How magic mushrooms could become Michigan’s next frontier — and why it matters

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Back in 2012, when I first tripped, psilocybin mushrooms were not only hard to find, but they remained among the arbitrary list of drugs our society considered taboo, and no one, especially not news outlets or major media organizations, talked about them as a vehicle for healing. Hell, at that time, even marijuana — which is somehow still federally considered a Schedule 1 drug next to heroin and meth, but is legal, partially legal, and/or decriminalized for medical use in 37 states (including Michigan, which launched a medical program in 2008 before passing recreational legalization in 2018) — remained highly stigmatized in the mainstream.

Magic mushrooms, meanwhile, are believed, thanks to rock paintings, to have been used as far back as 9,000 B.C. throughout North African indigenous cultures. Mayan and Aztec ruins in Central America also featured evidence of "flesh of the gods," a substance many believe was, in fact, magic mushies. But not until recently have they evolved from a fringe counterculture drug to magazine cover star. Newsweek put magic mushrooms on its September 2021 cover with the headline: "Magic Mushrooms May Be the Biggest Advance in Treating Depression Since Prozac," a drug the publication praised on its March 1990 cover as being a "breakthrough drug for depression." As a result, notable figures and celebrities like Megan Fox, Will Smith, Kristen Bell, Seth Rogen, Ann Patchett, and Lil Nas X have recently come forward to share their experiences with psychedelics, praising their use as being instrumental in creative endeavors and artistic inspiration, as well as in overcoming personal obstacles, like treating depression and even saving faltering marriages. Actress and GOOP founder Gwyneth Paltrow even sent her lifestyle and wellness cult, er, staff to Jamaica where they participated in a group mushroom trip, led by guides (better known as "trip sitters") for her Netflix show. And last year, Johns Hopkins University unveiled its new psychedelic research center, thanks to $17 million in private funding. Considered the first of its kind in the country and largest in the world, the center will research how psychedelics impact the brain in both "healthy" individuals as well as those with mental health conditions, like depression, anorexia, and Alzheimer's disease.

"Psychedelics are a fascinating class of compounds," Roland Griffiths, founding director of the new center and a professor of psychiatry and of neuroscience, said during a press conference. "They produce a unique and profound change of consciousness over the course of just several hours."

Last month, however, it was Detroit that made national headlines when it joined the rapidly growing psychedelic revolution. More than 53,000 Detroit residents, or 61%, turned out to vote yes on Proposal E, which decriminalized the possession and therapeutic use of entheogenic plants, including psilocybin, peyote, mescaline, ayahuasca and dimethyltryptamine (aka DMT), many of which have been touted as being effective aids in treating mental health disorders, not to mention mind reparation and consciousness expansion.

More than 60% of Detroit voters approved Proposal E, which decriminalized the possession and therapeutic use of entheogenic plants, including psilocybin, peyote, mescaline, ayahuasca and DMT.

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Detroit's decriminalization initiative is the latest in a string of legalization and decriminalization efforts across the country. In May of 2019, voters made Denver the first city to decriminalize psilocybin. Less than a month later, Oakland, California, decriminalized all natural psychedelic plants and fungi. And then Santa Cruz, California, followed. This year, in October 2021, Seattle, Washington, and Arcata, California, also voted unanimously to deprioritize enforcing entheogen prohibition, and Easthampton, Massachusetts, became the fourth city in the state to decriminalize the possession and use of psychedelic plants, making it among the lowest priority when it comes to law enforcement. Meanwhile, Oregonians gave the middle finger to the country's half-century failed war on drugs when it overwhelmingly passed Measure 110, which made possession of small amounts of illicit drugs, including cocaine, heroin, LSD, methamphetamine and psychedelics punishable by a civil citation, not dissimilar to that of a parking ticket, as well as a $100 fine, which can be waived if the individual participates in a health screening via a recovery hotline.

Since Denver's trailblazing legislation, there's been more than 100 cities and counties that have put together initiatives that are inspired by the initiative that originated in Oakland thanks to Decriminalize Nature, a country-wide organization with local chapters focused on education in an effort to decriminalize — and someday legalize — naturally occurring psychedelic plants and fungi.

One such initiative was launched in Ann Arbor in 2020 when Ann Arbor City Council voted unanimously to decriminalize the use of psychedelic mushrooms and plants. This paved the way for a major step forward for the Midwest's participation in what is being referred to as "the psychedelic renaissance." Not only did the Ann Arbor City Council vote to declare September as Entheogenic Plant and Fungi Awareness Month, but the city held its first annual Entheo Fest this year, which invited activists and leaders of the psychedelic movement to spread awareness and firsthand accounts of the benefits of decriminalizing psychedelics, specifically plant medicine. Earlier this year, Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit took Ann Arbor's decriminalization one step further: he expanded the Ann Arbor City Council's resolution to include all of Washtenaw County, making it the first county in the Midwest to enforce such a policy.

"Given that entheogenic plants are the 'lowest law enforcement priority' in Ann Arbor, it would be unjust to continue prosecuting entheogenic plant use or possession," Savit's policy directive reads. "The Washtenaw County Prosecutor's Office is committed to ensuring that justice is dispensed evenhandedly."

Since taking office in January, Savit has been implementing progressive policy after progressive policy. He's made it so that Washtenaw County is no longer purusing charges involving consensual sex work. Savit has also made it so the county is no longer charging juveniles for low-level crimes, he scrapped cash bail, and prohibited assistant prosecuting attorneys from filing drug charges that stem from "pretext stops" by police officers — or when an officer detains a person purportedly as a result of an observed traffic or ordinance violation, but are really looking for drugs or other contraband, a practice that disproportionately impacts people of color.

Though he describes himself as a bit of a "square" (he admits he's never tried psychedelics, but dabbled with weed in high school and college), he considers the passing of the decriminalization directive as being "one of the easiest decisions" he's had to make, especially since it will allow law enforcement to focus on crimes that directly harm the community.

"First of all, I believe in science, I don't believe in criminalizing people for engaging in personal use or possession or cultivation of a substance that really doesn't present any harm," Savit tells Metro Times. "So it's easy in that respect, but it was also tremendously easy because of what the Ann Arbor City Council did. I mean, how arbitrary would it have been to take office knowing that entheogenic plants have been socially decriminalized in the largest jurisdiction in our county, but nevertheless say, 'Well, if you're driving around, and you're within the city limits of Ann Arbor, then that's fine, you can have your mushrooms or your psychedelics there. But if you happen to cross US-23, or you're going to one of the adjoining townships, all of a sudden we're going to prosecute for that?' I mean, that would just be the height of arbitrariness," he says. "And that's not something that I had any interest in presiding over."

Savit says things are going well in Washtenaw County, and admits that psychedelics weren't exactly an issue before or since the city council's resolution passed, adding that there has been "zero adverse effects, none, not one." The county hasn't encountered any issues with people engaging in the use of entheogenic plants from a safety perspective, nor have they seen a major uptick in cases referred to his office by law enforcement. In fact, Savit says he's personally received a number of notes, emails, and phone calls from people thanking the prosecutor's office for enforcing decriminalization, as it has allowed them to move forward in their mental health journey, while others have expressed gratitude for being able to use these naturally occurring substances recreationally without fear of legal repercussions.

However, Savit says while most of the people he knows who have tried mushrooms or other psychedelics haven't had their lives derailed as a result, it's the unfair justice system that could have made their lives far more difficult.

The sheer number of people that have used such substances in this country is staggering. "But it's only an unlucky few that ultimately face criminal consequences because of it," Savit says. "It's a weighted roulette wheel, because we all know that people of color, people in communities that attract more police attention, they're far more likely to get caught up in a legal system than those that are in whiter, wealthier communities that aren't as heavily policed."

He continues, "So why would we continue to perpetuate this cruel roulette wheel, which in and of itself can derail somebody's life, when so many people across this community, including people that I know, personally, have used entheogenic plants, have used psychedelics with absolutely no adverse consequences, and have never faced any criminal jeopardy because of it?"

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