Setting the Record Straight on the Natural Medicines Health Act, New Approach, and PSFC

Recently leadership at SPORE posted a misleading statement regarding the Natural Medicines Health Act, following up the inaccurate op-ed that SPORE co-Executive Director Matthew Duffy wrote for the Denver Post (read my colleague Sean McAllister’s response to that op-ed). According to SPORE’s narrative, the New Approach PAC swooped in uninvited by any pre-existing in-state coalition in order to set up a regulated access program to financially line the pockets of wealthy donors involved in the Psychedelic Science Funders Collaborative, entirely ignoring and sidelining community activists involved in Denver’s 301 effort. The narrative positions Graham Boyd, Executive Director of the two organizations, as playing the villainous role and executing the master plan.

While easy to play on people’s anxieties and fears, spreading a superficially plausible narrative, which I’ve had to endure myself at the hands of Decriminalize Nature’s leadership, the underlying facts contradict SPORE’s storyline. Graham is a public interest attorney who founded and ran the ACLU’s Drug War project for many years, and who’s passion in life is to end the drug war and the ravages it has wrought on BIPOC communities. He cut his teeth dismantling racist, out-of-control drug task forces in Texas that would routinely round up and lock up Black people on trumped up charges.

I first met Graham when he was knocking the Department of Justice (DOJ) on their ass in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2001 in the Conant v McCaffrey case, where the DOJ was trying to undercut California’s medical cannabis program by asserting that doctors couldn’t recommend cannabis as a helpful medicine to their patients in the first place. This interview with Reality Sandwich is pretty comprehensive about Graham’s activist work and passions.  Graham notes the movement’s challenges with incorporating equity provisions in cannabis policy, and learning important lessons from that in psychedelic policy. But fundamentally he’s dedicated his life to stopping the destruction of Black and Brown lives due to the drug war. In recent years, in addition to founding and running the New Approach PAC and PSFC, he’s also served as Dr. Bronner’s part-time political director, advising on legislative and ballot measure efforts in drug policy reform, raising the minimum wage, and supporting environmental sustainability efforts.

In late March of 2019, he began talking to me about Denver’s 301 decrim campaign, where he was giving strategic advice, and suggested we financially support. I was skeptical it had a real shot of passing, but he convinced me that $10,000 would be really helpful for targeted paid media, matched by another New Approach donor. This contribution from New Approach represented over half of the overall campaign budget and was obviously crucial given the razor-thin margin of victory, although most of the credit goes to the amazing activists on the ground who made magic happen there. (My birthday is May 7 and that was a really awesome present!)

In the 2020 campaign cycle, various folks involved in the Denver effort including 301 campaign manager and SPORE ED at the time Kevin Matthews, and Chacruna board chair and attorney Sean McAllister, teamed up with Rick Ridder and other Colorado statewide ballot aces, who were all chomping at the bit to explore a potential statewide ballot measure in 2020, and making the case to me and Graham. I’d known Sean as a long-time drug policy reform activist, with ten years as a criminal defense lawyer including doing court-appointed indigent defense of Black and Brown people and other low-income people facing prison for drugs. He’s also deeply involved with the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a statewide grassroots BIPOC-focused group, and is a champion of small businesses and social equity in cannabis, representing the only African-American majority dispensary owner in Denver, and has worked with the Minority Cannabis Business Association to support social equity programs.

Polling was done and presented a possible but uncertain path to victory, and various pieces were not in place for the measure to proceed. Graham and I were already working closely together with in-state activists in Oregon on both ballot measures 109 and 110, that respectively created a regulated access program for psilocybin and decriminalized all drugs in a “treatment not jail” approach like in Portugal. On review there would not have been enough movement resources to drive ballot measures in both Oregon and Colorado, especially with Covid interfering with the signature collection process. Ben Unger, who coordinates psychedelic policy efforts at New Approach, was the general consultant in the 109 effort, as well as the successful DC Decrim Nature effort.

It was clear back in 2020 that the in-state Colorado coalition was going to run a ballot measure in 2022, and was already in dialog with New Approach for financial and drafting support. New Approach had also already been involved in and crucial to Denver’s 301 effort.  Trying to paint New Approach as a Johnny Come Lately swooping into Colorado ignores the close partnership NA has had there. Obviously not with every single in-state activist, but with leaders of the movement there, especially Kevin Matthews and Sean McAllister, and Graham shared an email exchange after the Denver victory from Matthew Duffy thanking him and nuancing his gratitude to New Approach vs PSFC.

Ending the drug war and integrating psychedelic healing into American culture is a national cause and issue, and like the gay marriage movement, we need to fight state by state until we achieve full national victory. Ballot measures need a good team of in-state and national supporters, as they are complex and costly but can drive huge policy shifts. Attacking New Approach for being “out of state” when it’s a national PAC with deep relevant history in Colorado isn’t helpful or accurate. Most of the dollars that New Approach is helping raise for NMHA are from Colorado donors, who are giving because they believe in the power of psychedelic therapy and medicine to help heal and open us on a deep level, not because they see this as a way to make money. They are not corporations nor driven by profit motive; they are private philanthropists who are passionately driven by a personal connection to the healing power of psychedelic medicines, and desperately want access for others who are suffering and could be healed. One Colorado donor shared, who is a mother of four and does not want to be named, that she helped cremate her best friend’s 20-year-old son who died of an opioid overdose in Denver. The woman who worked there told her it was the third young boy who died of an opioid overdose that she had cremated so far that week. This donor promised she would do anything in her power to bring breakthrough treatments to her community, and ibogaine-therapy shows more promise than any other treatments.

I’ve written in another blog why a regulated access program is crucial for most Americans to feel comfortable accessing psychedelic healing, and that this type of program should coexist alongside community healing in a decrim context. By way of example of the limitations of “decrim only” approaches, mushroom therapy has not been integrated into hospices in Denver, groundwork for ibogaine clinics that can help people struggling with opiate addiction is not being laid in Oakland, and indigent and elderly Americans cannot reimburse the costs of healing in a decrim only world via Medicaid and Medicare, even if they felt comfortable accessing medicines in a decrim context, which most are not.

Most psychedelically-naïve people want professionally trained, licensed, and accountable facilitators working in clinics and settings that look and feel like what’s being done at John Hopkin’s and NYU. Through data gathering in a professionalized delivery of care model, we can show psilocybin therapy is a cost-effective intervention in depression, alcoholism, cluster headaches, end-of-life anxiety and numerous other conditions, and eventually get Medicaid and Medicare to cover, along with private insurers. NMHA also goes beyond psilocybin and lays the groundwork for ibogaine clinics to come online in four years, when FDA phase 1 and 2 studies will be complete showing this medicine’s safety so long as proper cardiac screening protocols are followed. This is what motivates donors like me to support a regulated access program, not because we want to supposedly cash in on training programs or clinics. We can see in Oregon what will happen in Colorado: training programs and clinics run by local dedicated people will flourish, like Innertrek and the BIPOC-focused Alma Institute. We have provided small seed funding to both to help them exist but won’t receive any kind of financial return. We look at this in the same way as providing the main financial support to SPORE these past couple of years to advocate for community healing interests, which is clearly promoted and protected in the NMHA.

The NMHA reflects the substantive input of many key community members SPORE is concerned about, and is being championed by Kevin Matthews and Veronica Lightninghorse, former ED and board member respectively of SPORE, with MYCOalition leaders Jaz Cadoch and Sean McAllister, also serving on the steering committee. Rick Ridder is the general consultant and campaign manager Susy Bates is a Colorado native leading the charge. New Approach provided drafting and fund-raising support, and Taylor West who is New Approach’s communications ace, also lives in Colorado and is also point for the NMHA in their communications. The NMHA is a much bigger state coalition then the relatively small activist base involved in the Decrim Nature effort, where the NMHA has organized support, for example, from local and state level veterans and end-of-life groups. However, local community champions like Kevin, Veronica, Sean, and Jaz still have outsize influence within the NMHA effort.

Being very close to the drafting process, while it wasn’t perfect and had gone sideways over whether or not to define numerical limits for personal possession, I was impressed with how the New Approach team was open to all substantive policy ideas that were being suggested and provided access to community leaders to review and suggest edits in detail. NMHA decriminalizes all fungal and plant medicines in the exact same way Denver did for mushrooms, but it goes much further in allowing quantities for sharing, and for community healing and churches, which will thrive outside of the regulated access program. Concerns expressed about the term “necessary” are overblown and numerical limits haven‘t been imposed in Denver. In fact under NMHA, an entheogenic church could grow and provide medicine for all its members and be co-located with and offer a regulated healing access program as well. The NMHA also protects healers offering services outside of the regulated program, which is just one of many facts that contradict the narrative that NMHA is primarily a program for wealthy donors interested in making money off training programs and clinics.  If that were true, why would we listen at all to community healing advocates and provide the protections that NMHA does to people who will economically compete with regulated access?  The reason is because we actually care about listening and providing psychedelic healing in both a regulated access and community healing model, and it’s the potential of psychedelic medicines and therapy to heal us on a deep level is what motivates the donors to the NMHA.

Dr. Bronner’s has provided some financing to the legendary Temple of the Way of Light in Peru, and trust me, running a clinic is not easy nor that profitable. People engaging on this work have a passion for it beyond making money and I think we’re all down with reputable respectful healing clinics and centers in Mexico, Central and South America, and will be nice to see them flourish in Oregon and Colorado, alongside entheogenic churches that we are so stoked to see flourishing as well. We are also major contributors to the Sacred Plant Alliance incubated by Chacruna, that is organizing churches and supporting best practices, as well as of Brooklyn Psychedelic Society’s community healing Journey cohort program. We can’t wait to see all of these flourish in the coming years in Oregon and Colorado, and soon many other states including California and Washington. I believe a huge victory in Colorado will help unlock the efforts there and other states.

In my personal observation, I’ve seen how the New Approach team has listened and learned about community healing in a decrim context, in a way that is sadly not being reciprocated on SPORE’s side as far as the regulated access model. Rather than reflect on the virtues of a regulated healing model, Spore’s statement instead maligns advocates with no evidence, while making the surprising and vaguely prohibitionist claim that psychedelic medicine and therapy are not helpful to people struggling with mental health issues, or life in general. For sure we need to improve our social safety net and policies across the board, which Graham and the New Approach team are very supportive of, but we need every tool in our toolbox at our disposal as a society as soon as possible. Psychedelic medicines aren’t going to help everyone but they can help a lot of people, and literally be life-saving medicine in many cases.

Fundamentally, there is a lack of understanding and deep suspicion and opposition to any kind of regulated access model in the activist community that supported the Decrim Nature decrim-only ballot measure, which includes SPORE’s leadership. I had hoped that SPORE could be a source of insight and education explaining the two healing models to advocates on either side, rather than being a one-way street sewing so much confusion, doubt, and discord about the NMHA’s regulated access program.

I also want to shout out the amazing philanthropists providing crucial support to programs that PSFC is helping coordinate and drive with its amazing dedicated staff, to build out and professionalize the field of psychedelic medicine and therapy, again so that most Americans will feel comfortable accessing these medicines and the healing potential they hold, and will be reimbursed for doing so. These philanthropists include champions who are helping think through what Medicaid, Medicare, and private insurers need to see in order to provide coverage and provide strategic funding to these efforts. Most though are understandably not hopping up and down in the public eye, given how much flak I’ve had to navigate being more public like I am. But they are not in it for the money and SPORE presents no evidence that they are, versus just saying so.

At the end of the day, the NMHA is advancing and setting the example for two powerful psychedelic healing modalities to co-exist and complement each other, combining regulated access and community healing in a decrim context, with principled advocates and champions involved on either side.  The sky will not fall nor will paranoid scenarios come true. The NMHA deserves people’s support, and separately, so do Graham, New Approach and PSFC.

Sean McAllister shot me these additional substantive notes to address other issues Duffy’s post raises:

  • The five center limit is a real limit that will control corporate domination. The idea that money will find a way around this limit shows critics don’t understand how we regulate cannabis in CO, and will do the same with these centers; we look through the corporate form to the human owners and in cannabis limit ownership based on the actual human’s potential ineligibility… so no matter how many shell corps someone creates, the state will regulate through that morass and give life to this limit
  • The lack of a local ban does not facilitate corporate control; it is a social justice element that ensures everyone’s community can have a center. Under cannabis, in CA and CO, 40% of the state doesn’t allow dispensaries, meaning low-income people in left-out communities have to spend more money to travel farther to get access. The lack of a local ban is a social justice element, not a give-away to corporations
  • In terms of the “necessary” language in the personal use section, I cannot believe the amount of negativity SPORE has dumped into this common word. It is completely overblown. Yes, there are some legitimate concerns about how law enforcement will handle no explicit limit in the law, but that’s exactly what community/SPORE requested: no enumerated limits. To me, the word “necessary” is obvious. Cops walk in and you have 10 pounds of mushrooms. You need to have a coherent explanation for why you need that quantity for yourself and the people you intend to share with. A medicine person holding one ceremony per week, using an ounce a week could easily explain this quantity is a 6-month supply for their activities (or whatever the math works out to being). Law enforcement is going to have a very hard time prosecuting and convicting people with a reasonable explanation of their possession amounts. No state agency will interpret the word necessary. Judges could interpret it, but only if a case gets charged. I feel this is another example of the fundamental lack of understanding how law and criminal justice actually works by SPORE, and there have been no problems since Denver’s 301 passed.
  • SPORE fails to note all the social justice measures, including sliding scale fees, the access fund, ensuring low-income people can be licensed, allowing traditional practitioners to not have to do much training to get certified, Advisory Board veto over expanding regulated medicines which includes mandatory BIPOC representation, ensuring geographic diversity in licensing to ensure access, annual review of impacts to indigenous cultures, etc.
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David Bronner

David Bronner is Cosmic Engagement Officer (CEO) of Dr. Bronner’s, the grandson of company founder, Emanuel Bronner, and a fifth-generation soap maker. He is a dedicated vegan and enjoys surfing and dancing late into the night.

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