How Psychedelic Mushrooms Went from Schedule I to Psychotherapy

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Anne Marie Backstrom, Oregon legislative aid and Education Director for Yes on Measure 109, was singular in both enthusiasm and experience as far as political lobbyists go. She wore her hair in a dark green bob, and opulent piercings glimmered on either side of her nose as she admitted that she wasn’t active in drug policy advocacy until a few months before the vote on measure 109. At the point by which she joined the Yes on 109 team, she had become enamored with the idea of psilocybin mushrooms in the context of psychotherapy. She explained that, in all of the stories she had heard of others getting involved in activism because of the measure, she did not feel alone in being late to the party. Many volunteers and leaders with Yes on 109 had gotten involved mere weeks before the measure passed, as well. However, there are those sporadic occasions when a one-in-a-million measure is proposed and arouses an unusual amount of public interest. Measure 109 became that absurdly popular proposition for Oregon in Autumn 2020. Backstrom helped lead the campaign that saw Oregon Ballot Measure 109 through the state legislature after only becoming involved as Education Director 3 months before a vote was cast.

Through the cold light of a computer screen, warmth and spectacular ease exuded from Backstrom. Her eyes ignited from behind emerald-colored fringe, and a smile occupied most of the rest of her face. Her gestures and words started small and simple, her black painted nails lightly circling the air around her. However, as the memories of her involvement with Yes on 109 came flooding back into recollection, her gaze wandered up and out from her computer camera.

Her hands moved wider in sweeping, conductor-like motions, and she began to place extra emphasis on words like “so” and “totally.”

She explained that she began as a volunteer for Yes on 109. Her first job with the campaign was to make cold calls to constituents every day. 

“I only signed up to volunteer,” said Backstrom. “I helped gather petition signatures in the pandemic, which was a trip.” She took a moment to laugh at her unintentional pun. “I’d never done something like that.”

Now, after months of effort and tireless exertion, Backstrom has become one of the most essential players in the implementation of Oregon Ballot Measure 109, a measure that totals around five years in the making. This measure officially established the foundation of programs for the therapeutic distribution of psilocybin in Oregon and the Oregon Psilocybin Advisory Board (OPAB). In cooperation with the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), the board will license the “manufacturing, transportation, delivery, sale and purchase of psilocybin products and the provision of psilocybin services” according to the official language of the measure. Accomplishing the implementation of such an unusual piece of legislation is a tall order, and Backstrom seems humbly aware of that undeniable truth. “With my personal experience with mental illness,” said Backstrom, “I just felt like this was something I had to jump on. Mental healthcare advocacy is deeply personal to me, so this kind of cause and community is something I really have deep ties to.”

The idea for the measure came about in 2016 when married Portland-based therapists Tom and Sheri Eckert began researching the benefits of psilocybin in their field. The two became outspoken advocates for psilocybin therapy in Oregon, thus creating the Oregon Psilocybin Society (OPS): a nonprofit organization that proposed and supported Measure 109 as a 2020 proposed ballot measure. Yes on 109 eventually became the campaign for the ballot measure led by the OPS to eventual success. The measure made the ballot successfully on November 3, 2020, much to the Oregon public’s surprise. According to the OHA, the ballot directs them to license the “manufacturing, transportation, delivery, sale and purchase of psilocybin products and the provision of psilocybin services”. The development of the regulations is to occur over two years spanning from January 1, 2021, to December 31, 2022. The OHA must begin the licensure process with qualified psychedelic treatment practitioners by then.

Backstrom had already been following this growth and development of Measure 109 through her job as a Legislative Aide for State Representative Ken Helm. She entered the fold as Education Director after Sam Chapman, the Director for Yes on 109, singled her out as a perfect candidate for Education Director. The prime goal of the campaign when Backstrom signed on in August of 2020 was to reach voters who were not expected to vote for the measure at all. Backstrom recalled that “In these conversations, we would start with a lot of resistance. It was usually, ‘Oh my God! That’s a drug!’ Being able to walk it back and really talk people through [the fact that] psilocybin is a therapeutic tool was really important.” These target voters were often older women who lived in more rural communities, whose political ideologies ranged from moderate to independent. “We didn’t really want to talk to the people we knew would be with us: young progressives and people living in the Portland Metro area,” Backstrom said of the campaign strategy. This was no mean feat for Yes on 109, especially as an organization that relied heavily on volunteer legwork to make a measure legalizing psilocybin in a medical setting appealing to voters with negative preconceived notions of psychedelics in general. According to Backstrom, because of the pandemic, “a lot of Oregon ballot measures just died.” However, by the passing of the measure and despite the halting effects of the Coronavirus outbreak, volunteers had made cold-calls to over 60,000 voters, many of whom were open to voting “yes” on the ballot measure after volunteers were able to explain the research behind it and their own experience with it.

Some of these tenacious volunteers were not even Oregon residents, yet devoted large amounts of their time to see the measure through, despite the adverse effects that the COVID-19 pandemic had on the campaign. One of these volunteers was Danielle Isaacs, a dark-haired resident of Colorado with piercings speckled throughout her nose and cheeks. 

“Somehow I saw one of [Yes on 109’s] posts and started following them on Instagram and then I saw opportunities to volunteer at the end of September,” said Isaacs of her origins with Yes on 109, “So I signed up for that and then just started volunteering every chance I got,” Isaacs says that, much like Backstrom and countless other volunteers for the campaign, her passion for psilocybin mushroom therapy rooted from personal experience. “I got such an avid interest in [volunteering] because psychedelics have really helped me,” she mentioned. “I know the power that they can have to help other people.” Isaacs got involved with the phone banks for the measure at the end of September 2020, when the legislation was beginning to gain the acclaim of psychedelic enthusiasts nationwide. Despite being unable to travel to Oregon to help collect petition signatures or knock on voters’ doors, she felt the best way to help rehabilitate psilocybin’s image as a healing tool instead of a harmful, addictive substance was to get involved with measure 109 as much as possible.

Isaacs is looking forward to the day when Colorado follows Oregon’s lead with a measure to legalize psilocybin therapy, which she believes will be relatively soon. “I do see something like this being a thing in Colorado [and other states] maybe in a few years,” she hypothesized, stating that, in small towns like hers, residents struggle with isolationism, often turning to addictive substances to find solace. As psilocybin has proven effective in resting substance addiction and Isaacs has experienced drug dependency treatment via psychedelic therapy, she is hopeful that the logic behind the measure will appeal to other state legislatures.

And she’s not the only one. 

Daniel Brottman got involved with Yes on 109 from Rochester, New York. “One day I got an email saying ‘We did it! We’re on the ballot! We’re going to have a Zoom call celebration.’” he remembers, positioned pre painted on his bedroom wall, “I went and was just amazed and astounded by the energy that was there.” Brottman explained that he had experience with psilocybin mushrooms himself, though not entirely in a medicinal context. For Brottman, a sort of shift in connectedness to the self came with his psychedelic experiences, which he believes can make a significant difference in how others approach mental healthcare. “Our society is one of the only ones in human history that hasn’t had some sort of tradition of plant medicine usage because of it being outlawed,” he pointed out, “And I don’t think there is anywhere that [accessibility] to psilocybin and other plant medicines doesn’t have the potential to bring communities together.”

Studies have shown that Brottman’s conjecture is far from unreasonable. According to several studies conducted about psilocybin’s effects on community connectedness, there are significant improvements to mental health symptoms, addiction, treatment of individual trauma, as well as in addressing generational and racial trauma. 

“We have transformed into the Healing Advocacy Fund,” Backstrom added, “It is a non-profit organization of which Sam Chapman is the ED (education director). Sam has been putting together a Health Equity Committee which will be made up of mostly BIPOC, rural community members, and mental healthcare professionals.” According to Backstrom, the committee will recommend specific regulations to OHA for The Psilocybin Mushrooms Services Program Initiative. These recommendations will play a significant role in the regulation, accessibility, and education of psilocybin therapy to traditionally underserved communities in the mental health field. As the measure continues through its incubation stage, this committee seems to be its most significant and current post-election development yet. 

Rebecca Martinez, the co-founder of the Portland-based psychedelic research hub Fruiting Bodies, believes that the diversity in psychedelic healing and the medical field at large will be helped along with OHA and the OPAB addressing diversity and equity in psychedelic healthcare from the outset. She says that the Health Equity Committee is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but legislators and activists can do more to make sure that diversity is a key factor in the Initiative in 2023 and beyond.“When it comes to representation, especially in Oregon, which is a predominantly white state, it has everything to do with being proactive,” Martinez said. “As we saw with the cannabis industry, if you do nothing [for diversity], then you kind of end up with a very one-dimensional group of applicants.” She offered many ways in which those working on measure 109 can ensure a diverse and inclusive psychedelic therapy industry, including licensure of practice, education, and, of course, representation in the state government.

“As of now, they have actually had to wait to announce [the members of the Oregon Psilocybin Advisory Board], and that’s because they had a record number of applicants,” remarked Martinez, “They had over 250 people apply to be on that board, which is more than any other committee in Oregon’s history. Over 100 of those applicants applied for the seat of Member of the Public.” 

However, looking ahead to the coming years of development for measure 109, Martinez believes that if community members keep up the avid interest in the measure push for equity, the Psilocybin Mushroom Services Program Initiative can prove to be a well-rounded, truly groundbreaking piece of legislation- then, and only then, can the measure live up to the high expectations and curiosity invested in it by people all across the nation. — Isabelle Williams

Photo: Mushrooms on Pacific’s campus (Isabelle Williams)


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