Could Oregon be the First State to Legalize Psilocybin Therapy?

By Jordan May|November 20, 2017

A group in Oregon is drafting a ballot initiative for 2020 that would allow individuals to take psilocybin in supervised settings.

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LLegalization of ‘Magic Mushrooms’ Might be Just Around the Corner” was one of several headlines that recently created waves on social media. And although it’s not entirely true that psychedelic mushrooms are likely to be legalized and regulated like cannabis or alcohol any time soon, consuming them may actually be legal, in certain contexts, in the near future.

Sheri and Tom Eckert of the Oregon Psilocybin Society have been drafting a ballot initiative in Oregon that would allow individuals to take psilocybin in supervised settings. If the public votes in favor of the ballot this could lay a groundwork for an emerging mental health paradigm that recognizes the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs. And that’s a big deal.

Sheri and Tom were generous enough to take some time to talk with us about the ballot initiative. We had a lot of questions about the content of the proposal, the process of drafting it, and a number of other things that you may be wondering yourself.

Psymposia’s Mike Margolies talks with Adam Eidinger (left) and Tom and Sheri Eckert about grassroots legalization at Oregon Eclipse. Photo by Laura Krasovitzky.

So to start off, can you describe your background a bit?

TOM: Sheri and I own and operate a private counseling practice called Innerwork, which we’ve been running here in Portland for about 4 years. We also run a domestic violence program, where we work with male offenders. That’s tough work, but we enjoy it because we have those guys for a good stretch of time and we see a lot of change.

What is the Oregon Psilocybin Society?

TOM: The Oregon Psilocybin Society, OPS as we like to call it, is an evolving coalition of individuals and existing networks of folks who are interested in supporting and promoting the idea of psilocybin services… and we’ll talk about what that means. Basically OPS is about promoting the science, the safety, and the benefits—as well as the risks—of supervised psilocybin use. The second part of the OPS mission is to advance the Psilocybin Service Initiative of Oregon, a ballot initiative measure which we aim to put on the Oregon ballot in 2020.

So, when we talk about psilocybin services, we’re basically talking about a service framework that takes its cues from the research and attempts to follow best practice standards. These standards include preparation and assessment beforehand, proper psychedelic facilitation, and then integration afterwards. It’s this sequence as a whole that we refer to as psilocybin services. So when we talk about the kind of services we’re looking to promote and eventually legalize in Oregon, we’re talking about a full sequence of supervised sessions.

SHERI: Which, by the way, is not something that OPS does right now. We don’t facilitate sessions or anything of that nature. We get a lot of interest and inquiries in that regard, but at the current stage we are simply a coalition of people looking to legalize this type of therapy.

Going into a bit of detail about the process, what would it look like for someone who wants to be a facilitator or a cultivator?

TOM: As far as how we wrote the measure, there would be training and certifications for all aspects of the new “industry” that would come out of this. We’ve written the language of the measure and we’re waiting on a final draft from the Legislative Counsel in Salem, which they’ve promised by November 22nd.

It basically breaks down into 3 parts, all regulated by a “Psilocybin Service Program” [that would be] created within the Oregon government. One part defines and regulates service centers, where you would access psilocybin services. Another part defines and regulates training centers, which is where you’d be trained and certified to become a facilitator. And then production centers, where psilocybin products would be developed and whatnot.

The Program—the regulatory body—along with service centers and product centers, would all access an online platform to track the movement of psilocybin between facilities, track inventory, the rendering of services, and things of that nature. The psilocybin itself would always be tied to a licensed facility. In other words, if you were a facilitator you wouldn’t have psilocybin at home that you would take from place to place.

With regard to becoming a facilitator of psilocybin services, you’d need to complete an approved training program and get certified. The Advisory Board would compile approved practice standards, so training programs would be required to base their curriculums on agreed-upon standards.

SHERI: To sum it up, as he’s saying, you apply to become a facilitator, or you apply to become a service center, or you apply to become a product center—and all of this would be regulated, tracked, and monitored under a particular department within the state of Oregon.

TOM: Yes, and…back to becoming a facilitator…we want to open up certification channels to anyone with the heart, disposition, and discipline to do this kind of work. We’re trying not to medicalize it and make it a clinical-only type thing.

SHERI: The initiative isn’t just for people who are struggling with depression and anxiety, and things like that. If you’re over 21 and you’re medically cleared, and simply want to explore your own mind and your own consciousness through these kinds of services, you can do it under this measure.

You mentioned that you’re waiting on a final draft from the Legislative Counsel and I’m curious. What has it been like being involved in that legal process? Have there been any challenges specific to working with the Counsel? What’s the reception been from people who are involved with the legal system?

TOM: It’s been pretty smooth working with the Legislative Counsel. We didn’t know exactly what to expect. The Counsel is a nonpartisan group of lawyers that draft bills for Congress, and they’re also charged to work with ballot initiatives when they’re presented with signatures and whatnot. We had to do a few things to get in the door, but now that we are, we have a good working relationship with them. We’re assigned 2 lawyers—they’re enthusiastic and intelligent and we have good meetings, so we feel confident that we’ll get the language where we want it.

SHERI: They’ve clarified some things that we need to focus on. They’ve been very helpful; I can’t say anything negative at all.

That’s awesome.

TOM: Once we get that full draft we’ll probably take it to a few other groups and lawyers and things like that just to get more feedback, but that’s where we’re at right now.

One thing I remember reading is that the ballot itself wouldn’t actually be voted on until 2020—so you can’t start collecting signatures until a year before then, correct?

SHERI: Actually, we’ve since learned that, if we have all our ducks in a row, we can start collecting signatures in July of 2018… next year! So that’s pretty exciting and motivating.

Does that affect when the ballot will be voted on?

SHERI: Nope, voting will still take place in 2020—it just gives us more time to collect signatures.

So what else are you currently working on to prepare for that moment?

TOM: The first part of the mission is to raise awareness in Oregon. To that end we’re doing more events, we’re talking around town, we’re going to festivals, we’re going to conferences here in Oregon, and we’ve got more planned. So that’s been an enjoyable part for us, getting out there and talking to people about this.

SHERI: It takes a lot of energy and effort, because we really want to educate the Oregon citizenry so that they understand the plan behind the measure, so that we can reduce that stigma that’s attached to it.

TOM: Part of that is going to different cities, doing events, and developing groups. That’s something we’re really getting into now. We get a lot of feedback and emails from people around the state. Motivated people. People that are really excited about it. So now we’re trying to shape that energy, give it form, give it a strong, unified voice.

SHERI: The idea is not only to educate people around the state, but to prepare them for when it comes time to canvass… preparing people with real talking points so that they’re equipped to handle any conversation that might come up with someone who’s not quite sure what the ballot measure is all about.

Has it been mostly just the two of you who’ve been laying the groundwork for this?

TOM: It’s been the two of us at the core. Obviously we’ve had to get all this rolling so we’ve done a lot of work together. But we’ve developed a great inner circle, and lots of new volunteers are coming on board. We’re going to need everybody.

SHERI: We’re working towards establishing a board that would collaborate with us and work towards the overall objective.

TOM: It’s all going to get more formal as we move into fundraising, I would say.

SHERI: I think so.

TOM: We need momentum, and that means fundraising. And we’re just starting down that path.

What would fundraising look like? Would you be able to get a grant or would it mostly be crowd sourcing from groups or individual donors?

SHERI: I think all of the above.

TOM: Yeah. One thing that’s on our radar is doing fundraising dinners that engage individual donors, as well as leaders and groups, that might be interested. And just have them come and have a nice dinner, and help them get a better understanding of what we’re doing.

SHERI: There’s a lot of challenges to fundraising. But one of the beautiful things about raising funds for this particular agenda is that we don’t have to seek out only people in Oregon. We can reach out to the global community, which has a really great interest in psilocybin.

Why psilocybin specifically, as opposed to other psychedelics? Has it had a significant impact on your own lives?

TOM: I think, like a lot of people, we’ve had some formative or interesting experiences with psilocybin in the past. However, why psilocybin specifically? I think all the psychedelics are fascinating and there’s a lot of potential in all of them. Psilocybin has some particularly useful attributes. It’s manageable, it’s a shorter experience than, say, LSD. Its…

SHERI: Natural.

TOM: It’s easier on the body than, say, ayahuasca.

SHERI: Its definitely much more researched at this point than some of the other psychedelics. In terms of the clinical studies and the other work that’s being done to show the efficacy of psilocybin in individuals with particular dispositions, there’s a lot of good research.

TOM: So that lends credence to the movement.

SHERI: And of course it’s not addictive. It’s also…

TOM: Identified as the safest.

SHERI: One of the safest recreational drugs that you can utilize. When you take all of that into consideration, I think for us the big draw to psilocybin wasn’t just personal experience, but it was that it has a successful track record.

TOM: You might run into a little anxiety, like you might develop with all of the psychedelics while you’re on the trip, but that’s very manageable and a time limited thing. Psychedelics are fascinating, psilocybin is fascinating—but of course it’s the research, really, that makes it clear that this is something to get behind and take action on.

Have you thought about an ideal recommended dosage? Is there a cap—no pun intended—on how much someone could take?

TOM: I don’t think so, but when you write an initiative you don’t have to answer every detailed question like that. What you need to do is create a board that’s going to figure out what makes good sense in terms of training facilitators and whatnot.

SHERI: Best practices, and all of these details, will be defined by the Board. The Board will consist of experts who really understand psilocybin, people, the human psyche, and how all of this fits together.

I know you already touched on some of the risks, but what would you say to someone who might respond to this ballot with skepticism?

TOM: Well the main point is to really look at what this initiative is about. It’s about supervised services in which all those kind of issues, many of which are overblown, all of those risks potentially disappear when you do this in a supportive, supervised setting with trained and certified facilitators in a contained environment.

SHERI: We don’t have to lean on just our own personal opinions. We have the science and the facts to support the measure. And I think that’s really the comeback to someone who comes at you with a fear-based idea. If you can help them to see that science proves the safety, the science proves the efficacy, then it’s not just a message from us.

TOM: It’s Johns Hopkins, its UCLA, its NYU, y’know? That is where we’d go with it for sure.

SHERI: And I think it’s also important to really emphasize the fact that we’re not looking to legalize psilocybin so that anybody can just grow it, possess it, things of that nature. That’s not the intent of this measure. The intention is that it will be regulated; there will be supervision around it. Its not like marijuana or alcohol.

TOM: I think these services are so important because if you look at the epidemics in our society, epidemics that have a human toll and also drag on the economy—things like depression, alcoholism, nicotine addiction, and all the health issues tied to that—psilocybin services address these issues in a novel and effective way. And it’s unprecedented how effective, at least in the early research stages. So this is a big deal.

SHERI: It will have an impact, we’re hoping, not only on the human experience, but an economic impact on the state because, as Tom shared, mental health issues are an epidemic in our country. Oregon is actually ranked pretty high in regard to the number of people who are struggling with depression and anxiety.

TOM: From that angle there’s tremendous opportunity to make a real impact. It’s transformative. The experience is transformative and the potential for policy reform is transformative, and just what it represents I think is potentially transformative.

At this point do you know if this is something that would only be available for residents of Oregon, or could people come from anywhere?

TOM: We would like it to be the latter.

SHERI: There would be a process to access these services, which would happen here in Oregon. I don’t see why it would matter if you’re a resident. It matters mostly that you’re physically and mentally healthy to the degree that you need to be to enter the experience safely.

So is the current draft of the ballot accessible for the public to view online?

TOM: Not yet. We have a short summary on our website which gives the basic overview. When we get the final draft we will release it.

Lastly, what would you recommend to someone who wants to get involved?

SHERI: Well there’s the opportunity to donate to us, and that’s on our website. There’s the opportunity to make contact with us; we’d be glad to speak with anyone who wants to know how they can participate. If you live in Oregon, we’ll be posting volunteer luncheons and meetings. We have need for creative content, fundraising and canvassing expertise, people who might be interested in starting or participating in pod groups around the state, or folks that just want to help in any way they can.

TOM: It helps when people tell us what they like to do and what they can do, as opposed to asking, “What can I do?”

SHERI: It’s going to take an army. I have confidence in the people of Oregon to be that army.

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Jordan May

Jordan May is a writer who explores the intersections between drug policy, psychedelics, and community engagement.