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Americans for Prosperity's David Herbst champions psychedelic drug reform
The State Director for AFP-Montana, Herbst also discusses the organization's priorities for the 2023 Legislature.
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Over the past few years, psychedelic plants and fungi have enjoyed a renaissance in America, thanks in part to a growing body of promising scientific research and a steady stream of popular books and television on the subject, including, most notably, Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind.
And our laws have begun to reflect this waning stigma: more than a dozen cities and localities around the country have effectively decriminalized various psychedelics for individual use, while Oregon and Colorado have voted to legalize psilocybin (magic mushrooms) for therapeutic use.
If Montana or any of its cities ever follow suit, there’s a good chance that Americans for Prosperity will be able to take some of the credit.
Americans for Prosperity (AFP) occupies a singular position in the American political discourse. Founded by the notorious libertarian mega-donors David and Charles Koch in 2004, the sprawling organization advocates for free markets, less taxation, less regulation and less government, writ large. While those policies tend to resonate with the political right, AFP has embraced issues with bipartisan appeal as well, such as marijuana decriminalization and pro-housing reform.
Psychedelic decriminalization first piqued the attention of AFP’s Montana team this July, when Missoula City Council considered a decrim resolution of its own. (Technically, the resolution prevented the city from allocating police time or resources to enforcing the prohibition of psychedelics, in lieu of full decriminalization.) Although the council tabled the proposal before it could get put to a vote, it nonetheless struck a chord with members of the organization’s staff.
Furthermore, AFP indicated that it would be open to supporting decriminalization at the state level. That could include testifying at hearings, educating lawmakers on the subject or offering input on an eventual bill.
This upcoming legislative session, the GOP will dominate the state legislature with a veto-proof supermajority; I can’t imagine any group better positioned to win over enough lawmakers to make decriminalization a reality in Montana than AFP.
Today, I’m thrilled to share my interview with the organization’s State Director, David Herbst. A veteran Montana political insider and former legislative staffer to then-Congressman Steve Daines, Herbst explains how psychedelic decriminalization fits into the larger AFP ethos, praises psychedelics’ therapeutic properties, singles out a Democrat who he thinks could make an effective sponsor for the bill, and, finally, walks us through the organization’s top priorities for the upcoming session.
Max: Thanks for taking the time to chat, David. How did this issue end up on your radar? Why is it something you have interest in pursuing?
David Herbst: At Americans for Prosperity, our take is that the criminal justice system has embraced a false dichotomy: that we could either be soft on crime or hard on crime. What we really need to be is smart on crime. What we need to do is prioritize the things that save tax dollars for taxpayers and result in a peaceful society where people's rights are protected, their properties are protected, their physical bodies are protected and they're able to do the sorts of things that make the world a better place for themselves.
That vision of abundance applies to people who are formerly incarcerated too, so we try to think about how we can end the cycle of recidivism.
Deprioritizing and decriminalizing psychedelics does not drive social disharmony. This is the sort of thing that has potential medical use. We should be open to reconsidering [the prohibition of psychedelics] because it has a tremendous social cost with no real social gain. That's clear.
Was decriminalization already on your radar when Missoula attempted to pass their resolution this summer?
I'll take a step back and then a step forward. AFP 's mostly known as an economic freedom, limited government-type of organization. But between 2017 and 2018, we made a transition to taking on more issues. We realized that the defense of a free society is a comprehensive thing. We can't not talk about immigration. We can't not talk about foreign policy. We can't not talk about criminal justice if we are serious about limiting government to its just role.
So we started taking up those issues as components of the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions [in Montana], where I met more of the center-left partners that engage in this space. They’re not all from a completely aligned point of view to ours, but usually they're fellow travelers heading in the same direction when it comes to making sure that we are prioritizing correctly. How do we make sure we're treating people not as permanently bad members of society, but rather as human beings who make mistakes and are capable of redemption.
When the Missoula example came up, we had recently hired Jesse Ramos, a former city councilman from Missoula, onto our team to help us improve our communications work here in the state. And Jesse flagged this as a potential opportunity. An important part of our comparative advantage is our ability to leverage grassroots activists to make a difference. So we discussed this with our local organizer, Isaac [Edikauskas], who has a great young, professional-aged community, and was really excited about this idea and the prospect of being able to advocate for it. So we said, let's charge ahead and see where we can help out the city council as they're considering this.
Looking forward to the upcoming legislative session, do you see AFP helping to draft a psychedelic decrim bill?
I'm not aware of any decrim or state level policy that's looking at psychedelics. We'd be open to beginning the education work to talk about this issue, but right now it's not clear that this is a priority of the governor. I don't think it is. I think he tends to think of things a little differently.
And [he] sets the tone for the legislature in a lot of ways with the Republican majority that we have. A lot of progress happens in the kind of increments of local actors doing the things like Missoula did, to a session-by-session effort where a bill comes up and it's debated. That's a great opportunity to really educate and move legislators.
We've seen this repeatedly in our history here, because it's very difficult to get a citizen legislature to get and process all that information. Especially when you're fighting a stereotype of what [psychedelics] are, it's going to take time to build that kind of openness on a statewide basis.
Playing devil’s advocate for a second… if psychedelic decriminalization couldn't make it in Missoula, how could it ever make it in the state legislature?
(laughs) Sure. It's a question of education too, though.
We would need to make a case on the state level and continue to build that case if we're gonna pass something like this, but it's going to take time. It's not going to happen in one session.
Are you in favor of decriminalization eventually leading to full psychedelic legalization, like in Oregon [and now Colorado]?
I definitely am in favor of decriminalization at the minimum, and legalization at the maximum. Decriminalization is a half step to legalization, which has a lot of social benefits. Meaning, if I have a comparative advantage in growing mushrooms that allow people to enjoy them or take them as medicine, that is an important component that is missing out of decriminalization: I can't benefit from that. I have to give it away, or I have to do so in some quasi-gray-black market, right? We want to remove those costs socially and put the social responsibility on the consumer to decide if this is right for them. And then lastly, to use them in such a way that's safe for the rest of the community, like not driving intoxicated.
Those sorts of social problems are navigable at a much lower social cost than prohibition, which creates an on-ramp to criminalization, and creates an on-ramp to all these other things that we know now have tremendous social downsides.
In both my view and AFP's view, decriminalization is a great step. Legalization is good, too. Each step in that ladder is a way to say, Hey, this is something that can be used [constructively].
If you have someone who's dying of cancer, who can assuage the psychological trauma of their impending death, and that these drugs help them do that, how could we as a society decide, no, you're not allowed to do that? I mean, come on. Much less the veteran problem in Missoula. It's outrageous. Suicide's a huge problem.
If it could be used in a medical setting to help people deal with the trauma of war, how could we as a society say no? That's preposterous. By keeping it illegal, we miss out on all of that social benefit. We have to make it visible to the people who make those decisions so that the wrong people who have bad incentives in this area can do the right thing.
Do you think a hypothetical bill would need a GOP sponsor to stand a chance?
It depends on the Democrat sponsor. If they're known for working across the aisle, if they have good partnerships on the right, that makes a huge difference, especially in this space. A good example is State Senator Ellie Boldman, from Missoula, who did a great job pushing for more housing [policy] through last session.
Danny Tenenbaum had a great bill on that, [too]. They understood that those kind of solutions are applicable to the right when framed appropriately, and argued for appropriately. They were good champions.
If Missoula brings decrim up for another vote, would AFP take action on it?
It depends on the trade-offs at that time. Of course, we have to prioritize. We have limited resources. But hey, if it comes up next summer and we don't have a session, and we're just doing our community building and education stuff, I don't see a reason why we wouldn't.
Nice. Lastly, what can you tell readers about your top priorities for the 2023 Legislative session?
Number one is a land use and housing agenda that we've been building on for about eighteen months now: How do we use market processes to make housing more abundant so that the prices can be more reflective of the actual earning potential of Montanans?
The actor in that space that we're coming up against is those local governments that want to control everything, want to control the use of the land…they have perverse incentives to listen to the squeakiest wheel and listen to the people who want high house prices. They've been making a lot of bad decisions. So what we want to do is guarantee the individual right of people to transform their property, within safety limitations of course, and good standards of practice, to make housing more abundant.
We have key things we want to do in healthcare reform. And we've also been working in the criminal justice space on a bill to bring together all of the criminal justice data into a single place, that will allow us to better measure and understand—primarily in the government and also third parties and interest groups—how public policy is affecting actual criminal justice outcomes.
Right now we don't have individualized data, much less public data, much less information that we could really use to understand, from an end-to-end system, if this was a business, how are people entering the criminal justice system: What was their experience within that, and then how do they exit and when do they return? And how does that happen? What are the inputs and costs going through that line that will allow us to make more intelligent decisions about this as we go forward? And also hopefully inculcate a better, clearer understanding among the legislature about what's actually happening in the system. Right now it's a bit of a black box, which is costly. So if we proactively gather and release that data, then we can rely upon the social function of free speech for people that dig into it and analyze it. That increase in knowledge will be critical for us making better criminal justice reform [decisions].
One more thing, and I'd be remiss I didn't say it: education reform is probably one of our top issues. There's a tremendous amount of people who are frustrated by the public school system and want to see more flexibility in the hands of parents to make the decision that's best for the kids. We’re going to be working on that, too.
Another one of our bread and butter issues has been campus free speech, and making sure that our campuses are places where people can articulate their thoughts, and make sure that we have a robust environment for our publicly funded campuses to recognize the civil liberties that the students who go in have. We [have a campus free speech bill, but] I don't really want to talk about exactly what's in it yet. We have to set up the kinds of structures and systems that protect students and civil liberties on campus in a way that comports with our values of free and open society.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Well, that’s all for today, folks. I’ll be taking next week off for Thanksgiving. I hope you find some time to rest next week yourselves, and we’ll be back with new interviews the following week!
In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.