In May 2019 Denver became the first American city to effectively decriminalize psilocybin — or “magic mushrooms.” Oakland joined the following month. So did Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when she helped spearhead a vote to do away with federal roadblocks that for decades now have inhibited broader research into substances like psilocybin, MDMA and even marijuana.
Back then, just two years ago, her measure was soundly defeated — 91 to 331.
“It was interesting. We introduced the amendment, and I think that there was just kind of like this reflexive recoiling at it,” Ocasio-Cortez told The News Station after voting at the Capitol.
After it went down, and conservative pundits laughed and mocked AOC and her Squad, something unexpected happened: Many of the lawmakers who opposed the amendment saw their offices flooded with calls.
“The response, I think, really, really surprised so many members that after the amendment was voted down some of the members who voted against it came up to me afterwards saying, ‘Listen, I’d actually really love for you to reintroduce this,’” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Since then many rank-in-file members have been educated on the measure, the progressive New York Democrat said. That’s in part because psilocybin has now been effectively decriminalized across the entire state of Oregon, Ann Arbor, Mich., Santa Cruz, Calif. and the nation’s capital, Washington, DC.
Momentum to normalize psilocybin use has been growing because research has shown great results in the substance’s ability to help combat PTSD and other mental health issues. That’s why, now in her sophomore year in Congress, the congresswoman is moving more stealthily this year and working behind the scenes to build support.
“I actually think that we want to really work it a lot more this year and expand that scope,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
The last time it was offered, the proposal was tacked onto a spending, or appropriations, measure, but legislative language — i.e., efforts to enact something new — isn’t allowed on spending measures. So the amendment got confusing, because it was striking out language — “any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance in Schedule I” — as opposed to proposing new terminology.
“We’re kind of looking at if we bring it back again as an appropriations amendment, just with increased education around it, or just reintroducing it in a more legislative context,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Ocasio-Cortez was joined in the effort by Reps. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla).
While current federal law prohibits tax dollars from going to psilocybin research, private donors have stepped up. In 2019 The Johns Hopkins University secured $17 million to create what they believe is the first of its kind here in the states, the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine. UC Berkeley and Stanford have since followed suit.
Just this year psilocybin decriminalization was ushered in by city councils in Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts. That came after voters in Mississippi, South Dakota and Montana — all Republican controlled states — legalized marijuana in one form or another in November. That’s why Ocasio-Cortez says the time is ripe for efforts like this to reexamine even small slivers of the federal government’s expansive ‘war on drugs.’
“Even with these Republican states that are starting to make gains on cannabis legalization, it increases the environment for us to talk about how prohibition has impacted public health overall,” Ocasio-Cortez explained.
Ocasio-Cortez adds that this isn’t about encouraging substance use. Rather, it’s about encouraging long forbidden forms of medicine.
“The more studies that come out about this, I think the more surprising medical context and applications, you know, scientists are starting to discover with it,” Ocasio-Cortez told The News Station. “If we have a possibility of helping people without being overly reliant, especially if it means a shift away from opioids, then I think it’s something that’s promising and worth exploring.”