Noel Gallo, a member of the Oakland City Council, grew up in Mexico where his grandmother was a healer — and where using hallucinogenic plants wasn’t so unusual. 

In this Friday, May 24, 2019 photo a vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis marketplace in Los Angeles. Oakland City Council will vote Tuesday, June 4, 2019, to decriminalize the possession and use of entheogenic, or psychoactive, plants and fungi.

In this Friday, May 24, 2019 photo a vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis marketplace in Los Angeles. Oakland City Council will vote Tuesday, June 4, 2019, to decriminalize the possession and use of entheogenic, or psychoactive, plants and fungi.

Richard Vogel/AP

“We called them ‘yerba buena.’ That’s good plants,” he said.

As a city council member, Gallo championed the idea of decriminalizing native plants such as hallucinogenic mushrooms and cacti.

When he was a kid, he remembers them being used for everything from treating the flu to reducing anxiety. He said he even has a nephew, injured in Iraq, who used them to dig himself out of a depression.

Gallo said those experiences convinced him that decriminalizing entheogenic plants, is a good idea. And he thinks there are all kinds of parallels with cannabis — including the potential for psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called “magic mushrooms,” to be an economic boon. 

“I walked into a [cannabis] dispensary the other day, and they already had the products,” he said.

Next year, Oregonians will likely vote on a statewide ballot measure to legalize the use of psilocybin, and places such as Oakland can serve as an example of how things might go if it passes. 

Beaverton therapist Tom Eckert prepares to collect signatures to legalize psilocybin

Beaverton therapist Tom Eckert prepares to collect signatures to legalize psilocybin

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Gallo is now talking to a state college in California about producing better information for the public. He also said he’s working to decriminalize entheogenic plants in Alameda County and California as a whole.

“We have other greater crime issues in the City of Oakland than to be focusing on entheogenic plants,” he said.

Halfway across the country in Denver, psilocybin has been decriminalized for about a month. (Decriminalizing isn’t the same as legalizing; it’s essentially telling the police to make offenses related to a certain drug their lowest possible priority.)

A spokesman with the Denver Police Department declined to be interviewed on tape but said they’ve made no psilocybin-related arrests in the last month. Before the vote, the department arrested about 50 people a year on psilocybin offenses.

In Brazil, the sale and use of psilocybin have long been widespread. Henry Montalto is a journalist there, at the English-language newspaper in Rio de Janeiro. He says psilocybin doesn’t result in the kind of wild, extreme behavior people who don’t know much about hallucinogenic mushrooms might expect. 

“No, we do not see that here in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, anywhere. The most likely time for that to happen would be during the Carnival time … when somebody’s drunk,” he said. 

Mushrooms are sometimes used in spiritual gatherings, he said, and tend to be controlled by a shaman and involve people seeking enlightenment by taking psilocybin.

“People who do these mushrooms or these experiences will be in a type of compound establishment in Brazil; it would be a large area with a field, a few houses and they would be accompanied by some person,” he said. 

He said Brazil never really had a problem with hallucinogenic mushrooms because they grow everywhere — so there’s not a lot of money to be made through cultivation or dealing.

“Very few people purchase the drug online, so it does not lead to anyone talking about a drug war or people buying drugs from a drug dealer,” said Montalto.

He said people also don’t tend to abuse psilocybin like alcohol or other drugs.

“For someone to abuse something, it needs to be relatively accessible. Although we have mushrooms here in nature, you’re still going to have to leave your house, go to the forest, go to the farm, maybe dry these mushrooms. It’s not an easy process to abuse such a drug,” Montalto said.

Tom Eckert and his wife, Sheri, are the co-sponsors of the Psilocybin Service Initiative.

Tom Eckert and his wife, Sheri, are the co-sponsors of the Psilocybin Service Initiative.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Back in the United States, Kevin Sabet, the former drug policy advisor for the Obama administration, thinks legalization or decriminalization needs to be approached with deep caution. He said the efficacy of any type of medicine should be decided by scientific research, not in a popularity contest like a vote.

In Oregon, the “Psilocybin Service Initiative” is out collecting signatures for a possible ballot measure in 2020. It has paid for some polling: This winter, DHM Research showed 600 voters the ballot title, without explanation — 47% percent said they’d vote yes while 46% said they’d vote no.

Conventional wisdom dictates that’s not good for the measure, assuming it makes the ballot because it’s generally harder to convince people of the need for change than to stick with the status quo.