Election

Convicted fraudsters helped put Detroit mushroom ordinance on ballot. Why?

November 11, 2021, 11:04 PM by  Catherine Nouhan

Detroit’s recent approval of a ballot proposal decriminalizing mushrooms and other psychedelics has been framed by some as a social justice win — a majority Black city fighting back against the harmful War on Drugs.

But there’s more to the story. The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office says it sees very few psilocybin cases in Detroit, raising questions about the aims of the ordinance's authors. One group involved, Decriminalize Nature Detroit, says it's about helping city residents utilize plant-based psychedelics — or entheogenic plants — to improve their mental health.

The proposal’s other two backers, Southfield businessman Robert Shumake and former state Sen. Bert Johnson, both have white-collar criminal histories. Shumake insists he's not motivated by the money-making potential in the looser restrictions. Until now, there's been virtually no mention of their involvement in authoring the proposal and getting it on the ballot.


Robert Shumake

Shumake pleaded guilty in 2017 to two misdemeanor violations for a fraudulent mortgage scheme in which some people lost their homes. He’s since become involved in the marijuana industry, and was accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission in September of running a misleading crowdfunding campaign for his cannabis real estate company and pocketing the proceeds.

Johnson served jail time in 2018 after adding a ghost employee to his Senate payroll — stealing more than $23,000 from taxpayers.

A third player, Moudou Baqui, says his organization, Decriminalize Nature Detroit, has been pushing for the relaxation of rules around psychedelics for therapeutic use in the city for the last two and a half years. Much of the proposal's language, he said, was based on grassroots decriminalization efforts in Oakland and Denver.

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Bert Johnson

The unlikely alliance saw success last week as 61 percent of voters approved Prop E, adding Detroit to a growing list of cities across the nation that have decriminalized plants like mushrooms and peyote and building momentum for a statewide decriminalization proposal recently sponsored by state Sens. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and Adam Hollier (D-Detroit). 

It also paves the way for potential business opportunities, as was seen in Ann Arbor after its city council decriminilized mushrooms earlier this year.

Shumake insists he is not motivated by money, but rather a recent ayahuasca “journey” in Costa Rica.

'Liberate Detroiters'

“I authored prop E based upon … the sole belief that people would be transformed by it,” he wrote in an email to Deadline Detroit. “There is zero financial benefit from that mission. The goal is simple: liberate Detroiters.” 

Recently, Shumake was involved in an effort to win former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s release from prison. But beyond that, his track record of liberating Detroiters is limited.

In 2009, the Free Press reported that Shumake lied extensively on his résumé when he convinced the City of Detroit’s pension boards to invest $70 million in his companies.

In 2017, Shumake's now-defunct company, Mortgage Auditors of America, was convicted of illegally collecting fees to audit clients’ mortgages and aid in the renegotiation of their debt. He was ordered to pay approximately $28,000 in restitution.

As recently as last year, the SEC says Shumake and his business associates misled investors by saying they would share in profits for his cannabis real estate company if they donated to his crowdsourcing campaign. They also concealed his past criminal history and his leading role in both offerings.

'Diverted hundreds of thousands'

“To make matters worse, they diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the offering proceeds for their personal benefit,” a complaint filed against Shumake by the SEC reads. “None of the money raised in either offering was used to acquire or improve cannabis real estate. None of the investors in either crowdfunding offering has received any return on their investment, and few investors have recovered any of the funds they invested.”

Johnson, meanwhile, was sentenced to 90 days in jail for his theft from taxpayers, in what The Detroit News reported was seen as a major break after current and former elected officials including ex-Detroit Mayor Dave Bing wrote supportive letters to his judge. Prosecutors had pushed for a 6-12 month sentence.

Johnson lobbied for Prop E and filed the petitions to get it on the Nov. 2 ballot. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Baqui said he trusts the two despite their backgrounds.

“I’m a grassroots guy, and I represent a whole lot of grassroots advocates, and [Shumake’s] intentions seem to be genuine. I know that, of course, as a business person he may be looking to make some money, but I don’t see any attempt to exploit the situation,” Baqui said.

“If there’s some attempt to strong-arm the market, it would mess it up because there are so many of us who are true lovers and true advocates of this medicine.”

Ann Arbor model

Keeping markets that arise from the new law small and equitable is top priority for Baqui, though he says the state legislation could disrupt that model.

“This is America,” Baqui said. “This is a business country. In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before big pharma or big business gets into it. But in the meantime, the idea is to create models that everyday, regular people can participate in, that they can benefit from, and they can have autonomy in.”

Site-selection services, group sessions and one-on-one therapeutic sessions would stimulate a local “micro-economy.” One has already begun to bloom in Ann Arbor, whose city council voted to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms a year ago. Facilitated psychedelic group sessions, an entheogenic festival, and a magic mushroom delivery service of questionable legality have popped up since.

First, however, Baqui said “there’s a massive need” to educate Detroiters on the therapeutic uses of the entheogenic substances, which his group began doing as it collected more than 3,600 signatures to put the initiative on the ballot. He hopes to also host an education workshop during Black History Month.

"We know that people are very sensitive about the idea of any type of plant medicines or anything that is considered drugs," Baqui said. "In Detroit, legislation has been slipped in the midnight hour, and (people) may or may not feel good about it. So we tried to stop that cycle of political disrespect."



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