Stem cell research, clinical use of ‘magic mushrooms’ among issues on state ballots this year

Voters lined up last month in Fairfax, Virginia, to cast their ballots in this year’s elections.


Election Day is 3 November, but U.S. voters have already started to mail in or drop off their ballots. In addition to selecting candidates for local, state, and federal positions, voters in many states will be weighing in on more than 100 initiatives and referenda.

The measures often deal with mundane financial matters. But voters will also get to vote on a number of hot-button issues, including marijuana legalization, abortion, and health care.

There are also a few science-related initiatives that the research community is watching. Here are examples from four states: California, Colorado, Oregon, and Nevada.

Renewing stem cell research funding in California

In 2004, Californians voted in favor of Proposition 71, which established the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to conduct work with human embryonic stem cells, and authorized the state to sell $3 billion in bonds to fund the institute. Now, CIRM’s bond funding has nearly expired, and Proposition 14 aims to renew the flow. It asks voters to approve issuing an additional $5.5 billion in bonds. The proposition is led by Californians for Stem Cell Research, Treatments and Cures and backers include high-profile scientists, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D), and 80 patient advocacy organizations.

The original bond item enabled CIRM to build a dozen new research facilities and fund an array of research projects. CIRM says the effort has resulted in more than 60 clinical trials and two Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved drugs (both for blood cancers).

But some critics say CIRM’s claims are exaggerated and that it has hyped the potential for life-saving stem cell research. The assertion that the two blood cancer drugs “are the result of CIRM’s funding is disingenuous at best, and dishonest at worst,” says Jeff Sheehy, a member of CIRM’s governing board who opposes Proposition 14. He says any state-backed funding would be better invested in addressing homelessness, health care, and education. CIRM would be able find funding elsewhere, he says, such as from private donors and the National Institutes of Health.

Lawrence Goldstein, a stem cell neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, who co-chaired the scientific advisory board for Proposition 71 and again for Proposition 14, disagrees. The proposition’s potential benefits outweigh any costs, he argues, adding that the proposition’s defeat could force CIRM to close. “The cost of the initiative is a tiny fraction of the cost of disease,” he says. He also raises concerns that President Donald Trump, if reelected, could block federal funding for stem cell research. “You don’t know what’s going to happen in 4 years … so California does need to go its own way,” he says.

Bringing wolves back to Colorado

Gray wolves once existed in two-thirds of the continental United States, dominating mountain ranges and roaming the Great Plains. But by the 1940s, trappers and hunters had driven wolves to near extinction. In Colorado, Proposition 114 aims to reintroduce gray wolves to parts of the state. The initiative is spearheaded by the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, an advocacy group.

Eric Washburn, campaign manager for Proposition 114, looks to Yellowstone National Park as a model for Colorado’s initiative. In 1995, biologists reintroduced gray wolves to Yellowstone. Over the past 25 years, they’ve seen “massive ripple effects throughout the [Yellowstone] ecosystem that were driven by the presence of wolves,” Washburn says, including beneficial shifts in vegetation and wildlife populations that many researchers argue were catalyzed by the return of wolves.

Polls suggest a majority of Colorado residents are in favor of the proposition. But some hunters and livestock farmers oppose the measure, concerned that wolves will reduce populations of elk and deer and threaten livestock. But proposition supporters downplay those concerns, noting for example that studies have found wolves are responsible for killing less than 0.1% of livestock. Still, to address such concerns, the proposition includes a provision calling for ranchers who lose livestock to wolves to receive financial compensation.

If Proposition 114 is approved, Washburn says Colorado Parks and Wildlife will spend the next year writing a wolf restoration and management plan. The agency would start to reintroduce wolves by the end of 2023.

Legalizing hallucinogenic mushrooms in Oregon

The clinical use of edible fungi that contain psilocybin, which causes people to experience euphoria and hallucinations, could soon be legalized for the first time in the United States. Voters in Oregon will be considering Measure 109, the Psilocybin Mushroom Services Program Initiative. If passed, it would make Oregon the first state to allow the use of so-called magic mushrooms in clinical research settings. (Possession of the fungi, which is illegal under federal law, has already been decriminalized in Denver; Oakland, California; and Ann Arbor, Michigan.)

Scientists have shown in clinical trials that psilocybin could help those with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It was recognized as a “breakthrough therapy” for major depressive disorder by FDA in late 2019. The mechanism isn’t clear, but psilocybin and related compounds appear to encourage new connections between neurons, says Monnica Williams, a therapist and researcher at the University of Ottawa. That could allow different parts of the brain to communicate in ways they might not have otherwise, she says.

“It’s a powerful drug and can have profound effects on people’s consciousness,” says Jason Luoma, a psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon, and supporter of the measure. “That’s part of why it works and why it’s effective,” he asserts.

If Oregon voters approve Measure 10, the Oregon Health Authority would have 2 years to establish an advisory board as well as licensing and dosage standards. Individuals over the age of 21 could then use psilocybin in a therapeutic setting and under supervision.

Advancing renewable energy in Nevada

Nevada could soon require a doubling of renewable energy use by the state’s electric utility companies. The state already has a constitutional mandate that 25% of electricity be sourced from renewables by 2025. But if voters approve Question 6, the Renewable Energy Standards Initiative, utilities would have to increase that to 50% by 2030.

The initiative was originally on the ballot in 2018 as a constitutional amendment and passed with almost 60% support. But Nevada requires that amendments be approved in two even-numbered election years to become law. Passage this year would fulfill that requirement.

Hydroelectric and geothermal energy have been the main renewable sources in Nevada, according to Chuck Coronella, a chemical engineer at the University of Nevada, Reno. However, as solar power has become cheaper to produce, he suspects many companies could capitalize on the Sun to reach the 50% goal.

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