FORT BRAGG, CA, 4/16/23 — Dr. Richard Miller, a Fort Bragg resident for decades and a practicing psychologist since 1961, has brought a couple big ideas before the Fort Bragg City Council in 2023. He wants the town to create a Community Morale Commission, and to decriminalize garden-grown psychedelic substances such as psilocybin, peyote, and ayahuasca.
Cities and states around the country have pursued decriminalizing, legalizing, or further studying psilocybin mushrooms and some other psychedelics in recent years. Though these substances have long histories of human consumption, with indigenous communities using some plants in ceremonies for centuries, use of the drugs is illegal (aside from tribal and religious exemptions for some). Increasingly, studies have shown that psychedelic therapy could help people struggling with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and PTSD.
Miller’s pitch to decriminalize psychedelics follows similar decriminalization in the cities of Denver and Oakland, in which law enforcement essentially moved psychedelics to the bottom of its to-do list, deprioritizing enforcement against the use of these substances. According to Fort Bragg Mayor Bernie Norvell, that move is not necessarily at the top of the council’s agenda, though he has heard of this research.
“I am no expert on psychedelics and have not done my homework on it,” he wrote in an email to The Mendocino Voice. “I am aware of certain individuals having good results [and] I have heard the VA service is experimenting, with good results, but I have not had any first-hand conversations in that realm.”
But he believes in Miller’s “good intentions,” especially around the idea of a Community Morale Commission. While Norvell is not sure what level of council participation is being sought, he said that if any councilmembers wanted to take up the idea they can do so: “I’m sure everyone could use a morale booster, so why not?”
We got on the phone with Dr. Richard Miller to talk through his ideas. Here’s that conversation, edited for length and clarity.
From reading your proposal materials and listening a bit to your podcast, Mind Body Health & Politics, it’s clear that you have an extensive and varied background in psychedelics. Can you talk a bit about that, and how that’s intersected with your therapeutic practice?
I’ve been interested in psychedelics for well over 50 years, from the time that I was teaching at the University of Michigan. I was influenced by the work of [Timothy] Leary and [Richard] Alpert, at Harvard, because the two departments, the Psychology Department at the University of Michigan and the Psychology Department of Harvard, had a lot of communication and interaction. So I was in on the very early days of psychedelic research, and that was before many of the psychedelics were made illegal by the government. There was a lot of research going on.
Then Nixon declared the war on drugs — but it was really a war against people of color and the hippies, politically. It was a terrible time for any of us professionals to be involved with psychedelics, so I went in a different direction temporarily, although I was a fundraiser for activist groups such as the Marijuana Policy Project to legalize marijuana and the Drug Policy Alliance, to disseminate honest information against what Nixon was putting out, which was totally disinformation, and false. But it was no time to be involved in psychedelics, so I went into chemical dependence treatment.
I had a program for about 15 years on KZYX on the local national public radio affiliate, which I’ve morphed into my present internet broadcast called Mind Body Health & Politics. About 15 to 20 years ago, I decided to get much more actively involved in psychedelics, so I started doing research. I started interviewing the few people around the country, the prominent scientists, who managed to get permission from the federal government to do the research. Out of those early interviews, I published a book that’s been quite a big seller and has been influential; it’s called Psychedelic Medicine. It’s the latest and greatest research on psychedelics around the world.
I’ve continued interviewing people, as I do to this very day, who are doing the foremost research. The foremost research on psychedelics right now is going on at the University of California, San Francisco Medical School; University of California, Los Angeles; New York University; and Johns Hopkins. Those are the four major centers, although many other schools are now researching.
I recently published another book called Psychedelic Wisdom, where I interviewed prominent people all around the United States, many psychiatrists and psychologists who were in their 70s and 80s, one in his 90s. I sort of outed them, if you will. I interviewed them about their sub rosa experimentation with psychedelics for the last 40 years. A tremendous amount of important anecdotal information is in that book. And I’ve got two more books on psychedelics coming out.
So I think it’s fair to say I’m fairly well versed in the topic. Now recently, the city of Oakland followed the city of Denver in decriminalizing vegetables that grow in the ground and fungi. San Francisco has followed. And the state of Oregon has followed. Now, other cities around the country I got word of this week are also following and are decriminalizing.
Why is this important in Fort Bragg?
I think if Fort Bragg decriminalizes, it could help us economically. Fort Bragg is suffering ever since we lost the fishing industry, and the logging industry, and then the depression of 2008 and the pandemic. Suffering is the only word I can use. All you have to do is walk down Franklin Street, off Laurel, which is sort of the center of town, and you see how many stores have been closed for years. That means a lot of people out of work.
The decriminalization could bring business, it could bring products, and it possibly could bring a mental health center specializing in psychedelic psychotherapy. I think a clinic like that in our town could be amazing, because we are somewhat of a tourist attraction. But if we’re going to make money off tourism as a way of staying afloat, we need something more than just the ocean and trees. The city is getting by, but it’s close.
The other thing that decriminalizing psilocybin in Fort Bragg will do is it’ll give the local veterans access to medicines. That’ll help them markedly — we’ve already got the data on that. They’re suffering like perhaps no soldiers coming from any war in America’s history are suffering because of the nature of the warfare they were involved with in Afghanistan and in Iraq. We’ve got these traumatized veterans all over the country. We have our share of them in Fort Bragg, and it would be wonderful for them to get this kind of treatment.
When you’ve talked to other people in the community about decriminalizing psychedelics, have you heard support? Have people raised concerns?
I have been having those conversations, and I feel like I’ve been getting a great deal of support. I can only think of one person who raised a question mark, and that was a member of the police department. He was concerned that I was asking to decriminalize laboratory pharmaceuticals such as LSD. I made it clear to him that we’re talking only about vegetables that come out of the ground, and mushrooms. I’m not asking to decriminalize any laboratory molecules.
Everybody’s in favor of getting some kind of treatment for the veterans. You don’t hear anybody arguing and saying the veterans don’t need help. That’s a big one. Also, the pandemic has brought on a national epidemic of anxiety and depression. Having people purposefully isolated from one another for such a lengthy period of time has caused a tremendous amount of stress. Human beings are friendly tribal animals for the most part, and we like associating and chatting. Look what happened to the Headlands Coffeehouse. The Headlands for years has been like a little community center, where people sit at the same table with people they don’t know, because they have long tables. They chat. That place was bustling before the pandemic. It was hard to get a seat in there, from the time they opened to late in the afternoon. The pandemic: empty. People couldn’t socialize anymore. All those people had to stay in their own homes, and shelter in place. You’re inadvertently creating alienation and isolation, which leads to anxiety and depression.
The therapists in this country have waiting lists miles long nowadays. Psychedelics have the potential, and it’s been proven, to help people with anxiety and depression.
We also have the very old of our community. The very old are dealing with end of life transition — and end of life transition in our culture very often, if not almost always, brings with it anxiety, depression, and fear of death. We have plenty of evidence now that these are helped markedly by these psychedelic substances.
Tell me about your vision for the community morale commission, another idea you’ve presented to the City Council.
The commission would be made up of a wide variety of local citizens who would first do research on where the citizens are at, which would mean they would interview citizens individually and they would hold town hall meetings. The public could speak up about what kinds of things they would like to see, what kinds of help they need, what will benefit them, how they feel. It’s well known that when cities that have city squares, a place where people come with their families and promenade, on a Sunday afternoon, it creates a positive feeling. We don’t have a center like that in Fort Bragg. We don’t have a place where everybody can go with their family, with their kids, hang out on the lawn, be together and meet other people.
Imagine for example, if somehow the city got a grant and gave out 5,000 T-shirts that were beautiful, that all said Fort Bragg on them, and all of us walked around town wearing our Fort Bragg T-shirts. Or maybe we all wore Fort Bragg hats. So when the tourists came here, all these locals, they’re all wearing Fort Bragg T-shirts. They probably want to buy one, too.
What are the kinds of things that build morale? You have one day of the year, it’s called Local Citizens Day. And you block off a couple of the streets, serve food, have dancing, like a block party. I grew up with them as a little boy in Manhattan. They closed off a block. We would all walk around and talk and have fun and dance and eat: A little thing like that you look forward to. It’s Fort Bragg Day. Next thing you know, tourists want to come to Fort Bragg Day because it’s so much fun.
That makes a lot of sense. Because you’ve been involved in different community initiatives in Fort Bragg across healthcare organizing, marijuana policy, working with seniors and in the arts, I’m curious how something like a community morale commission could address some other struggles in this community, such as housing, poverty, or healthcare.
When I made my presentation to the Fort Bragg City Council, one of the supervisors, Lindy Peters, spoke up and said that eight years ago, the city hired outside consultants for advice on what to do with regard to the economy, because we had lost fishing and we had lost logging. He said what the city was told was that we have an ideal geography for a tourist town. The city and the local businesses could all make money. But the commission that they hired reported that there was one problem, and it was a big one. They reported to the city council that in order to have a successful tourist town, you have to have happy people. You have to have people who are upbeat behind the cash registers and serving the food and serving the drinks and fixing your car and doing you know all the things that people in town do. The commission told our city council that we did not have that kind of city, that we had a city that was downbeat.
We had taken tremendous hits. We had taken the hit of losing logging. Hundreds of people out of work. That was huge. Then there was fishing: the state had just passed a law that there would be no salmon fishing for the next couple of years. So we lost the logging, we lost fishing, and then the 2008 Depression hit. We’ve been in the doldrums. Lindy told everybody, this commission told us that we’re depressed as a city — so I think maybe we ought to be considering what Dr. Miller is suggesting.
I think that if we can address the morale of our community as a team, we can pick up our spirits. In fact, I told the city council that, just as Finland has been the happiest country in the world six years in a row, we could be the happiest city in the United States. Why not have that as a goal?
Are your proposals to create a Community Morale Commission and decriminalize psychedelics connected in your mind?
Only insofar as decriminalization could bring in business, and that’s going to help with morale, because we need business. And for a certain percentage of the locals who feel like the laws have always been against them, and the drug wars are against them, and the government’s made vegetables illegal, it will give them hope. It will give them hope that changes can come to some of these draconian laws that are absurd, and really unconstitutional, because nobody really has a right to tell us what we eat. It’s really up to each of us to eat whatever we want. To make certain vegetables illegal because they have certain qualities that affect our consciousness, I don’t think that’s really constitutional. We’re in a situation where if people grow a certain kind of mushroom in their kitchen, and eat it in their living room, they could get arrested. That’s not the way we want to live.
In the course of this conversation, it’s been interesting for me to think about how easy it is to forget that even just a few decades ago, there was a really different landscape around the criminality of substances.
We created a national criminal enterprise with prohibition, and we haven’t learned our lesson. You want people to not use a substance? There’s only one way that really works. It’s called education. Take heroin, for example. Your average normal person isn’t going to get involved with heroin, because it’s an educational process — we know better. Nobody has to make it illegal. Nobody has to tell us not to eat rat poison either. It’ll kill you. But if you made rat poison illegal, somebody’s going to figure out a way to smuggle it.
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.