Advocacy campaign turns Amherst councilors skittish on psychedelic plant resolution

  • A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles on Monday, May 6, 2019. AP PHOTO/RICHARD VOGEL

Staff Writer
Published: 6/16/2022 6:10:55 PM

AMHERST — In its push to convince the Amherst Town Council to adopt a resolution proclaiming support for decriminalizing psychedelic plant medicine, activists sent dozens of emails to councilors and news media outlets, many on behalf of those who signed a petition.

But whether those who put their names on the petition were aware that their names would later be attached to advocacy letters, including letters to the editor, is unclear. The question was a concern for some on the Town Council, which this week sent the resolution back to committee.

The decision to have the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee resume examination of the resolution means that its contents, such as stating that plant medicines are not harmful or addictive drugs, that arrests and other punishments for possession are a poor use of resources, and that law enforcement should deprioritize arrests and the state should decriminalize their possession, are not yet adopted by the Town Council.

Plant-based intoxicants include psilocybin, certain cacti, ayahuasca and ibogaine.

District 3 Councilor Jennifer Taub said her worry surfaced when she wrote back to a constituent who told her that she hadn’t signed the letter councilors received, and didn’t understand that an email would be sent using her name from a program called Action Network.

“I don’t know, and she didn’t know, if there was something in the fine print of the petition authorizing those that were collecting the signatures to send an email to the council under their name,” Taub said.

The legitimacy of such an approach was also broached by District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, who said she was not positive that all emails she had received came from genuine constituents. “I’m a little bit worried,” Schoen said.

“(Cathy) was concerned about that, and I’m concerned about that,” Taub said.

District 1 Councilor Michele Miller, who worked with groups that included the Bay Staters for Natural Medicine and the Multidisciplinary Psychedelic Club at the University of Massachusetts on the resolution, said the Action Network system is a modern approach that likely was not illegal.

“It gives them authority to put their name on a template letter,” Miller said. “That is a system maybe we’re not familiar with, but it’s a system that works pretty well, so long as it’s ethically and morally sound.”

Miller said that advocacy was irrelevant to the resolution on decriminalizing psychedelic plants.

‘Overwhelming support’

The form letters come in a different versions, with ones to councilors often beginning, “As your constituent in Amherst, I strongly urge you to vote yes” and those to the newspaper starting with, “I am reaching out to urge fair coverage.”

James Davis, a lead volunteer and legislative organizer for the Bay Staters group, said the slew of letters demonstrates just how widespread support is from those who are endorsing the resolution, and a newspaper’s readers should understand this, just like the councilors do.

“There is overwhelming support for the measure, and even before we added Daily Hampshire (Gazette) to the tool, we had hundreds of supporters emailing the Town Council,” Davis said.

Part of this plan also developed from frustration with those who have stood in the way.

“We are just very tired of a very small minority of town councilors trying to block this initiative because they refused to meet with the police, doctors, and other specialists on our team who share extremely quality information about the measure, too,” Davis said.

The council’s discussion Monday led to not adopting the resolution and instead referring the matter back to the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee.

District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis said she didn’t like the tone of some emails from those who told her she failed because she didn’t respond to them, and that the matter was less a resolution and more a push to create a new policy.

The tactics, District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said, feel like the council is being pushed too fast to do something.

Similarly, At Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said he worried that the resolution would be sending a message that will have real consequences, and there were outstanding questions centered around trying to influence UMass and the colleges.

“This is really an unusual resolution. I don’t remember any resolution ever coming to Town Meeting or the council that has had this kind of directive to it,” Steinberg said. “It makes me nervous, if nothing else, and I’m just not comfortable.”

District 4 Councilor Pamela Rooney, who was one of the sponsors, said it is not a policy matter.

“We are supporting and affirming to the police department, and all other departments in town, that we would rather have this a public health discussion than a penalizing discussion,” Rooney said.

District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne said she wants to be careful in the language. “What we say as a council has an impact,” Bahl-Milne said.

A nixed referral would have had the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service and Board of Health, along with police and others, review and examine the resolution. “Is this how we want to spend our town resources?” said Council President Lynn Griesemer.

Schoen said the resolution could be simplified by calling for legislation in the spirit of decriminalization.

“Turning it into a major project does not make sense to me,” Schoen said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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