Pat Shannon is a restaurateur and commissioner from Gilliam County in north-central Oregon.
He and two county council colleagues voted to put a ballot measure removing Gilliam County from Oregon’s new psilocybin therapy program, before voters in November.
He’s also a recovering alcoholic, “I’ve always been a daily drinker,” he said in a recent conversation at the Condon Chamber of Commerce. “Since 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 prism of addiction, and he’s not convinced that using psilocybin to treat depression, anxiety, addiction or other mental health issues would work.
“I just don’t see where you’re going to make a discovery by going on a mushroom trip,” Shannon said.
Measures to ban psilocybin are on the November ballot in 104 cities and 27 of Oregon’s 36 counties; which includes the county of Gilliam and the town of Condon. But Shannon said the issue just wasn’t on people’s radars.
“Community members in Gilliam County probably don’t even understand the details of it,” he said.
Shannon said that for many people, psilocybin use is simply lumped in with measure 110.
Oregon voters agreed in 2020 to eliminate criminal consequences for possessing small amounts of illicit drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. Instead of taking someone to jail for possession, police can now only issue an offence, such as a traffic ticket, up to $100. People can avoid this fine if they are willing to contact an addiction service.
The goal is to push people towards recovery, not towards the criminal justice system.
Shannon doesn’t buy it. And he sees a direct line between Measure 110, the effort to decriminalize drugs, and Measure 109, which voters also approved in 2020. It legalized the use of psilocybin in therapeutic settings. Regulators are now drawing up the precise policy guidelines that will govern the program, which will come into effect in January.
Shannon worries that psilocybin is a gateway drug, whether or not it’s addictive.
The new psilocybin therapy program does not allow people to simply buy the drug and take it home, like cannabis. But Shannon believes the program will normalize psilocybin use and abuse.
To be clear, the new program involves people meeting with a facilitator multiple times, discussing their reasons for wanting to take psilocybin, and being closely monitored while using the drug. Such a system is time consuming and will likely cost thousands rather than hundreds of dollars.
Still, most people this reporter spoke to in Gilliam County shared Shannon’s views. They say they don’t like what cannabis legalization has done in Oregon, and they’re not convinced psilocybin will work.
They also did not see any advertisements on the subject or speak to any canvassers.
“Stuff like that 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 use magic mushrooms.
“The end result is not good,” she said. “They were panicking. 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 feelings are nothing new to Sam Chapman, the executive director of the Healing Advocacy Fund, a group created to bring psilocybin to Oregon.
“It’s not entirely surprising that some aspects of the state are just saying they’re not ready to move forward with this,” Chapman said. “It’s okay. We are ready to meet anyone and anyone where they are, and we recognize that it takes time.
Chapman thinks attitudes will change when the program goes live in 137 cities and 10 counties next year. He thinks people will become more tolerant seeing how psilocybin helps.
Chapman also notes that there are volunteers who go door to door in rural areas, trying to educate people about psilocybin therapy. Maybe not so much in Gilliam County, but definitely in places like Jackson County.
That’s because in Jackson County, major cities like Medford and Ashland are pushing ahead with psilocybin as county voters consider a no-vote vote.
Ashland Mayor Julie Akins has a husband who is a veterinarian in Vietnam. 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 sense to me.”
Pulling out will just mean sick people will have to travel for treatment, she said.
Myles Katz recently purchased the Buckhorn Springs Resort in Jackson County with a view to building a psilocybin service center. He also helped organize the local effort Vote No on 15-203 to raise funds and awareness of the benefits of psilocybin therapy.
“When voters were presented with the facts, they were overwhelmingly in favor of what it could bring them,” Katz said. “It’s really the lack of education that would cause them to vote against setting up psilocybin services.”
Ashland and Medford’s differences from Jackson County are mirrored in other places in 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 views psilocybin therapy differently than most locals interviewed by the OPB. She thinks psilocybin therapy is a responsible way to learn more about the drug.
“I’ve read about uses in palliative care, so when people die,” Charapata said. “To me, that’s where the strongest evidence of any kind of medical use is: it’s the people facing their mortality.”
Regardless of what voters decide in this election, two and a half million Oregonians will have local access to psilocybin therapy next year. This covers several rural areas, including Klamath Falls and Grants Pass.