News & Politics

How the “Most Normal Person Ever” Became the Face of a Movement to Decriminalize Magic Mushrooms

"What are the moms at school going to say about this?" Melissa Lavasani remembers thinking.

Lavasani with her husband, Daniel Conner, and children Ramsey and Lola.

Melissa Lavasani hesitated last December as she prepared to submit the paperwork for a ballot initiative that would decriminalize natural psychedelics like magic mushrooms, mescaline, and ayahuasca. “What are the moms at school going to say about this?” she remembers thinking. 

Lavasani’s neighbors in the H Street, Northeast, neighborhood were likely to know her as the budget officer for the DC Department of Energy & Environment, or perhaps as the mother of two young neighborhood kids. What few knew at the time, though, is that Lavasani felt that substances many people think of as recreational drugs might have saved her life.

Lavasani’s transformation into an advocate for drug-law reform began with a difficult second pregnancy in 2017. She developed sciatica and chronic pain so intense that she often crawled up the stairs at night to go to bed. Things got even worse after she delivered a healthy baby and was hit with anxiety, severe depression, panic attacks, and suicidal ideation. A doctor prescribed antidepressants but, wary of the difficulties friends had encountered in finding the right medication, she decided to try talk therapy first. It was expensive, and it didn’t help enough: “It just got to a point where it was very clear that if something didn’t change, I was going to take my life,” she says. 

Salvation arrived in the form of a friend’s recommendation to listen to an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience that featured the mycologist Paul Stamets speaking about the benefits of psilocybin mushrooms on mental health. This was not advice Lavasani, who holds two graduate degrees, normally would have followed—”I assumed people that took psychedelics were people that were trying to escape their reality, that couldn’t deal with adulthood,” she says—but these weren’t normal circumstances. She ordered spores over the internet and tried to grow them at home using advice from online forums. That wasn’t easy, she says, and she was extremely worried about using illegal drugs. But after a few days of “microdosing,” she began to feel normal again. Another friend recommended she visit an ayahuasca healer, which she tried in early 2019 “against every good instinct I had.” After a few sessions,  she says, “it was like I was I turned out to be not only back to myself, but almost like a better version of myself.”

After learning of  a campaign to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in Denver (which squeaked through last year), Lavasani began to wonder whether such an initiative could pass in DC as well. She and her husband, Daniel Conner, met with Kevin Matthews, an organizer of the Colorado initiative, who connected her with David Bronner, the top executive at Dr. Bronner’s soap company, who has put substantial resources behind decriminalization and legalization efforts and had been interested in working on a campaign in DC.

That led to Lavasani and her husband hooking up with Adam Eidinger, a veteran advocate who had been instrumental in getting cannabis legalized in the District with Initiative 71 in 2014. Lavasani was interested in potentially contributing to the campaign or playing a background role, but after a dinner in November 2019, Eidinger worked to convince her that she would be an effective face of be psychedelic reform in DC. Eventually, she agreed: “This kind of controversial topic has to come from the most normal of people,” she explains.

The measure, Initiative 81, was worded very carefully and conservatively. (“Yeah, we’re pretty limited on what we can do in the District,” Lavasani says.) It doesn’t call for legalization of entheogenic plants and fungi; it asks that the DC police make psychedelic-related arrests among its arrests because of them among its “lowest law enforcement priorities” and that DC’s Attorney General and the US Attorney for DC cease prosecution of people accused of drug offenses involving these substances. DCs Metropolitan Police Department did not respond to a query about how many people are arrested and accused of drug offenses involving psychedelics, but public data shows that marijuana arrests declined steeply between 2012 and 2019.

Almost as soon as Decriminalize Nature DC came together as an electoral force, though, the pandemic arrived. As part of the process of getting a question on the DC ballot, you must collect 25,000 signatures. With prompting from the campaign, the District government passed legislation in May that made it easier to collect signatures remotely. Decriminalize Nature DC sent out a mailer to 220,000 households that yielded thousands of signatures and, as the District began its phased reopening, set up tables outside grocery stores, knocked on doors, and solicited signatures in parks. In all, the campaign turned in more than 35,000 signatures in early July. 

Before the Board of Elections could decide whether the campaign had fulfilled the requirements to get its issue on the ballot this November, an old foe of DC self-determination reappeared: US Representative Andy Harris, a Republican from Maryland who had previously hobbled the marijuana-legalization initiative with a budget rider. Harris threatened to force a vote in the House Appropriations Committee on another budget rider to prevent the District from including I-81 on the ballot.

Unlike in 2014, though, Harris is now a member of the House’s minority party. While it was never clear he could actually thwart the legislation, the publicity his threat received may have unintentionally contributed to growing Democratic sentiment toward statehood for the District. DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton framed his interference as meddling with DC’s right to self-government, and voting members of the Congress apparently viewed it similarly. Harris withdrew his amendment in mid-July.

Lavasani notes with some frustration that Congressional Republicans tended to speak about psychedelics as a way to party rather than as a therapeutic tool. (Psilocybin in particular has shown some promise in research about treatment-resistant depression). That actually matches with some of the feedback Decriminalize Nature DC has received about the initiative, she says: “The idea that this is just some white kids that want to party with this stuff.” Ayahuasca in particular, she says, can be an extremely not-fun experience. “It’s emotionally painful, it’s physically painful, but afterwards the healing that you have experienced and continue to experience after the ceremony is really astounding.”

Now that the issue is before the Board of Elections, she says her group will prioritize educating the public about the substances it hopes to decriminalize. Among residents of DC’s predominately Black areas in particular, she says there’s a tendency to conflate psychedelics with PCP, which although mind-altering is not a psychedelic and has had many deleterious effects in DC.

Lavasani says she’s confident Initiative 81 will appear on the ballot and that her group’s goal is to pass the initiative with overwhelming support–it’s shooting for 70 percent. (Initiative 71 passed with almost 65 percent support in 2014.) “I think we can,” she says. “We got over 36,000 signatures in the middle of a pandemic.”

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.