In February, the D.C. Board of Elections approved the initiative after hearing testimony from supporters who argued ibogaine, mescaline and the hallucinogen psilocybin, among other chemicals, help people recover from post-traumatic stress syndrome and addiction.
The initiative wouldn’t legalize such substances — such as when D.C. voters supported allowing small amounts of marijuana in 2014 — but would leave prosecution of those who grow, possess or sell them “among the Metropolitan Police Department’s lowest law enforcement priorities.”
The coronavirus pandemic struck after the Board of Election opted to let voters decide on the initiative, leaving its supporters to figure out how to collect about 25,000 signatures needed to get it on the ballot during a public health emergency.
Supporters suspended signature collection when Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) declared a public health emergency for D.C. in March. They turned to remote collection when the D.C. Council allowed signatures to be returned electronically and by mail in May.
Funded by a political action committee supported by, among others, natural soap company Dr. Bronner’s, the advocacy group Decriminalize Nature DC mounted a $675,000 campaign to collect the signatures, paying more than 150 people as much as $10 per name. Public records show recent contributions have upped the campaign’s price tag to $700,000.
Vocal opposition to the measure, which was endorsed by the D.C. Democratic Party earlier this month, has been muted. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who fought marijuana legalization in the city, said in August that psychedelics had “some very limited medical value,” but added that he was concerned about the potential for abuse.
“I hope the voters of D.C. will exercise their common sense and reject this initiative,” Harris said in August. He declined additional comment this week. A spokesman said his previous comment “still stands.”
Mason Marks, an attorney and physician who teaches health law at Harvard Law School, said “there will still be many critics, but it’s difficult to argue that decriminalization is a bad idea.” Racial justice protests over police shootings that galvanized the nation this summer have made the ballot initiative more relevant, he said.
Lavasani, a D.C. Department of Energy and Environment budget officer, called the initiative the “only police reform measure on the ballot.”
“Everyone is looking to see how we can improve policing in our jurisdiction, and this is one way to do it,” she said. “This is one step to ending the war on drugs. This is one way to exercise that will if you want to.”
When Lavasani learned the initiative was printed on the back of the Nov. 3 ballot, making it easy to miss for voters focused on the presidential race, she worried it was a setback.
“I panicked initially,” she said. “It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s really not that terrible, especially if more people go to early voting . . . I’m not super concerned about it, but we’re trying to get the word out.”
If the initiative passes, the nation’s capital will become the fifth jurisdiction in the nation with some form of decriminalized psychedelic plants, joining Denver, Oakland and Santa Cruz in California and Ann Arbor, Mich., where the city council approved decriminalization last month.
Oregon is also considering two related statewide initiatives: one that would decriminalize all drug use, and another that would establish a licensing process for those who wish to treat patients with psilocybin, the active ingredient in certain mushrooms.
To become law, Initiative 81 will have to do more than get voter approval.
If approved, it would go to the D.C. Council for review. If the council doesn’t overturn the measure — as it did in 2018 with an initiative that would have mandated a $15 per hour minimum wage for tipped workers — the measure would be sent to Congress for review. If Congress doesn’t object — as it did when it blocked D.C.’s attempt to legalize marijuana in 1998 — the initiative would go into effect.