I’ll never forget the first time that I met Tom and Sheri Eckert for lunch at Cheryl’s on 12th in downtown Portland. The therapist couple was seeking some insight into starting a ballot initiative campaign to legalize medicinal psilocybin mushroom therapy in Oregon.
As chief petitioner for the Measure 91 cannabis legalization effort, I did my best to provide them a lay of the land and helped introduce them to a few folks that could help. One of the first things that I noticed, and this observation held steady, the Eckert’s were true believers in the healing power of psilocybin. They weren’t promoting a legal change to generate a new revenue stream for themselves, as their proposed initiative wasn’t going to make them and their fellow therapists any type of gatekeeper, and they wanted to do all that they could to keep Big Pharma from controlling the system.
I couldn’t be more proud of how Tom and Sheri handled the bright spotlight that statewide political races put you under. As Ezra Klein writes in a landmark piece in The New York Times, Oregon, thanks to the Eckert’s and the campaign team that they ultimately put together, is pioneering a medicinal psilocybin program that can show the United States a new, promising way to heal mental trauma:
Measure 109, the Oregon Psilocybin Services Act, approved as a ballot measure in November, is the brainchild of Tom and Sheri Eckert, who shared a therapy practice in Portland. In 2015, the Eckerts read a piece by Michael Pollan in The New Yorker titled “The Trip Treatment.” The article described the emerging research around using psychedelics as a therapeutic tool and unearthed the largely forgotten pre-Timothy Leary period in which psychedelics were widely used by psychiatrists. The government funded more than a hundred studies, and as Pollan recounts in “How to Change Your Mind,” his subsequent book, Anaïs Nin, Jack Nicholson and Cary Grant all underwent LSD-assisted therapy. Bill Wilson, a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who’d given up drinking with the aid of a hallucinogenic plant called belladonna, considered bringing LSD-assisted therapy into AA in the 1950s, but was met with disapproval from his board.
This was a very different model of psychedelic use: There was a trained mental health professional in the room and subsequent therapy to help turn the insights into action. The early results were promising, though the studies were poorly designed. At times, the fear was the compounds were too powerful and left people too malleable to the suggestions of their guide. One early practitioner worried that on psychedelics, “the fondest theories of the therapist are confirmed by his patient,” and that even though the healing was real, the pathway was “nihilistic,” bordering on something like hypnosis. This era of study ended before these questions could be resolved, when psychedelics slipped into the counterculture, where they were used without therapeutic safeguards, and the Nixon administration targeted them as part of its culture war. A remnant of healers who used psychedelics in their work remained, but they were driven underground.
Maybe the most important aspect of Klein’s piece is where the prominent columnist writes about his own experience with psychedelics:
I avoided psychedelics when I was younger, fearful of the loss of control, and tried them later, desperately, when there was more darkness in my mind than light. It was not an easy time for me, and these were not easy experiences. They kicked down doors around my anxiety, my marriage, my work, my family, my resentments, my attachments, my self. Those rooms were often unpleasant to enter. There was ecstasy and beauty, yes, but also fear and, often, so often, intense nausea. Things I’d fought to ignore resurfaced. Disparate parts of my life and beliefs and personality connected, and I became more legible to myself. I am not cleansed of anxiety, but I am more aware that my outlook, at any given moment, is just a dance of brain chemistry and experience, and far from the only state possible. That a few micrograms of chemical was all it took to upend my confident grip on reality shook me in ways I’m grateful for. I hold my judgments and worldviews more lightly, and I am friendlier to mystery and strangeness.
Sadly, Sheri Eckert, someone so full of light and positive energy, passed away last December. As Klein wrote, “An idea could be like a child,” Sheri beautifully told Tom before they embarked on their historic, pioneering initiative campaign. Their idea not only lives on, but it will undoubtedly have children of its own as other states follow Oregon’s example and legalizes psilocybin for therapeutic purposes.
As Oregonians, we can be proud that we are helping lead the way on drug policy and have taken a huge sledgehammer to the racist and failed War on Drugs by passing both Measure 109 and Measure 110 last November. I imagine that we are going to see more positive drug policy reforms, especially as science unlocks the medicinal benefits of other psychedelic drugs, and sees that the “sky doesn’t fall” when you decriminalize drug possession. All of us drug policy reformers stand upon the shoulders of giants and Tom and Sheri Eckert will always be two giants that helped pave the way for more people to heal and I, for one, will always be so thankful.