Oregon Psilocybin and Religious Practices

The Oregon Psilocybin Licensing Subcommittee meeting on February 3, 2022 dove into religions that use psilocybin, and how Oregon’s Measure 109 would protect and regulate such religions and religious practices. Rather than discussing recommendations and licensing regulations, the Subcommittee allowed two guest speakers to present on religious psychedelic practices.

Psychedelic religious practices: Pastor Bob Otis

Robert (Bob) Otis spoke first. He was the founding Chairperson of Decriminalize Nature Oakland and is a Steering Committee member of the Sacred Plant Alliance. Otis studied psychology and religion at UC Santa Cruz, and has a master’s degree in Divinity from University of Chicago.

Otis is a pastor at Sacred Garden Community, a church of spiritual healing practices. Sacred Garden Community is guided by their official vision:

“[D]iverse and healthy human cultures, enabled by sensitively listening and built through humble and harmonious actions that support healing, redemption, reconciliation, atonement, unity in diversity, compassion, peacefulness, tolerance, truth and love – ones that honor, respect and act with awareness of the sacred human connection to nature.”

His church refers to those experiencing psychedelic healing as “practitioners” rather than “clients.” Using his church as an example, Otis described how community is important for practitioners to safely experience psilocybin-based healing. New practitioners are mentored through navigation, preparation, assisted meditation and finally practice. By the time a practitioner first engages in practice, that person is already well-known by those facilitating the experience. The process of analyzing the psilocybin experience, known as integration, can be both a personal and community exercise. Guidance is always available for practitioners.

Otis explained how important diversity is for practitioners. When a person is working through their psilocybin experience, known as “integration,” the person is vulnerable and needs help processing their experience. A diverse population of facilitators will allow practitioners to connect with facilitators from similar backgrounds, who speak the same language, or from the same country of origin. Such connection builds a strong rapport and affinity, which makes the integration process more effective.

Otis suggests Oregon psilocybin services balance the frameworks of religious and secular practices. The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) is taking a secular approach to psilocybin services, as Measure 109 was not oriented toward psilocybin and religions, or psychedelic spiritual experiences. Still, Otis emphasized that the nature of such services embodies concepts such as divinity, sacredness, and spirituality. Otis suggests the OHA be open to such concepts, and not compartmentalize psilocybin services as merely secular or religious.

Otis believes psilocybin services provide an opportunity to reconnect with family traditions, taking these new divine experiences and applying them to traditional belief systems. For instance, a person from a historically Christian family can apply new meaning to spirituality through these experiences. Common experiences of divine are healing in a community space. As such, he encourages use of the word “entheogenic” to describe psilocybin services. Language that has political connotations will only cause division, which is the antithesis of spiritual healing.

Finally, Otis discussed integrating traditional healing knowledge with modern psychology research. Psilocybin may not be right for clients with neuroses; traditional healers in Mexico are careful with providing psilocybin to avoid traumatic effects. The United States lacks a culture of healing, according to Otis. Healing communities such as Sacred Garden Community provide a space for care, respect and trust. Psilocybin services can be a powerful tool to connect people and break down the divisions that have formed in society. Oregon should emphasize community, inclusion, and equity when regulating the psilocybin service industry.

Psychedelic religious practices: lawyer Jon Dennis

Jon Dennis is an entrepreneur in psychedelics, a consultant and principal at the firm Psychedelics Go, and an Oregon lawyer at Sagebrush Law. He is also the co-host of “Eyes on Oregon,” a podcast by Psychedelics Today exploring the latest developments in Oregon’s legal psilocybin landscape.

Jon Dennis sought to propose a regulatory framework for psilocybin services as they relate to religion or religious practices. He suggests a “safety” approach similar to other adult activities, such as skydiving. For instance, skydiving is an activity is open to adult participants, even though it is risky, so long as it is regulated to ensure safe practices. This approach can easily fit under religious practice protections.

Dennis stated there are three categories of psychedelic religions. First, there are established religions with a historic tradition of using psychedelics. Second, there are established religions with a “new branch or twist” that incorporate psilocybin into practices. Third, there are newly established religions using psilocybin practices. He discussed books describing psychedelic origins of Christianity, such as The Psychedelic Gospels: The Secret History of Hallucinogens in Christianity and The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name. Finally, he recognized new religions such as Psanctuary, The Divine Assembly, and Oklevueha.

He then discussed the legal history of psilocybin religious practices, with a unique history in Oregon. In 1990, two Native American employees were penalized for using peyote as part of a religious practice. The case, Oregon v. Smith, made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which held the state was allowed to regulate such activity because such regulation applied to all citizens and is thus constitutional.

The decision sparked a nationwide discussion leading to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The Act passed overwhelmingly in Congress, giving robust federal protections for religious practices. Under RFRA, the government must cite a “compelling government interest” in order to burden a religious practice, and even then, must use the “least restrictive means” in doing so.

Dennis applied this background to the language of Measure 109. There are several clear restrictions provided in the statute which Dennis calls “non-negotiables”:

  1. There must be at least one facilitator present, who must not take psilocybin during the administration session;
  2. Facilitation must be non-directive;
  3. Administration must take place at a licensed facility;
  4. Psilocybin must be cultivated indoors;
  5. Only psilocybin may be used for administration;
  6. Psilocybin must be sold, and not gifted; and
  7. There are mandatory client forms and integration session options.

Dennis states these restrictions limit religious practices more than federal regulations. Still Measure 109 is the best option currently available for psilocybin-based religions. Other options include practicing “underground,” suing the government, or practicing in another country. Dennis acknowledged an option exists to receive approval from the DEA by petitioning the agency to allow practices with controlled substances. However, as we have explained on this blog the DEA has never given such approval.

Operating under Measure 109 would give religious communities peace of mind, as well as provide accountability and safety for psilocybin practices. Dennis posited the regulatory framework must allow for a broad range of religious practices and avoid interferences that may disrupt the sacred nature of psilocybin practices. For instance, even growing psilocybin mushrooms is seen as a sacred practice, and is inherently different than preparing other medicines like ibuprofen.

He analogized such interference to the story of Maria Sabina. She was a Mazatec healer whose psilocybin practices became widely known in 1955. Soon after, thousands of tourists from around the world flooded her community seeking her psilocybin healing. It had a detrimental effect on the community, and Sabina stated the healing practices were no longer effective due to the interference.

Dennis finished by explaining Measure 109 as a great opportunity for a partnership between OHA and psilocybin-based religions and Entheogenic Practitioners. The religions would no longer have to operate underground, which would reduce harm and allow OHA to ensure safety and accountability. Oregon as a whole would benefit from small healing communities, providing shelter from current social divides.

Anyone interested in exploring these topics and presentations further can find the February 3 recording of the guest speakers here, as well as presentation materials from Jon Dennis.

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Oregon, Psilocybin