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Seattle council asks overdose and recovery panel to consider decriminalization of psychedelics

UPDATED: Tue., June 8, 2021

A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms in 2019 at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles.  (Richard Vogel)
A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms in 2019 at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles. (Richard Vogel)
By Daniel Beekman Seattle Times

The Seattle City Council is asking a drug overdose and recovery panel to explore the potential liberalization of local policies on psychedelic medicines like psilocybin mushrooms, citing their potential for treating addiction and mental health conditions.

Seven council members Monday signed a letter to the Overdose Emergency and Innovative Recovery Task Force, which will launch soon in King County.

The panel led by Black Lives Matter Seattle- King County and VOCAL Washington plans to reconsider how governments and communities can reduce overdoses, racial inequities in drug-user health and criminal-legal system challenges, representatives say.

The task force will delve into questions related to psychedelic medicines, also known as entheogens, among many other topics, said Malika Lamont, program director for VOCAL-WA, an advocacy organization that focuses on the war on drugs, homelessness, mass incarceration and HIV/AIDS. Entheogens include substances like psilocybin, ayahuasca and ibogaine.

“We recognize that decriminalization, and ideally legalization, is the way to create a safer environment for everyone. Especially with psychedelics, there’s so much potential for the treatment of behavioral health issues,” Lamont said. “Using all the resources at our disposal in safe ways to create wellness for people, that’s overdose prevention.”

Seattle Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Lisa Herbold wrote Monday’s letter, which was endorsed during a Monday briefing by Council President M. Lorena González and by Councilmembers Tammy Morales, Kshama Sawant, Debora Juarez and Teresa Mosqueda. Councilmember Alex Pedersen said he wanted to learn more. Councilmember Dan Strauss was absent.

“Psilocybin has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety, and various entheogens are being actively studied as treatments to post-traumatic stress disorder, grief, and drug addiction,” the letter says, noting that Denver, Oakland, Washington, D.C., and Oregon, among other jurisdictions, have taken steps in recent years to liberalize laws related to entheogens.

Lewis and Herbold said now is the right moment locally because a group called Decriminalize Nature Seattle is pushing for changes and because the new task force on overdoses and recovery could shake up the status quo.

“It’s time to act on this,” Lewis said.

King County leaders convened a task force on heroin and prescription opioids in 2016, and that panel recommended a number of actions, including the establishment of safe consumption sites. The new task force will cover more ground by looking at other addictive drugs, at homelessness and at disparities in access to help, said DeAunte’ Damper, chairperson of BLM Seattle- King County and a person in recovery.

For example, “Let’s really have a conversation about how needle exchange programs are available in the North End, but from Tukwila to Federal Way there are no programs available for Black and Brown people,” he said.

The new panel will be community-oriented and will include representatives working on the ground and with lived experience, Damper said.

In general, psychedelics are classified as controlled substances, illegal under federal law. Seattle can’t legalize them outright, but can de-prioritize enforcement by police and prosecutors, Sawant said. That’s the tack Seattle took with marijuana before Washington state legalized recreational use.

“Even for harmful and addictive drugs … the neoliberal war on drugs did nothing but expand mass incarceration,” Sawant said, adding, “There is now significant research showing (entheogens) are rarely harmful.”

Mosqueda mentioned a friend with a traumatic brain injury who might benefit from psychedelics, and the friend’s doctor is interested.

At a Monday council meeting, several Decriminalize Nature Seattle representatives delivered public comments. Ben Sercombe said entheogens have reduced his anxiety and improved his life.

“Why would we want to prevent folks from finding inner peace?” he asked.

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