Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Erin Reading is a co-founder of the Port Townsend Psychedelic Society and one of the people who was instrumental in getting natural psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms decriminalized in rural Port Townsend, Washington.
Today, we’re handing the reigns to Daily Yonder contributor and graphic journalist Nhatt Nichols, who both conducted and illustrated this interview.
Enjoy Nhatt’s conversation with Erin as they talk about the idea of rural areas as testing grounds for radical concepts, Psychedelic Society potlucks, and what decriminalization looks like in a small town.
Nhatt Nichols, The Daily Yonder: Tell me a little bit about what you do and your hopes with the Port Townsend Psychedelics Society. What drove you to change the laws on a local level instead of a national one?
Erin Reading: I love where I live, and I want to live in my dream community. What would make it feel like it has integrity would be for psychedelics to be respected and for people to have access to them. Our community should be educated and empowered to work responsibly and ethically with them.
To make that change it’s all relationship building in my local community. That’s where I want to focus my energy. In building relationships through decriminalization, I’m also building relationships with people in my life and making my personal community stronger. I get to meet all of these people, and it’s rewarding to work at a local level.
The Port Townsend Psychedelic Society doesn’t do anything nationally, and personally, I’m interested in starting local. I am working with a different organization at the state level to decriminalize natural psychedelics in 2024. We’re taking what we did at the city level and working towards it at a county level and then bringing it to the state. I’m excited about that, but where my passionate energy lies is in keeping this as local as possible.
DY: It makes sense that you’re seeing your advocacy work as a way to build relationships because you also see psychedelics as a tool for connection. How did you get started working with psychedelics?
ER: I got my undergrad in philosophy and minored in geography, so I spent a lot of time outside thinking about things. I was a child of the DARE program, and I was not interested in psychedelics; I felt like I was already happy and didn’t need anything else to make me happier. Why would I work with any sort of “drug”?
Then a woman in an astrophysics and philosophy program gave me a book, and after reading it, I realized that psychedelics were another way to inquire into the world. By not taking them, I said, “here I am studying reality through philosophy,” while not engaging in this fundamental way of shifting my experience. So I spent a year reading books and deprogramming myself, and I eventually had my first psilocybin experience. It was life-changing and opened me to a much richer world than what I knew was available, and I became passionate about psychedelics and went to grad school to study them.
DY: And then you found a community of like-minded people, and that’s how you started with the advocacy?
ER: It was a long journey from that first experience, going to grad school and studying psychedelics and being in a community of people working with them. When I landed in Jefferson County, I fell in love with the magic and integrity of the people who live here. I felt like I was in a dream; it was like my dream world, my dream community, but something was missing. We needed to decriminalize these plants so that people could use them in the open and everyone could have access to them. Jefferson County already was significantly influenced by psychedelics; there’s a massive undercurrent of psychedelic work that’s been happening here since the 60s, so the energy was here, but it was underground, and I wanted it to be transparent and open.
Then when Oakland decriminalized all natural psychedelics, we saw that it was possible. That they could do that there meant we could do it here.
DY: I’ve also been looking at our community as a great testing ground. I know the people here, and I know it’s possible to reach out to city council members and county commissioners because they’re our friends and neighbors. I don’t understand why rural areas aren’t used as a testing ground for radical concepts more often. I can only imagine it’s because people are worried about what their neighbors would think if they came forward and said, “I want to decriminalize this or that,” then you’re having difficult conversations where you live, with people you care about. Have you found that there’s been pushback?
ER: Not in the ways that I would have expected. Everyone I’ve talked to has been supportive; where we’ve received pushback is where people have said things like, “No one cares about psychedelics, everyone is already using them, we’re already doing it safely, why do we need to change anything?” I haven’t met anyone who is actually against psychedelics or even against decriminalization. Maybe the prosecuting attorney, but I think he’s just against not following the state.
So it’s hard because all of the arguments we would use to convince people that this is a good idea aren’t helpful because people already agree. Our job is to help people understand why it’s important to decriminalize access.
DY: Then there was a court case.
ER: We had been very stuck. We had been pushing it forward, and the county commissioners and the city council kept saying no one had been arrested in 20 years, so this isn’t an issue, and then someone was arrested. Then both the city council and the county commissioners acknowledged that they had said no one had been arrested, and then someone was arrested, and they took action.
DY: What are the new rules in Port Townsend since the City took action?
ER: It’s de facto-decriminalized, which means that the police department has made it its lowest priority to enforce any laws related to natural hallucinogens. The city council also directed them not to put any funding towards enforcing those laws.
Working on this was fun because I love meeting people and building relationships. The majority of city council members were supportive, and I had great conversations with them, and I feel like I now have a good relationship with them. It felt good, and it made me trust the governmental process in some ways, but then there were a few that were in higher positions of power that were not helpful, and that stopped a lot of what we were working towards. That was frustrating, and I lost a lot of energy battling people that were fighting against something they didn’t even disagree with.
I feel like we have such a cohesive sense of community here. I know all my neighbors, and in some ways bringing up decriminalization and being an advocate for that would have felt uncomfortable if I didn’t already have these strong relationships because I’ve lived here long enough, and I’ve built those relationships. I felt like my neighbors would say, “Oh, I know Erin, and I trust her,” even if it wasn’t their realm of comfort.
DY: There is a level of accessibility that happens when you’re in a smaller community that doesn’t happen elsewhere. Did you experience any moments where people approached you personally and wanted to question you about your work?
ER: That didn’t really happen. We get a lot of emails to the Psychedelic Society website from people thanking us and saying how cool what we do is. At our last potluck, we had over 100 people come. I feel like part of the medicine is the psychedelics and these natural plants that we get to have a relationship with, and part of it is all of the connections we forge between people who care about these plants and care about each other.
There are so many people who want to be of service, and I feel that these medicines are a big pull for that in people. It’s learning to heal yourself so that you can heal others and heal the earth, which helps heal you; it’s these healthy cycles that create beautiful relationships.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.