Op-ed: Ann Arbor, destigmatize psychedelics

Thursday, February 6, 2020 - 1:04pm

Recently, MLive published a brief article covering Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor (DNA2) and our movement to destigmatize and decriminalize an array of psychedelic plants and fungi which have been shown, by a quickly accumulating mass of clinical and scientific evidence, to be invaluable tools in a variety of therapeutic settings. Not coincidentally, many of these same plants and fungi are considered sacred by indigenous cultures across the world, and play key roles in their spiritual and ceremonial life.

The impetus for this MLive article was the recent release of our resolution to the City Council of Ann Arbor. It is a carefully worded and thoroughly researched proposal for legislation which will end the harmful, unnecessary prohibition of these uniquely beneficial substances, known collectively as “entheogens.” The article attempts to gauge the initial responses of a handful of councilmembers to this proposed legislation. The results are disappointing.

The MLive piece includes a statement from Councilmember Jane Lumm, I-Ward 2, who dismisses the Decriminalize Nature movement as “folks who want to bring back the good-old hippie days,” before making a reference to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” for some reason. Lumm’s statement is reductive and in bad faith. Apparently, she didn’t actually read our resolution, and she chose to completely ignore the resolution’s 60-plus medical, scientific and scholarly citations which support our position. Instead she chose to recite lyrics from a worn-out staple of classic rock radio. With all due respect to Councilmember Lumm, she seems to be the one looking backward, perhaps to a sterile, idealized 1950s that never existed in the first place. DNA2 has its eye on the future. We are not looking backward, to the “good-old hippie days” of the 1960s. We are looking ahead to the 2020s, the decade when psychedelic medicine and entheogenic spirituality go mainstream.

Another councilmember interviewed by MLive is Jack Eaton, D-Ward 4, who seems more sympathetic to our cause, but who still resorts to unjustified alarmism and a misleading conception of the 60s and its legacy. “I’m aware of a lot of the research that’s been done, but I don’t have a really good grasp of how we could deregulate this and not end up right back in the late 60s,” Eaton said. If we understand Councilmember Eaton correctly, “the late 60s” is meant as shorthand for the excesses and public health issues that did, admittedly, appear during the hippie-era drug culture. But this picture ignores the “harm reduction” practices and policies that have emerged in the decades since, as a counter to these risks.

Harm reduction is an emphasis for DNA2 and its members, as it is for most currently active psychedelic groups and organizations including Michigan DanceSafe and the Michigan Psychedelic Society. This picture also sidesteps the growing realization that most of the potential for harm with entheogens — or any controlled substances, for that matter — stems from the fact that they are illegal. Prohibition does little to deter drug use; it simply drives it into the shadows and thus increases the potential for misuse and abuse. Deregulation is the first step toward a healthier relationship with these substances. It will allow everyone to use entheogens openly and safely, with education and clarity.

In the MLive article, Eaton goes on to say, “I think that it really has to start with the federal government taking it off from the Schedule I list of drugs.” This insistence that entheogens must be removed from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act before they can be made available for medical, spiritual and recreational use is a tactic of delay and deflection. After all, marijuana is still classified by the federal government as a Schedule I drug, and yet here we are: Michigan residents are free to enjoy the medical and psychological benefits of legal cannabis, and the world is still turning.

To return briefly to the topic of the 60s and its legacy, it’s worth noting that both Lumm and Eaton ignore the positive aspects of that legacy. They give us a caricature of hippie hedonism, while omitting the crucial influence of hippie counterculture on the progressive politics and social justice movements of our own era. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of 60s counterculture was its central role in the emerging environmental movement. There’s a recurring, undeniable relationship between psychedelic experience and environmental awareness, between entheogens and the realization of a fundamental continuity between humanity and nature, as well as the recognition that the complexity of the natural world is fragile and cannot be taken for granted. During this most uncertain of times, when every day confronts us with the signs of impending global environmental catastrophe, such environmental awareness is a moral imperative and a necessity for our survival as a species. To deny our citizens access to entheogenic substances which facilitate such awareness is an unethical act, one which subsequent generations will not judge kindly. 

Again, we’re not here to litigate (and re-litigate, over and over again) the legacy of the 60s. We’re not here to talk about the past. That’s a distraction. We’re here to discuss our shared present and our potential for a brighter future. The decriminalization of entheogenic plants and fungi is a matter of utmost, existential urgency, and should be a priority for the Ann Arbor City Council. It’s absurd that obviously destructive drugs such as alcohol and tobacco remain legal, while these natural substances with relatively little destructive potential are illegal. The 2017 Global Drug Survey concluded that the psilocybin in magic mushrooms is the safest, least toxic recreational drug currently in use.

Some members of City Council may continue to resist and delay, but our momentum will carry decriminalization forward. The clinical and scientific evidence for the many benefits of entheogens is weighty and ever-accumulating, and this is being recognized by cities and states across the country. In May 2019, the citizens of Denver, Colo., voted to decriminalize magic mushrooms. In June 2019, the City Council of Oakland, Calif., voted, unanimously, in favor of the decriminalization of entheogenic plants and fungi. In October, Chicago’s Committee on Health and Human Relations voted unanimously in favor of a similar resolution, which is now pending before its City Council. Last week, the Santa Cruz, Calif., City Council followed suit, also by unanimous vote. And on Feb. 5, the District of Columbia took its first steps toward making decriminalization a ballot measure in November.

Ann Arbor has a history and a reputation as one of the most forward-thinking cities in the Midwest, if not the country. Will its current leadership honor that reputation, or tarnish it by attempting to delay the inevitable? The members of Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor are looking toward a brighter, healthier, saner future, and we urge City Council to join us in doing the same.

Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor can be reached at decrimnaturea2@gmail.com.