WASHINGTON—District of Columbia residents are likely to vote this fall on whether to effectively decriminalize certain plant-based hallucinogenic substances, including psychedelic mushrooms, raising the prospect of another fight between local leaders and Congress, which can intervene in the city’s affairs.
The initiative would make the investigation and arrest of people cultivating or possessing certain plants and fungi among the lowest priorities for law enforcement and calls on the district’s attorney general not to prosecute anyone for these acts. On Monday, its backers submitted more than 36,000 signatures, well above the required threshold, boosting expectations the measure will be verified this summer and on the ballot in November.
“D.C. could be a really symbolic win for the whole country,” said Melissa Lavasani, chairwoman of the campaign, who said plant and fungi medicines helped her cope with postpartum depression in 2018.
The likely vote on mushrooms comes as district residents have drawn broad Democratic support on Capitol Hill for statehood, which would turn most of the city into the 51st state, giving residents fuller control over its own budget and laws. The House passed a statehood bill last month, but Senate Republicans and President Trump have rejected the idea as benefiting Democrats, who dominate the District.
The district would join a handful of jurisdictions seeking to effectively decriminalize the use or possession of mushrooms containing psilocybin, a psychoactive substance in mushrooms.
Denver in May 2019 became the first jurisdiction to pass such a measure, and the California cities of Oakland and Santa Cruz have taken similar steps. Psilocybin is still illegal under state and federal law, but backers say the local changes would greatly reduce the risk of arrest or penalties.
Already, the D.C. mushroom initiative is sparking a fight in Congress. Rep. Andy Harris (R., Md.) said this week he plans to try to target it with an amendment to the federal spending bill that oversees the district.
“Congress has the ultimate oversight of what goes on in the district,” Mr. Harris said in an interview this week. A physician by training, Mr. Harris said he is concerned about the public-health impact of decriminalizing psychedelic substances, even if D.C. residents approve it this fall.
“If a majority of people say, let’s take air bags out of cars, I would oppose it,” Mr. Harris said, noting that he could see a narrow exception involving the substances for people with terminal illnesses. Mr. Harris said he was considering offering an amendment blocking the initiative when the House Appropriations Committee debates the spending bill on Wednesday.
The threat drew criticism from the district’s nonvoting House member, Democratic Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Ms. Norton called Mr. Harris a “chronic abuser of home rule” and said Republicans were growing more anxious after the House passed the statehood bill. Ms. Norton said that while she had no idea whether the initiative would succeed in November, “I will certainly attempt to keep any member of Congress from blocking it.”
For years, federal spending bills have included a measure from Mr. Harris that prohibits D.C. from using federal funds to enact any laws legalizing or reducing penalties for a Schedule 1 substance for medical or recreational purposes. It also prevents D.C. from using any funds to legalize or reduce penalties for recreational uses of these substances.
Mr. Harris’s measure has stopped D.C. from fully implementing a law passed in 2014 legalizing adult possession and home use of marijuana. His measure prevented D.C. from using local funds to establish a tax and regulatory regime for recreational marijuana. It is, however, legal in D.C. for anyone 21 or older to possess small quantities of marijuana for home use.
The federal government considers psilocybin—as well as another plant-based compound dimethyltryptamine, or DMT—Schedule 1 narcotics deemed by the Drug Enforcement Administration to have a high potential for abuse. Other examples of Schedule 1 narcotics include heroin and marijuana.
The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department declined to comment. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who clashed with Mr. Trump earlier this year over the use of federal forces on city streets, sparking new calls for statehood, hasn’t taken a position on mushrooms.
Critics worry that efforts to decriminalize plant-based medicines are the next step in a push to legalize a broadening expanse of drugs that began with marijuana.
“When you make drugs more available, more accessible, more normalized, there’s more addiction and heartache,” said Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug-policy adviser and president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a nonprofit.
Backers of the new initiative say the plant-based substances can deliver mental-health benefits, including helping people suffering from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome and addiction.
Scientists have generally been encouraged by research into psilocybin, though the National Institute on Drug Abuse cautions that more research is needed into whether hallucinogenic drugs can be addictive.
The Food and Drug Administration has twice granted psilocybin “breakthrough therapy” designation—intended to expedite the development of drugs for serious or life-threatening conditions—to treat depression.
Wyly Gray, founding director of Veterans of War, which offers guided psychedelic group therapy to veterans, said he suffered from chronic insomnia for a decade after his last deployment with the Marines to Afghanistan in 2008, until he began using natural medicines involving DMT.
“I can sleep now,” he said. “My memory is not perfect, but it’s so much better than what it was four years ago.”
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