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Psychedelic mushroom bans on ballots in 6 cities, Jackson County

Voters will decide Nov. 8 whether to allow psilocybin mushroom growing and therapeutic use in unincorporated Jackson County and several cities. [Associated Press file photo]

Voters will decide Nov. 8 whether to ban psychedelic mushroom businesses in unincorporated Jackson County and the cities of Central Point, Phoenix, Eagle Point, Shady Cove, Jacksonville and Rogue River.

City Councils in Medford, Ashland and Talent decided not to refer bans to their voters, meaning psychedelic mushroom businesses can go forward in those cities in 2023.

Oregon Health Authority is developing regulations and a licensing process for growers and treatment providers in preparation for the debut of mushrooms. Cities that allow mushrooms can add on additional regulations.

In 2020, 55.75% of Oregon voters approved the growing and therapeutic use of psilocybin mushrooms, commonly known as magic mushrooms. Cities and counties can ask their voters if they want to opt out.

Mushrooms that contain the compound psilocybin can induce hallucinations, sensory distortions, euphoria, spiritual feelings, a sense of oneness with the universe, peacefulness, fear, paranoia or confusion. Hallucinations can be positive or frightening, and some users experience psychosis-like symptoms or flashbacks, according to medical experts.

Studies show the therapeutic use of psilocybin can help people with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, including veterans and people dealing with cancer or facing terminal illnesses.

‘Psilocybin just melted that wall’

Lauren, a local resident who asked that her last name not be used, said she was diagnosed with PTSD after years of work in the mental health field. She said she also was abused by her mother as a child.

Lauren traveled to Mexico to take part in a retreat that included the use of psilocybin mushrooms.

“I hadn’t resolved the trauma of being beaten,” she said. “Therapy would take me to a certain point, but there was always a wall I couldn’t get through. The psilocybin just melted that wall. I can say I love my mother now.”

When she took the mushrooms, Lauren said she had an experience of seeing a horrible, scary cave.

“I asked the medicine, ‘Is this something I’m supposed to learn from?’ I realized the cave was the empty hole inside me that I was trying to fill. This was the place I needed to fill with love, self-love and forgiveness,” she recalled.

Lauren said she saw a second and then a third cavern representing holes in her mother’s and grandmother’s lives. She got a sense of multigenerational trauma and multigenerational healing.

She talked to her mother about the experience. When Lauren later was diagnosed with breast cancer, insights from the psilocybin therapy allowed her to welcome her mother’s nurturing during grueling cancer treatment.

Lauren attended another psilocybin retreat that she said helped her cope with the cancer diagnosis, a double mastectomy and chemotherapy.

“I was filled with reassurance and peace and feelings of strength, acceptance and surrender. It really allowed me to go through this process without fear and anxiety. There were days where I was really sick from chemo, but I haven’t had any fears about the future, death or my kids,” Lauren said.

Lauren said she hopes to train as a psilocybin facilitator so she can help others. She said people shouldn’t have to travel to other countries to experience psilocybin therapy.

Comparisons to legal marijuana problems

Oregon was the first state to legalize the therapeutic use of psilocybin. The use, sale and possession of psilocybin mushrooms remains illegal under federal law.

The state’s legalization of the mushrooms has some people worried about more black market criminal activity and enforcement headaches. Psilocybin mushrooms have long been available illegally, but their use isn’t as common as other drugs like methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said he doesn’t foresee many problems if growers and therapists operate within the law. But some people will probably respond to the lure of making money by providing psilocybin mushrooms to the black market.

“Every time you open the door, there are individuals who will take advantage of that,” Sickler said. “It’s one more thing law enforcement will have to do when we have to do criminal investigations. We don’t have the staffing for that.”

He pointed to Oregon’s experience when it legalized medical marijuana. The marijuana was supposed to go to patients, but some growers sold to the black market.

“That was widely abused in Oregon and Jackson County,” Sickler said.

Illegal marijuana grows exploded out of control in Jackson County after Oregon legalized recreational marijuana and the federal government legalized hemp — marijuana’s lookalike, non-intoxicating cousin that’s used for medicine, fiber and other products. The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office makes one or more major marijuana busts nearly every week, but it still can’t keep up with the volume of illegal grows. The illegal activity has led to violence, exploitation of workers, widespread water theft, environmental contamination and the undercutting of the legal market.

The state hasn’t put enough manpower behind the regulation of medical marijuana, recreational marijuana and hemp to keep those industries within legal boundaries.

“If the state runs the psilocybin program like the marijuana program, I don’t have a lot of confidence,” Sickler said. “I would hope we don’t have problems, but given the history we have and the issues we have with addiction, why invite more potential problems for the community? We can’t even wrap our arms around the issues we already have.”

Sickler said he doesn’t think Jackson County would be as hard-hit by mushroom growing as it has been with marijuana growing. The Southern Oregon and Northern California climate is ideal for growing marijuana, but the region doesn’t appear to have a natural advantage for growing psilocybin mushrooms, which is done indoors.

Impacts from psilocybin mushroom businesses probably would be spread more equitably around the state, Sickler said.

‘Spore-to-door’ tracking

Will Lucas is working on the campaign to defeat the psilocybin bans. He’s the venue supervisor for Buckhorn Springs Retreat Center. The rural property east of Ashland was bought by the international Synthesis Institute to serve as a psilocybin therapy retreat center.

“Psilocybin therapy is a really promising therapy for veterans with PTSD and people with end-of-life anxiety. Studies show reductions in anxiety, depression and end-of-life distress,” he said.

Lucas said Oregon Health Authority isn’t limiting the number of licenses for growing facilities, but it is limiting the amount that can be produced to keep supply even with expected demand. One 2,000-square-foot facility could produce enough mushrooms in a three-month growing cycle to supply all of the therapeutic needs in Jackson County for a year, he said.

The more licensed growing facilities there are, the less profitable any one facility will be. That will cause some to go out of business, and the number of growers will taper down, Lucas said.

He said he doesn’t believe that will tempt some growers to sell to the black market.

“They’ll be watched by the Oregon Health Authority. There’s tracking from spore-to-door at every stage to make sure there’s no diversion. There are limits on the amount of psilocybin growers can have on hand,” Lucas said.

Oregon Health Authority is charged with regulating medical marijuana. The Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission regulates recreational marijuana, and the Oregon Department of Agriculture regulates hemp. Those agencies also have tracking programs that haven’t stopped some licensed growers from selling to the black market — let alone illegal growers operating outside the system.

Lucas said he thinks people will choose to use psilocybin in a therapeutic setting, rather than buying unregulated, potentially unsafe mushrooms from the black market.

People can poison themselves by ingesting the wrong type of mushrooms.

“People would prefer to go through the legal market and have a session facilitated by someone who knows what they’re doing. I don’t imagine it will create more illegal activity because this is providing a legal route,” Lucas said.

Facilities will screen out people who aren’t a good fit for psilocybin, including people who have psychosis or schizophrenia, or a family history of those mental illnesses, he said.

Session facilitators are trained to help patients feel comfortable, taken care of and ready for the experience. Psilocybin can cause frightening or challenging visions and perceptions, especially for people who’ve experienced severe trauma, Lucas said.

“The facilitator is there to remind the client, ‘This is going to end. You are safe. I’m here for you. Lean into the experience,’” he said.

Facilitators also help clients integrate what they’ve learned and experienced into their lives, he said.

Lucas said psilocybin mushroom-growing facilities don’t have a big impact like marijuana grows.

“Most people wouldn’t even know a cultivation facility is in their area,” he said.

The cost of therapy

The psilocybin therapy won’t be cheap.

“We don’t expect it to be inexpensive, especially at the start,” Lucas said, noting the costs of the Buckhorn Springs facility plus staff have to be covered.

Ashland Consciousness Medicine at Hidden Springs offers therapy with the psychedelic drug ketamine, which already is legal to use in certain circumstances. An initial treatment session costs $1,100 to $1,275, and follow-up sessions can cost $525 to $725. Insurance sometimes covers the medical and psychological part of the treatment, but doesn’t usually cover the ketamine treatment itself.

Lucas said some nonprofit groups raise money to help patients, such as veterans with PTSD, afford trips to other countries for psilocybin therapy. They could raise money for patients to get care in Oregon.

Although psilocybin therapy can be costly, Lucas said many people will only use it a few times in their lives. He noted other forms of mental health care can be expensive.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.