The active ingredient of psychedelic mushrooms, psilocybin, has been listed as a Schedule I drug since the 1970s. That means the federal government thinks it has no medical application whatsoever — and high potential for abuse.
But what would that look like? How would people get the drug? And how would the state ensure it is used safely?
“Nobody’s going to be taking psilocybin home with them to administer to themselves, which means that there will be none in public, no one driving,” said Tom Eckert, one of the leaders of a campaign to legalize psilocybin.
Eckert and his wife, Sheri, are the co-sponsors of the Psilocybin Service Initiative, a push to get legalization on the 2020 ballot. The first thing they want voters to know is that they’re not following the model of legalization used by cannabis proponents.
Tom Eckert, a therapist in Beaverton, said voters should realize what they’re legalizing is “psilocybin-assisted therapy,” rather than wholesale access to the drug.
“Many individuals want this service,” said Sheri Eckert, also a therapist. “But they want to know that they’re getting it from someone they can trust.”
“Psychedelics are uniquely powerful when it comes to creating lasting change in the human being,” Tom Eckert said.
It’s a change many people swear by. Author Michael Pollan’s new book looks at the science of psychedelic drugs. As part of his research, he attended an underground psilocybin therapy session with a facilitator and said he completely disconnected from his ego on the trip.
“The most amazing thing happened; I just kind of found my identity, my sense of self completely turned into post-its — little slips of paper that were being blown-around by the wind,” Pollan recently told OPB’s “Think Out Loud.” “But [I] had no desire to pile them back together again. I didn’t fight it.”
Tom Eckert said he wants Oregonians to have similar experiences, which is why he’s seeking legalization for more than just treatment of depression, PTSD and anxiety.
Under the proposal the Eckerts are pushing, people seeking psilocybin treatments will need to be 21 or older and have medical clearance from a doctor. They would then be assigned a licensed facilitator.
“The facilitator kind of orients you to the service, asks some questions, gets to know you and your desires and your intentions and issues a bit more,” Tom Eckert said.
When both facilitator and client are happy, they schedule a session to take the drug. Tom Eckert says that would be at a licensed psilocybin facility, possibly a hospital or a small neighborhood clinic.
The client would drink a tea, eat mushrooms or take a synthetic version of the drug.
“You take the compound, and you generally lay down with headphones on and eye shades, and you listen to music that is previously curated to enhance the experience,” Tom Eckert said. “It’s just a very affirming thing.”
If the client responds poorly to the drug, the facilitator would step in to ensure their safety. But Tom Eckert said he doesn’t expect many problems.
“It’s not a stimulant. It doesn’t create a lot of activity. You generally become immersed in the experience,” he said.
An experience could last four to six hours, and the measure would require the clients to stay at the facility for a few more hours afterward. They’d be driven home.
But that’s not the end.
Tom Eckert said a few days later, a client would also be encouraged to attend what he calls “an integration session.”
“You can have an amazing experience with all kinds of insights and experiences, but if you don’t integrate it afterwards, it just becomes a memory,” he said. “If you’re wanting to make change in your life, you take those insights, and you create a practice. This is where the therapy comes in. It’s psilocybin-assisted therapy.”
Since it’s not clear whether the measure will make it to the ballot, it has no organized opposition. But Kevin Sabet, former drug policy advisor for the Obama administration, said he thinks legalization needs to be approached with deep caution and suspicion.
“I worry that given the precedent we have set with tobacco, alcohol and now marijuana, we are setting up new addictive industry that wants to deal with all kinds of drugs that have never been commercialized before, like mushrooms,” he said.
Sabet said he is in favor of looking into the medicinal properties of psilocybin, but not via the ballot box.
“They should only be done under the auspices of the FDA and scientific trials,” he said. “Medicine is not up for a popular vote. It should not be subject to a popularity contest, it should be subject to the rigors of science.”
The psilocybin legalization effort comes after the successful legalization of cannabis in Oregon. And the millions of dollars that industry is now generating make psilocybin legalization a better bet than a few years ago.
The Oregon Health Authority declined to comment on the proposed ballot measure, saying it wouldn’t want to speculate on how such a program would be implemented.
A more basic measure in California would have made psilocybin legal for anyone 21 or older. Paul Antico coordinated the campaign in Los Angeles and said it failed because they didn’t have enough time or money to collect signatures.
But he’s more hopeful for Oregon’s chances.
“I think they have a very good chance because of the way they’ve structured it,” he said. “I think they’ll be able to get more support from a lot of psychedelic organizations, and that will make a difference.”
Tom Eckert moved to Oregon in 2012 from Detroit. Sheri Eckert moved here the same year from San Diego.
They met, married and went into private practice together.
Sheri said they became increasingly interested in psilocybin as positive research surfaced. For example, a recent study by Johns Hopkins found 80 percent of smokers who used psilocybin to quit were not smoking one year later.
Current cessation techniques have success rates closer to 30 percent.
Sheri said what finally pushed the forward was reading an article in the New Yorker called “The Trip Treatment.”
“After having read that,” she said, “we really felt moved that we needed to focus on this and find a way to bring the power of psilocybin, its healing power, to the people.”
Earlier this winter, the FDA granted researchers a “breakthrough therapy designation” to study psychedelic mushrooms, indicating a shift in the way the federal government perceives psilocybin.
Over the coming year, the Psilocybin Service Initiative hopes to raise at least $500,000 to get the idea onto the general election ballot in 2020.
Organizers need to collect 112,000 signatures — nearly the population of Gresham, Oregon.