Miller said staff working remotely had checked the addresses of petition signers and verified a random sample of signatures with those in voter registration files before the board voted unanimously to certify the initiative.
On the call, Miller thanked Board of Elections staff members who reviewed the signatures “in a short window.”
“It was indeed a pretty heavy lift,” Miller said. “As was to be expected, they did it.”
Melissa Lavasani, a budget officer at the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment who took “microdoses” of illegal psychedelic mushrooms after suffering postpartum depression in 2018, proposed the initiative in December because she thought everyone should have access to what advocates call “plant medicines.” Psychedelic drugs have been used as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems.
“I knew going into this we had it,” Lavasani said ahead of Wednesday’s hearing. “This is all just a matter of formality.”
Finding its way to voters amid the threat of the coronavirus, Initiative 81 is part of a push for decriminalized psychedelics on both coasts, its turbulent path to the ballot complicated by election laws, mail delays and at-home printers.
After the Board of Elections said in February that the proposal had merit to be placed on the November ballot, organizers with Decriminalize Nature DC, the group backing Initiative 81, had to suspend a search for signatures when Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) declared a coronavirus public health emergency.
In May, the D.C. Council adopted emergency changes to rules governing petitions proposed by council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), allowing them to be returned electronically and by mail, and letting supporters verify their own signatures. The size of the petition sheets was even changed from legal to letter so they could be more easily printed at home.
Liberated by the changes — and by D.C.’s eventual Phase 2 reopening — Decriminalize Nature embarked on a $675,000 campaign to collect the signatures, paying more than 150 people as much as $10 per name to get the petitions to the Board of Elections by its July 6 deadline.
Nikolas Schiller, the campaign’s field director, said more than 200,000 petitions were mailed — one to every household with a registered voter — as staff sought signatures outside grocery stores using social distancing, even disinfecting pens before offering them to passersby.
Only about 7,000 petitions were returned by mail, Schiller said. In the end, the campaign focused on meeting what election law demands of a ballot initiative: 5 percent of registered voters across the District and 5 percent of voters in five of eight wards.
“The mail delays in Wards 7 and 8 were one of the main issues we had,” he said.
Campaign finance documents show Initiative 81 was largely underwritten by New Approach, a political action committee supported by, among others, natural soap company Dr. Bronner’s. New Approach donated $536,000 to Decriminalize Nature on July 1, documents show.
David Bronner, the company’s cosmic engagement officer and grandson of its founder, said Dr. Bronner’s has seen a 40 percent increase in profits as people buy more cleaning products during the pandemic.
Because the company limits executive compensation and focuses on philanthropy, the windfall boosted its support of Decriminalize Nature DC and an effort to decriminalize psychedelics in Oregon, to which New Approach donated $1 million. Dr. Bronner’s also donated the hand sanitizer with which Decriminalize Nature DC cleaned its pens.
“Our whole model is to be a socially responsible business,” Bronner said. “My family is a big believer in this. We’re no stranger to depression.”
Decriminalize Nature has until Nov. 3 to convince voters to back Initiative 81 — though because of the coronavirus, the Board of Elections has said every D.C. voter will receive a ballot starting the first week of October.
“D.C. is an important place for us to start dismantling the war on drugs,” Schiller said. “People need to have access to any healing modality without fear of arrest.”
Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who has worked against cannabis legalization in the District, criticized the initiative, saying he is concerned with the potential for abuse, side effects and the dangers of engaging in activities under the influence of a powerful hallucinogen.
“I hope the voters of D.C. will exercise their common sense and reject this initiative,” he said in a statement.
Lia Kuduk, an organizer with Decriminalize Nature, said she used ayahuasca, a brew traditionally consumed in some indigenous communities that contains the psychoactive chemical DMT, to overcome child trauma. She said the pandemic and police violence that led to nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody are “a major collective trauma” that psychedelics can help overcome.
“The campaign sees these medicines — unlocking them — as critical to helping us heal,” she said. “We urgently do need to improve access to these substances for everyone.”