The proposal still must survive a challenge period, and organizers must get a sufficient number of signatures from supporters before it can reach the ballot.
The D.C. Board of Elections, which determines whether an initiative can advance to the ballot for a vote, made the decision after hearing testimony on the proposal, which would make the arrest of adults who grow or distribute psychedelics “among the lowest law enforcement priorities.” It would apply to any plant or fungus that contains ibogaine, mescaline or the hallucinogen psilocybin, among other chemicals.
Advocates say the chemicals have been shown to help those who suffer from addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
“Practices with entheogenic plants and fungi have longs [sic] existed, have been considered sacred to a number of cultures and religions for millennia and continue to be enhanced and improved,” according to text submitted to the board. “Citizens of the District of Columbia seeking to improve their health and well-being through the use of entheogenic plants and fungi currently use them in fear of arrest and prosecution.”
The Board of Elections, an independent city agency, does not rule on the merits of proposed initiatives but determines whether they can legally be put to voters. The board cannot appropriate money, and proposals cannot violate the District’s Human Rights Act, among other preconditions. When the board approves an initiative, supporters still must gather petition signatures after a challenge period.
About a half-dozen people spoke during the Wednesday hearing in favor of the initiative. No one testified against it.
Board of Elections Chairman D. Michael Bennett said he was not there to judge the proposal’s worth but called the testimony of advocates “compelling.”
“At the end of the day, the merits of the initiative are not our decision to make,” he said. “The merits will be decided by the voters.”
The psychedelic drug decriminalization initiative, known as the Entheogenic Plant and Fungus Policy Act of 2020, was proposed by Melissa Lavasani, a budget officer at the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment and a spokeswoman for advocacy group Decriminalize Nature DC.
Lavasani said she fell into a severe depression in 2018, a few months after the birth of her second child. At a time that she says she should have been happy, she was beset with anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia and suicidal thoughts, she said.
Desperate for a solution, but put off by possible side effects of psychiatric medication, she tried psychedelic mushrooms. Through trial and error, she took “microdoses” of the illegal drug, reducing the quantity if she felt psychoactive effects and skipping doses to avoid building up a tolerance.
She said the process — procuring an illicit substance and taking it without medical supervision — was scary, but the experiment worked. Within a few days, she said, “everything started to transform in my life.”
“I felt much lighter,” she said. “I was actually happy. I had joyful moments. I was engaging with my children more. It was a quick turnaround.”
Almost two years later, she no longer takes mushrooms, is in therapy and has become the face of the decriminalization effort.
“This is one step closer to getting people feeling comfortable enough to treat themselves,” she said.
The initiative wouldn’t legalize psychedelics in the District in the way marijuana was legalized in 2014. Possessing small amounts of marijuana is permitted in the city off federal land, but this new initiative calls only for the decriminalization of the psychedelic plants and fungi.
Proponents say the change would take pressure off those who might benefit from psychedelic therapy but fear law enforcement. D.C. police didn’t respond to a request for comment on the initiative.
Wyly Gray, a 38-year-old Marine who served in Afghanistan, said he “was really on the brink of suicide” after he returned home in 2008. He said he struggled with post-traumatic stress, even after trying psychiatric medications and other treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
He turned to ayahuasca, a brew traditionally consumed in some indigenous communities that contains the psychoactive chemical DMT, a drug included in the proposed initiative. After taking it twice in recent years, he said it “literally changed my whole life.” The Georgetown University senior is now executive director of an organization that advocates psychedelic treatments for veterans.
“I don’t believe psychedelics are a magic bullet or cure-all,” he said. “I think it’s a shame that these chemicals — plants — have been around for thousands of years and here we are in 2020 acting like this is some sort of controversy.”
If the initiative reaches the ballot and is supported by voters, the District would join a small number of jurisdictions that have decriminalized psychedelics. Denver, after a public referendum last year, was the first. Efforts also have succeeded in Oakland, Calif., and last month in Santa Cruz, Calif. A statewide initiative is also moving forward in Oregon.
Denver District Attorney Beth McCann (D) opposed decriminalization efforts ahead of her city’s referendum last year. In an interview this week, she said her “biggest concerns have not played out,” and juveniles don’t have the same interest in psychedelics as they do in marijuana or even cocaine.
“We had concerns that Denver might become the psilocybin capital of the country,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s happened.”
Matthew W. Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, said he has been present in clinical sessions involving people who have taken psilocybin more than 100 times.
Johnson said research into the therapeutic benefits of the drug is “very promising” but added that users should proceed with caution. While he supports “the general movement away from drugs being treated as a criminal justice issue,” he worried about a lack of safeguards — particularly with ibogaine, a drug included in the initiative that has cardiac risks.
“Most people who take these drugs for fun don’t have a problem, like most people who don’t wear their seat belt on a particular day are going to be fine,” he said. However, he said the risks should not be underestimated: “This is not like, ‘Take two and call me in the morning.’ This is more like outpatient surgery.”
Opponents of the initiative will have 10 days to challenge it in Superior Court after it is published in the D.C. Register. If it survives, advocates will have 180 days to gather about 25,000 signatures needed for placement on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Even with voter support, the D.C. Council would have the authority to overturn the initiative. In 2018, the council repealed the voter-approved Initiative 77, which would have raised pay for tipped workers.