Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The City Council last week took steps to potentially ease public access to mind-expanding substances – or at least take the fear out of it.
The mind expansion involved psychoactive drugs defined as “entheogens,” which advocates say deliver a range of benefits, spiritual and healthwise.
They’d like personal use of the substances, such as psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline-containing cactus, and ayahuasca, described as a “shamanic brew,” effectively decriminalized and to be a low enforcement priority for the Arcata Police Department.
The federal government lists such substances (and cannabis) as Schedule 1 drugs such as heroin, lacking any medical value. But entheogen advocates vehemently disagree.
The matter was agendized by Councilmember Sarah Schaefer on behalf of a group called Decriminalize Nature Humboldt (DNH), whose supporters turned out in force at the first in-person council meeting since the Before Times.
A DNH letter to the council states that several cities have decriminalized entheogens, including Oakland, Santa Cruz, Denver, Colo. and Ann Arbor, Mich. Some 42 other cities are said to be consider similar decriminalization of plant and fungi-derived entheogens.
“Decriminalization establishes the possession and use of entheogens as a low priority for law enforcement for those over the age of 21 years, and provides the community with the ability for cultivation, grow, gather, and gift of entheogens,” the letter said.
A staff report said that the council could consider a resolution “declaring that the investigation and arrest of individuals involved with the adult possession, use, or cultivation of psychoactive plants and fungi listed on the Federal Schedule 1 list for personal adult use and clinical research be a low priority for the City of Arcata.”
Representing the group was Danielle Daniel, who extolled the many benefits of entheogens. She said her severe, lifelong depression led to drug abuse, addiction and poor choices of friends. But eight years ago in Brazil, she was introduced to entheogens in the form of a DMT-laced beverage, and her quickly life changed for the better.
“During that experience, I for the first time saw myself, saw who I was and I loved myself,” she said. “And with that love, the depression went away, and the need for addiction went away... I want that same opportunity for others who are in pain.”
She noted the high rates of heroin, meth and alcohol addiction in Humboldt due to trauma from child abuse and neglect, a cycle she said entheogens can help the victims break from, and heal.
“I’m not saying that decriminalizing is going to solve all the problems – it’s not,” Daniel said. “But it is the first step in the right direction for people to get the help they desperately need.”
She said the “natural alternative” entheogens have no addictive potential and been “proved by science” to reduce depression and anxiety, including that resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Apart from that, the substances offer “profound experiences and spiritual growth” for many users, and can help re-establish a connection with nature.
Daniel said de-emphasizing enforcement against entheogens would help the city better allocate its limited resources to serious threats to public safety.
She concluded by characterizing decriminalization as a risk-reduction strategy, and said there have been minimal negative impacts in communities which have adopted it.
The appeal to nature fallacy – that natural substances are inherently superior to synthetic – and appeals to tradition – that historical acceptance helps legitimize contemporary use – were both well ventilated during the hearing. So were anecdotes and testimonials, which on their own hold little scientific value. But the unhelpful tradition of needlessly criminalizing relatively harmless substances – especially as part of the “war on drugs,” with its racist origins in the Nixon era – was denounced as regressive and obsolete.
Schaefer said she’s heard a lot of public support for stepping away from the war on drugs, noting that now widely and legally available cannabis used to be illegal as well. “We can see this as a step of moving forward and see how criminalization of drugs, especially ones that are natural and plant based and come from the Earth is not in the best interest of the community and individuals,” Schaefer said.
She noted that state legislation decriminalizing psychoactive substances is in the works, and that the country of Portugal has done so and reaped the healing benefits.
“It should be something that we can [use to] help people with addiction, and maybe even in this case, use these plants to help people with addiction,” she said – something she’s seen be helpful even in her own family. “Why not try it?” she asked.
Councilmember Emily Grace Goldstein also logged her support for decriminalization. “I don’t see any reason to have another reason to police people, basically,” she said, calling entheogen use a matter of personal choice.
A number of public speakers offered searing and highly personal stories of psychedelic-based recovery, and support for decriminalization. “Sometimes medicine can be a drug, and sometimes drugs can be a medicine,” said one speaker. Many stressed the value of strengthening spirituality via renewed connections with nature.
The pro-entheogen points were received with wild applause and cheers from friends of DCH in attendance. But after Mayor Brett Watson asked that they cease the displays – and in a break with standard audience practice wherein such requests are generally ignored – the crowd politely complied, and subsequent remarks from supporters went mostly uncelebrated.
City Manager Karen Diemer clarified that the council was being asked to formulate language in a possible resolution, and to recommend any helpful consultations with other groups or city committees.
Vice Mayor Stacy Atkins-Salazar said she supported “the spirit of the resolution,” but had some concerns. One was how much staff time might be spent on the matter. She also suggested public health authorities be consulted, along with Police Chief Brian Ahearn.
Atkins-Salazar further noted that not all psychedelic drug use has a positive outcome. She suggested that any decriminalization be accompanied by an educational component describing potential risks and benefits.
“I just want to make sure we have done or will do our due diligence to consider their safety,” she said. She also suggested that passage of the state legislation, SB 519, might render an Arcata ordinance unnecessary.
Schaefer called safety “a valid concern,” but compared psilocybin favorably to what she said were higher-risk drugs such as Xanax, Valium and alcohol.
“I think there are things that are legal in our community that are a lot more dangerous,” she said, without citing supporting data. Such data may not exist, given the science-suppressing restrictions pursuant to placing drugs in the Schedule 1 category.
She said staff resources would be well spent on enhancing community mental health, and said a lot of the needed research has already been done by communities which have decriminalized entheogens.
Goldstein said it’s not up to anyone to judge others’ mental health therapies, indicating that prescription medication also has efficacy for some, including her. She said she was moved by the various pro-entheogen speakers’ baring of their souls, and supports a resolution by way of improving community mental health.
“Mental health is not one size fits all,” Goldstein said.
Chief Ahearn said he respected the courage of the speakers sharing their personal experiences, but was clearly discomfited at the characterization of police as the problem.
He said he was looking forward to further discussion, and that he will comply with what the council decides. He expressed concern that some not present might see decriminalization as “governmental permission to experiment,” which could result in a “very, very tragic situation that’s multiplied.”
Ahearn sought to minimize fear of law enforcement, noting that even now, Arcata Police aren’t “banging down people’s doors and taking away their psychedelic drugs. That doesn’t happen in Arcata.” He wanted any resolution to be “factual and representative of our great community.”
“I think we’re setting a precedent here that I think we need to be very, very careful about and very thoughtful about, and do our homework so that we know what exactly what it is we’re signing up for,” Ahearn said.
Mayor Brett Watson agreed that an educational component would be useful, and that DNH should formulate it. He also wanted the matter referred to the Public Safety Committee.
A resolution by Schaefer to press forward with a resolution died in a tied vote, with Atkins-Salazar and Watson voting no.
Watson said he wasn’t necessarily opposed, but wanted more public safety review, and to see the educational component.
By a quirk of fate, if the Humboldt County Dept. of Health & Human Services is consulted, its response could come from former Mayor Sofia Pereira, who resigned the City Council to become public health director. That resignation left the temporarily even-numbered council whose vote on the entheogen matter was tied.
The Public Safety Committee meets today, Wednesday, July 28 at 6 p.m. via Zoom.
This story is updated from the print edition.