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County commissioners restrict psychedelic mushroom businesses

Jackson County Commissioners decided not to allow psychedelic mushroom service centers in remote, rural parts of the county. [Associated Press file photo]

Jackson County commissioners voted this week to block psychedelic mushroom retreat centers in rural parts of the county and allow businesses that administer mushrooms to customers in general commercial zones only.

General commercial zones are typically found in business corridors along Highway 62, Interstate 5 and other developed areas that are more easily reached by police and paramedics.

Businesses that grow psychedelic mushrooms will be allowed in a wider variety of zones, including farm use and industrial zones, but not residential zones.

The psychedelic mushroom industry is set to launch in early 2023 after the Oregon Health Authority finalizes state regulations and licensing requirements. Cities and counties can add their own rules about where and how businesses operate.

Research shows psychedelic mushrooms that contain psilocybin can help some people with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, end-of-life distress and other issues.

Oregon voters passed a measure to allow licensed facilitators to give mushrooms to people and guide them through the psychedelic experience. Mushrooms will be administered at businesses called psilocybin service centers. Unlike marijuana, retail sales won’t be allowed.

Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said he believes there are potential benefits from psilocybin treatment. But he noted Jackson County residents will be able to get mushroom treatment in cities like Medford, Ashland, Talent and Phoenix that are allowing the businesses.

Some businesses have proposed creating mushroom retreat centers in rural natural settings like Buckhorn Springs Resort and the New Frontier Ranch east of Ashland.

“Although there may be some benefits to having these service centers available in some of the more remote, rural areas of Jackson County, I haven’t seen anything that absolutely convinces me that it’s therapeutically necessary,” Dyer said.

Dyer said he found studies that said the most conducive setting is a warm room with pleasing artwork where patients can recline on a sofa, wear eyeshades and listen to music. That type of setting can be created anywhere, including in general commercial zones.

Dyer said a study with 2,000 people found 10% said they had a past negative experience with psychedelic mushrooms that put them or others in harm’s way.

“Adverse experiences do happen, and they do have consequences. We can’t eliminate that from consideration,” he said.

Although psychedelic mushrooms can create positive feelings like a sense of unity with the universe, users can also experience “bad trips” that are extremely disturbing and frightening, according to scientists and those who’ve tried mushrooms.

Proponents of rural mushroom retreat centers in Jackson County have said a majority of county residents voted for the 2020 statewide measure that legalized psilocybin therapy.

Urban voters tended to vote for mushrooms while rural voters tended to vote against legalization.

A narrow majority of county residents also voted this November not to ban psilocybin businesses in unincorporated parts of the county.

However, Dyer noted everyone in the county, including Ashland and Medford residents, got to vote on the ban, not just rural residents. A breakdown of how people voted by precinct isn’t yet available.

Ashland, Medford and Talent didn’t put bans before their voters. Phoenix did, and voters there narrowly rejected a ban in their city.

But residents of more rural cities like Jacksonville, Shady Cove and Eagle Point approved bans with solid two-thirds majorities, according to unofficial election results.

Dyer said even though commissioners can’t consult precinct-level vote results yet, rural voters have shown substantial opposition to psychedelic mushrooms.

He said county commissioners are allowed to adopt reasonable regulations on mushroom businesses.

“Being reasonable includes being cautious. Being reasonable includes using sound judgment and rational decision-making. In land use, it’s definitely preferable to gradually allow greater latitude as it becomes prudent for these activities than it is to try and rein in an activity once it’s allowed to commence,” Dyer said.

Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts said county staff researched the amount of general commercial land in unincorporated parts of the county and found there are 436 acres.

“So there is ample space to let this get started,” she said.

Roberts said she also agrees with a cautious approach, especially after the county’s experience with marijuana.

Illegal marijuana grows and associated crime took off after Oregon voters legalized marijuana and Congress legalized hemp, marijuana’s nonintoxicating lookalike cousin.

Roberts noted the Oregon Department of Land Conservation issued an opinion that mushroom service centers can’t be stand-alone businesses in farm use zones and forest zones. They potentially could operate if mushroom growing was also done on the property.

But Roberts said the amount of mushrooms growing on a property would be very small.

“I would be hard-pressed to call it farming,” she said.

Mushroom proponents have said a building the size of an average house could grow all the psychedelic mushrooms needed for therapeutic use in Jackson County. State regulations will require the mushrooms to be grown indoors.

Jackson County Commissioner Dave Dotterrer said Oregon’s land use laws are designed to protect agricultural and forest lands, with only limited exceptions for other uses. He said a mushroom service center doesn’t meet the intent of the law to protect those resource lands.

Dotterrer said mushroom proponents testified that rural settings are better for psilocybin therapy, but they provided no scientific research to support that claim.

He said psilocybin therapy is new for the state of Oregon.

“I think from a policy standpoint, discretion and limitations are called for in this particular case,” Dotterrer said.

Oregon is the first state to legalize psilocybin therapy. Although it’s supposed to be used in a supervised setting with a licensed facilitator, voters also essentially decriminalized drugs like psychedelic mushrooms, heroin and meth in a 2020 ballot measure. People caught with user amounts of those drugs face a $100 ticket — less than a speeding ticket.

Using mushrooms therapeutically with a licensed facilitator is expected to cost hundreds to thousands of dollars per customer.

Will Lucas, venue supervisor for Buckhorn Springs Resort, said the business has no comment at this time about the county commissioners’ vote.

The international Synthesis Institute bought Buckhorn Springs Resort for millions of dollars and planned to create a mushroom retreat center on the rural property.

Jackson County resident Cory Hultz, who lives near Buckhorn Springs Resort, said he’s relieved by county commissioners’ decision to restrict mushroom service centers to general commercial zones.

“I appreciate the county commissioners’ decision in upholding the current zoning laws,” he said. “I live in exclusive farm use and forest resource zoning, and just to put a house on a property you have to go through a pretty grueling process. I didn’t see the fairness in letting an industry be able to change current laws to create a profit in rural neighborhoods.”

Hultz said Oregon’s experiment in legalizing drugs is still new. He’s starting to raise a family and doesn’t want to live near a psychedelic mushroom business.

“This wouldn’t just draw Oregonians and United States citizens. This would be an international attraction within a mile of my house. That’s not why I live here,” Hultz said.

Mike Arnold, a Springfield lawyer and chief executive officer and chairman of Silo Wellness, said he’s disappointed but not surprised by the county commissioners’ decision to disregard a previous Jackson County Planning Commission recommendation to allow mushroom businesses in a wide variety of zones. Arnold had signed a letter of intent to launch a mushroom retreat center at New Frontier Ranch.

“I do understand their reluctance given the history with the cannabis and hemp industry,” he said of county commissioners. “However, the evidence in the record clearly established the impropriety of their position. This is not a novel industry. We do this legally in Jamaica, and others do so in the Netherlands with absolutely no adverse community impact. Regardless of where Silo Wellness ultimately chooses to operate in our home state of Oregon, we intend to continue making client access and trauma healing our priority.”

Jeanne Randall, co-owner of Box R Ranch Land and Cattle next to the New Frontier Ranch, said a psychedelic mushroom center at New Frontier Ranch would have endangered the community. Years ago, her family sold part of their Box R Ranch and the split-off land became the New Frontier Ranch.

Randall said there have been many counter-culture events at the New Frontier Ranch, where it’s legal to host events and overnight guests. She said she doesn’t trust New Frontier Ranch would have operated a psychedelic mushroom business responsibly.

“We’ve had a lot of trespassing on our property. A retreat center would affect us directly,” she said. “We’re on Highway 66, a two-lane mountain highway with ice and snow five months of the year. People using and affected by that treatment would have to rely on the integrity of the people conducting the treatment to make sure they and residents remain safe on that highway.”

Randall said marijuana growers already abuse rural areas, where there’s less supervision from law enforcement. She said the psychedelic mushroom industry could have worsened the situation.

“I’m concerned the same thing would happen here,” she said. “I think it’s wise to watch it for a while in an easily observable general commercial zone. If people decided those businesses are super responsible and it’s wonderful for our valley, it could change. But at this juncture, it’s better to have something that can be monitored in a zone with other commercial activity.”

County commissioners are scheduled to have meetings in December to finalize their decision.

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