Seattle City Council Passes Measure to Decriminalize Psychedelics

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The Seattle City Council voted in favor of a resolution last week to support the decriminalization of magic mushrooms and other natural psychedelics. With the resolution, city leaders called on Seattle police to make arresting and prosecuting people for use or possession of naturally occurring entheogenic substances such as psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca and other psychedelics “among Seattle’s lowest law enforcement priorities.”  

“It is a long overdue conversation to decriminalize these non-addictive natural substances,” council member Andrew Lewis said at the city council’s meeting on October 4. “Our law enforcement officials certainly have more important things to do than arrest people for possession of entheogens, and this resolution affirms that.”

Under the resolution, which is non-binding and serves only as a recommendation, the city council requests that the Seattle Police Department “formally codify and adopt policies that protect” those who cultivate psychedelics “for use in religious, spiritual, healing, or personal growth practices and those who share entheogens with others, without financial or other consideration, for their mutual use in such practices.”

Under current SPD policy, officers do not detain or arrest individuals solely for possession of controlled substances. Those who cultivate or sell entheogenic or psychedelic substances, however, are subject to arrest and prosecution.

Council Notes Spiritual Uses of Psychedelics

At a virtual meeting of the city council, members noted that psychedelic compounds are often used for religious or spiritual purposes. The resolution does not cover synthetic psychedelic drugs such as LSD or ketamine, and excludes the entheogenic cactus peyote, which is embroiled in controversy because of its limited native habitat and significance as a sacramental plant for members of the Native American Church.

“These nonaddictive natural substances have real potential in clinical and therapeutic settings to make a really significant difference in people’s lives,” said Lewis. “This resolution really sets the stage as the first significant action in the state of Washington to move this policy forward.”

Lewis also told reporters that there is “a huge demonstrated potential for these substances to provide cutting-edge treatments for substance abuse, recovery from brain injuries and other issues. I want to make sure we’re following the science in our policies around regulating these substances.”

The strategy for Seattle’s resolution to decriminalize psychedelics is similar to the approach that led to cannabis reform in Seattle and eventually statewide. In 2003, the city’s voters overwhelmingly passed Initiative 75, an ordinance which made the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of marijuana offenses the lowest law enforcement priority for Seattle police.

In 2012, Washington became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana with the passage of Initiative 502, which was passed with the approval of more than 55% of the state’s voters. Washington voters had previously decriminalized the medicinal use of cannabis in 1998 with the passage of Initiative 692, which garnered 59% of the vote.

Council Chooses Psychedelics Decriminalization Resolution Over Ordinance

The city council approved the resolution supporting the decriminalization of psychedelics by a unanimous vote at last week’s meeting, but not before debating other potential avenues to achieve the same goal. Council member Kshama Sawant noted that the non-binding resolution carries less weight than a proposed psychedelics decriminalization city ordinance that was drafted three months ago.

“To decriminalize psychedelics in fact rather than just in rhetoric would require an ordinance,” Sawant said. “It is this city council not the police department that has the authority to pass such an ordinance,” adding that “I am a little confused by this resolution because it is a resolution and not an ordinance, and why this resolution is being passed when there is an ordinance from my office, and it has been available for months.”

“I fail to see what the plausible reasons are for councilmembers who claim to support this issue to let an ordinance which takes concrete action sit in the city’s computers unintroduced, and instead push a resolution which only has the power to make requests,” said Sawant.

Council member Lisa Herbold, the chair of the public safety committee, noted that state lawmakers would likely engage in a “robust discussion about enforcement around possession of drugs” during the next legislative session. In February, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state’s felony drug law was unconstitutional, effectively decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs. In April, however, lawmakers passed new legislation to make low-level drug possession a misdemeanor until at least 2023.

Tatiana Quintana, co-director of Decrim Nature Seattle, a group that has been working to decriminalize psychedelics in the city for more than a year, said that an ordinance is the ultimate goal.

“In terms of strategy, [Lewis] was very supportive of an ordinance, but it kind of played out that a resolution would be a really great way to build support for an ordinance,” Quintana said. “I actually do think that the slower process of a resolution building not only awareness but support for a future ordinance is pretty smart. It’s a pretty smart way to go about things.”

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