicines for patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.”

The Covid-19 pandemic emerged just as DNA² began to ramp up their efforts. “It was right around the pandemic, but we didn’t stop,” says Barron. 

Barron says the group stayed organized and adapted as meetings moved online, engaging the Council in a six month-long educational campaign that included expert testimonials from across the country. 

Norris notes that DNA² was the only team that continued to work towards the resolution in the midst of the lockdown. “We offer the same support to every team assuming the timeline and schedule works,” he says. “Because of the coronavirus situation, it got more difficult for some teams to continue their work. Ann Arbor was the only team in the U.S. that continued to push forward despite the lockdown, so I got to put my time and energy there.”

The efforts to stay focused during the pandemic extended beyond DNA²’s core team. “We also had residents reaching out to Council strategically,” says Barron. “It was quite an orchestration.”

Bannister and Hayner brought the resolution before the Ann Arbor Council during the Sept. 21 meeting. Bannister notes that eight of the allowed 10 public comments taken at the beginning of the meeting were from PhDs, PhD candidates, and mental health professionals who presented expert testimony that ultimately pushed Council to its unanimous vote. 

“This is where Covid actually helped us,” says Bannister. “Before the pandemic, you’d have to come to City Hall in person, but people were able to call in from around the country, and they were very convincing and compelling.” 

Norris, who now lives in the Bay Area, was one of those callers. “I spoke to the national movement and let them know that they weren’t sticking their necks out here,” he says of his participation in the Council meeting. “Ann Arbor was one of the first places to decriminalize cannabis with the $5 fine. It makes sense for them to be on the right side of history here.”

Bannister also credits a call that came towards the end of the meeting, at approximately 1 a.m., as showing the impact on the vote. “A citizen called in to thank us and share that this natural medicine was what had helped him stay alive, and it almost brought tears to your eyes,” she says. 

The unanimous vote came as a surprise for both Council and DNA². “We were pretty sure we had our vote,” says Barron, “but we didn’t know it would be unanimous.” 

One previously vocal opponent, Councilmember Jane Lumm, had been highly critical of the resolution. “So we didn’t have everyone on board, and some people ignored us until the end,” Barron explains. She and Bannister both credit the effective education campaign as changing the minds of the dissenters.

Although Bannister’s term on Council ends after November 5, she still plans to support decriminalization efforts in her city and beyond, including through a speaking engagement at the upcoming Prohibition Partners live global conference. “We’ve had so much media interest and so much positive feedback,” she says. “We’ve taken a huge step.” 

Next, Barron and DNA² will be working to amend the resolution. “They took one very important thing out at the last minute,” notes Barron, explaining that the resolution no longer includes a statement that no city funds will be used for the arrest and prosecution of people with psychedelics. 

Bannister also recognizes the need to look into some of the legislation’s “loose ends,” as she terms them, while noting that half of the Councilmembers are preparing to transition out of their seats. 

DNA² had “sent an amendment about the city retaining the power to have discretion if need be,” says Bannister. “So we need to dive back into that, but right now it’s in a queue with a bunch of other loose ends.” 

Beyond continuing work toward that amendment, Barron, as part of both DNA² and MPS, is focused on other key issues in the psychedelic world, including harm reduction, best practices, and inclusion. “MPS has for many years been building a container for this type of work,” she says. “That work will become a much more important focus as we move forward.”

DN’s leadership also sees the resolution as a major step forward. “One thing that’s beautiful about Michigan and Ann Arbor is that for the regular person, they aren’t California or Colorado or Oregon,” says Norris. “People between California and the East Coast feel now like it’s not just a West Coast thing.

“As soon the resolution passed, we got calls from places that had been slowed down because of Covid, or who weren’t sure how to move forward, who were newly inspired,” he continues. “It’s reaching out to a new audience that might be closer by and more culturally familiar.”

Image: Janine

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