Officials say criminal cases of psychedelic drug use are uncommon, but local legalization remains unlikely

Posted 5/14/21

Despite a push from a diverse group of experts on the use of psychedelic drugs, Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney James Kennedy said he couldn’t decriminalize entheogens in the …

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Officials say criminal cases of psychedelic drug use are uncommon, but local legalization remains unlikely

Posted

Despite a push from a diverse group of experts on the use of psychedelic drugs, Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney James Kennedy said he couldn’t decriminalize entheogens in the county.

Advocates for decriminalization say entheogens — naturally occurring psychedelic substances like psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca and peyote — have numerous therapeutic uses in treating pain, addiction, depression and a myriad of other ailments.

But according to members of law enforcement and the Jefferson County prosecutor’s office, there’s not much officials can do to decriminalize the substances.   

Dr. Sunil Aggarwal, co-founder of Seattle’s Advanced Integrated Medical Science Institute and a medical geographer who has studied the use of entheogens for the past 20 years, asked officials to reconsider their approach to enforcement of the substances during a recent county workshop on the issue.

“This is an important time in public health in this country,” Aggarwal said. “There’s still these major issues that we’re facing in society … addiction, depression, anxiety, despair, suicidality, and so many others.” 

Aggarwal added the next wave of public health professionals are hoping to address issues surrounding well-being by exploring the question of what it means to be human. 

“What does it mean to be a human being? That’s not just your physical health, your mental health, but it’s also your spiritual health, your spiritual well-being. That’s what we call the integrative view of health.”

“A lot of this is recognizing that systems are way more complex than we understand them to be,” Aggarwal explained. “Sometimes we have to start local. We have to try out solutions in a local area and then spread those out beyond. That’s what I think this idea around decriminalization of entheogens is about.”

Todd Youngs noted his own personal experiences using entheogens to tackle addiction issues that had plagued him for decades. 

“From the mid-1980s until 2009, I had a relationship with law enforcement and it was all bad,” Youngs said. “I was chronically addicted to heroin, cocaine, crack, methamphetamine and I was a terrible alcoholic. So I went to jail numerous times beginning in 1987.” 

Youngs said his behavior landed him in jail an additional 12 times, along with one stay in prison and another in a psychiatric ward. 

“Needless to say, I had a lot of problems,” he said. “In any meaningful sense, I was not a functioning member of society and not really gainfully employed or really employable.” 

“In two weeks I will celebrate 12 years of continuous sobriety. I have been addiction-free and alcohol-free for that long,” Youngs added. “A large part of the catalyst for that was the ritually-guided use of a psychedelic plant decoction called ayahuasca, and the very careful, structured integration of the experiences induced by [that substance].”

Youngs said he likely wouldn’t be alive if it hadn’t been for their use and the assimilation of his experiences with them.

“Without exaggeration, I would not be walking this planet if it had not been for a sort of marvelous serendipity that brought what I would call the sacrament of ayahuasca into my life, which then opened up the possibility of change. It rekindled within me a sense of hope, a sense of meaning in life,” he said.      

County Commissioner Heidi Eisenhour said in her own personal life she has known people who used entheogens as a means of managing pain.

Eisenhour, however, was unsure about the county’s current enforcement practices on the drugs. 

“I don’t know what we do currently,” Eisenhour said. “I don’t know what our current regulatory framework is around entheogens.” 

“First of all, I’d say that they’re illegal in Washington state,” responded Sheriff Joe Nole.

Still, actual criminal cases were rare locally, he added.

“At the sheriff’s office, we don’t see a lot of interaction with psychedelics or [entheogens],” Nole said.

“We recently had a case where there was a person who was selling psychedelic mushrooms, and he was involved with guns and all kinds of other stuff,” Nole recalled, adding that in his 27 years of working with the sheriff’s office, he could only remember a handful of interactions he’d had with cases of entheogenic substances.

Kennedy agreed that the number of cases involving entheogens were not common.

“In terms of convincing me about potential benefits or that they’re really not that harmful, I don’t really need to be convinced on that,” Kennedy said. “I’ve never had any real personal issues, problems or animus with entheogens or their use. It has been ever so rare that I see them pop up in a case; it is usually incidental to whatever conduct brought the individuals into contact with law enforcement.” 

Kennedy told the group that he lacked the authority to make a change to the state’s drug laws.

“The problem is that the branch of government that I am in is the executive branch. I am not in the legislative branch, I don’t write the rules. Yes, I do have a lot of discretion in how I enforce them, but my approach is any changes to a policy I’m going to make are going to have pretty broad-reaching effects.” 

“I have to anticipate people who are going to say, ‘Well, you made that person’s drugs legal, why didn’t you make mine?’” Kennedy said. “I guarantee you that would come up and it would demand a reasoned answer.” 

Referring to the recently-passed SB 5476 in Washington’s Legislature — which made possession a simple misdemeanor for the next two years — Kennedy said he didn’t really see a possibility or much of a need for decriminalization on the county level.

“It is my understanding that our ability to legalize something at our level is not something that we could really do to a practical effect,” Kennedy said. “No one is out there looking for it or hunting it down and as of right now what the Legislature wants us to do is to turn people to diversion.”

“We’re in an enforcement mode that looks drastically different than what it used to look like. And what it used to look like was never focused on entheogens in the first place,” he continued. “I know that’s not exactly what you want to hear but, just in terms of the criminal justice system, there’s just not a lot of focus.” 

“If you want something that’s more of a fully-accepted model, then I think our state and local legislators are the ones to talk to, and I think they might be receptive to this,” Kennedy said.

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