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Cambridge City Council Moves to Decriminalize Psychedelic Drugs, Use of Other Controlled Substances

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The Cambridge City Council passed legislation last week seeking to decriminalize the use, possession, and distribution of entheogenic plants, the latest in a series of steps toward more comprehensive decriminalization in Cambridge and Massachusetts.

The measure, which passed by an 8-1 margin during a Feb. 3 meeting, states controlled substance use should be viewed as a public health issue, citing possible medical benefits in treating conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

While the use of entheogens — a category that includes psilocybin or “magic” mushrooms — remains illegal at the state and federal levels, the order calls on Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan to cease prosecuting all cases involving entheogens as well as any controlled substance cases without intent to distribute. It also directs city officials to treat arrests on those charges as the lowest law enforcement priority.

Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan, one of the order’s sponsors, said the action was a “low-hanging fruit,” but one that lays the groundwork for more comprehensive decriminalization efforts.

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“This is a particular case where we can push the envelope a little bit,” Zondervan said. “To get to broader decriminalization we need more help from our state and federal lawmakers.”

The policy order is the second of its kind in Massachusetts, following a nearly identical resolution passed by the Somerville City Council on Jan. 14.

The Massachusetts Coalition for Decriminalization — a collaboration between a number of local advocacy groups — helped draft both measures. The coalition includes groups such as Decriminalize Nature Massachusetts and Bay Staters for Natural Medicine.

Frank Gerratana, a member of Decriminalize Nature Massachusetts, said the order was based on a 2019 Oakland, Calif. bill decriminalizing entheogens. He said the organization began to draft Cambridge’s order soon after the Oakland bill’s passage.

“Cambridge has a long history of being a leader in progressive issues,” Gerratana said. “If the [state] legislature sees that a lot of towns and cities are already doing this, then they're gonna pay much closer attention and be a lot more interested.”

Gerratana said the group believes there is interest for similar legislation in larger Massachusetts cities including Boston, Worcester, and Springfield. The coalition has also been in touch with state legislators in hopes of bringing the issue to Beacon Hill in the near future, he added.

One such bill is expected to be put forth by State Representative Mike Connolly (D-26th Middlesex), whose district encompasses most of Cambridge and Somerville. The bill will propose a committee to examine the issue of statewide entheogen decriminalization.

A critical element of the decriminalization movement's argument, Gerratana said, is recent medical research suggesting psychedelics including psilocybin may be effective in treating chronic mental illnesses such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration declared psilocybin a “breakthrough therapy” in treating depression and accelerated clinical trials of the drug.

Cambridge City Councilor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., who offered the sole dissenting vote on the policy order, wrote in an email he would have liked to hear more on the public health aspect of the issue.

“At the time of the vote I felt that I did not have enough information on the potential impacts of decriminalization of this category of plants and would have preferred that this matter had a committee hearing that allowed for proper input from our public health and public safety officials,” Toomey wrote.

Addressing critics of the measure, Councilor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, who helped sponsor the measure, wrote in an email that the “War on Drugs” has been ineffective and that it is time for the city to reconsider its priorities.

“Substance abuse is an issue that is going to continue to need to be addressed, but criminalization as the focus has not worked well,” Sobrinho-Wheeler wrote. “Treating substance use through a public health lens and addressing underlying reasons that people turn to substances — like housing insecurity and lack of healthcare — is a more effective approach.”

Zondervan said he agrees it is important to address addiction through treatment rather than incarceration.

“Ultimately, it was a matter of racial justice,” Zondervan said. “Dismantle the war on drugs, and get people the treatment that they deserve, and stop criminalizing adults using substances.”

— Staff writer Brandon L. Kingdollar can be reached at brandon.kingdollar@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newskingdollar.

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