According to the most recent Global Drug Survey, psilocybin “magic” mushrooms are the safest recreational drug on the planet—even less dangerous than marijuana. Yet, despite the fungi’s wealth of medical benefits—including potential treatment for addiction, depression and end-of-life anxiety—psilocybin remains a Schedule I substance in America, meaning the federal government believes mushrooms have no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse.
One group in the Pacific Northwest is looking to change that. Founded in early 2016, the Oregon Psilocybin Society is crafting a 2020 ballot initiative that will make mushroom therapy legal in the Beaver State. The idea came to founders Tom and Sheri Eckert during a—you guessed it—“shared entheogenic vision” at the base of Mt. Rainier.
Psychedelic Times called up the Eckerts to discuss their proposed framework for legal psilocybin therapy. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Psychedelic Times: Let’s get a little background and talk about your day jobs.
Tom Eckert: We own and operate a counseling practice called Innerwork, working with individuals, families and couples therapy. We also run a domestic violence program and work to rehabilitate male domestic violence offenders. It’s difficult, but it’s fulfilling as well. Because we have our patients for a while, we really get to the bottom of things.
I read that the idea for the Oregon Psilocybin Society came from a ‘shared entheogenic vision.’ Can you expand on that a little?
TE: I mean, it wasn’t the first time the idea had come to us, but it was when we really solidified the idea and committed to it, I would say. We were going back and forth on it, then we decided to take our intention to a mushroom experience with that idea in mind. It really clarified and solidified the vision, as well as our feelings about it. We don’t have kids, so we identify the society as giving birth to something that we’re going to take care of and care about moving forward.
It must have been a powerful experience to be able to finally say, “We’re going to take this movement seriously.”
TE: The historical context came through the experience- just realizing that in the shorter term, this would certainly be a breakthrough, but in a grander, bigger picture, it is also part of a potentially transformative movement. There are big implications, I suppose.
Sheri Eckert: I think part of what really came out of that experience is that we really felt sure, we felt confident that we could actually be the ones to start something and see it through. It was like becoming pregnant with a thought and being able to see it all the way through birth and watch it grow up.
So in the first year and a half of this organization’s existence, have you seen a lot of growth? What has changed so far?
SE: I think the main thing is that we have prepared the actual language for the ballot. That has been our primary focus since we started the society.
TE: To clarify, we’re looking to take that initiative to the 2020 ballot. We’re still early in the process, but we wanted to get the framework mostly formatted and translated into the language of law. So now that we have that in hand, we’re getting out there more in terms of doing events, talking to people and mobilizing.
What we’d like to see continue to develop is a strong coalition of individuals, networks and organizations that might support psilocybin services in Oregon. Again, the initiative is getting behind the idea of what we call Psilocybin Services, which is basically following cues from the research. That means supervised services, with a progression from assessment and preparation to psychedelic facilitation and integration afterwards.
SE: Right, so it’s regulated: it’s not making it legal to possess psilocybin; it’s making it legal to have a psilocybin experience.
TE: …and to access it through a licensed service center. We want to create pathways for people to get involved with facilitating these services.
SE: At the same time, it’s important to note that it’s not a medical-based service. In other words, you don’t have to be diagnosed with PTSD or depression or something like that in order to have the service, but you would have to be over 21 and cleared medically.
Medical marijuana programs in most states seem to begin with a list of specific treatable conditions and then expand on them from there. For a while, Arizona (which is where I’m from) didn’t have PTSD as a qualifying condition for marijuana treatment, but they had a petition process and were able to get PTSD included. Why didn’t you choose that model for this initiative?
TE: We batted this back and forth for a while. From our perspective, we want to create the most rational, fact-based, safe ballot measure possible. The facts indicate that psilocybin, when administered in a supportive and supervised environment, following best-practice research standards, is safe. So there is really no rational reason to make it a conditions-based law. We want to be in alignment with the facts. We understand that’s not necessarily how medical marijuana progressed and we’ll continue to feel out how people feel about these things, but that’s where we’re coming from.
Tom and Sheri Eckert // Photo by Carrissa Bessich
Has the ballot initiative process been difficult for you? Have you faced a lot of challenges with it, or has it been just a matter of filling out some paperwork?
SE: It’s not been as easy as filling out some paperwork, that’s for sure. To write an initiative takes a lot of time, thought, energy, and research. It’s very detailed. We’re very fortunate that we have the Oregon Legislative Council translating what we wrote into legalese, something that we can actually put on the ballot.
TE: Obviously, we really want to get it right, so we think about everything that could go wrong and try to address those things. There are a lot of moving parts when you think about creating a regulatory framework for something entirely new. I mean, again, this service model is unprecedented. It’s a very different kind of thing; it’s not a typical medical pharma kind of thing. It requires production of what constitutes a psilocybin product: how are the services rendered, what is the relationship between the potential cultivators of psilocybin mushrooms and service centers, what is included in the training programs… there are so many details.
What is the framework for cultivators? I’m assuming it would be like medical marijuana programs, with a supervised facility that keeps track of everything from spore to fruit.
TE: From a legislative point of view, there is concern about the diversion of psilocybin, so clearly it’s got to be regulated. We’re trying to do that in the most rational way possible without undue regulations. It will create a program within the government that will oversee all these different parts, including a software platform that tracks transactions and inventories. There will be a licensing process for product centers and service centers, as well as an approval process for training centers.
SE: Right, so there will be parameters to be followed in order to even become a producer, a facilitator, or a service center. It’s not going to make it so just everybody can do it.
TE: It doesn’t have to be a hospital or a clinic or anything like that, but the psilocybin has to be tied to a place and there have to be regulations around that place to ensure safety, protocol and so forth.
You won’t be growing at home, and you won’t be providing services at home: it will be at specialized brick and mortar facilities. We want to make it community-based, essentially, so it’s not tied up with hospitals and clinics. It is a different model and modality and we’re feeling out what the vision is… and it’s exciting!
What kind of support have you gotten so far?
TE: Certainly, the base is very supportive. We get out there and talk at conferences and we’re doing more and more events. In fact, we’re speaking at a 9-20 event in Portland, and our email lists are growing.
Again, we’re in the last phase working with a legislative council in Salem. They are lawyers who work with congress to draft bills, and they’re also charged with working ballot initiatives. We’re taking advantage of that as well, so we’ve got a couple lawyers who are working with us. We’re in the last phase of getting the language hammered out and I think at that point, which should happen this fall, we will start really presenting to bigger donors, securing potential endorsements and things like that.
Again, we’re early on: [signature gathering] is still two years away, so this is the time where we’re just getting into this phase.
I read that you need 88,000 signatures. That actually seems kind of low to me, because in Arizona I think you need 250,000 for a ballot initiative. Do you think you’ll reach that?
SE: It seems like a big challenge to us. You only have a certain amount of time to get those signatures and present them to the state.
TE: It won’t be until the summer of 2019 that we’ll be collecting signatures, so before that we want to raise awareness and get a campaign apparatus in order so that we can make that happen.
Wait, so you can’t start collecting signatures until 2019?
TE: That is correct.
SE: You have to collect them within a certain period of time prior to the year that it’s going on the ballot.
Well, that’s kind of frustrating…
SE: Yeah, I know, if we had three years to do it, we could just start collecting them. But we are already collecting email addresses of registered voters here in Oregon. As we present and provide educational opportunities, we continue to grow that list and ask people to sign up and say, “When the time comes, we’re ready.”
TE: The other piece is fundraising. To do a big signature drive takes a well-coordinated push as well as resources. We’ll be doing a crowdfund, upping our fundraising efforts in the years to come.
That sounds exciting.
SE: We’re very excited. I mean, it’s challenging. It seems like that’s not very much time, but it’s exciting to just have the opportunity to do what we’re doing in this amazing state.
TE: We love the people who come to us and are interested. It’s really opening a lot of doors for us to get out there and talk to great people. There’s a lot of energy around it that naturally unfolds, so that’s the exciting part. So it’s up to us to kind of organize the energy and give it form and move down this path.
Even if you fail and it doesn’t even get on the ballot at all, it seems you’re sending a strong message. Sometimes these ballot initiatives take a few times to go through the whole legislative process.
SE: Yeah, it did with marijuana. It could take a couple of times… we’re hoping that it doesn’t, but you know, it could.
TE: We’d like to be successful. I think there’s value in it either way. We would like to give it our best.
Do you know of any similar ballot initiatives in other states?
TE: Nope, we haven’t heard of any.
There’s this conservative argument that some people have made in resistance to marijuana legalization, saying that it’s going to lead to the legalization of all drugs. To me, it’s a silly argument, but could you respond to that?
TE: Well, I think our focus is pretty tight and narrow. Psilocybin services, as we’re defining them, do work. People are suffering who could otherwise benefit from this treatment, and people who aren’t suffering so much could also benefit from these services.
SE: Which makes society in general benefit.
TE: So yeah, there are epidemics like depression, alcoholism, nicotine addiction—these are exactly what psilocybin has already been shown to treat. Now granted, more research will further solidify those outcomes, but this is important. Again, we are looking at what’s rational, what’s fact-based. As to how things unfold into the future, that’s not our focus. I think it’s up to the people to figure out what makes sense.
SE: There are still a lot of people who are fearful. We’re hoping over the next two and a half years to really alleviate that fear with fact-based knowledge, with the science that currently exists. Not many people are aware of this work.
TE: Let’s reiterate—we are supporting supervised, regulated services that are proven to be safe. Mushrooms, compared to other drugs, are relatively safe. However, if they’re not done in the right setting, there is a potential for what you might call ‘behavioral toxicity.’ In other words, you might behave in a way that is not safe. I don’t think that is usually the case, but that risk is there. So when you look at the potential for general legalization, I’m agnostic about it. I think there are risks.
SE: We both are.
TE: With what we’re focusing on, I see a lot of benefits and very few risks. What risks there are can be managed quite well in the right setting.
Is there anything else you need to get this on the ballot, aside from fundraising and signatures? Is there any other way that people can help you?
TE: We get so many people reaching out to us, which is great. We take their information and we basically say, “We’ll let you know when it’s time to mobilize.” The biggest challenge is getting out there and doing our best to raise awareness, and that’s an across the board effort in regards to the psychedelic movement. Everyone’s effort is necessary to make this acceptable in society.
Really, the challenge is getting those signatures. So when that time comes around, we’re going to need to have our networks in place and be able to do that. I think also gaining some key endorsements and having some organizations get behind it will help as well.
SE: Just having it reported accurately is important: getting the message across about the way the initiative is written and what the intentions are will help alleviate the fears.
TE: One thing I noticed so far with the press when we do interviews is that the headline of an article tends to be something to the effect of “psilocybin will be legalized before too long in Oregon.” It’s a little misleading, because people think that we’re trying to legalize it for end users instead of making it accessible at a licensed facility. That kind of reporting tends to raise the defenses of those who might be afraid of it.
SE: We do get a lot of people calling us and asking, “How can I get one of these sessions and what do you think about microdosing” or whatever. We just have to remind them that this is not what the Oregon Psilocybin Society does.
You can learn more about the Oregon Psilocybin Society at their website.