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Inside The Competing Approaches To Legalizing Psychedelics In Mass

One side is behind the ballot initiative to regulate access to psychedelics. The other side has been advocating and organizing grassroots efforts across New England.

Is there any chance these rivals will break through the tension and work together?


Ballot initiative season is already sweltering in Massachusetts, and it’s one for the ages—complete with power struggles, public callouts, and accusations of out-of-state influence peddling. That plus counter-accusations of harassment and bad-faith behavior, all part of the debate over the future of psychedelics in the Bay State.

And it’s only February.

On a national scale, Oregon and Colorado preceded Massachusetts in legalizing psychedelics (in 2020 and 2022, respectively). Those milestones kicked up a lot of dirt, setting the stage for a clash over what policy reform in this realm should look like.

Here in Massachusetts, Bay Staters for Natural Medicine has emerged as a figurehead organization representing a new wave of psychedelic activism. The group practices “citizen science,” which its founder describes as “the viewpoint that affordable legalization and broad decriminalization will help humanity collectively learn more about the best settings and intentions in using psychedelics to improve lives.”

Since spearheading a groundbreaking decriminalization campaign in Somerville in 2021, Bay Staters has successfully championed similar initiatives across New England. In Mass, members brought reform to municipalities including Cambridge, Amherst, Northampton, Easthampton, Provincetown, Salem, and most recently Medford this week. And they operate throughout New England; last year, in Portland, Maine, Bay Staters linked with local groups to decriminalize psychedelics through the city council.

The group’s founder, James Davis, attributes the achievements of Bay Staters to date to their uniquely social-focused approach to community-building across diverse demographics. In the past few months, they have held events like an urban foraging outing and their annual Boston Mushroom Fest.

“Local lawmakers are deeply enmeshed in their communities, they know people with trauma and often suffer from depression themselves,” Davis said. As examples of their outreach, he noted that Bay Staters likes to keep things simple by “hosting potlucks and nature walks to bring people together to learn more about psychedelics.”

“Of the nine communities we have decriminalized nationally, all of them resulted from ordinary people like parents, first responders, and career professionals sharing how plant medicine has helped them with their local leaders.” Davis emphasized, “community is our DNA, [it’s] the source of all of our success.”

In a rapidly evolving era of drug treatment advocacy, Davis believes Bay Staters could serve as a blueprint for grassroots organizations nationwide. His group’s hope is to catalyze widespread populist reform on a range of related legislative issues, and so far they have shown that even the most historically prohibitionist adversaries, like law enforcement officials, are willing to get on board. 

As things stand now, their biggest obstacle isn’t anti-drug alarmists—it’s other advocates.

A new approach?

Founded in 2014, New Approach PAC’s first big legislative triumph came that same year by way of its cannabis legalization campaign in Oregon. But over the past 18 months, the political action committee has ascended to the forefront of another drug-related policy theater—psychedelic advocacy in the US.

Often collaborating with the Marijuana Policy Project, New Approach became one of the organizational leaders in the cannabis legalization revolution of the 2010s, successfully campaigning for medical legalization in South Dakota, as well as full legalization in Massachusetts, Maine, California, Michigan, and most recently in Missouri. As scientific evidence supporting therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs has mounted, New Approach founder Dr. David Bronner saw an opportunity to seize the reins of this next wave of reform.

With big financial backing from wealthy and politically-engaged power players such as Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey and media heir Austin Hearst, New Approach successfully pushed decriminalization in Washington, DC, led the psychedelic legalization movement in Oregon in 2020, and spearheaded Colorado’s successful 2022 legalization campaign.

For the committee’s latest initiative, New Approach introduced language in Mass that “would allow persons aged 21 and older to grow, possess, and use certain natural psychedelic substances in certain circumstances”—specifically, mushroom-based psilocybin and psilocyn, as well three plant-based substances: dimethyltryptamine (DMT), mescaline, and ibogaine. The PAC set up a state committee, Massachusetts for Mental Health Options, to support the measure, which is formally called the Massachusetts Regulated Access to Psychedelic Substances Initiative. More recently, Mass for Mental Health Options hired its first employee, tapping US Navy veteran Emily Oneschuk to serve as the campaign’s grassroots director.

The petition also outlines regulations for licensed facilities, personal home cultivation, and taxation. Similar to the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC), there would be an appointed body and an advisory board to oversee implementation. At the local level, cities would be able to regulate but not ban facilities, and all sales would be subject to state and local taxes. Revenue would support a regulation fund, and usage, if permitted, would not affect medical care, public assistance, or professional licenses, with exceptions if there is evidence of endangering a minor. If voted into law, it would take effect on Dec. 15, 2024.

Campaign trails

New Approach campaign spokesperson Jared Moffat has been the face of the ballot initiative campaign since New Approach arrived on the Massachusetts psychedelic scene. A Mississippi native who currently lives in California, Moffat got his start in politics working for the Marijuana Policy Project more than a decade ago, and said that drug policy reform has “been a passion of mine for a long time.”

Asked how his work with MPP prepared him for this new challenge, Moffat said, “What I learned doing a lot of the cannabis campaigns is the nuts and bolts of running a campaign.” He added, “There’s a lot of pieces that you have to … really … do right, in terms of … filing paperwork, building coalitions, and drafting policy.”

In terms of his role in the Massachusetts effort underway, Moffat said he sees himself “as a kind of connector” to “support the campaign in its goal of … building a coalition of supporters.” But his collaborative track record notwithstanding, so far that coalition has yet to coalesce. New Approach raised nearly $4 million in 2023, mostly from tech executives and out-of-state donors, but its initial outreach efforts failed to penetrate the grassroots. Bay Staters has come out in loud opposition to the Massachusetts Regulated Access to Psychedelic Substances Initiative.

(Bay Staters rejects that characterization, writing in response to this article: “Our position is that the ballot question should be changed through substitution to remove the unelected control entity, and we have not said we are opposed to the ballot question at this time. We endorsed inclusion of growing rights in a ballot question framework, and advocates have acknowledged that this is why Version A was petitioned for by the PAC instead of Version B, which would have kept growing and sharing criminalized. In our view, the PAC’s strategy is to distract from this third choice to improve the policy through substitution by framing this all of this a vote between ‘progress’ on their terms or ‘no progress.'”)

Moffat says this disconnect is not due to a lack of trying. He emphasized that New Approach leadership “wants to work with anybody that shares the goal of making these medicines available to folks who can benefit,” adding that “if there’s someone that says, Hey, why don’t we do this? … then yeah… we should always be open to that… we’re happy to work with anybody.”

To further compound those community outreach woes, after Mass for Mental Health Options submitted its first round of 74,574 collected signatures to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, the certification process hit a roadblock when officials found “disqualifying marks” on their submissions. New Approach chalked the gaffe up to a printing error made by “a signature firm that we have worked with before,” and Moffat said the error “was unfortunate.”

The PAC bounced back. Despite drawing ire from Bay Staters and others, the New Approach-backed group sent its hired clipboards back out to collect. Last month, Secretary of State William Galvin certified a whopping 96,277 collected signatures.

But while their signature re-collection campaign passed one test, public relations troubles persisted. In late November, psychedelicspotlight.com published a story featuring footage of two paid canvassers discussing the ballot initiative. In it, they appear to give misleading information about the Massachusetts Regulated Access to Psychedelic Substances Initiative, claiming, among other things, that if the petition is enacted into law, psychedelic therapy would be covered by Medicare.

Asked about the video, Moffat alleged that Bay Staters was the source behind the story. Pressed about the apparent misinformation, he said, “They made a transcript of one of the conversations. … I looked at the transcript, I don’t quite know what the lie is.” (Read the full transcript here).

For their part, Bay Staters’ approach to diplomacy has been sharp-tongued, with vocal criticism often centered around the dangers of corporate influence on equitable access and affordability.

“The PAC’s bill would create an unelected control commission prone to regulatory capture by corporations outside our state,” Davis said. He compared the ballot measure with his own group’s proposal: “Our legislation ends criminal penalties for common growing and sharing amounts of plant medicine. … The PAC’s bill cuts these amounts in half.”

Accusations

In response to criticism, Moffat expressed frustration at Bay Staters’ public vitriol, countering that the organization’s leaders are “making false claims that the ballot initiative … doesn’t allow for facilitated use, and for trained facilitators in people’s residences.” “That’s not true,” Moffat said. “I can point you to the exact section where it says the regulators need to come up with rules that allow for use at hospice centers and private residences and another approval location.”

(Responding to that claim, Bay Staters wrote in an email: “We shared the concerns that are referenced here when the PAC had not released its bill publicly, opting instead to keep it secret from Massachusetts advocates and journalists for about a month. We have not raised these concerns since, yet there remains nothing explicit in the PAC’s bill as written that would protect home facilitation: it just states the board would regulate location. The PAC’s bill would create an unelected control board to issue hundreds of regulations. This can lead to wishful thinking about what this unelected body might put out in the way of regulation. Unelected control boards have empirically been shown to have conflicts of interests that subvert the public interest in affordability and innovation. We endorse H.3605 as part of a substitute, which directly creates a regulated model that allows home use.”)

Moffat also suggested Davis may have acted in bad faith, feigning interest in working together so as to elicit financial support from New Approach.

“We made a grant to Bay Staters for a pretty significant amount of money,” Moffat said. “It was almost like … once that money was donated, then James’ attitude totally changed, like, We’re going to go take shots at you guys.”

Moffat continued, “I have talked to people who are part of Bay Staters, [and] I don’t know that anyone other than James has been aware that this grant was made.”

In response to those comments, Davis provided the following statement: “We deny the PAC’s accusation. The PAC initiated contact with us to make an unconditional gift, and it remains in our nonprofit’s bank account for future projects. The PAC claimed the gift was to thank us for our work long-predating the ballot question campaign.

“It is our position, based on statements by a PAC representative, that this payment was intended to influence our position and mute our affordability concerns. Rather than engaging in a direct conversation about keeping treatments affordable, the PAC has made false statements about our volunteers. We encourage the PAC and every stakeholder to work with our coalition to improve the ballot question so that we can keep life-saving treatments affordable and pass the best-possible policy this year.”

The debate over treatment affordability

While local and statewide coverage of psychedelic advocacy in Mass has been dominated by the ongoing New Approach v. Bay Staters saga, the psychedelic world is wide and full of dedicated advocates beyond these rival factions. People like activist Jamie Morey, founder of Parents for Plant Medicine and a key figure in the diverse coalition of psychedelic advocates.

Morey became involved in the world of plant medicine due to her two eldest children struggling with PANS/PANDAS, a neurological disorder that causes brain inflammation that results in severe treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, OCD, and a number of other often-debilitating symptoms. She spent years with her family trying various forms of therapy and prescription drugs—all with limited, never-lasting success.

The Moreys eventually found sustained relief through intravenous Ketamine therapy, but the financial strain of that uninsured treatment became too much to bear. While psychedelic treatment methods have provided a new hope for the family, their concerns about future affordability and access remain—particularly due to skyrocketing costs for clinical psychedelic therapy in Oregon and Colorado following the success of New Approach’s campaigns in those states.

“Ketamine costs less than $10, but IV infusions through a clinic cost over $600 each because insurance companies refuse to cover them,” she said. Morey, who networks with Bay Staters but is focused on her own group, added, “We can’t have the same thing happen with psilocybin in Massachusetts, [which] is exactly what has happened with the New Approach model in Oregon, where people are paying up to $3,000 for a single psilocybin trip.”

Adding to her frustration, Morey said, “New Approach came to Massachusetts and attempted to force its ballot initiative on our state without engaging any of the local organizations … which I think was a big tactical mistake.”

Ultimately, Morey said that formal decriminalization doesn’t have to be very complicated.

“We already have a simple and straightforward one-page piece of [proposed] legislation, An Act Relative to Plant Medicine,” the Parents for Plant Medicine advocate said. That’s “in contrast to the much more complicated 25-page long New Approach ballot initiative that would make psilocybin access prohibitively more expensive for the vast majority of patients and providers.”

In the meantime, Bay Staters continues to fight at the local level—even as the group attempts to out-maneuver New Approach on Beacon Hill. In December, the group’s members were busy pushing back against demonstrably false claims made by the Brookline Police Department that a teenager jumped out of a building while high on mushrooms.

This week, Bay Staters saw the Medford City Council vote to “designate growing and sharing psilocybin ‘magic’ mushrooms and related psychedelic plants as the lowest priority of law enforcement.” The measure also calls for the psychedelic ballot question to be substituted. And in a related development, on Feb. 7, members of the Joint Committee on Public Health advanced a bill that would legalize the “use [of] psilocybin during facilitated sessions, by a properly licensed psilocybin facilitator, for therapeutic, spiritual and medicinal purpose.” The legislation would also create a pathway for medical professionals to obtain proper licensure to facilitate affordable psychedelic treatments. First presented by Rep. Nicholas Boldyga last April, the bipartisan-supported proposal’s approval adds to the pressure facing New Approach to substitute or amend its November ballot question.

Regarding the bigger picture, Morey recognized that both sides of the fight over the public referendum share fundamentally important common ground.

“I don’t want to completely demonize New Approach, because we are all working toward our mutual goal of decriminalization,” Morey said.

There does appear to be some positive momentum toward coalition building; emails between Moffat and members of Bay Staters obtained for this article show that efforts have been made to repair the fractured relationship as recently as last month.

But with less than 10 months to go until Election Day, Morey said she still has “a lot of concern about the ballot initiative’s ability to do that.”


This article is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, make a contribution at givetobinj.org

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