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Massachusetts Natural Medicine Ballot Campaign Could Make Bay State Psychedelic Battleground
On July 3, Boston political strategists launched a ballot campaign called Massachusetts for Mental Health Options to legalize the therapeutic use of psychedelics. Local activists were not informed.
*Updated July 17, 2023, confirming that New Approach PAC is orchestrating the Massachusetts ballot campaign and linking to a response from local advocacy groups.
On the eve of Independence Day, two Boston political strategists filed paperwork for a voter ballot initiative campaign called Massachusetts for Mental Health Options.
The group’s paperwork states its goal as expanding “mental health treatment options in Massachusetts by providing new pathways to access natural psychedelic medicine therapy.”
Danielle McCourt and Meredith Learner Moghimi filed the paperwork on July 3rd, and the state acknowledged receipt on July 5th. McCourt, who serves as campaign chair, owns DLM Strategies, a political strategy firm. Moghimi, who leads the political firm MLM Strategies, serves as treasurer. Their funders remain unknown (Update: McCourt & Moghimi later referred journalists to Ben Unger of the New Approach PAC, confirming the PAC’s involvement).
Psychedelic Week contacted drug policy activists in Massachusetts. But none were familiar with the Massachusetts for Mental Health Options campaign or its organizers McCourt and Moghimi. What happens next could shape the future of psychedelic policy in Massachusetts, which has historically focused on community and public health-oriented decriminalization of substances. The newly formed campaign could learn from and collaborate with established grassroots communities in the state, or relations could take an oppositional turn, as they have in states like Oregon and Colorado.
McCourt and Moghimi did not respond to email inquiries regarding their campaign and proposed ballot initiative. But less than two weeks ago, during Denver’s Psychedelic Science 2023 conference, entrepreneur and philanthropist David Bronner said his company (Dr. Bronner’s) is supporting natural medicine ballot initiatives in Massachusetts and Arizona.
Dr. Bronner’s is one of the largest donors to psychedelic political campaigns throughout the country, including in Oregon, Colorado, California, and Washington, DC. Like McCourt and Moghimi, Bronner did not respond to inquiries regarding his potential role in the newly formed campaign
In addition to Bronner’s statement, other evidence suggests the identity of likely donors. Ben Unger, director of psychedelic programs for the New Approach PAC, a Washington, DC-based political action committee, contacted James Davis of the Somerville, MA non-profit Bay Staters for Natural Medicine (Bay Staters).
For years, volunteers with Bay Staters have provided education and community for people interested in learning about psychedelics and their safe and equitable use. The group also has broader goals of ending the war on drugs and its punitive approaches to substance use and regulation (update: on July 17, Bay Staters and two other Massachusetts advocacy groups issued a response to New Approach’s ballot campaign).
Bay Staters worked with Massachusetts lawmakers to decriminalize psychedelics in six cities (Somerville, Cambridge, Northampton, Easthampton, Amherst, and Salem), which is a national record. Recently, the group made significant inroads at the state level, working with lawmakers to create decriminalization bills, Senate Bill 1009 and House Bill 3589. The bills are so clear and concise that one might call them elegant.
Both bills are one page long. They largely mirror each other and would remove criminal penalties for possession, ingestion, obtaining, growing, and transporting five psychedelics (psilocybin, psilocin, mescaline, ibogaine, and dimethyltryptamine), or giving them away to adults without financial gain.
Like Bronner, the New Approach PAC (which he financially supports) is one of the most influential political actors in the psychedelic ecosystem. With roots in cannabis politics, New Approach draws funding from other wealthy individuals and organizations. Last year, donors included Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS shoe company, who donated $1 million, Austin Hearst, heir to the Hearst media empire, GoDaddy founder Robert Parsons, and Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey. Previous donors include the Scott’s Company, which produces Miracle-Gro, and late businessman Henry van Ameringen.
Presumably, New Approach’s Ben Unger hopes to speak with Bay Staters’ Davis about an upcoming Massachusetts ballot initiative (Unger declined to respond to an email from Psychedelic Week). Bronner and Unger have worked closely on numerous state and local psychedelic campaigns. However, before Davis could respond to Unger’s message, McCourt and Moghimi filed the paperwork to create Massachusetts for Mental Health Options.
Other evidence points to New Approach as a possible funder of this newly formed campaign (Update: Psychedelic Week has confirmed that New Approach and Ben Unger are supporting the recently formed Massachusetts campaign). In November, the PAC’s co-founder Graham Boyd addressed a crowd of researchers with the Boston Psychedelic Research Group. Boyd urged attendees to consider funding a Massachusetts ballot initiative like previous campaigns in Oregon and Colorado.
Bronner and New Approach have a formula for franchising their brand of psychedelic reform across the country. Unger and New Approach are DC-based, while Bronner and Boyd live in California. The PAC spends millions shaping cannabis and psychedelic policy in numerous states.
With respect to psychedelics, two of their latest victories came in Oregon, with voters’ 2020 approval of Measure 109 (the Oregon Psilocybin Services Act), and Colorado, where voters approved Proposition 122 (the Natural Medicine Health Act) last November. Both ballot initiates establish licensed facilities where people consume psychedelics under professional supervision.
New Approach’s strategy has been controversial. By funding local lobbyists and political strategists, the PAC pumps millions into state-level campaigns. Their tactic of colonizing other state ecosystems has drawn criticism from grassroots communities who feel strong-armed by the PAC.
In Oregon, groups like the Portland Psychedelic Society and Decriminalize Nature Portland worried that New Approach-backed Measure 109 would create an overly-complex and expensive system, making psilocybin inaccessible to many, aside from wealthy out of state tourists. So far, the program rollout has been problematic.
The cost of most Oregon psilocybin services ranges from $2,000 to $15,000. Licensing fees are high, and consequently, aspiring businesses have closed their doors. Due to the resulting lack of licensing revenue, the state’s regulatory program, which was pitched to voters as being self-sufficient, has gone over budget. The Oregon Health Authority now asks taxpayers for a $6.6 million bailout.
In Colorado, tensions between New Approach and local psychedelic communities appeared to be more intense. A locally-organized ballot initiative backed by Decriminalize Nature Boulder (called Decriminalize Colorado) couldn’t compete with the well-funded Natural Medicine Colorado campaign, financed by New Approach. When grassroots organizers failed to collect the signatures necessary to make the state ballot, they had no choice but to work with Natural Medicine Colorado or oppose them.
In 2022, Colorado activist Matthew Duffy, whose organization SPORE was previously funded by Bronner, wrote a Denver Post Op-ed opposing New Approach’s Proposition 122. “The Natural Medicine Health Act (NMHA) is flawed,” wrote Duffy. It “puts profits over people and commercialization over community.” In a blog post, Bronner accused Duffy and SPORE of “play[ing] on people’s anxieties and fears, spreading a superficially plausible narrative.” Bronner framed New Approach’s role in Colorado as collaborative.
But members of local community groups, including SPORE and Decriminalize Nature Boulder, say New Approach and Natural Medicine Colorado often ignored their input. Further, after voters approved Proposition 122, New Approach’s lobbyists quickly held closed-door meetings with state officials who simultaneously gave community groups the cold shoulder.
Melanie Rose Rodgers is a Colorado grassroots activist who co-petitioned to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in Denver in 2019. Last year, she was a co-petitioner of Decriminalize Colorado’s state-wide decriminalization effort. Rodgers told Psychedelic Week that if New Approach is using the same playbook it used in Oregon and Colorado to shape Massachusetts policy, it would be "colonizing yet another state by bypassing all the hard work of grassroots organizers and community leaders by not having them at the table or meeting with them before forming a campaign."
At the recent Psychedelic Science conference in Denver, Colorado activists protested the colonization of the psychedelic field against the interests of Indigenous people and other marginalized communities. To create a more diverse, inclusive, equitable and welcoming environment locally and beyond, Rodgers co-created BIPOC Psychedelic, a new community organization in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood.
Back in Massachusetts, if New Approach is funding Massachusetts for Mental Health Options (Update: New Approach’s support has now been confirmed), the PAC faces a choice. It could collaborate with local communities like Bay Staters from the start. Alternatively, it could make Boston New Approach’s next battleground.
The symbolism of filing ballot committee paperwork on the eve of Independence Day is striking. Massachusetts and Boston are hubs of psychedelic innovation. In addition to decriminalizing psychedelics in a record number of cities, the state is home to groundbreaking psychedelic research at Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and McLean Hospital.
Massachusetts also has a long and storied psychedelic history, having been home to icons like Ram Das, Timothy Leary, James Fadiman, and Rick Doblin. Famed experiments at Concord Prison and Marsh Chapel contribute to this history. Some even suspect that psychedelics played a role in the Salem Witch Trials. Suffice to say that when it comes to psychedelic science, history, and politics, Massachusetts is hallowed ground, and Boston is a sort of psychedelic “city on a hill.”
Taking a collaborative approach to psychedelic policy reform within the Bay State could advance the unfolding psychedelic renaissance in a positive direction. But conflict and usurpation could hinder that progress.
Like the historic New England Patriots facing the British Empire, Massachusetts psychedelic communities and New Approach could work together to reach agreement, or conflict could produce another battle for independence.
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*The views expressed on Psychedelic Week do not represent the views of Harvard University, POPLAR at the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School, Florida State University, or the Florida State University College of Law. Psychedelic Week is an independent project unaffiliated with these programs and institutions.
Mason Marks, MD, JD is the Florida Bar Health Law Section Professor at the Florida State University College of Law. He is the senior fellow and project lead of the Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation (POPLAR) at the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School and an affiliated fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Marks teaches drug law, psychedelic law, constitutional law, and administrative law. Before moving to Florida, he served on the Oregon Psilocybin Advisory Board where he chaired its Licensing Subcommittee. Marks has drafted drug policies for state and local lawmakers. His forthcoming book on psychedelic law and politics will be published by Yale University Press. He tweets at @MasonMarksMD and @PsychedelicWeek.