Jul. 11—Jackson County voters may decide in November whether they want to ban psychedelic mushroom businesses.
Jackson County Commissioners will hold a public hearing about the potential ban at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Jackson County Courthouse Auditorium, 10 S. Oakdale Avenue, Medford.
In 2020, 55.75% of Oregon voters approved the growing and therapeutic use of psilocybin mushrooms, commonly known as magic mushrooms. Jackson County voters approved psilocybin mushrooms by a narrower margin, with 51.19% in favor.
Growing and using psilocybin mushrooms will become legal in January 2023, giving the Oregon Health Authority time to create regulations and a licensing process for growers and treatment providers. The mushrooms must be consumed under the supervision of a licensed provider.
Measure 109, the mushroom ballot measure, allows counties and cities to opt out by putting the issue before voters.
Jackson County Commissioners may put a ban on the ballot. All voters in the county could weigh in, but the ban would affect only unincorporated parts of the county.
Cities would have to put bans before their own voters.
Central Point City Council will consider a mushroom ban at its meeting Thursday, July 14.
Josephine County also is preparing to put a psilocybin mushroom ban before voters this November. A slim majority of Josephine County voters voted against Measure 109.
Josephine County may divide a potential ban into two parts, with voters able to choose whether to block grow sites and whether to ban sites that dispense psilocybin.
If psilocybin mushrooms become legal in Jackson County, no one knows exactly how the growth of the new industry would play out. Police predict more black market criminal activity and enforcement headaches, while proponents say a psilocybin industry would create jobs and help patients with depression, anxiety, end-of-life fears and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"We don't know exactly how this will impact the county and people in the county until it's actually here," said Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer. "I want to allow citizens to do their own research and decide for themselves if they want this in their community."
Dyer said he'll be educating himself about psilocybin mushrooms and hopes voters will do the same. Major unknowns include where people would grow the mushrooms and how big their operations would be.
Dyer said Jackson County has a good climate for growing marijuana, but he doesn't know whether the county has any advantages when it comes to growing psilocybin mushrooms.
Southern Oregon has become a major hub for legal and illegal marijuana grows ever since state voters legalized marijuana and Congress legalized hemp, marijuana's non-intoxicating, lookalike cousin.
The proliferation of illegal marijuana grows has led to intimidation of neighbors, burglary, assault, murder, worker exploitation, water theft, garbage, environmental damage and trafficking of pot to states where it remains illegal.
Adding to the pressure, in 2010 state voters passed Measure 110, which essentially decriminalized possession of user amounts of drugs such as heroin, meth and cocaine.
"We certainly have had our challenges with legalizing recreational marijuana and further legalizing otherwise illegal drugs under Measure 110," said Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts.
She said she supports referring a psilocybin mushroom ban to voters.
"If the voters reject the proposed measure in November to prohibit the legalization of psilocybin mushrooms in the unincorporated areas of Jackson County, then it would be the voice of our county citizens choosing to legalize them under Measure 109, and I will honor their vote," Roberts said.
Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said legalizing psilocybin mushrooms locally would create more problems for law enforcement and addiction treatment providers, who already are underfunded and struggling to keep up amid Oregon's increasingly lax laws on drugs.
"We're not ready to embark on this in Oregon. We're already not able to handle marijuana and Measure 110 issues. We have too much going on to make even an honest attempt at this," Sickler said.
He said he supports county commissioners putting a psilocybin ban before voters.
"I'm hoping voters will say, 'We don't want this in our county. Take this somewhere else.' I'm not in favor of psilocybin. Hopefully it will go before voters, and they'll decide they don't want any more issues with the cultivation of drugs in our county," Sickler said.
Being able to grow psilocybin legally in Oregon will attract criminals who want to grow and sell it illegally on the black market, he said.
Oregon voters have legalized psilocybin only for therapeutic use in a supervised setting. Sickler noted marijuana was first legalized for medicinal use in the state, then voters expanded that to recreational use.
"We can look back and always learn things from history. That's how marijuana started — with the medical marijuana program," he said. "We've always had issues with people operating outside the rules and laws. When you open the doors, how you approach law enforcement gets more convoluted. It creates a gray area. You create a lot of challenges for law enforcement and the community."
Oregon is the first state in the nation to legalize psilocybin mushrooms.
Hoping to grow
At Miracle Mushroom Farm in Medford, Thomas Stahly grows fungi such as oyster mushrooms for food and lion's mane mushrooms, which studies show could stimulate the growth of brain cells and help protect against memory loss.
Stahly wants to grow psilocybin mushrooms. He said he's seen them relieve depression in cancer patients.
"I'm against a ban. Psilocybin mushrooms could be like marijuana, which was a big industry boost. Growing mushrooms could provide income and jobs," he said.
Stahly said growing psilocybin mushrooms doesn't create the same odor associated with large-scale edible mushroom farms.
Button mushrooms — commonly found in grocery stores and popular as pizza toppings — are grown in horse or chicken manure. The growth of bacteria in the manure compost generates sulfur, creating a powerful odor of manure and rotting eggs. Across the nation, neighbors of mushroom farms say the stench destroys their quality of life.
Stahly said psilocybin mushrooms usually are grown in a mixture of grain, coconut husks and vermiculite. A mica-like mineral used in gardening and farming, vermiculite helps aerate soil while retaining water and nutrients.
Stahly said the grain has to be pressure-cooked for sterilization. That creates a smell that can fill a home or building, but he said it's not a pungent odor that spreads throughout a community.
Odor became a major issue as marijuana and hemp grows spread throughout Jackson County. People unfamiliar with the plants were surprised by their skunklike odor. Some adults and kids who lived, worked and went to school next to grows reported headaches and nausea.
Stahly said he doesn't foresee Jackson County becoming a hotspot for growing psilocybin mushrooms. He said all of western Oregon is hospitable for the indoor, climate-controlled growing of the mushrooms. Moderate temperatures in western Oregon help dampen heating and air conditioning bills.
Stahly said illegally grown psilocybin mushrooms often are raised in plastic tubs inside people's houses. He doesn't know yet what regulations the state will adopt, and whether legal grows will be small or large-scale.
"The whole mushroom community is interested in how people would go about it," he said.
Stahly said he doesn't think there will be an explosion of black market psilocybin mushrooms. He said people have a natural fear of mushrooms and will want to know the product is coming from a licensed, reputable source. A black market dealer could accidentally poison someone with the wrong species of mushroom.
Jyoti Ma, the owner of Nexus Center for Consciousness, is helping to organize the nascent psilocybin industry in Southern Oregon. The group includes advocates for veterans and terminally ill people. She's been involved in addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder treatment for years and hopes to offer psilocybin-assisted therapy.
The therapy could help those struggling with PTSD, including veterans, hospital emergency department workers and first responders, Ma said.
Under Oregon's law, psilocybin will not be sold to customers on a retail basis. Instead, people have to use the mushrooms at a licensed site with a facilitator who will guide them through the process, she said.
Ma said she was in the middle of buying property in unincorporated Jackson County for a psilocybin retreat center when she heard that Jackson County commissioners may put a ban before county voters.
"I had lined up local people to hire. I was looking at a very large investment in the operation. I had to pull out of the offer," she said. "It's wreaking havoc on everyone's business plans. I would really urge the commissioners to take some time to contact us and learn more. It's not cannabis. It's nothing like what's happened with cannabis."
Waiting for the results of the vote would delay her business plans for months. If Jackson County voters decide they don't want psilocybin operations, she would have to start over. Wa said she's looking at other counties that aren't planning to put bans before voters.
She said a majority of Jackson County voters already voted in support of psilocybin operations during the 2020 vote on Measure 109.
"Voters were right with their first choice in 2020. I would ask them to do the right thing again. So many people in this county need these services. Most facilities will have medical directors. It's not going to be some big, wild party," Wa said.
The possible Jackson County vote on a ban is putting other business plans in limbo.
The Synthesis Institute, based in the Netherlands, bought the rural Buckhorn Springs site southeast of Ashland to launch a psilocybin retreat center in 2023. On its website, the global company says it uses consciousness-expanding drugs in a safe, therapeutic manner to help treat depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction and other persistent conditions.
Ashland Consciousness Medicine at Hidden Springs won't be impacted by a ban unless Ashland City Council decides to put the issue before city voters.
The psychedelic medicine clinic already uses ketamine-assisted therapy and hopes to branch into psilocybin therapy as well.
Used by doctors and veterinarians as an anesthetic, ketamine can cause hallucinations and induce a trancelike state providing pain relief, sedation and amnesia. It has been misused as a date-rape drug and to get high.
On the mental health front, the federal Food and Drug Administration has approved ketamine nasal spray to treat medication-resistant depression.
Ketamine therapy at Ashland Consciousness Medicine can be expensive. The clinic warns patients the medical and psychological sessions may be covered by insurance, but the ketamine session itself likely isn't covered because ketamine isn't approved for use in that manner.
Initial treatment sessions for an individual can cost $1,275 — plus $725 for follow-up sessions. If done in a small group, initial treatment sessions cost $1,100, with additional follow-up group sessions priced at $525, according to the clinic's website.
Ian Luepker, a naturopathic physician and the medical director at Ashland Consciousness Medicine, said the mind-expanding effects of ketamine and psilocybin can help people address existential questions that are often at the root of social anxiety, such as fears of being isolated and excluded.
Guided treatment can help people get a new perspective on creativity, trauma and terminal illnesses, Luepker said.
He said psychedelic drugs were demonized in the 1960s and 1970s, but now they're being portrayed in a more positive light, with numerous media stories about their positive effects.
"I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. It's not a panacea that will heal every individual," Luepker said.
Although studies show psilocybin mushrooms can help with conditions such as PTSD, the studies also show some people don't respond to the treatment. That's true of many drugs, Luepker noted.
Three decades ago, a new class of antidepressants was introduced that boosts levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. The medications are life-changing for many, but ineffective in others.
"Everyone thought we would end depression. Obviously, that's not the case," Luepker said.
He said psilocybin therapy will create a new treatment tool, but practitioners need to be realistic with patients that it's not a cure for everything that ails them physically and mentally.
"I have cautious optimism. I don't think it will be for everyone, but I think a lot of people will benefit," Luepker said.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.