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Future of psilocybin therapy will be decided by Oregon voters

Oregon voters will decide this fall whether to approve and regulate psilocybin therapy for certain patients, putting the state at the head of a potentially groundbreaking movement.

The ballot initiative, Measure 109, aims to make Oregon the first state in the country to legalize psilocybin – the chemical compound found in “magic” mushrooms – for supervised therapeutic use.

Unlike the 2014 ballot measure that legalized cannabis, Measure 109 would not allow recreational use of psilocybin and would not allow it to be sold to the general public. A separate ballot measure this year, Measure 110, would decriminalize possession of small amounts of street drugs, including psilocybin.

Recent studies at prominent universities like Johns Hopkins, Imperial College in London and the University of California, Los Angeles, have shown promising results with psilocybin therapy, revealing it to be an effective treatment against depression, PTSD and addiction.

Tom and Sheri Eckert, the husband-and-wife chief petitioners behind the measure, who both practice therapy in Beaverton, insist that the drug’s use must be rooted in science and regulated with the guidance of scientists and health care professionals.

Federally classified as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, psilocybin has only recently been re-legalized for research studies, along with MDMA, also known as “ecstasy” or “molly.” In the 1950s and ’60s, researchers published thousands of articles on the therapeutic use of another psychedelic drug, LSD, which was used successfully to treat alcoholism and other mental health issues.

Chris Stauffer, a researcher and psychiatry professor who studies psychedelic treatments at Oregon Health and Science University, said psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and MDMA had recently shown overwhelmingly positive results reducing depression and PTSD.

Patients in Stauffer’s studies – which included combat veterans, long-term AIDS survivors and methamphetamine users – were also often more able to confront grief and felt a sense of connectedness to themselves, friends and families that had been lost to years of unresolved trauma, Stauffer said.

“I don’t think it’s just about making people love rainbows and want to hug trees,” Stauffer told The Oregonian/OregonLive in September. “It does things to the mind that are powerful.

“But if our motivation changes from wanting to heal to something else,” that could be problematic, he said.

The Oregon Psychiatric Physicians Association, which says it represents more than 38,000 physicians, opposes the measure. It calls the proposal “unsafe” and accuses it of making “misleading promises to those Oregonians who are struggling with mental illness.”

The association contends that despite the number of promising studies, “science does not yet indicate that psilocybin is a safe medical treatment for mental health conditions.”

Michael Pollan, a journalist and professor who wrote a 2018 book on psychedelics and their benefits, “How to Change Your Mind,” also has expressed concerns.

“As much as the supporters of legal psilocybin hope to follow the political playbook that has rapidly changed the status of cannabis in recent years,” Pollan wrote in The New York Times, “they need to bear in mind that psilocybin is a very different drug, and it is not for everyone.”

Those potential dangers are why the Eckerts are proposing a regulatory system that aims to take care when choosing who to administer psilocybin to and how to do it in a way that ensures a healing experience, rather than a “bad trip,” they say.

The hope for transformative healing has earned Measure 109 support from several veterans’ groups as well as some local healthcare workers and therapists. This year’s voters’ pamphlet publishes dozens of arguments in favor of the measure and one in opposition.

Proponents of the ballot measure have raised more than $2.1 million as of Friday, according to the Oregon Secretary of State.

The biggest donation by far was $1.48 million from New Approach PAC, a political action committee based in Washington, D.C., that has primarily supported recreational and medical marijuana initiatives around the country.

In 2020, New Approach got the vast majority of its money – $4.86 million out of nearly $7 million raised through August – from Dr. Bronner’s soap company, which also gave $1 million directly to the Oregon measure’s backers this spring to help them gather signatures.

The national PAC also received money from individuals and organizations around the country with ties to the cannabis industry. Among them: California-based venture capital firm Ghost Management Group, known for Weedmaps ($250,000); Seattle entrepreneur Brendan Kennedy, who until 2018 was the CEO of Leafly ($500,000); and the late New York philanthropist Henry van Ameringen ($1 million). The PAC also received $375,000 from The Scotts Co., a multinational lawn and garden corporation that makes Miracle-Gro and Roundup.

Major individual contributors to Measure 109 include three big out-of-state donors: $25,000 from Austin Hearst, grandson of famed newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst; $10,000 from Chicago investor William Sterling; and $10,000 from Adam Wiggins, a tech entrepreneur who founded a nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to psychedelics and marijuana.

Oregon already has some of the highest rates of depression, anxiety and addiction in the country, Sheri Eckert pointed out in a news release over the summer, arguing that the current options for treatment just aren’t enough.

“We need better mental health treatment options now more than ever,” Eckert said, “and this initiative has the right supervision and safeguards in place.”

Bryce Dole contributed to this story.

— Jamie Hale; jhale@oregonian.com; 503-294-4077; @HaleJamesB

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