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Decriminalize Nature

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With election season in full swing and initiatives and legislative efforts being discussed nationwide, you may have heard of Decriminalize Nature, an effort to reduce legal penalties for plants that contain psychoactive chemicals. We sat down with Carlos Plazola, Co-Founder and Board Member of Decriminalize Nature, and Larry Norris, PhD and Board Member of Decriminalize Nature, to learn more about their work, how their backgrounds have helped spur this grassroots effort, and how the psychedelic underground has evolved into a mainstream entheogenic movement of more than 100 chapters in the United States and abroad. 

Rebranding Psychedelics  

When you hear the term “psychedelic,” your mind may wander to intricate visuals and vibrant color patterns, combined with the music of the 60s and 70s, and you wouldn’t be alone in these associations. During the rise of the counterculture, in opposition to political actions such as war and legal rights, psychedelic use became more popular, especially substances that altered the mind and caused hallucinations, such as psilocybin (magic mushrooms). Yet, Decriminalize Nature does not mention “psychedelics,” instead referring to them as “entheogenic plants.” “We shifted away from the word psychedelic because we wanted to give a fresh start to the conversation,” explains Plazola, “Away from the 60s and 70s model of psychedelics and all the connotations with that which is why we went in the direction of entheogenic plants. Most people have no idea what that means, so that allowed us to have a fresh conversation about our intentions.”   

According to their website, “Decriminalize Nature refers to entheogenic plants, fungi, and natural sources (as defined herein), such as mushrooms, cacti, iboga containing plants and/or extracted combinations of plants similar to ayahuasca; and limited to those containing the following types of compounds: indole amines, tryptamines, phenethylamines.” While initial discussions within the group had suggested focusing on one particular plant such as mushrooms, the decision was made to focus on all entheogenic plants to increase accessibility and approachability, form broader alliances within the community, as well as align with the focus on the natural benefits of all plants. This also helped to discredit arguments that the effort was solely about getting high on a particular substance.  

“It allowed a greater conversation that was more profound and philosophical, which is ‘where have we gone wrong as a society?’” explains Plazola. “Through scientific reductionism and other practices, we have made things about individual species or individual compounds and we have lost the broad connections to ecosystems. So for us, it was really about recognizing that our trauma as humanity stems from our disconnection from the ecosystem that we live in and our attempts to be the controllers of it and now we are seeing how that has gotten us into trouble. So going to the ‘all entheogenic plants and fungi’ approach really enables us to bring together broad alliances but also a bigger discussion about our relationship to nature in general.” 

“Before we started, we heard from about everybody…that said that you can only do mushrooms. It’s never going to pass as this other bigger thing. And now, we’ve actually had more cities pass with all the plants than have passed with mushrooms. So I think it speaks to the fact that people are ready for this bigger conversation,” imparts Norris. “…The headlines of the articles, they never really mention the other plants. So we might as well go for all the plants because all they ever report on is mushrooms. So we might as well free as many plants as we can.” 

Personal Experiences with Plant Medicine

The Board Members and volunteers that are driving the Decriminalize Nature movement are no strangers to firsthand experiences. Plazola had his first experience with mushrooms in October 2018, taking approximately five grams of dried mushrooms. As a member of the Chicano community, he didn’t really do psychedelics and hadn’t really been exposed to them. After his trip in late 2018, he found that he was finally able to process and work through deep internal issues that had been weighing him down. “My first response was to be in awe,” Plazola recalls. “My second response was to be pissed off that it had been made illegal.” 

Norris had a similar path towards entheogenic plants. While studying in Michigan, he began experimenting with these plants. During an 11-year sabbatical, he discovered ayahuasca, which helped him see things differently than mushrooms. Norris went back to school in 2009 and has since defended his PhD on integration surrounding the ayahuasca experience for westerners. During his later years in academia, there was a noticeable interest in entheogenic research, and a student-led group, Entheogenic Research, Integration, and Education (ERIE), began hosting events to facilitate the discussion on these plants.  Given their legal status, students were unsure of whether there would be interest, but eventually each event was packed with more than 100 people in attendance. Around this time, the United States was seeing a rise in what they both describe as “integration circles,” or peer sharing circles often comprised of community members, scholars, speakers, academics, and medical practitioners, who sought to learn about the insights were being gained during this time while assisting in the implementation of practice. 

“I think one of the catalyzing moments was when we all came together…we had a meeting and discussed who we each were,” recalls Plazola. “Someone said let’s move forward with a resolution, and we all decided to do that. It was a bit more profound than that; we made choices like we will always come from love, we will focus on compassion and healing and ritual over profit and greed. And then we decided to launch it.” 

What is Decriminalize Nature?

As mentioned, integration circles led to more interaction and unification among those that were a part of the “psychedelic underground” that existed in places such as The Bay Area in California. The goal was to help with the implementation of the insights that these academics and professionals had gained and to remain “students of the plants.” According to the website, their mission is “to decriminalize entheogenic plants, restore our root connection to nature, and improve human health and well-being.”

The movement started with a sole focus on decriminalizing entheogenic plants in Oakland, CA. The measure passed with a unanimous city council vote. “[The] approach has been to [proceed] not too hard and fast, but allow it to emerge dynamically,” Plazola explains. He notes that the city council is made up of a diverse group of members representing a variety of communities, many of whom have historically been underserved, and that the council’s unanimous vote “sent a message to those communities who are not traditionally part of psychedelic movement” and opened up the discussion to a larger group of citizens.  

After Oakland and Denver passed, interest in decriminalizing these plants began to pop up in other cities and countries. Plazola and Norris recall many of these groups reaching out to congratulate them, but also to ask for help. From there on, they decided to focus on supporting these other movements in a way that maintained their grassroots structure but helped offset the costs associated with political reform.  

“Grassroots Up”

Similar to cannabis reform, the effort to decriminalize entheogenic plants started with a local-first focus. Plazola explains that the initial effort for a local decriminalization initiative was due to the ease; it is easy to grasp, makes sense locally, and easy to explain to friends and neighbors. Unlike typical top-down initiatives, Decriminalize Nature sought to avoid taxation and exclusivity-based frameworks that typically weren’t embracing the communities and citizens that were most vulnerable. By focusing on local efforts, local voices were heard and represented.  

Many local groups do not always have the funds to have a lawyer write new language, and having documents and resources available for free that could be repurposed and adjusted locally without these burdensome set-up costs has allowed the grassroots movement to flourish. It also encouraged groups to work with their local politicians to build relationships and encourage an open dialogue based in entheogenic research rather than psychedelic stigmas of the past. Places like Dallas have evolved the language further, to be broader and include cannabis. Other places, like Chicago, are attempting to use the language to tackle specific local issues such as the opioid crisis.

Beyond Oakland: The Decriminalize Nature Movement 

While Decriminalize Nature is a registered nonprofit that assists others, each city’s group acts autonomously in support of the group’s three principles: “Open source (all shared without cost), transparent (principle of openness), decentralization ([to] not control what local groups did in their own municipalities but support them,” Plazola explains. According to Norris, there are over 100 chapters operating currently, including a handful of international chapters in places like Chile, Mexico, and the Netherlands.  

With their open source framework and shared ideology, these independently-operated chapters prove that a grassroots framework works. The Decriminalize Nature team provides regular support, including a support packet with multiple documents for help managing their movement, legal language that can be used, as well as bimonthly webinars to provide insight and access to leading researchers, academics, and professionals. “We actually have a template here that is really easy for people to take our name out and put their name in and it has already been vetted by one city council and the city attorney’s office and so it saves people a lot of energy and time,” explains Norris. “People can just work on the educational steps instead of having to go through the legal stuff and the cost of lawyer fees and those kinds of things.” 

What’s Next: Regulatory Framework 

More cities are taking note and the wave is spreading. Since Oakland and Denver passed their initiatives, Santa Cruz has passed their efforts, Berkley and Chicago’s efforts are in progress but on pause due to COVID-19, and other areas like Ann Arbor and South Florida are pushing ahead as well. 

As momentum has gained, the Decriminalize Nature Oakland (DNO) team is turning their sights to regulated access to these plants. Shortly after the historic unanimous vote, calls from citizens began coming in asking where they could legally procure some of these plants that had been decriminalized. Right now, no one can legally sell it, and while the group is drafting a potential framework, they are continuing their efforts to spread education and help people understand that these plants have healing properties but are also very powerful, potent substances. “We don’t just stop at integration,” Plazola says. “We start talking about how do we build community?” 

Decriminalize Nature’s effort for a regularity model relies primarily upon agreed upon protections from local and state authorities, guaranteeing that as long as specific conditions are met that legally-operating individuals and businesses would be free from prosecution. Once they get the city to approve the framework, then they will create a basic framework and defend it against prosecution, intending to ask state officials for the approval of a pilot project that maintains state-level protections for those that opt in. “Our intention is that other cities can look at what we are doing and just as Decriminalize Nature Oakland is emerging, our regulatory model can serve as a model for other cities,” says Plazola. “We believe that sustainable change with respect to plant healing use all emerges at the local level because it requires the shepherding and the stewardship of local leadership.” 


How You Can Get Involved

You don’t have to start with a large audience; you can get involved and support the effort to educate others simply by being open about your own experiences with plant medicine with those in your social circles. As you get more comfortable with expressing your knowledge and understanding how to communicate with others about these experiences, you could consider joining the Decriminalize Nature movement. They will have the resources that Decriminalize Nature provides and may already have efforts in place to bring change to a city or country near you. Local connections with your representatives and community can make a big difference. “Feel confident in your ability to make change happen on a local level and that it is your unalienable right to have a relationship with nature,” Plazola reminds. If you are passionate, you can effect change and help educate a larger community about the benefits of entheogenic plants.

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Turmeric

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Turmeric is a root vegetable commonly used as a spice in various Indian and other cultures’ dishes. Turmeric is in the zingiberaceae family, as is ginger. The turmeric plant is native to the southeastern region of Asia and commonly harvested in places like India, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, and Taiwan. It is responsible for curry’s signature orange color, and its vibrant pigment will give essentially any meal an orange hue. 

Turmeric contains a substance called curcumin, and curcumin has been shown through research to offer anti-inflammatory and other therapeutic benefits. The scientific name for the turmeric plant is Curcuma Longa, and likely where the name curcumin comes from. When people are talking about the health benefits of turmeric, they are referencing curcumin so you may hear the two names used interchangeably. Curcumin is part of a group called curcuminoids, with curcumin being the most active and the most beneficial for health. Flavonoids are another substance found in various plants and give these plants their color. Curcumin is a flavonoid and is responsible for providing that bright orange color to turmeric. In addition to providing aesthetic value, flavonoids are also strong antioxidants with anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties.

The Journal of Biological Chemistry published a study done by Sanjaya Singh and Bharat B. Aggarwal of the Cytokine Research Laboratory at the world-renowned cancer hospital, M.D. Anderson. The study found that curcumin suppressed NF-κB, a protein complex responsible for controlling inflammatory responses. In other words, turmeric shuts off the body’s inflammatory response. Anti-inflammatories can be beneficial for many different ailments, including chronic pain and digestive disorders. A lot of CBD companies even put curcumin in their products because of its benefits. It is believed to be a synergistic pair with complementary therapeutic properties. The thought is that the two plant medicines are powerful on their own; as a combination, they can deliver even more anti-inflammatory and medicinal benefits. 

Many people simply add turmeric to their dishes as a way to easily incorporate it into their daily routine. It is pretty mild in flavor and can be added to many dishes without changing the overall taste too drastically. Some say that turmeric isn’t strong enough on its own to receive the anti-inflammatory properties that curcumin provides, and therefore recommend a curcumin supplement. Research varies on that, so in the end it is just up to personal preference and your doctor’s approval. Curcumin supplements come most available in capsules. Pregnant women can safely use turmeric as an addition to their food, but should avoid taking high-dosage supplements. Those who are interested in supplementing with curcumin products should talk with their doctor first. 

M.D. Anderson Cancer Center did another study in 2007 exploring curcumin for cancer treatment. The study found that curcumin inhibits ovarian cancer growth and angiogenesis (the development of new blood vessels). It does this by targeting and manipulating the NF-κB pathway, the same protein complex responsible for controlling inflammatory response. According to a report published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “The nuclear factor NF-κB pathway has long been considered a prototypical proinflammatory signaling pathway, largely based on the role of NF-κB in the expression of proinflammatory genes including cytokines, chemokines, and adhesion molecules.”  

The trend with curcumin seems to be it’s ability to control inflammatory responses in the body. It does this by multiple pathways, but a commonly researched one is the NF-κB protein complex. Because this pathway is able to be manipulated by curcumin to encourage anti-inflammatory expressions, its potential for successfully treating various ailments is there.

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Psilocybin + Magic Mushrooms

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When many think of plant medicine, specifically those plants with psychoactive effects, they think of “magic mushrooms,” or fungi containing psilocybin and psilocin that can cause hallucinations depending on the dosage consumed. In many states, there are active efforts to decriminalize these otherwise scheduled substances, lowering penalties for their use and possession. But what value do psilocybin-containing mushrooms offer? New research suggests a range of therapeutic and psychological value ranging from the treatment of substance abuse to anxiety and depression management.  

What are Magic Mushrooms?

Magic Mushroom use dates back to 10,000 BCE and references continue throughout the era. Their modern popularity began when the term “magic mushroom” was coined by two etnomycologists who learned of a Harvard study on local doctors in Mexico using these substances, noting the substance’s ability to affect the nervous system. These findings were eventually published in Life magazine in 1957, and the term became the universal reference for psychoactive fungi and truffles, specifically those containing high concentrations of psilocybin and psilocin.

Psilocybin & Psilocin: The “Magic” in Magic Mushrooms

Psilocybin and psilocin are part of a family of psychedelic compounds found in magic mushrooms. Psilocin is pharmacologically active, and psilocybin is converted into psilocin when consumed or activated. Similar in structure to serotonin, there are more than 50 species of mushrooms and a variety of truffles that produce both the precursor, psilocybin, and the psychoactive compound, psilocin. Unlike LSD, magic mushrooms do not affect dopamine receptors, solely targeting serotonin sites

How are Magic Mushrooms used?

Magic mushrooms are often used for recreational, therapeutic and medicinal reasons. “Effects range from mild feelings of relaxation, giddiness, euphoria, visual enhancement (seeing colors brighter), visual disturbances (moving surfaces, waves), to delusions, altered perception of real events, images and faces, or real hallucinations.” Recreationally, this is often known as “tripping.” As an alternative health option, these fungi are being used for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and trauma, as well as psychological disorders such as substance abuse disorders, and science is beginning to back the potential for these applications.

Research on Mushrooms

Evaluations of currently available scientific studies suggest a growing number of therapeutic benefits and treatment options. “In the past few years, a growing number of studies using human volunteers have begun to explore the possible therapeutic benefits of drugs such as psilocybin…looking at psilocybin and other hallucinogens to treat a number of otherwise intractable psychiatric disorders, including chronic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug or alcohol dependency.”

Magic mushrooms have been respected as a “safe & natural healing sacrament for millennia throughout Mexico, Central America and the world,” and are known to be beneficial for depression, recidivism (the tendency to repeat past transgressions), and encourages openness, creativity, as well as personal and spiritual growth. UCLA and NYC have done studies on the applications of magic mushrooms in the treatment of end-of-life anxiety and other studies have backed up the use of psilocybin and psilocin in the treatment of substance use disorders, depression (especially in cases of terminal conditions like cancer as well as treatment-resistant depression), and reducing depression and anxiety overall.

Best way for people to consume?

When it comes to the consumption of mushrooms, advice on dosage is about as specific as it was with cannabis under prohibition. Consumers must purchase on the black market and are subject to whatever may be available. 

“Recreational doses range from 1–5 grams of dry mushrooms depending on the species and individual strength of the specimens… After ingestion, the psilocybin is enzymatically converted to psilocin. Absorbed from the gastro-intestinal tract, hallucinogenic effects usually occur within 30 minutes of ingestion with a duration of effect of 4–6 hours.” 

My recommendation as someone who has used magic mushrooms both for recreational and therapeutic purposes, is to grind the mushrooms into a fine powder and either encapsulate them in small increments and/or combine with lemon juice. Capsules will allow you to titrate your dosage as needed with a recognizable increment, while lemon juice will expedite onset time.  

The Legality of Magic Mushrooms

In the United States, psilocybin is a Schedule I controlled substance, with no accepted medicinal value and a high potential for abuse. In contrast, the Drug Policy Alliance states that “Physically, psilocybin mushrooms are considered to be one of the least toxic drugs known.” With that being said, local efforts such as Decriminalize Nature – Oakland and Decriminalize Denver have pushed for and successfully passed initiatives and legislation to reduce penalties and make enforcement a low priority, as was done in the early days of cannabis activism. This has spurred multiple local and international efforts to “Decriminalize Nature,” efforts that we learn more about in this month’s feature.

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Ginkgo Biloba

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Ginkgo biloba is an ancient tree; its roots originate in China. The ginkgo biloba tree is also sometimes known as the maidenhair tree or the Japanese silver apricot, and it produces a foul-smelling fruit commonly harvested for its seeds known as “ginkgo nuts”. Ginkgo nuts are popularly used in Asian cuisine. 

The ginkgo biloba tree’s fan-shaped leaves are used to make ginkgo biloba extract, a supplement traditionally used in Chinese medicine, but has since garnered the attention of cultures worldwide. The supplement comes in liquid extracts, capsules, and tablets. The leaves can also be dried to make tea. The type of ginkgo biloba extract supplement someone takes is all a matter of personal preference, and depends on the user’s already existing regimen. If you do not already drink tea, a ginkgo biloba tea may not implement easily into your lifestyle, thus a greater chance for inconsistency or erratic results. But if you take vitamins or other supplements regularly, after a doctor’s approval you can easily incorporate an additional capsule or tablet into your daily routine. 

The 16th-century Compendium of Materia Medica or Ben Cao Gang Mu is revered as the most comprehensive text ever written in the history of traditional Chinese medicine. This text reveals that ginkgo biloba seeds were used as a topical extract for antimicrobial purposes on the skin. Traditional Chinese Medicine also uses the leaves for tea and attributes it to soothing coughs and activating blood circulation, as well as other benefits like respiratory and digestive ailments. 

A common use for ginkgo biloba is to preserve memory and prevent cognitive decline. Dr. Hiroko Dodge of Oregon State University at Corvallis and his research team followed 118 people for three years aged 85 years and older, in good health, and showing no signs of dementia or memory loss at the beginning of the study. Half took ginkgo biloba and half took a placebo over three years. The patients taking it regularly had a 70% lower risk of developing dementia. According to the study, the other variables included considered “basic demographic variables including age, sex, years of education, and living arrangement (living alone vs living with someone).” 

The National Center for Biotechnology and Information published a study exploring ginkgo as a potential remedy for anxiety and, “The authors reported a significant improvement in psychopathological symptoms. Response rates were 44% in the high-dose group, 31% in the low-dose group, and 22% with placebo. Additionally, the percentages of clinically significant responses were 81%, 67%, and 38% for the high-dose, the low-dose, and the placebo groups, respectively.”2

A 2008 study reinforced the idea behind Traditional Chinese Medicine that ginkgo biloba improves blood circulation. The study shows ginkgo biloba extract to improve coronary artery circulation in patients with coronary artery disease. The study notes, “GBE (ginkgo biloba extract) treatment demonstrated a significant improvement in maximal diastolic peak velocity (MDPV), maximal systolic peak velocity (MSPV) and diastolic time velocity integral (DTVI) compared with controls.”3 In other words, ginkgo biloba extract is a great contender as a treatment to improve blood flow. 

Like cannabis and other medicinal plants, ginkgo has terpenes and flavonoids. Both of these compounds have therapeutic properties, and can provide anti-inflammatory benefits as well as being packed with antioxidants. Anti-inflammatory effects can serve many different ailments, especially relieving pain of various kinds. Antioxidants are thought to protect our bodies from free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can cause harm to the body. Terpenes are also responsible for giving plants their unique and flavorful smell. Flavonoids are the compounds that give plants their vibrant and diverse colors, and are the largest group of phytonutrients. There are approximately 6,00 different types of flavonoids. 

A few years back, the National Toxicology Program released a detailed report on ginkgo biloba extract. It dissects the toxicity and carcinogenic properties of ginkgo biloba using rodent test subjects. The report made its rounds as proof that ginkgo biloba causes cancer, because the rodents developed cancer at high-rates over two year periods. Per the American Botanical Council, “Adjusted for bodyweight, dosage levels given to the animals were up to 55 to 108 times higher than levels of ginkgo normally ingested by human beings taking ginkgo supplements.” Many people have been using this report to warn against the supplement, but Bill J. Gurley, Ph.D., a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Arkansas School for Medical Sciences, Little Rock said, “Almost anything will create cancer in rats and mice when it’s fed to them at high doses for two years.” The American Botanical Council also claims the ginkgo biloba extract used in the rodent experiment was of lesser quality, and not meeting European standards. 

Though this seemingly negative research on ginkgo can be explained, it is still important to discuss any kind of supplement addition with your doctor, especially if you are on other supplements or pharmaceutical prescriptions.

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