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The use of psilocybin is on the ballot again for many Oregon voters

woman with eyeshades laying down
Photo by Noah Camuso/Jefferson Public Radio
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A client demonstrates what the psilocybin process would look like at Buckhorn Springs Resort in Ashland this summer.

Oregonians voted to legalize the use of the psychedelic drug psilocybin in supervised facilities in 2020. But 27 of the state’s 36 counties now have the issue on their ballots again. The vote will have implications for residents seeking treatment across the Pacific Northwest.

In the spring, Christopher Maddox flew to Mexico to get help. The former Navy SEAL had been suffering from PTSD and substance use disorder for years. At one point, he was on 13 medications. He tried a variety of therapies, but none of them worked.

"It still didn’t really fix the root cause. And the root cause was I hated myself, and I was helpless. I didn’t think there was any way out of it," he said.

Christopher Maddox
Courtesy of Christopher Maddox
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Former Navy SEAL Christopher Maddox credits psilocybin with greatly improving his mental health.

A friend connected him with a treatment center in Mexico that doe psilocybin therapy. In April, he flew south for a five-day retreat that included taking seven ounces of the psychedelic mushrooms under the oversight of a coach. He said it was life changing.

"It allowed me to see everything that I had experienced through my life, everything that had happened to me, everything that I had done to others, all the good, all the bad, all the in-between. And it just allowed me to start processing it," he said.

Maddox did another journey in August. He credits psilocybin with the fact that he’s now sober and off all his medications. He’s doing well, living in Redmond, OR, and working at an assisted living facility.

"Going to sleep peacefully and looking forward to the next day when two years ago, I couldn’t see past the next year. I’m looking forward to the rest of my life now," he said.

In 2020, Oregon legalized psilocybin, the first state in the country to do so, by ballot initiative. The Oregon Health Authority is working on guidelines regulating the manufacturing and sale of psilocybin products as well as the provision of psilocybin services. It will begin accepting applications for service center licenses on January 2. The FDA has called psilocybin a breakthrough therapy for treating severe depression.

Still, psilocybin has become hotly-contested across the state. Some counties that voted for it in 2020 are now voting on it again, like Clackamas, Tillamook, and Deschutes. It's not on the ballot in Oregon's largest cities: Portland, Salem, Eugene, or Bend. But aside from pockets in the northwestern part of Oregon, psilocybin is on the ballot in 27 of the state’s 36 counties.

Opponents are worried the industry will lead to illegal activity, similar to what’s happened in the cannabis industry, which has led to concerns over human trafficking, illegal water use, and widespread illegal grows.

Others would like to wait to develop more specific guidelines.

Central Point resident Susan Rachor spoke during a Jackson County Board of Commissioners meeting in July.

"There are already many medications available for patients who suffer from depression and anxiety and addiction, and I don’t think we need to add another product to our valley for the law enforcement to deal with. I do feel like there is another way for us to deal with these issues," she said.

Rose Moulin-Franco
Photo by Noah Camuso/Jefferson Public Radio
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Rose Moulin-Franco speaks at an event this summer at Buckhorn Springs Resort in Ashland, which hopes to host psychedelic retreats.

Some towns in Oregon will allow the use of psilocybin. But with so many cities and counties voting on the issue in November, it could lead to bans across large portions of the state. The decision would have implications both for potential business owners and for those seeking treatment, in Oregon as well as in Washington and California, where it’s illegal. Psilocybin has been decriminalized in Santa Cruz, Oakland, Arcata, and San Francisco.

Rose Moulin-Franco hopes to open a treatment center in Oregon, which would focus on neuro-wellness – an alternative, holistic approach to mental health – and include psilocybin retreats.

"We have a lot of mental health concerns here and very limited resources, and we have a lot of veterans who are not really getting the treatment they deserve," she said.

In a recent report from Mental Health America, Oregon ranked 46th in the country regarding prevalence of mental illness and access to care.

If a town opts into allowing psilocybin (as Ashland and Medford have) while its county opts out (as Jackson County might), the use of psilocybin would be allowed within those specific municipalities but not within the county as a whole.

Dave Dotterrer, chair of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, said that there will be adequate access for those who need it.

"We already know that this therapy is going to be available at least in Ashland and in Medford. This therapy is going to be available in Jackson County," he said.

But Moulin-Franco said the therapy should be more widely available, not just in urban locations. She said a natural setting is more therapeutic, and she worries about access issues forcing people to travel, "which is an additional burden when you’re already struggling, when you’re already feeling depleted or your trauma is so bad and you’re maybe living in a rural part of the county and you’re a veteran and you’re struggling with PTSD and you’re isolated."

With the lack of availability, many veterans fly to Mexico to receive treatment, which gets expensive. Maddox paid $5,000 for his retreat, and that was with a veteran discount and funding through his friend’s public charity.

Maddox is now in school to become an integrated life coach, like the people who helped him find his way after his own psilocybin journeys. He said he wants to help people figure out who they are and what they want, in Oregon.

"The importance of the need for the availability for it to be local is extreme. This should be in our backyard." he said.

Oregon residents will decide on November 8.

This story is part of a collaboration among public radio stations in the Northwest News Network covering the 2022 election season.