Updated: Jan 13, 2021
In this eighth edition of Amplify, WOOP’s series of interviews sharing some amazing work being done by women in the psychedelic world, we meet the women behind Measure 109, the landmark campaign for psilocybin use in the US state of Oregon. Supported by medical experts, mothers, and people from over 300 Oregon cities, its approval during the US elections in November 2020 makes Oregon the first American state to legalize controlled psilocybin use.
As pioneering research at America’s top universities show that psilocybin therapy can aid in treatments for depression, anxiety, and addiction, let’s meet Charlotte Blocker (Political Outreach Director) and Anne Marie Bäckström (Education Director), two women key to legal psilocybin use in Oregon.
This interview was conducted and transcribed by Jessika Lagarde and condensed for clarity.
WOOP: First of all, congratulations on Oregon successfully establishing access to psilocybin therapy, as well as being in the first stages of decriminalizing all hard drugs. How did you get involved, and what are your personal thoughts and feelings on being part of such groundbreaking legislation?
Charlotte Blocker: It’s really incredible to be a part of such a historic moment. When I joined the campaign, I was only the second paid staffer after our campaign manager. I often joke that the campaign wouldn't have had a choice about hiring me; I would have found a way to get involved.
I have a background in events and fundraising, which is what the campaign needed at that point in time. It was really a privilege and a pleasure to be a part of passing such a historic measure.
But alongside our measure, it was also such a great experience to see Oregonians vote to pass Measure 110 [the Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative], which reclassified personal possession of small amounts of illegal drugs. Oregon was the first state to decriminalize cannabis back in 1973, so I really wasn't surprised to see that we were the first state to reclassify personal possession too, and it's that kind of progressive thinking that just makes me really proud to be an Oregonian.
Anne Marie Bäckström: I got involved with the campaign a little bit later. I've been involved in the movement and progressive campaigns here in Oregon over the last 10 years, so I learned about the campaign through progressive circles and volunteering with other ballot measures.
My background is running grassroots voter contact programs, organizing teams of staff and volunteers who get out on the field and directly talk to voters, educating them across demographics, across geographical locations. When I learned that Measure 109 needed to have a paid staffer running their statewide field program after their amazing success gathering >165,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot, I knew that I needed to get involved.
After the birth of my daughter, I had pretty severe postpartum mental illness and psychosis. And that's when I had a first-person experience with psychedelics as therapeutic and healing tools.
It was really exciting and it was really healing. And I think that what I learned in doing this work is that there is such a deep passion for people who had personal connections to this ballot measure, who had personal connections to mental illness or [were] struggling to get involved.
WOOP: Could you tell us about the people behind measure 109 and how it was initiated and defined? How long did it take to realize it?
Charlotte: I think I should tell you a little bit about the landscape in which this measure was drafted. It's no big secret that America is in a mental healthcare crisis. Before the pandemic, we had data that one in five Americans were suffering from symptoms of chronic anxiety and depression. And in the ensuing months, that number has increased to one in three Americans.
Oregon as a state is not immune to this. In fact, according to aggregate studies that have been compiled by the CDC, Oregon's mental health crisis is the most acute in the nation. So that's the landscape in which this measure was created. The chief architects behind the measure are Tom and Sheri Eckert. They are psychotherapists here in Oregon, and they definitely feel that grim reality every day in their lives as they work with their clients. Clearly, they believe in the healing power of psilocybin and they had a vision for creating a model for legal access to it.
It was a really long road for them. I understand that it was about five years of diligently working towards this, working and reworking their path to victory. Ultimately this summer we were able to qualify their final petition and, as we say, the rest is history. Oregonians really supported this and they also saw a need for it.
WOOP: Why was it important that Measure 109 be approved, and what were some of the biggest challenges and barriers you faced for the campaign?
Anne Marie: One barrier faced, from an organizing and educational perspective, is the ongoing mental health struggles compounded even more by COVID-19. You know, people are really feeling isolated. They're feeling cut off from the community. And as someone who struggles with mental illness myself, I know that having new options for treatment is such a powerful and revolutionary thing and the idea of finding something that could provide longer-lasting healing and feeling on more of a spiritual level is just exciting.
There were a lot of different barriers to this campaign. With the pandemic itself, the way that we traditionally run campaigns and the way that campaigns have been won in the past is through talking to voters directly. And obviously, with the global pandemic, we were not knocking on doors.
We needed 1.2 million Oregonians to vote yes on this ballot measure. ince we weren't out there knocking on doors, we needed to talk to over 220,000 Oregonian voters in other ways. So we called and texted >80,000 Oregon voters, which was really an incredible achievement. All of our volunteer opportunities were 100% remote, as we didn't want to put our community at risk.
At the end of the day, I think this gave us a really great opportunity. We had a lot of volunteers who were parents, we had folks struggling with mental illness, folks that couldn't drive or lived elsewhere, not just in the state, but all over the country. And every step of the way, we also had to be innovative in terms of access.
Some of the issues we faced when it comes to Oregon voters and the general electorate were that there were just a lot of stigmas and misconceptions out there when it came to what we were trying to do. I think that the people that we tried to move the most were some of our older voters that lived outside of the city that maybe had experiences with psilocybin or psychedelics but viewed it very negatively due to past stigma.
Charlotte: This is a personal issue for every Oregon voter. You cannot face statistics like one in three without it being a personal issue. On some level, we all know someone who is suffering from symptoms of anxiety or depression. So with pioneering research showing that psilocybin therapy can help where other treatments have failed, it became something that was very important to all of us.
I think one thing that the campaign showed me very clearly is that if we hope to heal from the mental health epidemic that is sweeping the nation with the pandemic, we desperately need to continue to fight for more health care options and more avenues of access to those options.
Here in Oregon, you have to turn in 112,020 physical signatures to the Secretary of State by July 2nd to qualify for the baloot. When we went remote due to the pandemic and we didn't have all those signatures, we really had to scramble and mobilize people. There were 35,000 Oregonians who care enough about this to go to our website, download the petition, print it, sign it and mail it in to the Secretary of State.
But getting 112,020 Oregonians to sign your petition is one thing. Getting 1.2 million voters to vote for your cause is an entirely different thing. And that was the real work that we had cut out for us once we qualified for the ballot. And we knew from our petition drive that not everyone knew what psilocybin therapy is or how it could help them. So that's why the educational work Anne Marie spearheaded in the final months was so vitally important to winning on the ballot.
WOOP: How did you mobilize and engage the community for Measure 109? (Please tell us more about the focus on inclusivity, especially the role of mothers and female political activism in this initiative.)
Anne Marie: I've been running campaign field programs for a long time, and I'm also a mother. I was a teenage mom, and when I was first starting out in my own career in political activism, I learned really quickly how inaccessible this world and this political space can be.
I knew early on in this campaign that when we're thinking about the one in three people that are struggling with mental illness, that we're thinking about families, mothers, and caregivers. We're thinking about these people and these community structures.
Mental-illnesses are community-based issues. From the beginning, we partnered up with a really amazing group called Tokeativity whose goal is to really engage in an intersectional feminist perspective of what being a woman in plant medicine or who engages in plant medicine can look like. So we worked with them from early on to find out how we could mobilize mothers and caregivers, the people that are at the heart of the community here. We got over 60 moms to sign up an open letter supporting this measure.
We had families engaged from the beginning. And I think, from other campaigns that I've worked on, there's something really powerful about parents when they choose and have the resources available to get involved.
We also had volunteers and supporters from the disability community and from communities that would directly benefit from having access to psilocybin therapy. I think we've learned through campaigning during the pandemic that we don't have an excuse to not make our campaigns as inclusive as possible.
I think one thing that we have to learn about future campaigns in Plant Medicine is: How do we include all communities? We really thought critically about how we involve Black people, People of Color? How do we involve more people from Indigenous communities? How do we bring them into our existing structure?
These communities and individuals need to be there from the beginning. Future campaigns have to translate that into working on policies that are brought forward by and for communities that are going to benefit from them the most.
Charlotte: Having a core value in your campaign committed to ensuring that everything is accessible is incredibly important because we do tend to put up barriers that don't need to be there. And I think accessibility on all levels is something that needs to be central to all political campaigns.
The things that sometimes career politicians tend to forget is that the political process can be very alien to the average voter. And the average voter is who you're trying to engage as a volunteer. So enfranchising and engaging voters, no matter who they are or where they sit on the political spectrum, the key was to build a really strong grassroots presence and retain a community of people who were willing to do the work.
Anne Marie and I constitute 50% of the staff. There were only four of us. We could not have done this by ourselves. So making sure that we were reaching out to these communities whose voices should be central to the campaign and listening to them, amplifying their voices, and letting them guide our work on the campaign was really important.
Besides that, It was central to our mission to defend the communities that are going to be most disadvantaged by racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic healthcare practices that are inherent to the existing system by centering them in our campaign. And through our partnership with Tokeativity we were able to reach out to certain groups and organizations and build a strong, diverse coalition of invested communities.
WOOP: How much does the average Oregonian know about psilocybin, and is there still stigma around these compounds? What are you doing in the realm of education and destigmatization?
Anne Marie: When I came onto this campaign, I learned very quickly that there were a lot of misconceptions and stigmas. The people that we needed to educate and break down barriers with were people like my 65-year-old mother, people who went to college in the seventies and have had experiences with psychedelics, but didn't use them again. People that had a lot of fear around them, a lot of misbeliefs.
So when I told my mom I was working on the campaign, we had a conversation about it and all of a sudden, she started humanizing this issue in a really beautiful way. And she said: "Where do I go on-site? How do I talk to my neighbors?"
This was so much more than a personal issue. This was a community issue, a human issue, and a public health and access issue. And it felt really awesome to start de-stigmatizing. We didn't just win this campaign; we laid down groundwork where now hundreds of thousands of Oregonians have an understanding about plant medicine and about psilocybin. And maybe in the future, if we want to move into even more progressive decriminalization or legalization policies, we have that baseline.
Charlotte: Yes we found out really quickly during the signature-gathering phase that the average Oregonian has a lot of misconceptions about psilocybin and maybe not a broad awareness of psilocybin therapy or what studies have been showing.
So once we qualified and we turned our collective energies towards educating Oregonians, one of the first things we did was generating resources and learning opportunities for those who wanted to take a deeper dive into the science behind psilocybin therapy and the basics of the measure.
We were constantly hosting online educational events of all kinds. We partnered with experts, doctors, and other organizations to create webinars focused perhaps on educating a certain demographic — and meeting that community. We also hosted weekly a basic "about the measure" so that people could come and learn about what psilocybin therapy under measure 109 would look like, and meet the campaign and ask questions.
I think providing learning opportunities at every turn was ultimately what made us win the campaign. But largely that came down to talking to voters one-on-one via phone banking and making sure that we had the people-power to talk to voters in that dedicated, personal way. Since we knew we had advocates all over the country -and the world- we realized that one of the best things that Measure 109 was currently doing was just creating a broader awareness of psilocybin and psilocybin therapy for everyone.
WOOP: Now that Measure 109 has been approved, what needs to happen next, and when can Oregonians seeking psilocybin therapy expect to be able to start treatment?
Anne Marie: One of the things written directly into our ballot measure language was that this isn't going to be implemented right away. There's going to be a very thoughtful and well-crafted two-year regulatory period.
It will be governed by the Oregon Health Authority. As research is coming in and as we're learning more about how these programs can and should be implemented, our governor will appoint 12 people to an advisory council. And this advisory council is described in the ballot measure.
We have to have folks from different professional fields in medicine, public health, and other related fields. We have to have space on the table for folks and culturally specific communities, such as indigenous people and mycologists, etc.
What they will work on with the Oregon Health Authority is creating all of these policies, and how facilitators will be trained, how people will be licensed, how this therapy will be administered. So our licenses won't start being granted until 2023.
Charlotte: Yes, the next two years we can look forward to seeing a slow, thoughtful, standardization of what the training and the licensure will look like. Just like we do for all of our other healthcare licenses here in Oregon.
Psilocybin therapy is not going to be available anytime soon here in Oregon. It's going to have to go through that rule-making process and we're going to see a lot of details firm up in the next two years.
WOOP: We read that one does not need to be suffering from mental health issues to be able to access the services for “personal development.” Tell us more about the way psilocybin can be used for the self-empowerment and the betterment of lives.
Charlotte: Under Measure 109, people over the age of 21 will have legal access to supervised psilocybin therapy at licensed facilities only, provided that they can pass a preliminary screening for contraindications. Then they'll have to complete a health and safety assessment, which will be standardized during the next two years.
So just like many available therapies we have now, a diagnosis won't be required. If people believe that treatment can help and their screening shows no potentially dangerous contraindications, they can consider psilocybin therapy as an option.
We've never pretended that psilocybin therapy will be for everyone. But I've heard enough personal testimonials from veterans, from palliative care professionals, from those who have been working to heal from all sorts of trauma, that psilocybin therapy has already saved lives and has the power to continue saving more lives.
Anne Marie: I think the barrier that we're really working with, at least here in the US, is how we make that accessible. And I think that requiring a firm diagnosis of pathology is just such a barrier to access. Even if you are not struggling directly with something that can be clinically diagnosed, you still deserve access to work on yourself and to work on your traumas, and to work on healing.
WOOP: Psychedelics are still illegal at the federal level. It is clear that there is still a long way to go on the de-stigmatization of the criminalization and cultural acceptance of these compounds. What thoughts, hopes, and possible challenges do you see coming next?
Anne Marie: We were the first state in the United States to decriminalize access to cannabis back in 1973. So we really have been at the forefront of these movements. We passed that here in Oregon and we very quickly saw other states, kind of taking our roadmap and personalizing it and moving it forward.
The biggest fear from voters was that they’re worried about psilocybin becoming available on the streets or in retail stores. It really helped our campaign to be able to squash those fears by saying this is not legalization for personal or recreation use, that this is a well-regulated and safeguarded legalization of psilocybin therapy administered by a trained facilitator.
Charlotte: Yes, it's the start of an exciting new frontier for care. And I feel very hopeful about where this will go next now that this has happened here in Oregon. The advocates that have worked on this campaign have been some of the kindest and most inclusive and caring individuals I've ever had the privilege to meet. And they also happened to be some of the hardest workers too. As advocates for psilocybin therapy, our work is just beginning.
No progress is perfect. And I think it's going to be up to us to continue to make sure that we're doing good work to de-stigmatize these powerful substances. We need to fight for access, equity, and inclusion in all the systems that are surrounding new psychedelic therapies and this psychedelic renaissance, which is coming into a world that's already full of inequities and injustices that we need to tackle.
But I don't think that fighting for healing or justice is too radical, and this campaign has definitely taught me that I'm not alone in feeling that way.
WOOP: Our last question is, for those living in states or countries where psychedelic therapies are not legally available, what advice do you have in terms of resources and advocacy?
Anne Marie: What I want people to remember is: this is your democracy to engage in, this is your right as a citizen. This is something that anybody can do. You don't have to be an elected official. You don't have to have a background in campaigns or policy. If you have something that you are passionate about and you really want to bring forward with your community and your friends, find a way to do it. Reach out to other campaigns.
I think another thing that we've highlighted throughout this entire interview is that your campaign can be as inclusive and as accessible as you allow it to be. We're breaking down some of these false barriers in the times of COVID and in virtual organizing. So find a way for people to access, to get involved. As an organizer, that is my number one goal.
Collaborate, work together, and be creative. Don't give up.
Charlotte: That is absolutely true. If this is something that you want to see happen, get politically active, and don't be afraid to challenge the status quo. The political process varies. I can't speak outside of America’s political process, but here, in every state, there's an avenue for creating change that you want to see via the petition process. And no matter where you are in the world, there's going to be an avenue for creating change.
This was done with people power. This campaign was only made possible because there were tireless advocates who clocked hours of hard work, week after week, to make this happen. Anne Marie and I couldn't have done this alone. Our whole staff couldn't have done it alone. We really needed the support of the community, and we had it.
So that being said, to anybody who's interested in getting involved in making something like this happen where you are, practice corporeal politics. It's not enough to hit “Like” and “Share” to make meaningful change happen. You have to go out there and make it happen, which might be speaking proverbially right now, because I know that many other organizations in campaigns are running entirely remotely in the face of the pandemic.
You might be surprised at the amount of change that you can create from home in your pajamas if you're just willing to reach out to organizers that are getting together around a cause that's important to you. Like our campaign, many have gone fully remote, so you don’t even need to leave your quarantine to be an agent for positive change.
Don't be afraid to reach out to advocates, activists. You might not get a response to all of your emails, but I think you'll be surprised what comes back if you reach out and you get help. Get active, if it can happen here, it can happen everywhere.
Charlotte Blocker got involved in progressive politics after college and worked as the Finance Assistant for the No Cuts to Care: No on Measure 106 Campaign and went on to continue her reproductive healthcare advocacy work at NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, before joining the groundbreaking Yes on 109 campaign, where, as the Political Director she built a diverse coalition of advocates dedicated to increasing access to critical healthcare treatments. She lives in North Portland with her family and currently serves as Board Treasurer for the Oregon Womxn’s Campaign School, a nonpartisan, volunteer-led nonprofit that trains reproductive healthcare advocates to run winning campaigns.
Anne Marie Bäckström (she/her), is a young queer mom and Community Organizer living in the PNW with her family. She brings with her a dedicated academic and professional background rooted in public health, LGBTQIA+, and reproductive rights advocacy. She was the Education Director on Oregon’s Ballot Measure 109, is a Leadership and Advocacy Team member at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, and is an active member of Basic Rights Oregon’s Fierce Parents of Transgender Youth Committee.