• November 27, 2020

The Eccentric Soap Mogul Trying to Decriminalize ‘Shrooms’ in Washington

 The Eccentric Soap Mogul Trying to Decriminalize ‘Shrooms’ in Washington

The war on ‘drugs’ was launched in DC in the seventies, but activists say it’s now a war on their medicine. Original art for TNS by Glendy Beatriz


Less than three months after she officially launched the effort to decriminalize ‘magic mushrooms’ – or psilocybin, if you want to be technical – in DC, Melissa Lavasani thought it might just be the end of her short campaign.

As coronavirus began to creep across the country, she watched as activists in other cities who were pursuing similar measures, like Portland, Oregon, paused their advocacy. By March 11, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser imposed a stay-at-home order across Washington, ending the kind of in-person signature gathering that’s crucial to securing the support necessary to get on Washington’s ballot. Around the same time, advocates in Idaho had to suspended a similar campaign to get recreational marijuana on their ballot, which fell just about 15,000 signatures shy of their 55,057 mark, because these measures take some in-person convincing no matter which coast you’re on.  

“The pandemic was kind of a bomb that was dropped on us,” Lavasani told The News Station. “We weren’t really sure how to move forward.” 

“I was one of those people that was like

this shit’s only for hippies who want to escape reality”

Lavasani

She was attempting what only one other American city has accomplished: ushering through a citywide ballot initiative that would make the consumption and possession of psilocybin — the psychoactive compound found in drugs like mushrooms and ayahuasca — a legal non-issue.  Lavasani’s initiative would classify the drug as among the lowest-level enforcement priorities for local police, and issue a non-binding call to prosecutors to stop criminally charging people for using psilocybin. To do that, Lavasani’s group, Decriminalize Nature DC, would have 180 days to get 5 percent of registered voters in DC to say they supported the ballot measure. 

Lavasani needed signatures –– tens of thousands of them.

Lavasani, as she regularly points out in interviews, does not have a background of activism. The mother of two works as the budget officer for DC’s Department of Energy and the Environment; she describes herself as “the most normal person ever.”

“I was one of those people that was like, this shit’s only for hippies who want to escape reality,” Lavasani says about psilocybin. 

But after struggling seriously with chronic pain and postpartum depression, including suicidal ideation, Lavasani began experimenting with microdosing. She also visited an ayahuasca healer to take the drug, a plant-based tea that often induces vivid hallucinations. 

“As soon as I went through my experience, I learned how so wrong that was, that this is not something you use to escape your reality, this is something that makes you face your reality,” she says.

She was determined to keep trying for signatures, COVID be damned. So the group lobbied the DC Council, hoping the 13-member body would allow them to mail psilocybin petitions to voters, as well as allow voters to email a photo of their signed petitions to the DC Board of Elections. To their surprise, in early May, the Council proved uncharacteristically responsive, wrapping that authorization into a broader coronavirus relief package –– the first time in DC history that a ballot initiative campaign would be allowed to collect signatures this way.

Shortly after, Decriminalize Nature DC flooded 220,000 of those mailers to homes across the city, a number close to one in every three residents, and nearly half of all registered voters in the nation’s capital. (For all that effort, Lavasani says they received 9,000-10,000 signatures back by mail.)

By summer, it was difficult to walk through any slice of Washington without seeing Decriminalize Nature’s signage radiating from commercial corridors and residential neighborhoods alike. Its ubiquitous loopy font and cartoon mushrooms was stapled across street lights and bulletin boards from the young, fratty neighborhood Adams Morgan that’s less than two miles north of the White House to the H Street Corridor, a stretch of dive bars and restaurants that’s just about a mile east of the U.S. Capitol. 

What’s with those signs? my friends would ask each other on Zoom calls. Did you get a mailer? How are they so professional looking? 

By July, Decriminalize Nature DC turned 36,000 signatures into the Board of Elections. They made it on the ballot after all.

Photo by Morgan Baskin

Even Shrooms are About the Benjamins

It was made possible, in part, by one of the few forces stronger than a really deep trip: money. 

What Lavasani would find out in 2019, while her campaign was in its nascent stages, was that there was an influential, deep-pocketed, eccentric millionaire who was specifically interested in targeting Washington with its next campaign to decriminalize psilocybin.

That force was David Bronner, the California-based philanthropist, executive, and drug reform advocate who helms Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a $42 million health and beauty company famous for its multi-use liquid soap that moonlights as toothpaste, toilet bowl cleaner, laundry detergent, and more. (Want to kill aphids with the same stuff you use to brush your teeth? You can do that.) Bronner is as known for his political stunts — in 2009 he was arrested for planting hemp seeds in the lawn of the DC headquarters of the Drug Enforcement Administration — as his activism. He is perhaps one of the most well known advocates for legalizing psychoactive drugs, and he has spent the better part of the last decade making that dream come true.

Since January, Bronner —  through a political action committee called the New Approach PAC — has funneled over $675,000 to Initiative 81. That’s a hefty sum for a ballot initiative in a relatively tiny town like Washington; it figures out to about $17 per vote. In Denver, which last year passed a psilocybin decriminalization measure by the slimmest of margins, organizers spent less than $50,000 on the campaign, or roughly fifty cents per vote, according to its founder, Kevin Matthews. 

Bronner’s efforts in DC symbolize his broader strategy in the Decriminalize Nature movement: to make an undeniable statement about the capital city’s readiness to embrace psychedelics, one that would jolt the movement to a permanent place in the national conversation about drug reform. 

It is not merely enough to reduce stigma around the use of psilocybin. Bronner is ready for, as he calls it, a “psychedelic renaissance.”

“It was kind of meant to be”

Lavasani

The movement to deregulate psilocybin seemingly hit the country overnight, but soon it was everywhere: Oakland’s City Council voted to decriminalize mushrooms in June 2019, just a month after Denver’s initiative passed, and in January, so did legislators in Santa Cruz, California. Just last month, Ann Arbor, Michigan lawmakers voted to decriminalize the compound, too, making it the fourth American city to adopt the law. In November, voters in Oregon will decide whether to allow the state health authority to create a psilocybin treatment program for adults. Dozens of cities are now involved in the Decriminalize Nature campaign in some way.

Along the way, Bronner and the New Approach PAC — one of the largest vehicles for his cash — has been there. 

Between August and October alone, the New Approach PAC gave $2.25 million to Oregon’s psilocybin initiative, campaign finance records show. At least $1 million of that has come from Dr. Bronner’s alone

Aside from the psilocybin campaigns in DC and Oregon, it is also supporting marijuana decriminalization measures in two longshot, deep red states: South Dakota and Mississippi. 

Over the last six years, the PAC has supported at least seven successful drug decriminalization ballot measures across the country — from the outright legalization of weed in Maine, Michigan, and Massachusetts to authorizing the use of medical marijuana in Missouri.

Before Lavasani embarked on this campaign, she knew little of that. But late last year, Kevin Matthews, the founder of Denver’s successful decrim campaign, introduced her to Bronner. 

“It was kind of meant to be,” Lavasani says. 

Between Dr. Bronner’s deep pockets and established network of DC lobbyists and activists –– a group that includes Adam Eidinger, who largely spearheaded the successful campaign to legalize the recreational use of marijuana here back in 2014 –– Decriminalize Nature DC was well poised for success in progressive but straight-laced Washington.

It was Eidinger, in fact, who convinced Lavasani during a dinner last November that she’d be the perfect face of the campaign. 

“This kind of controversial topic has to come from the most normal of people,” she told Washingtonian this summer. 

And this spring, when Lavasani and Decriminalize Nature DC recognized they’d have to adapt new strategies or fizzle out, like advocates in Idaho were forced to, Bronner was eager to fill in the gaps from his own pocket. The group only budgeted about $250,000 for the campaign, a figure that soon ballooned because of the pandemic, Bronner says. And unlike the decrim movement in Denver, the DC campaign paid its volunteers –– $10 for every signature collected.  

“The question was: ‘Did we support this [campaign] enough to cover that?’ Then we said, ‘well, we’re a soap company, and we make hand sanitizer, so we’re doing really, really well right now.’ So we ramped up our philanthropic giving quite a bit,” Bronner told The News Station. “Relatively speaking, we’ve got a lot more firepower available. So we just covered it.” 

If there’s any doubt that he’s all in, the banner photo splashed across Dr. Bronner’s homepage shows a photo of a bottle of unscented 18-in-1 soap, along with text advertising that 10 percent of its sales will go toward a number of drug decriminalization campaigns across the country, including DC’s Initiative 81.

A screen grab of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps’ site within days of the 2020 election.

This is all in service of Bronner’s bigger goal: to signal, through a successful psilocybin decriminalization campaign in the nation’s capital, that these local measures easily translate to a viable and popular federal policy. 

“When you’re talking to your local media you’re also talking to the national leadership. So, changing the facts on the ground or implementing policy in DC, I think, really has outsized influence on the national picture,” Bronner says. 

It’s thinking like this that has had the rare effect of uniting both Republican and Democratic  politicians in the region, and that isn’t a good thing for these advocates. Even Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser has dismissed Initiative 81 as a measure that few real Washingtonians have any stake in or care about, even though she supports Initiative 71 and its mandate from voters to treat marijuana like booze has been treated for decades. 

That lines Bowser up with Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), a perennial thorn in the side of DC residents who used a congressional budget rider to block the city from setting up the very marijuana regulatory system Bowser has been trying, to no avail, to set up for years. Similarly, Harris is vowing to prevent Initiative 81 from ever becoming law. And because this is the federal city, Congress has the power to block ballot initiatives local voters overwhelmingly pass.  

“My hope is that in the future we can really inspire this network that exists nationwide to support these campaigns, you know, who are grassroots. And that we don’t have to rely on big donors or big funders,” Matthews, the leader of Denver’s psilocybin decrim campaign, says. “Going along with that, like, folks who are running campaigns should be very careful about from whom they receive contributions.”

So what does Bronner make of criticisms of this kind, including the one championed by Mayor Bowser –– that ballot initiatives should ideally come from grassroots donations, through small acts of support from the people who live in the cities voting on them? To an extent, he doesn’t quite disagree. 

“I think the ballot measure process exists basically where there’s majority support for an issue but then, for whatever reason, legislative bodies are gridlocked or scared of the opposition ads,” he says. ”That’s the story for a lot of progressive measures––whether it’s gay marriage, or cannabis. And, yeah, ballot measures are expensive, and you want to raise as much locally as possible, but realistically, these are national movements, and there’s national support.”

“I think raising money through small donations is ideal and awesome,” he continues. “But that’s never ever going to be enough for ballot measure campaigns, generally speaking.” Spending money on the Decriminalize Nature campaigns, he says, is “almost like progressive venture capital.” 

For all this effort, the actual effect of the measure, should it pass, is almost beside the point. If it passes, it would merely request that local and federal prosecutors not charge DC residents for using these drugs. And anyway, it’s only the US Attorney for DC who has jurisdiction over the prosecution of these drug cases; DC Attorney General Karl Racine doesn’t pursue cases like these. (A spokesperson for the AG did not return The News Station’s request for comment about where Racine falls on the measure.) 

But for the advocates behind Initiative 81, the symbolic measure is still personal. What Lavasani doesn’t want lost is that, despite the scope of the Decriminalize Nature campaign and the breadth of its support, her story — of overcoming a life-altering depression — isn’t just real. It was terrifying, and psilocybin therapy gave her a lifeline others don’t have access to. 

That is, she’s not just a placeholder for the broader decriminalization movement.

“They needed more than a spokesperson, you know? It wasn’t just, ‘hey, we’re gonna use your story.’ It was like, ‘hey, like you really believe in this.’ And I did,” Lavasani says. “They saw the importance of [someone who’s] not an activist running this campaign. I think the reason why this is so effective is that I’m just a regular person that’s telling a story about the worst time of my life and how I got through it.”

Morgan Baskin

Morgan Baskin

Morgan Baskin is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C. She covers public policy and social welfare.

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