Initiative To Change D.C. Psychedelic Plant, Mushroom Laws Is A Step Closer To Ballot If the D.C. Board of Elections finds that enough signatures are valid, voters will decide in November whether police should make enforcement of laws against psychedelic plants a low priority.
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NPR logo Initiative To Change D.C. Psychedelic Plant, Mushroom Laws Is A Step Closer To Ballot

Initiative To Change D.C. Psychedelic Plant, Mushroom Laws Is A Step Closer To Ballot

Decriminalize Nature D.C. collected signatures for its ballot initiative via mail, but also relied on in-person circulators to work at grocery stores, in parks, and at polling places on the June 2 primary. Martin Austermuhle/WAMU hide caption

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Martin Austermuhle/WAMU

Advocates of a ballot initiative to change how D.C.'s laws on magic mushrooms and other psychedelic plants are enforced have submitted what they say are enough signatures to put the issue to voters in November.

On Monday afternoon the campaign known as Decriminalize Nature D.C. submitted more than 35,000 signatures from D.C. voters to put Initiative 81 on the November ballot. That's roughly 10,000 more signatures than what's required by law to get a citizen-led initiative to voters. The campaign also says it reached the threshold of getting signatures from 5% of registered voters in at least five of the city's eight wards.

If passed, the initiative would make enforcement of the city's laws against entheogenic substances — mushrooms and psychedelic plants — the police department's lowest priority. A similar measure was passed in Denver last year, and could appear on the ballot in Oregon later this year.

"I've always felt that so positive about this campaign. And I knew we could do it. It was just a matter of how we were going to do it," says Melissa Lavasani, a D.C. government worker and mother of two who led the campaign after her own experience using psychedelics to treat postpartum depression.

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The issue of how became a real challenge earlier this year, when the COVID-19 pandemic largely derailed the initial efforts to start collecting signatures from D.C. voters — especially in the six-month timeframe specified by law. The campaign pivoted to using mail, sending packets of information and petitions to more than 200,000 households. Lavasani says that some 10,000 signatures were obtained that way, and in recent weeks the campaign started tabling at grocery stores, parks and outside polling places on the June 2 primary. It even sent paid signature-collectors to go door to door.

"It was sometimes good, sometimes not. I think that people sometimes are protective since we're all home and we are in a pandemic, and maybe their home is their safe space and when a stranger suddenly enters your yard or getting close to your door it's a little scary. But that just varied depending on where we were in the city," she says. "But our ground game was good. We would approach people from six feet away and we would put the clipboard down on a surface. We weren't ever touching anything at the same time as anyone. We were carrying tons of hand sanitizer with us, tons of pens so we could have extras to sanitize."

The next challenges come from the D.C. Board of Elections, which has 30 days to verify the signatures to ensure they are valid. If they are not, Initiative 81 won't make it to voters in November. If they are, it will. And if that happens, Lavasani says she's optimistic about its prospects.

Initial polling done by the campaign in April showed that 51% of respondents likely would vote for Initiative 81, while 27% would vote against and 22% remained undecided. But after being given additional information about what the initiative would and would not do, the likely yes vote climbed to 60%.

If Initiative 81 makes it to the ballot, it will mark the third-straight election cycle where D.C. voters have weighed in on policy matters. In 2014, voters approved Initiative 71, which legalized the possession and personal use of small amounts of marijuana. In 2016, they endorsed the city's fight for statehood. And in 2018, they backed Initiative 77, which would have phased out the city's tipped wage. That measure was later overturned by the D.C. Council.

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