In mid-June, Melissa Lavasani realized that her group pushing to land an initiative to decriminalization certain psychedelics on the November ballot in Washington, D.C., was at a crossroads.
The COVID-19 pandemic had totally upended the campaign's signature gathering, and even an emergency measure passed by the D.C. city council that allowed residents to send signed petitions by email wasn't getting the needed numbers. The campaign, known formally as Decriminalize Nature DC, had fewer than 10,000 signatures but required 25,000 qualified names by July 6 in order to get the proposal on the ballot.
"It was really hard to hire people," Lavasani, a government employee, says of finding signature gatherers to join the campaign. "We were asking them to take a risk, and a lot of people are not comfortable with that — and rightfully so."
So Lavasani put out a call for reinforcements. Kevin Matthews, who'd led the successful psychedelic mushroom decriminalization campaign in Denver last year, was one of those who answered.
Matthews began texting and reaching out to people who'd helped get the measure on Denver's May 2019 ballot. Six of them wound up flying to D.C. in late June, staying in a short-term rental, with all expenses covered by the D.C. campaign. Signature gatherers received $10 for each valid signature they generated, but that wasn't why they signed on to help.
"We wanted to support Decriminalize Nature D.C. because it was not only an exciting opportunity to head to our nation's capital for this work, but because getting on the ballot in D.C. represents a tremendous shift in public opinion toward entheogens," explains Matthews, who currently runs a Denver-based nonprofit that focuses on psychedelic education and reform.
Entheogens is the term used by those behind the D.C. initiative to describe what they want to decriminalize: ibogaine, DMT, mescaline and psychedelic mushrooms. With that lineup, the D.C. initiative goes further than Denver's, which focused solely on psychedelic mushrooms. And while the Denver vote decriminalized personal possession, use and cultivation of psychedelic mushrooms for those 21 and older, the D.C. initiative seeks to decriminalize not only growth, use and possession, but also distribution and purchasing for those 18 and older.
But the D.C. initiative isn't pushing decriminalization as far as Denver's did. While also calling on local police to treat entheogens as a low law enforcement priority, D.C.'s measure is non-binding, whereas Denver's compelled prosecutors to stop going after low-level entheogen offenses. That's because Congress has budgetary oversight in D.C., explains Lavasani, and could potentially crack down on anything too radical.
Melanie Rose Rodgers, a passionate advocate during the Denver campaign, signed on to help out in D.C. "It was just a few hours of really weighing it all before I said, 'Okay, I'm going to hop on an airplane in the middle of the pandemic,'" Rodgers recalls. "For me, it was super important. Psychedelics have just transformed my life for the better."
Help also came from California, Oregon, North Carolina and Montana. The Oregon helpers had just successfully placed two psychedelic decriminalization initiatives on the November 2020 ballot. And although the California activists hadn't yet succeeded in landing an initiative on the statewide ballot, they'd successfully lobbied the city councils of both Oakland and Santa Cruz to decriminalize certain psychedelic substances.
But Denver had really started the trend, becoming the first city in America to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms.
"I thought it was awesome that the Denver folks who did come out, they had already had these conversations before. They were really familiar with the subject matter," says Lavasani.
But in a pandemic, the conversations weren't always easy.
As they had in Denver, the activists set up outside grocery stores and tried to gather signatures from those entering and exiting. They also went door to door, but not everyone wanted to open theirs and chat during a pandemic.
"Although there was a risk of all of us at one point potentially catching COVID due to the transactions with people, we all were like, this is bigger than us," Rodgers says. "It was so magnetic, and energizing as well."
For Rodgers, a Filipino-American, one of the highlights was getting to spread knowledge outside of America's predominantly white mainstream psychedelic space. "D.C. has a more diverse community than Denver, so I loved having conversations with people of color to explain what we were doing," says Rodgers. "There is a big push for diverse psychedelic voices to surface. I want to be part of the solution."
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Their work paid off: On July 6, the campaign submitted over 36,000 signatures, well over the 25,000 threshold, collected by 170 workers, fifty of them from out of town. "We definitely wouldn't have met our goal without everybody coming in here," admits Lavasani.
This month, word came from the D.C. Board of Elections that the measure had qualified for the ballot.
If voters decide to decriminalize psychedelic substances in D.C., the place where politicians decided decades ago to heavily criminalize these substances, it'll have a ripple effect outside the city, Matthews predicts.
"It will send a clear message to the rest of the country that Americans not only support cognitive liberty," he notes, "but also that we need more effective solutions to address the myriad of mental and behavioral health problems in our country."