Getting psyched? — Tracking the movement to decriminalize psychedelics in Portland

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Long stigmatized by the War on Drugs campaign, the idea of decriminalizing certain plant-based psychedelic drugs has slowly been gaining acceptance in parts of the country.

The movement has also found its way to Portland.

Sarah Farrugia, founder and executive director of Decriminalize Maine, is set to present to Portland’s Health and Human Services committee on Tuesday, Oct. 11. (Courtesy Sarah Farrugia)

The nonprofit Decriminalize Maine is advocating for newer policies that decriminalize possession, adult-use and cultivation of plant and fungal medicines — or psychedelics. Through recent advocacy and discussions with city officials, founder and executive director Sarah Farrugia has argued that the devastating effects of the ongoing opioid epidemic should be reason enough for public officials to consider decriminalization. 

“I’ve had so many loved ones die through this opioid epidemic, and we continue to see that in our community,” she said.

The hope, according to Farrugia, is that the use of psychedelics could save the lives of Mainers struggling with addiction. Her goal is to build upon acceptance and educate the public about the benefits of such substances and the potential they have for treating substance use disorder: such as cannabis, psilocybin — the chemical in “magic mushrooms” and plants containing DMT, like Ayahuasca, she said. 

Farrugia, a Falmouth resident who received a B.A. in Social Work from the University of New England in 2020, founded Decriminalize Maine partly due to the positive effect mushrooms had on her recovery and mental health. 

The trend toward decriminalizing psychedelics has been led by a scientific perspective, particularly with regard to the drugs’ potential to treat substance use disorder. The influential journalist and food writer Michael Pollan’s recent books “How to Change Your Mind” and “This is Your Mind on Plants,” argue that we are in a “renaissance” of psychedelics, with a new generation of scientists beginning to explore their possible benefits.

The statewide movement has other backers too. In March, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine paired with the Maine Center for Economic Policy to make a case for decriminalizing drugs back, issuing a study arguing that the state’s decision “to prioritize and invest in criminalization of drug use over a public health approach” has had “significant adverse economic and social costs.” The study found that Maine state and local governments spend $111 million a year “criminalizing people who use drugs,” money they argue would better serve people if reallocated to social services like mental health and recovery-centered housing.

A new survey done by the University of Maine found that Mainers are open to different approaches to treating substance-use disorders. The public opinion survey, titled Maine Voters on Drug Policy, describes Mainers’ support for restructuring drug laws for non-violent and low-level drug offenses “as broad-based and robust,” with over 50 percent of Mainers in support. The survey was conducted by University of Maine Associate Professors Robert Glover (Political Science) and Karyn Sporer (Sociology).

According to Wendy Chapkis, Chair and Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern Maine, the public is aware that the “War on Drugs,” a campaign launched by President Richard Nixon in 1971, hasn’t worked. But alternatives come with an information gap. One dimension of the War on Drugs was the U.S. putting a stop to government-sanctioned research on psychedelic drugs like mescaline, psilocybin, LSD and DMT. Along with the knowledge gap, stigma has been an obstacle in the field for decades.

“If it’s a complete failure after 50 years, it’s time to think: What else could we do?” Chapkis said. “I think decriminalization is certainly a step in the right direction in that regard.”

Prior to that “prohibition on research,” Chapkis said early accounts of research with psychedelics showed successful results in treating psychological issues and alcoholism. She noted the similarities between the process cannabis went through to the current state of plant-based psychedelics.

“It was exactly the same problem,” Chapkis said. “There was no research permitted at all on the medical use of cannabis. Nonetheless, the federal government, just as they did with psychedelics, argued that there was no medical value.” 

A shift in approach

The case for decriminalizing psychedelics is largely a therapeutic one, going hand-in-hand with harm reduction principles advocated by those working to mitigate the opioid crisis. 

In Maine and elsewhere, opioid overdoses are still on the rise. There were 422 overdoses in Portland in July and August, a significant increase over 286 in that same time period last year. The city averaged 60 overdose responses per month in that window, according to the city’s Health and Human Services Department. 

The state of Maine has certified 14 syringe service programs, or needle exchanges, across eight counties, including three in Portland to safely discard syringes. 

With opioid overdose deaths still at crisis levels here and nationwide, advocacy groups like Decriminalize Maine argue that plant-based psychedelics can offer a safe alternative treatment option for substance use disorder, because they’re less toxic and typically cause less dependence. There was a long stint where plant-based psychedelics couldn’t even be researched, and thus weren’t often talked about. But as the discussion has evolved from criminalizing drug use to exploring harm reduction, experts are talking about them now.

Broadly speaking, harm reduction refers to a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use, as defined by the National Harm Reduction Coalition. 

District 2 City Councilor Victoria Pelletier said she’d support Portland being the first city in Maine to decriminalize psychedelics.

“It’s important for us to reshape how we view therapeutic, recreational and cultural use of psychedelics, especially in terms of healing and treatment,” she told The Phoenix.

Farrugia said Decriminalize Maine has viewed models from other cities to guide their research, like Cambridge, Massachusetts, which adopted a policy to decriminalize entheogenic plants and plant-based compounds in Feb. 2021. That city’s policy order cites “a wave of heroin and opioid overdose deaths and depression” in the community exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The resolution goes on to explain that decriminalized plant materials have been known to effectively treat both depression and substance-use disorder.

Both Somerville and Northampton, Massachusetts have adopted similar policies, in addition to larger U.S. cities like Detroit, Denver and Washington, D.C. In total, there are 14 cities in the country that have decriminalized psychedelics.

A goal that Decriminalize Maine hopes to emphasize for Maine is reducing the arrests and money spent to prosecute individuals who use psychedelic drugs. In Cumberland County, psilocybin is a “schedule X” drug, according to District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck. Charges for such drugs are rare. There have only been nine for “schedule X” drugs in the county in 2022, Sahrbeck said.

Though few arrests in Portland involve psychedelics, decriminalizing them and removing the threat of arrest would make an impact for people they might help, Chapkis said. Without that threat, harm reduction strategies like testing for certain substances to ensure they’re safe could be made available, she said.

On a local level

There are a lot of steps between now and whenever Portland might adopt a decriminalization policy like Cambridge. Farrugia and Decriminalize Maine are on the agenda to present at the most recent Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee Meeting on Oct. 11, and have also met individually with councilors in recent weeks.

No vote on the issue is expected before Election Day, November 8, which could change the complexion of the council. Farrugia said the nonprofit has received good support and openness from the councilors so far.

One dissenting voice could be Councilor Mark Dion, of District 5. Dion believes the path to decriminalization starts with state representatives. He added that he had been a supporter of cannabis legalization for 20 years, and had the same concerns for when that initiative first came to Portland., but at this point he sees the issue as a legal one.

“Should a city council advance any policy that would, in essence, nullify existing state and federal criminal law?” he wrote.


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