“It would be transformative in such a way I don’t even think a person can put into words.”
Californians could have an opportunity as soon as next year to make their state the first in the nation to decriminalize psilocybin—a.k.a. psychedelic mushrooms.
Monterrey-area medical marijuana advocate Kevin Saunders and his fiancée, Kitty Merchant, filed a ballot initiative with the state attorney general this past August that would would exempt adults 21 and over from criminal penalties for possession, sale, transport, and cultivation of psilocybin. The campaign still has a long way to go—once (or if) the AG approves the language, organizers must collect 365,880 signatures for the measure to appear on the ballot, and then a majority of voters statewide would have to approve it, but the pair insist they‘re off to a running start.
VICE spoke to Saunders, who is also running for mayor of Marina next year, about the psilocybin proposal. The self-described “ex-junkie semi-intellectual ne’er-do-well” who believes mushrooms “could possibly be alien communication” may not have much of a chance. But, as he says, “these are not normal times.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Off the bat, tell us about the big picture: Why you do think psilocybin should be legal for residents of California?
Kevin Saunders: This is the intersection where science, humanity, and social justice all combine. There’s nothing more important, and this has a chance to be something that could save people’s lives in a profound and real way.
I think psilocybin allows the user to rise above their ego and to transmute some of the feelings that they are receiving from a more powerful source than what is on this Earth. It puts their antenna in a position to receive that communication, and at this particular time, with the president we have, the feelings inherent to all the human beings, whatever part of the Earth you’re from, whatever gender or race, it’s just a reconnection to the planet. To each other. It would be transformative in such a way I don’t even think a person can put into words.
Why do you think 2018 is the right time to push for psilocybin decriminalization?
We really feel the way that Earth and society and humanity are hurting, we really needed to do it now. We understand about certain people’s feelings—this is an off-year election, it’s too soon, we’re not the right folks to do it—but we really feel like these are not normal times. If it were normal times, we would have written it more in a medicinal model, but things are hurtling so fast, possibly toward something cataclysmic or changing our world as we know it. It really fits in our opinion and might just be the only thing—if someone else has a better idea how to fix this, I’m all ears, but it seems like California doing this for humanity might be one of the few things that could change the direction we’re heading.
Wait, so why not shoot for therapeutic use first, similar to medical marijuana, or like an attempt to put psilocybin on the Oregon ballot in 2020?
I know that people expected medicinal initiatives, and that would be common wisdom, just a couple years out of recreational marijuana. We believe it was a gamble by skipping the medical part of it, but Kitty and I did not want to play the whole game like we did with pot and figure out what’s a doctor, what are facilitators. I don’t believe mushroom trips benefit from being indoors with fluorescent lights and music not conducive to the environment. How much would it cost for a person to spend four hours with a doctor for a mushroom trip? This is about a person 21 or over being able to have an experience in nature, or in a doctor’s office, or in the privacy of their own home.
Is decriminalization of psilocybin really the logical next step after voters supported marijuana legalization last year in California?
I do feel there is a natural progression that comes from marijuana to psilocybin. A lot of people talk about the natural versus synthetic element of it. I guess in the fact that it grows out of the earth? But I don’t see the marijuana plant and mushroom spore as the same. The marijuana plant is from our world and from our imagination, and I think mushrooms are not. I think they are otherworldly. Spore is one of the few things that could survive intergalactic flight. I believe it came in some form on an asteroid or encased in a comet. This could possibly be alien communication. I took a lot of hits because I used the word “alien,” but I was trying to put it in layperson terms to the point where people could understand and open their mind that this could be a great awakening to something.
Do you have a personal experience with psilocybin that informs your activism?
At 27 years old, I made a decision to become a heroin addict. It was a conscious decision. I was high-functioning for five years, and I shot the equivalent of a couple condos into my left arm. My mother one day scooped me up from the Sunset District in San Francisco and drove me to Death Valley. I took mushrooms and discovered the genesis of why I became a heroin addict. Now I’m clean for 15 years off heroin.
Then my mother was killed in a car accident this year, and I felt like I was slapped up against the world and left inside out. I wanted to do an overdose. Then I had a mushroom trip, Kitty and I talked, and we both realized my mom wouldn’t want that. I experienced serenity and grace and healing, and that’s all I can really ask for. I would hope people would be able to receive the same communication I received.
You’re also running for mayor of Marina next year. Does this ballot measure play a role in your mayoral campaign?
It doesn’t. I’m running on rent control, medical marijuana dispensaries, and downtown revitalization. I’m a non-traditional politician, an ex-junkie semi-intellectual ne’er-do-well. I don’t have any highfalutin ideas about myself. If someone asks me about psilocybin, or did you write the initiative, I say yes, I did, but it has nothing to do with Marina—other than Marina could eventually benefit from tax revenue.
What are the nuts and bolts of actually getting this on the ballot? The barriers seem high, no?
We always saw it as a three-step process. One is filing, two is signature gathering, three is the campaign. If we can do number two, then three can win. We can win this today, let alone after a whole year of campaigning and stories and studies coming out. We have the wind at our back. For money, we have a couple players in Hollywood, and we’re hoping someone really substantial steps up. Whoever invests and funds it has a position in the burgeoning psilocybin industry.
We plan to have coordinators in every county, and more importantly, at every major college. We feel that this can be won by the fact that it’s California and mushrooms are hot. It’s really a question of getting the signatures. Right now Kitty and I are focusing on that. It’s all about getting the word out. We’re going to do it through volunteerism and college coordinators, through pot festivals, mushroom festivals, gay pride parades, traditional media, hoodies, bumper stickers, Facebook guerrilla marketing.
This is a campaign that’s winnable, and if successful, it would be very hard to even imagine how fundamentally it would change the world, in science, tech, cinema, literature, medicine. We really believe we can make history.