🫠 Psychonaut POV

[6-min read] Q&A with Larry Norris, Activist & Founder

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Larry Norris believes entheogenic plants and fungi have a lot to teach us, and everyone should be able to use them freely. That’s why he co-founded Decriminalize Nature, the leading non-profit advancing psychedelic policy reform across the US.

Over this conversation, Larry schooled us on the downsides of medicalization, what people get wrong about the decrim movement, and his master plan to shift the global narrative from the ground up.

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Larry Norris Psychonaut POV

Q&A with Larry Norris, Activist & Founder

Can you explain the difference between decriminalization, legalization, and medicalization of psychedelics? Why are you focused on decriminalization?

First, we have to acknowledge that the distinctions between decriminalization, legalization, and medicalization are rooted in the Controlled Substances Act. If these laws didn't exist, we wouldn't be having this conversation. We don't need to legalize natural elements like air, sunlight, or water.

The Controlled Substances Act established criteria for Schedule 1 substances, labeling them as having no medical value. The paradox is that these substances were made illegal with no scientific basis, as the act was politically motivated from the beginning. Proving medical value is now necessary to reschedule them, which essentially means handing them over to the pharmaceutical industry.

Medicalization has its challenges, such as high costs, the regulatory review process, and the question of whether humans can recreate the divine essence found in sacred plants and fungi. FDA approval hinges on synthesizing or extracting discrete molecules, and the entourage effect and broader chemical composition of plants and mushrooms make matters even more complex. The medical system doesn't know what to do with spiritual or sacred experiences, either, as it tends to prioritize only what can be measured. Even if it is “successful,” medical approval only reschedules substances, which continues to restrict access, often limiting it to authorized individuals. These regulated approaches can be prohibitively expensive, as seen in Australia.

Oregon’s legalization model sits outside the medical framework, but it's still heavily regulated and cost prohibitive, with current price projections of $3,500 or more per session. It's also ironic that in Oregon, a Mazatec lineage holder with decades of experience in mushroom ceremonies couldn't legally provide those experiences without paying a significant fee to the Oregon Health Authority and receiving training through the state.

Decriminalization, on the other hand, offers greater openness. It allows for medicalization, legalization, and religious practices. It ensures equal treatment and prevents those with permits from using law enforcement against those without. It allows individuals to cultivate and share entheogens within a community-based and ceremonial context, embracing personal experiences without penalties. It also facilitates the participation of indigenous practitioners, removing the burden of obtaining expensive licenses.

Ultimately, decriminalization aims to revert to the pre-1970 era before the Controlled Substances Act, making entheogens accessible to all without fear of criminal consequences. We believe decriminalization has to come first, or everything else falls apart.

What are your opponents' strongest counter arguments, and how do you respond to their concerns?

People often argue that we need strict regulations because some individuals might take advantage of the situation and act unethically. But that perspective stems from a scarcity mindset. If we embrace decriminalization at the local level and keep everyone involved in the conversation, there will be an abundance of people who genuinely want to do this work. The people doing great work will succeed, while the bad actors will naturally fade away. So let’s focus on creating more opportunities for responsible engagement.

As far as professional supervision, we don't necessarily need a complex system of therapists and guides. If you're going deep into the experience, having a friend in the other room is often sufficient. Instead, I emphasize the importance of integration work afterward. That's when we can discuss and unpack what happened in a supportive way.

Another concern raised by opponents is the idea that pharmaceutical companies need to synthesize substances for sustainability. They argue that decriminalization would lead to the destruction of nature. I say the focus should be on working with nature, not against it. We shouldn't overlook the fact that our disconnection from nature can be a significant cause of depression and other issues. We just want these tools to be available for those who choose to use them, without forcing them on anyone for the sake of market share.

Lastly, opponents sometimes raise concerns about public health and safety. However, in places where decriminalization has been implemented, there haven't been any significant increases in public health issues or criminality. Studies have shown that mushrooms, in particular, have a low risk to public, individual, and community health.

Instead of fearing and isolating individuals who may be having challenging experiences, imagine a scenario where someone can approach a police officer and honestly say, "I'm having a mushroom experience, and I'm really scared right now." This would change the conversation entirely, allowing for support from trip sitters, professionals, or even friends better equipped to help. It eliminates the need for law enforcement to be responsible for extended periods, and it creates a more open and honest dialogue around these experiences.

What progress has Decriminalize Nature made in its advocacy efforts so far? Are there any upcoming initiatives that you're especially excited about?

We’ve made significant progress on the practical and narrative levels, both of which matter. By focusing on empowering individuals and shifting the narrative, we have successfully advocated for equitable access, indigenous rights, and the right to have a personal relationship with nature.

On the practical side, we’ve been actively engaged with approximately 40 to 50 cities, educating communities and building local support structures. This grassroots approach is crucial in creating a foundation for community healing. So far, 17 cities/counties have passed decriminalization policies across the US, with many of them having unanimous approval. Notable city-level ballot initiative wins include Washington DC with a 76% voter approval and Detroit with 61% support.

Looking ahead, Decriminalize Nature is excited about upcoming initiatives at the statewide level. However, we must be aware that statewide legislation can be challenging due to potential edits by elected officials along the way, which can result in laws that look very different from what was originally proposed. While ballot initiatives avoid the possibility of politician edits, they are very costly and time consuming. Despite these hurdles, we recognize the significance in creating broader change at the state and federal levels. We also plan to continue our work at the city level, as it empowers local entheogenic communities, provides them a seat at the table, and allows for the development of local infrastructure. And ultimately, our vision is to see the Controlled Substances act abolished or, at the very least, plants and mushrooms removed from it on the federal level.

Can you share any personal experiences you've had with entheogens that have informed your advocacy work?

My exploration with psychedelics began while I was studying neuroscience at the University of Michigan back in 1996. Those early experiences led to a major shift in my worldview. I questioned why my ‘rigorous’ academic studies didn't touch upon the mystical or sacred aspects of my direct experience, and what else we didn’t know about the nature of reality. It also made me reflect on how easy it is for authoritarianism to take hold when we don't realize our connection to a greater consciousness.

Later on, my experiences with ayahuasca had an even more profound impact. My first cup opened my eyes to the concept of a plant teacher or spirit guide with consciousness of its own. I conducted my dissertation research on ayahuasca and the archetypes of transformation that emerged from it, focusing on integration and the meaning-making process.

In 2011, I co-created an organization called Entheogenic Research Integration Education (ERIE), which offers education and integration support, so that people could find meaning in their experiences. Through that work, I realized that integration is only part of the equation. Implementation is equally important — taking the insights gained and applying them in a way that benefits society, culture, and the community. This led to the idea of engaging in the political process. Decriminalization became a next step as we recognized its potential to empower individuals and shift the conditions surrounding consciousness.

One beautiful aspect of this work is that it not only focuses on decriminalizing entheogenic plants and fungi but also encourages individuals to actively participate in the political process instead of remaining apathetic. People are recognizing that it’s our responsibility to protect consciousness from being exploited for profit. Our collective experiences have led us to engage in advocacy and work towards meaningful change.

How do you envision the future of psychedelics in the US and around the world? What role do you see Decriminalize Nature playing in that future?

I believe that addressing US drug policy, specifically the Controlled Substance Act, will have significant worldwide implications. By challenging and dismantling the US approach to drug policy, we can inspire other countries to reconsider their own policies and not be constrained by the US imperial example. This would create a ripple effect and plant the seeds for a global shift in perspectives on psychedelics.

Aside from policy reform, we need to foster cultural change and education around entheogens. I envision a future where people understand the power of these plants and fungi for self-discovery, personal and spiritual growth, and many other non-clinical uses. It would be incredible to see entheogenic education integrated into learning institutions, where students could explore consciousness in a supportive environment.

While addressing the mental health crisis is important, it's just the beginning. Psychedelics offer the potential to upend our understanding of mental illness, as well as consciousness, spirituality, the nature of reality, and even how we view the process of death and dying. By delving deeper into these profound questions, we can uncover new insights about the universe around us and within.

I'm excited about the possibilities that lie ahead. There is still so much to discover, discuss, and learn from these plants and fungi that are so ubiquitous in nature. They hold immense wisdom and mysteries waiting to be unraveled.

Ready to get involved in the Decriminalize Nature movement? Learn how you can contribute, donate to the cause, or sign up for their newsletter to stay in the loop.

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DISCLAIMER: This newsletter is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. The use, possession, and distribution of psychedelic drugs are illegal in most countries and may result in criminal prosecution.

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