How activists convinced a city to decriminalise magic mushrooms and ayahuasca – ABC News

What’s amazing about Oakland decriminalising magic mushrooms, ayahuasca, ibogaine and other hallucinogenic plants is not just that they did it, but the arguments used to convince lawmakers.

According to the motion passed unanimously by the city council earlier this month, going on a mushy trip or dropping aya “can re-establish human’s inalienable and direct relationship to nature.”

The plants can heal: “substance abuse, addiction, recidivism, trauma, post-traumatic stress symptoms, chronic depression, severe anxiety, end-of-life anxiety, grief diabetes, [and] cluster headaches.”

Not only this, they can heal entire communities.

When you speak to the activists, they talk glowingly of the plants’ ability to heal the many traumas of modern America and improve the lives not just of a few doobie-toting New Age shamans, but those in poor minority communities who’ve never done mushrooms.

They envision a network of traditional plant healers roaming the States dispensing peyote to traumatised gangsters in ghetto neighbourhoods.

According to Carlos Plazola, chair of Decriminalise Nature Oakland, the group that ran the campaign, this could happen within five years.

“We made it about our connection to nature,” he told Hack over the phone.

“This was an important aspect of our campaign, particularly in the midst of climate change and our relationship to the planet.”

Oakland City Council meeting
Oakland City Council meeting 2
Members of Decriminalise Nature Oakland outside City Hall

The council votes to decriminalise (top left and right). Members of Decriminalise Nature Oakland outside City Hall (bottom), with Carlos Plazola second from right.

“Now is the time, more than ever, to really enable the healing that comes from these plants.”

Using entheogenic plants – plants that make you hallucinate – to treat depression, anxiety and even fear of death is backed up by an increasing number of solid university studies, and there’s growing excitement about the medicinal uses of these substances.

Drug reform campaigners have seized on these studies to push for change. After Oakland, the sense of possibility has been turned all the way up.

“We have activists and organisers and lawyers from 57 cities contacting us for advice on passing their own resolutions,” Carlos told Hack.

“The Berkeley City Council will be taking this up.

“It looks like in Santa Cruz we will be bringing it to a vote soon.

“They’re starting to come forward.”

‘There could be a backlash’

But exactly what a new drug-awakened America would look like is hard to see.

Decriminalise Nature Oakland proposes a series of workshops between the sober officers of Oakland police and local groups dedicated to psychedelic discovery, such as the Sacred Garden Community, the San Francisco Psychedelic Society, Root Wisdom, and the 9/20 Coalition (which promotes September 20 as a national day of magic mushrooms).

It’s distributing to other cities a 10-page document titled: “The Oakland Equitable and Responsible Access Framework for Entheogenic Plant and Fungi Use in Urban Communities.”

Key points include:

  • Use yoga as an “energy balancing tool prior to use”
  • Don’t finalise any big decisions emerging from an experience until 2-4 weeks afterwards
  • Don’t go solo with non-trivial doses
  • For people with a serious condition like major depression or PTSD, get professional help before using an entheogen
  • Don’t attempt to drive under the influence

Magic mushrooms and the rest are not commonly used in low-income parts of Oakland. There were only 19 arrests in a five-year period in Oakland for mushrooms, and none for ibogaine, ayahuasca, or other plants covered by the motion.

Magic mushrooms

Magic mushrooms.

ayahuasca tea

Ayahuasca tea.

Peyote cactus

Peyote cactus.

“The use of mushrooms, percentage-wise, is very low,” Carlos said.

“In lower income communities there is a stronger potential for abuse, just because of trauma. And that’s why education is really important.”

“The risk is if we pass these measures, statewide or at a municipal level, without the information to communities on how to use them, there could be a backlash.

“They’re not cannabis. It’s much more strong than cannabis.”

But are the drugs strong enough?

Because the campaigners are arguing the plants can heal the trauma of people who currently have nothing to do with the plants, their talk of healing sometimes comes across as a bit hypothetical and abstract, or, at worse, naive and condescending.

Here’s an example. The framework document states: “The fundamental power inherent in making the individual personal choice to heal, and to re-write or amend one’s narrative for engaging with the world, is paramount in setting upon the path toward healing.”

It goes on: “Particularly in communities of trauma, it will become very important to create deep and rich structures and processes to support this transformation.

“For example, if a young man or woman has been historically locked into a pattern of self-destructive behaviour leading to violence, unemployment, or crime suddenly, after use of the materials, decides to live a more constructive life, the pathways must be made accessible to this individual to find their way to meaningful and constructive life choices.”

Which, in the worst tradition of New Age psychobabble, gives the impression it was simply this young person’s choice to be unemployed.

A ruined car factory in Detroit

A ruined car plant in Detroit.

Reading the framework document, you sometimes get the impression campaigners don’t recognise the messy social causes of violence, unemployment or crime.

The drugs may be good, but are they good enough to “heal” the ghetto?

“We know that PTSD is rampant in communities of colour and lower income communities,” Carlos said.

“There’s all the alcoholism, domestic violence and violent homicides in these communities.

“Clinical studies at the national level are finding that ayahuasca, ibogaine and mushrooms have very strong effects on PTSD.”

We need drugs to heal … the war on drugs

We are in the midst of a ‘psychedelic renaissance’.

Recent developments include the US FDA granting “breakthrough therapy” status to a company testing magic mushrooms for treating depression, plus researchers finding maushrooms relieve anxiety and depression, help people quit smoking, and reduce alcohol dependence.

In Melbourne, dying patients are being treated with magic mushrooms in a trial aimed at reducing anxiety about death among the terminally ill.

These developments have given ballast to the arguments of campaigners.

The Oakland vote happened just a month after Denver became the first city in the nation to decriminalise magic mushrooms.

Denver did this, however, through public ballot and against the will of lawmakers.

The campaign to decriminalise mushrooms in Denver

The campaign to decriminalise mushrooms in Denver.

In Oakland, campaigners convinced nine elected representatives to decriminalise not only mushrooms, but all entheogenic plants, an umbrella term covering at least 30 substances. Oakland is in the progressive San Francisco Bay Area, but it’s still a big achievement.

With decriminalisation, the city instructs the police department to make arresting people for growing or possessing these entheogenic plants the lowest law enforcement priority.

That means you’re still technically breaking the law, but unlikely to get busted.

It’s a case of plant-drugs to heal the trauma inflicted by the war on drugs, of mushys and ibogaine root to restore the psychological health of communities gutted by the decades-long policy of mass incarceration, plus by the modern epidemic of opioid addiction.

“With the council members, we met with just about all of them and shared with them what we knew about the science,” Carlos said.

“We shared with them what we knew about the practice and the community, and how we would go about ensuring there was good, good, good safe and responsible use in the community.

“And that sold them that it was the right time to do it.”

California dreaming

In an age of increasing income inequality and looming climate disaster, the medicinal uses of magic mushrooms are a bright spot of hope.

Perhaps for this reason, their potential seems unbounded.

As the interview draws to a close, Carlos outlined his vision for America: Communities would grow their own drugs to treat themselves, and then individuals would take them under the guidance of a “decentralised network” of healers travelling the country.

“I think that in five years that could probably happen pretty extensively throughout the US, if we could lift the stigma and educate about what these plants do,” he said.

But he notes this is not the first time San Francisco has dreamed of a chemical fix.

Back in the 1960s, another hallucinogen was being hyped as the answer to all kinds of problems, from rehabilitating criminals to ending war.

The messiah of that San Francisco-based counterculture was Timothy Leary.

“People are concerned this might be moving too fast,” Carlos says.

“And that’s based on what happened with Tim. Tim Leary. The excitement that he created over LSD, many believe that caused the backlash.

“Some folks are nervous the same thing would happen here if we went too fast.”