Somerville, Massachusetts has joined cities across the United States that have passed resolutions decriminalizing entheogenic plants and fungi. The second city on the East Coast to support decriminalization after Ann Arbor, Michigan, which moved to decriminalize last September, Somerville’s City Council unanimously approved the measure on January 14 in a 9-0 vote that was also supported by the mayor.
As with other cities that have embraced decrim initiatives, the resolution was crafted with the help of the area’s Decriminalize Nature chapter and its allied organizations. The Somerville measure was led by Decriminalize Nature Massachusetts (DN MA) and Bay Staters for Natural Medicine, who were in turn supported by Larry Norris and Carlos Plazola, co-founders of DN Oakland.
DN’s national board leadership provided “support in the form of organizing materials,” including the DN Oakland resolution template and sample support letters, to DN MA, according to Norris. “With just a small amount of early support from the national team, the DN MA leadership team moved quickly and effectively in identifying which city (Somerville) was ready to be the first in Massachusetts to pass the resolution and working collaboratively with their city council,” he adds.
James Davis, a lead organizer for Bay Staters for Natural Medicine and DN MA and one of the initial Somerville constituents to approach Council, emphasized that the end result was accomplished with the help of a much larger community rather than with the assistance of a single individual or group.
“Larry and Carlos deserve a shout out, but so do the many unsung heroes who worked their tails off for a brighter future,” says Davis. “There wasn’t a lot of direct support, aspects of the resolution were inspired by Ann Arbor, but our local officials worked with us to make many changes and improvements.” Davis noted that this included adding wording about the low priority of enforcing punishment or detention for any controlled substance.
The resolution, the majority of which was drafted by Bay Staters and DN Massachusetts and edited to conform to Somerville’s mayor-council system of municipal government, calls for local law enforcement not to use “any city funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties” for the possession and use of entheogenic plants. It calls on city departments and agencies to view the possession and use of these substances as, first and foremost, an issue of public health, emphasizing the benefits of psychedelic plant medicines for conditions ranging from substance abuse and end-of-life anxiety to cluster headaches.
In addition, the Somerville resolution points to the potential usefulness of these medicines to address the rise in both opioid use and severe depression due to the Covid-19 pandemic and mentions their importance in traditional and religious practices.
Like other similar city resolutions, Somerville’s measure states that possession and use of entheogens should be among the lowest law enforcement priorities, and also calls on the county to adopt a similar resolution. These substances remain illegal under state and federal law, and their sale, as well as their use by people operating motor vehicles, is not included in the resolution. As with resolutions passed in other cities, Somerville’s does not explicitly mention peyote, instead referencing “cacti.” Lucid News has most recently covered the controversy surrounding peyote in decriminalization efforts here.
“This was a matter of people putting the government to work for themselves,” says Councilor Jesse Clingan, who brought the resolution to Council. “I support the decriminalization of pretty much all substances, but this was something these folks brought to my attention specifically, and I felt it was something that should be done in Somerville.”
Clingan notes that widespread support exists for the resolution in the progressive city, which recently extended health insurance benefits to polyamorous partners and had already set a precedent for viewing drug possession as low priority for law enforcement.
“My understanding is ever since the opioid epidemic, we started trying to treat addiction as a public health issue,” he explains. “This decision is in lockstep with our ideologies on the war on drugs – the war on people, I should say.”
For Clingan, who lost his mother to breast cancer, passing the resolution was also personal. “I really connected with the end-of-life aspects of these medicines,” he says. “Some people don’t accept they’re going to die until the end. They never really confront that. If people had the ability to get these substances from a doctor, it’s an opportunity to have a meaningful experience and perhaps not leave so many questions unanswered. That really spoke to me.”
Clingan notes that several constituent testimonies during the meeting, including firsthand accounts from residents whose physical and mental health improved after their experiences with entheogens, changed the mind of at least one council member who had originally planned to vote against the resolution.
As the resolution is non-binding, the Somerville City Council currently has plans to work with the mayor’s office to draft an official ordinance on entheogenic plants and fungi. “And why stop with just entheogenic plants? That’s a discussion we’ll have to have at the time,” says Clingan. “In the short term, we could get an ordinance on the books around these plants.”
As part of the larger goals of decriminalization, Clingan says the City Council is also working to open a legal safe consumption facility in Somerville. “That’s pretty radical in terms of policies around addiction,” he explains. “There aren’t any in the country, besides a few underground.”
DN MA and Bay Staters will support the City Council and work with them to finalize the ordinance, but Davis is most excited about creating “momentum to change state law by decriminalizing other cities.” Next up,” says Davis, is “another major city near Boston,” which is likely to pass decrim legislation “in the next two weeks.”
“And Boston, Worcester, and others are just on the horizon,” Davis adds. Ultimately, decrim advocates are working towards an equitable regulatory space for these substances. “If we can get 60-90% of the population living under a regime of decriminalization, we will then reconsider how our energy and time can be best allocated,” says Davis. “Cannabis regulations in Massachusetts are extremely inequitable, for example. Is it really in the best interest of the teams to spend almost $10 million on a referendum when that fundraising can be used to work toward expungement or making it easier for the victims of the war on drugs to enter the legal market?”
“We’ll cross the bridge when we get there as a coalition,” Davis continues. “But the message I’ll leave [is that] we’ve activated some of the most passionate, relentless, and beautiful souls in the Commonwealth. And we will not rest until the war on drugs is banished to the dustbins of history for good.”