Denver made history on Tuesday after voters approved a ballot measure to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms. But shortly after the final count was released, reform advocates were hit with a New York Times op-ed signed by an unexpected critic telling them to slow their roll.
Despite being written by Michael Pollan, who authored a popular book debunking myths about psychedelics and defending their therapeutic potential, the opinion piece triggered pushback over its suggestion that “ballot initiatives may not be the smartest way” to change psilocybin laws and that advocates should wait for federal approval before legalizing the substance for medical purposes.
“Debate is always a good thing, but I worry that we’re not quite ready for this one,” Pollan wrote of campaigns in California and Oregon that are seeking to get psilocybin reform on the states’ 2020 ballots.
Kevin Matthews, campaign director of Decriminalize Denver, the group behind the city’s successful decriminalization initiative, told Marijuana Moment that he generally respected Pollan and appreciated the cautionary tale his piece offered against flippant consumption of the powerful substance—but he disagreed with the author’s stance on the ballot initiative process and with feedback from the research community opposing voter-led reform.
“Ballot initiatives are a good way to do this because I think sometimes the researchers forget about the average person out there who is currently using,” Matthews said. “There is this underground that exists—and Michael Pollan utilized that underground that exists [for his book].”
“If there’s enough support for the ballot initiative process to make sense, then I think people should go for it.”
Pollan’s argument boils down to this: he personally supports decriminalization—after all, as he noted, he’s illegally used and propagated psilocybin—but he argued that more research is needed on the substance’s “immense power and potential risk” and “consequences of unrestricted use” before activists start broadly changing laws concerning the substance.
It’s a line of messaging that drug policy reform advocates have heard time and again with respect to cannabis from lawmakers who reject legalization because they feel existing research is insufficient.
“We still have a lot to learn about the immense power and potential risk of these molecules, not to mention the consequences of unrestricted use,” Pollan wrote. “It would be a shame if the public is pushed to make premature decisions about psychedelics before the researchers have completed their work.”
The thing about that argument is that researchers have already uncovered evidence that psilocybin can be useful in the treatment of various mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and depression.
Pollan understands those scientific findings well, but his op-ed shifts from lifting up the medical potential of the ingredient to urging caution against acting on those findings through ballot initiatives until researchers are satisfied.
“The more research we need should not impact whether or not we decriminalize it,” Matthews countered. “The more research we need is exploring its anti-addictive potential. One thing I hear is, ‘What are the long term impacts of use?’ We probably need more research there. But there’s no reason for people to go to jail for this if they’re not causing harm to others or themselves.”
The reality is that people across the U.S. are currently being criminalized for use and personal production of psilocybin mushrooms—a situation that can only be alleviated by voter-led ballot measures as long as lawmakers refuse to touch the issue.
After his piece generated considerable pushback on Twitter, Pollan clarified in a tweet that “this piece supports decriminalization, just not legalization now.” That message seemed to have been lost in translation, though, which is understandable given the author’s reference to campaigns that are simply seeking to decriminalize psilocybin before advocating against ballot initiatives.
If Pollan’s op-ed were published prior to the Denver vote, it is easy to imagine a situation where some number of the 1,979 voters who comprised the narrow margin between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ changed their minds because they read an essay from one of the nation’s foremost psychedelic advocates telling them that ballot measures “may not be the smartest way” to advance the issue.
Reading will reveal that this piece supports decriminalization, just not legalization now. Opinion | Michael Pollan: Not So Fast on Psychedelic Mushrooms – The New York Times https://t.co/vukBw2q2w8
— Michael Pollan (@michaelpollan) May 10, 2019
That aside, more careful consideration of broader legalization is an area where Pollan and Matthews agree. After all, voter confusion about whether the Denver measure would allow people to purchase so-called “magic mushrooms” in shops—it does not—likely led some to vote against Initiative 301.
“I think the focus needs to be decriminalization. We should not be talking about necessarily a regulated medical model right now,” Matthews said. “I think decriminalization is the right first step because we need to make sure that people’s individual rights are protected, and really the only way to do that is by decriminalizing and making sure people are not receiving any kind of fines for possession.”
But while Pollan is urging caution, insisting that voters should wait for something akin to Food and Drug Administration approval before moving ahead on broad psilocybin reform, Matthews is striving to ensure that the Denver measure is quickly and effectively implemented, and to further spread awareness about the benefits of psilocybin through educational outreach.
When the first round of votes came out on Tuesday at 7:00 PM MT, showing the initiative behind by about 10 points, the “air got sucked out of the room like a space capsule getting a hole punched in it” at the main campaign watch party, Matthews said. But throughout the night, the gap narrowed. Victory became within reach.
When the final unofficially tally was finalized at approximately 4:20 PM MT the next day, Matthews said he “just started screaming and crying at the same time. Dogs started barking in the background.”
“What a trip,” he said, “no pun intended.”
But as the high of the success waned, Matthews recognized the momentous responsibility ahead of him, as one of the leaders of a historic campaign that will be looked at as activists attempt similar feats across the country. In spite of Pollan’s advice, Matthews has no intention of slowing down now.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman.