Pat Shannon is a restaurateur and a commissioner for Gilliam County in north Central Oregon.
He and two colleagues on the county board voted to put a ballot measure opting Gilliam County out of Oregon’s new psilocybin therapy program, in front of voters this November.
He’s also a recovering alcoholic, “I had always been a daily drinker,” he said during a recent conversation in the Condon Chamber of Commerce. “From the day I got out of high school.”
Shannon hasn’t touched a drop in 37 years; today he still attends meetings and sponsors three recovering alcoholics. So he said he tends to see things through the lens of addiction, and he’s not convinced that using psilocybin to deal with depression, anxiety, addiction or other mental health problems will work.
“I just don’t see where you’re going to get any discovery out of going on a trip of mushrooms,” Shannon said.
Measures to ban psilocybin are on the November ballot in 104 cities and 27 of Oregon’s 36 counties; that includes Gilliam County and the city of Condon. But Shannon said the issue just isn’t on people’s radars.
“Community members of Gilliam County probably don’t even understand the details of it,” he said.
Shannon said that for many people, psilocybin use is just being lumped in with Measure 110.
Oregon voters agreed in 2020 to eliminate criminal consequences for the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs, like heroin and cocaine. Instead of taking someone to jail for possession, police can now only issue a violation, like a traffic ticket, up to $100. People can avoid that fine if they’re willing to contact an addiction service.
The goal is to push people toward recovery, not the criminal justice system.
Shannon doesn’t buy it. And he sees a direct line between Measure 110, the drug decriminalization effort, and Measure 109, which voters also approved in 2020. It legalized the use of psilocybin in therapeutic settings. Regulators are now coming up with the precise policy guidelines that will govern the program, which takes effect in January.
Shannon worries psilocybin is a gateway drug, whether or not it’s addictive.
The new psilocybin therapy program doesn’t allow people to simply buy the drug and take it home, like cannabis. But Shannon thinks the program will normalize psilocybin’s use and abuse.
To be clear, the new program involves people meeting with a facilitator several times, discussing why they want to take psilocybin, and being closely monitored while they use the drug. Such a system is time consuming and likely to cost thousands rather than hundreds of dollars.
Still, most of the people this reporter talked to around Gilliam County share Shannon’s views. They say they don’t like what the legalization of cannabis has done in Oregon, and they’re not convinced psilocybin will work.
They also haven’t seen any advertising on the subject or talked to any canvassers.
“Stuff like this is really dangerous,” said Carol Phillips, a local nurse. “People are going to abuse it and then they’re going to blame a doctor or someone innocent.”
Disabled retiree Debra James said she has seen people take hallucinogenic mushrooms in the past.
“The end result is not good,” she said. “They were freaking out. Like maybe too much. They weren’t comfortable. They were upset. They were scared.”
James said she doesn’t think a facilitator would be helpful on a bad trip, whether or not they’re trained and licensed.
Such sentiments aren’t news to Sam Chapman, the executive director of the Healing Advocacy Fund, a group set up to usher psilocybin into Oregon.
“It’s not entirely surprising that certain aspects of the state are simply saying that they’re not ready to move forward with this,” Chapman said. “That’s OK. We are ready to meet anyone and everyone where they’re at, and we recognize that it takes time.”
Chapman thinks attitudes will change as the program goes live in 137 cities and 10 counties next year. He thinks people will become more accepting as they see how psilocybin helps.
Chapman also notes that there are volunteers walking door-to-door in rural areas, trying to educate people about psilocybin therapy. Maybe not so much in Gilliam County, but certainly in places like Jackson County.
That’s because in Jackson County, the big cities like Medford and Ashland are moving ahead with psilocybin while voters in the county consider an opt-out vote.
Ashland Mayor, Julie Akins, has a husband who’s a Vietnam vet. He had a stroke, became depressed and lost his sense of balance. She thinks psilocybin might help.
“If you don’t want this therapy you don’t have to get it,” Akins said. “But making it unavailable to people who need it doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Opting out will just mean sick people have to travel to get treatment, she said.
Myles Katz recently bought the Buckhorn Springs Resort in Jackson County with a view to building a psilocybin service center. He also helped organize the local Vote No on 15-203 effort to raise money and awareness of the benefits of psilocybin therapy.
“When the voters had the facts presented to them they were overwhelmingly in favor of what it can provide,” said Katz. “It’s really the absence of education that would lead them to vote against implementing psilocybin services.”
Ashland and Medford’s differences with Jackson County are mirrored in other places around Oregon. For example, Deschutes County has an opt-out measure on its ballot, while psilocybin therapy will go live in Bend next year.
Back in Gilliam County, pharmacist Anna Charapata counts pills for customers at Murray’s Pharmacy on Condon High Street. She sees psilocybin therapy differently than many locals interviewed by OPB. She thinks psilocybin therapy is a responsible way to learn about the drug.
“I’ve read about the uses in palliative care, so when people are dying,” Charapata said. “To me, that’s where the strongest evidence for any kind of medical use: is people facing their mortality.”
Whatever voters decide this election, two-and-a-half million Oregonians will have local access to psilocybin therapy next year. That covers several rural areas, including Klamath Falls and Grants Pass.