What is Initiative 81?

Commentary: Entheogens Saved My Life –and I Am Not Alone

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Courtesy Melissa Lavasani

When I proposed Initiative 81, I was motivated by a personal crisis. Entheogenic plants and fungi had helped me overcome crippling postpartum depression. By proposing a ballot initiative to change policing priorities for these substances in the District of Columbia, I wanted to make sure that others battling depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health issues would not face the same terrible choice that I did: seek natural medicines that might save your life and – while doing so – risk becoming another victim in the war on drugs.

Since I filed the paperwork that launched Decriminalize Nature DC’s push to put Initiative 81 on the ballot, the District of Columbia has faced a pandemic, seen weeks of protests, and had been subjected to unaccountable federal action against peaceful demonstrations.

As Decriminalize Nature DC makes its final push to collect about 30,000 signatures before July 6th to put Initiative 81, the “Entheogenic Plants and Fungi Act of 2020,” on the November ballot, these recent events have added meaning to our campaign. Initiative 81 sits at the cross-section of crises that have dominated headlines and our lives: the war on drugs, police reform, mental health, trauma and even DC statehood.

If passed, Initiative 81 would reform policing priorities by designating entheogenic plants and fungi including “magic” mushrooms, ayahuasca, iboga and mescaline containing cacti, as the “lowest law enforcement priority.” It would also create a non-binding call on the DC Attorney General’s office to not prosecute residents charged with violating criminal statutes involving these substances.

This is a small change and would not legalize or even decriminalize these substances. This is also the only change currently allowed under federal law — specifically, a budget provision commonly known as the “Harris rider” —  that limits what changes the District of Columbia and its residents can make to policing and penalties for Schedule I drugs.

Although current crises are often described in broad, collective terms, the resulting trauma, depression, PTSD, or anxiety stemming from police brutality, systemic racism, or the coronavirus, are devastatingly personal battles. Regardless of the cause, depression, PTSD and anxiety are characterized by lonely struggles to make it through each day.

I know this well. After the birth of my second child, mild antepartum depression became severe postpartum depression. Anxiety, paranoia, and panic attacks robbed me of the joy that my son should have brought me. Instead of enjoying precious moments with my baby, I fantasized about how I could get to the roof of my office and what it would be like to jump.

Using entheogens to treat my depression was not the obvious solution. I started with therapy and then tried a series of prescription drugs. None of these “mainstream” treatments made a difference.

By that point, I was in freefall. I was unable to engage with my family and completing the most mundane tasks, like getting out of bed every morning, felt like a chore.

One of the few friends that I confided in suggested that I listen to an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast featuring Paul Stamets, an expert in psilocybin mushrooms. I took her advice. For three hours during a family road trip, I listened to Rogan and Stamets discuss the benefits of psilocybin, including as a treatment for depression. As I listened, I decided in desperation to try to obtain and microdose psilocybin mushrooms.

Going through with this decision was the biggest risk of my life: possession of a Schedule I drug could have cost me my job, landed me in prison, and, potentially, cost me access to my children.

After reading everything that I could find on microdosing, I tried my first dose, ingesting an imperceptible amount, around 0.3 grams. After two weeks of microdosing, with carefully timed days off, I began to feel alive again and I was able to slowly take back control of my life.

As my desperation subsided, the reality of what I was doing set in. Despite the relief I felt, I became terrified of getting caught and the possibility of losing everything in my life that I was finally able to enjoy. This overwhelming fear caused me to stop microdosing to avoid the risk of obtaining more psilocybin.

Around the same time, a friend suggested that ayahuasca might offer more permanent relief. She connected me to an ayahuasca shaman, a healer who is trained to guide participants through traditional ceremonies using this naturally occurring DMT. Although I was reluctant to again use a Schedule I substance, my depression had returned. After participating in the guided ayahuasca ceremonies, I found relief and clarity that have allowed me to heal and move forward.

Both psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca helped me overcome depression. Today as I spend every day at home with my son Ramsey, now two years old, and my daughter Lola, now five, my relief has been so profound that it is hard to believe there was a time when I was unable to enjoy being their mother.

My experience is not unique. Since launching Initiative 81, I have met DC residents from all wards, backgrounds and walks of life who have benefitted from entheogens. Their stories include veterans suffering from PTSD, mothers like myself and those struggling with terminal illness.

As researchers at Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, UCLA, Imperial College London and other institutions continue to study the therapeutic applications of entheogenic substances, a growing body of research backs up these personal stories. Current studies have already shown groundbreaking results in treating addiction, depression, and existential distress caused by terminal illness. And new research on psilocybin as a therapy for opioid addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, post-­‐traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Lyme disease, and anorexia are underway.

Despite the pandemic, I am confident that DC voters are engaged in our thriving local democracy and interested in making a difference in the lives of their neighbors.  DC is close to having the opportunity to vote on ending a small part of the war on drugs and helping those seeking entheogenic plants and fungi medicines to live in a little less fear of a knock at the door and the flashing lights of a police cruiser. If you want to be part of this historic effort to both help our DC democracy thrive during a pandemic and to give DC voters the opportunity to vote on Initiative 81 in November, you can download, print, sign and return a digital petition today. Visit decrimnaturedc.org to learn more.

Melissa Lavasani is the Proposer of Initiative 81 and the Chairwoman of Decriminalize Nature DC. Reach her at [email protected]