“We’ve reached a tipping point, culturally, where it seems to me like we are absolutely ready for this change.”
Northampton is the third Massachusetts city to pass a resolution decriminalizing psychedelic plants and other controlled substances, following the path first charted by Somerville and Cambridge.
Northampton’s city council approved the resolution with a unanimous vote on April 2, setting a steady pace of progress for state drug policy.
“We’ve reached a tipping point, culturally, where it seems to me like we are absolutely ready for this change,” said Dan Bensonoff, a Northampton resident who spearheaded the effort.
Bensonoff works as the sustainability coordinator of campus gardens at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he also teaches a practicum on permaculture gardening.
“My education covers everything from agriculture, to beekeeping, to mushroom cultivation, to herbalism. It’s all very much in the same vein, as I see it, with entheogens [psychedelics],” he said. “I was introduced to entheogens as an adolescent. And they had an extremely profound impact on me and absolutely shaped who I am now.”
Bensonoff said he had family and friends who expressed interest in trying psychedelics for their therapeutic and spiritual benefits—but he didn’t know where to direct them.
“It just made me really realize just how much potential there is, and how many people are lacking access,” he said.
Galvanized by this realization, Bensonoff got connected with Bay Staters for Natural Medicine—one of the grassroots organizing groups behind the Somerville and Cambridge legislation—in January of this year.
With guidance from Bay Staters, Bensonoff pitched the resolution to his city councilors, outlining for them the breakthrough potential of psychedelics in a number of clinical contexts. Indeed, research has found that the drugs can play a role in treating PTSD, depression, end-of-life anxiety, social anxiety, cluster headaches, alcoholism, and addiction.
“When he laid it out for me, I checked internally, and I realized that this is something I can get behind,” Northampton city councilor and resolution co-sponsor Rachel Maiore said. “What would we want for our loved one who was suffering with depression or PTSD or opioid addiction? Don’t we want every possible option or support for them?
“My only concern after my initial conversation with Dan was, I can’t in good conscience just talk about decriminalizing psychedelic plants and not address all controlled substances,” Maiore continued. “Beyond the benefit of psychedelic plants, I don’t believe that criminalizing substance possession at the user level is benefiting anyone. So that’s why I think they had to go hand in hand.”
Bensonoff recalled deliberating on whether the resolution should reckon with the entire war on drugs or limit itself to decriminalizing psychedelics. At first, he said he felt inclined toward the latter approach; it seemed more “cut and dry,” since entheogens actually stand to benefit their users. But working with Bay Staters convinced him to go for “a much bigger picture of policy change.”
Like the Somerville and Cambridge legislation, the Northampton resolution foregrounds the decriminalization of psychedelics, while including language that encompasses more controversial drugs without therapeutic potential.
The resolution specifically forbids the deployment of Northampton city resources towards penalizing an individual for the possession of psychedelic plants. It goes on to deem the cultivation, purchase, and transport of entheogenic plants —in addition to the possession of all controlled substances—the city’s “lowest law enforcement priority.”
The resolution also throws the city’s support behind two state bills, both filed in February. The first—An Act Relative to Harm Reduction and Racial Justice—would nix criminal penalties for the possession of controlled substances, instead presenting users with the choice between a small civil fine or a health screening.
The second bill—An Act Establishing Task Force to Study Equitable Access to Entheogenic Plants—would assemble a group of scientists, medical and public health professionals, and advocates around drug policy, racial equity, and economic injustice to develop a framework of recommendations for entheogenic legalization.
“We have relatively weak municipal power in Massachusetts. So the state level is where [decriminalization] really has to happen to make it binding,” Maoire said. “But I do think resolutions are helpful in showing the will of the cities in the state.”
“Obviously, Cambridge, Somerville, and Northampton don’t represent all of Massachusetts. Those tend to be more progressive cities,” Bensonoff noted. “I think we still have a lot of communication work to do.”
James Davis, a leader for Bay Staters’ city efforts, said he hopes the Northampton victory will galvanize other cities in Massachusetts to take similar action.
“Hopefully Northampton will inspire Worcester and Boston city councilors to stop ignoring the hundreds of residents sharing their stories to urge action. This month 170 of our friends and neighbors will die from overdoses across the state, despite the proven benefits of psychedelic plants for treating addiction and trauma,” Davis said. “Ending drug arrests isn’t just the popular thing to do. It’s the right thing to do.”
Juliet is a college student studying philosophy at Harvard. Her writing & reporting appear in STAT News, the Harvard Crimson, the Harvard Advocate, and the Harvard Political Review.