“STOLEN VALOR” ROCKS MASS PSYCHEDELICS COMMUNITY

Veteran impersonation act outrages Bay State activists, further muddies grassroots waters


With about four-and-a-half months to go until Massachusetts voters decide on whether to legalize psychedelics while they’re voting for POTUS in November, more significant drama is unfolding between advocates and political entities pushing for and against access to plant medicine.

While the ballot measure’s fate remains uncertain, in part due to said drama, the stakes are higher than ever—especially with veteran suicides on the rise, and following a controversial ruling by the US Food and Drug Administration against MDMA-assisted therapy treatment.

In Massachusetts, last week state lawmakers greenlit an investment into researching the benefits of psychedelic therapy for veterans. Considering that move and other factors, it’s clear that service members from the Bay State will play a pivotal role in shaping the outcome of this potentially historic initiative.

One of the leading advocacy organizations representing veterans on the front lines of this battle has been New England Veterans for Plant Medicine. Founded in February 2023 by Gulf War US Marine Corps veteran Mike Botelho and US Navy veteran Stephen Benjamin, the group billed itself as a “coalition of dedicated service members from every service branch and background.”

The burgeoning group also joined forces with Bay Staters for Natural Medicine, a psychedelics advocacy stalwart that has been at the center of the drug reform movement in New England since its founding in 2020. Among other activist endeavors, BSNM supporters have spearheaded groundbreaking local psychedelic municipal resolution campaigns in Somerville, Cambridge, Amherst, Northampton, Easthampton, Provincetown, Salem, and most recently Medford.

Shortly after first meeting with Botelho and BSNM founder James Davis, Benjamin said he was tasked with designing a NEVPM logo, making “a copy of the Bay Staters website,” and “setting up an email address” for the veterans group. He recalled that creating the site was easy; “the [BSNM and NEVPM] sites are nearly identical,” Benjamin said.

They had a few wins and received some valuable attention, including NBC10 Boston reporting on how Botelho had successfully treated opioid addiction with the help of psilocybin mushrooms. But even at the start of their collaboration with Bay Staters, the NEVPM founders say things didn’t feel right. In an interview for this article, Benjamin explained that “James purchased the [NEVPM website] domain name,” with Davis wielding sole control over its management and linked social media accounts from the beginning.

Last fall, Botelho moved his family from their home in Carlisle, Massachusetts, down to South Carolina. Because of the relocation, he stepped away from NEVPM. In an interview, Botelho said that after he made the announcement, Davis assured him that his co-founder, Benjamin, would take over the group’s leadership.

But nearly a year later, Benjamin recalls hearing a starkly different story. Furthermore, the Navy vet says his “last work with NEVPM was around September 2023.”

Davis has faced substantial criticism from others in the grassroots psychedelic movement for allegedly misleading fellow activists, and for his alliance with anti-drug lobbying groups. As I previously reported, despite his vocal opposition to leaders of the New Approach campaign, which has helped fund the Massachusetts Regulated Access to Psychedelic Substances Initiative that will appear on the November ballot, Davis accepted a $35,000 donation from PAC Leaders on the behalf of Bay Staters.

As for the fire he has drawn from veterans… Botelho first publicly lambasted Davis in May, describing “proof of a covert, subversive shadow campaign … fueled by ego-centeric behavior.” While more recent happenings have led Botelho and Benjamin to both question many of their past discussions and relationship with Bay Staters.

“James wrote and asked me to endorse a quote related to the ballot measure,” Benjamin said. “I now believe [that quote was] based on wrong information.”

“Stolen valor” uncovered

Despite Botelho’s public condemnation of Davis, New England Veterans for Plant Medicine has remained active on social media in recent weeks, frequently and primarily reposting content from Bay Staters. The posts led Botelho to question which veterans—if any—were actively involved with the organization he founded.

To this day, the NEVPM website claims, “We are a coalition of dedicated members from every service branch and background.” However, multiple attempts to contact people from this purported coalition to confirm those backgrounds for this article went unanswered.

In emails from the NEVPM account that were provided and reviewed for this article, it appears Davis impersonated Botelho in several communications. A person claiming to be Botelho engaged with media, fellow activists, and legislators in several states. Davis even declined speaking engagements in Botelho’s name, and pretended to be the Marine Corps vet while directing a legislative aide to Davis himself for a job reference.

The emails in question are now available to view online. They date as far back as last August, and go through mid-April. All were sent in Botelho’s name but without his permission.

And the impersonation doesn’t seem to end there, as some of the leaked emails show correspondence from a separate Yahoo account under Botelho’s name. Botelho claims he “wasn’t even aware that [Yahoo] email account existed,” and suspects Davis created it to enhance his act.

In the Yahoo correspondence, the sender repeatedly references Botelho’s service record, and even lies about personal details. For example, in one email that was sent to Mass lawmakers on March 21, 2024—just five days before a joint committee hearing on An Act Relative to the Regulation and Taxation of Natural Psychedelic Substances—Davis listed Botelho’s former commonwealth address as current, despite having known Botelho moved out of state.

Also, an email dated April 18, 2024 from the fraudulent Yahoo account was sent to a reporter from NBC Boston regarding their coverage of the aforementioned hearing. In the message, Davis, writing as Botelho, makes a patently false claim about Emily Oneschuk, the grassroots campaign director for the group Massachusetts for Mental Health Options. Davis has been at odds with M4MHO, which is organizing for the psychedelics ballot initiative, and claimed in the email that Oneschuk was only enlisted in the US Navy for “just a year.” It reads:

As a vet with combat PTSD I want to see our coalition’s perspectives included since dozens of us are calling for the ballot question to be changed. Can you ask your editor to … update the piece considering I made time for you all to interview me before? Should not just include a paid spokesperson for a DC PAC that was in the military for just a year.

V/R,

Michael Botelho, USMC

Co-Founder, New England Vets for Plant Medicine

In reality, Oneschuk, who made headlines in 2017 as the first-ever female Navy SEAL candidate, served as an explosives ordnance officer in the Navy, helped operate a refugee camp in Spain for Afghan women and children, and was honorably discharged in April 2022 as a conscientious objector.

For his part, Botelho acknowledges that he “gave Davis permission to write letters to senators and aides seeking support for [psychedelics legislation],” but said that he, Botelho, was supposed to read them for review and to edit said letters as he saw fit “before they were sent or submitted to any and everyone.”

The grassroots, the establishment, and what comes next

As recently as May, Davis claimed—to a reporter with the Greenfield Recorder—that NEVPM was still aligned with his organization. He also said Bay Staters was affiliated with the group Parents for Plant Medicine, spurring the founder of that group to publicly refute the claim. The May 28 Recorder article, activist Jamie Morey wrote in a subsequent letter to the editor, “incorrectly stated that my organization supported the failed ballot substitution pushed by James Davis/Bay Staters for Natural Medicine. … Parents for Plant Medicine is no longer affiliated with Bay Staters.”

It’s not the first time that Davis has been caught withholding information from other grassroots leaders. Following a hearing on Beacon Hill in March, it was revealed that his organization had been given multiple opportunities to provide input directly to the political action committee behind the Mass ballot initiative.

The leaked emails are available to review here. In summary, last July, Jared Moffat, the New Approach campaign spokesperson, sought input from Davis on several policy issues. Despite this outreach, Davis continued to claim he was never consulted by the PAC, and went on to criticize the campaign for the policies that Moffat sought his input on, both before and after the PAC’s successful signature collection drive last year.

Among the specific policy issues addressed, Moffat discussed objections to the independent regulatory board proposed in the ballot language, suggesting an alternative model led by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Davis responded positively, promising to review the New Approach policy document under strict confidentiality, and to draft a letter for a coalition meeting the next week.

But in practice, Davis apparently failed to inform fellow coalition leaders at all. Confronted by Morey from Parents for Plant Medicine about the concealment, he replied in a text: “I don’t have to tell you anything… I choose to.”

Adding to the controversy, last month, another email revealed that Davis had joined forces with representatives from Smart Approaches to Marijuana and the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions to oppose the ballot measure altogether. Both organizations are based in Washington, DC, and have been longtime opponents of drug legalization. Led by the contentious prohibitionist Kevin Sabet, the groups have confirmed their combined efforts to defeat the plant medicine ballot measure.

With so much hubbub circling the group, Bay Staters was uninvited from the 2024 Extravaganja Festival at UMass Amherst, which an Extravaganja spokesperson confirmed was “due to concerns of misrepresentations and dishonesty, which has caused a breach of trust among our grassroots community.”

Considering these latest developments as well as past behavior, members of the psychedelic science and activist communities, including multiple prominent former Bay Staters collaborators, have reacted fiercely in response to the apparent duplicity.

Morey of Parents for Plant Medicine issued the following statement: “As a veteran spouse, I share in the outrage over the revelation that James perpetuated veteran fraud (among many other misdeeds) to push his personal agenda.” Adding, “There are countless real veterans in Massachusetts who have benefitted from plant medicine that can authentically speak for themselves about the healing they found. I hope they will join me and countless others across the state in using their voices to call for the passage of the ballot question in November.”

Reached for comment about Davis’ apparent impersonation of him, Botelho indicated an interest in pursuing legal recourse, and wrote the following: “I’m appalled by the evidence that’s been uncovered against James Davis and Bay Staters, [but] the issue that really has me upset is the fact that James created an email address under my name and used it to impersonate me … to further his agenda, without my knowledge or approval. I would never let anyone just use my name, veteran status, or credentials without having [prior] knowledge and playing my part responsibly! To see this person impersonate me and answer emails that are from supporters, advocates, other grassroots organizations—and who knows what else—[in my name] … is stolen valor.”

One former Bay Staters board member, who spoke anonymously out of fear of personal reprisal from Davis, wrote in an email response to questions for this article: “The realm of the psychedelic community is deeply rooted in truth, ethics, and accountability, just as much as it is in healing, intention, and surrender. As we approach a time when access to life-saving entheogens could become a reality, our psychedelic leaders must demonstrate impeccable character. There is simply no room for anything less. It is disheartening that James was unable to align with the standards of conduct expected within the safe and nurturing environment of psychedelic community building.”

Another prominent former Bay Staters-affiliated activist, US Navy Veteran Imani Turnbull-Brown, issued the following statement in response to questions for this story: “James Davis is unequivocally the modern-day version of Timothy Leary—a megalomaniac who takes advantage of those genuinely seeking help. He has somehow positioned himself at the forefront of this movement, similar to Leary, and each time he speaks or acts questionably, he delays the progress made by those who came before us and those who are doing the work presently.

Turnbull-Brown added, “We cannot have individuals like James in this space because it is dangerous, detrimental, and unhelpful for those who desperately need support. We need leaders who are honest, trustworthy, and committed to doing the right work. James does not fit this description and never has. He has built a façade that many believed to be real, but unfortunately, this is not the case.

“We have a long way to go in this fight, and people like James are obstacles that prevent us from reaching our goals.”

As of this publication, neither Davis nor the Bay Staters communication director have responded to multiple requests for comment.

“I hope the truth… [continues to be] exposed about James Davis’ behavior and regrettable actions,” Botelho said. “I will consider taking appropriate legal action to ensure no other veteran or advocate is a victim to this strange, unethical, and immoral behavior. Semper Fi!”

You can follow all the ins and outs of psychedelics in the Bay State and beyond in Jack’s Psychedelic State(s) of America newsletter covering the people, policies, and science driving the ongoing psychedelic science revolution.


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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