A Senate-passed bill to legalize possession of certain psychedelics in California cleared a procedural hurdle on Monday—but it faces another critical challenge in the Assembly next week that could decide its fate.
After passing the Senate earlier this year, the legislation from Sen. Scott Wiener (D) has moved through two Assembly committees so far. It advanced through a second reading on the chamber’s floor on Monday and was re-referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Now advocates are focusing on what happens on August 26, when the measure is expected to be considered by the panel during a “suspense hearing.”
It passed there, it will be eligible for third reading passage on the floor. If it clears the full Assembly then, it would need to go back to the Senate for concurrence on recent amendments by September 10 in order to reach the governor’s desk this year. If that doesn’t happen, it could remain floor eligible but wouldn’t be acted upon until January at the earliest.
The worst case scenario for advocates is if the bill is “held on suspense” in Appropriations next week, which means it’s effectively dead.
Wiener has spent significant energy building support for the reform proposal as it has moved through the full Senate and two Assembly committees, including by holding a recent rally with military veterans, law enforcement and health officials.
SB 519 would remove criminal penalties for possessing numerous psychedelics—including psilocybin mushrooms, DMT, ibogaine, LSD and MDMA—for adults 21 and older.
As a result of changes approved by the latest panel last month, the bill includes language laying out the limits for what is an allowable personal possession amount for each substance. That’s led Decriminalize Nature (DN), a group that’s worked to enact psychedelics reform across the country, to call for the tabling of the legislation while disagreements are worked out.
Carlos Plazola, co-founder of the organization, recently told DoubleBlind that the only provision of the legislation that “we’ll die on the hill for is limits.” He said Decriminalize Nature’s “official position is neutral with a request that they park the bill and remove limits for natural plant medicines.”
But Wiener told the outlet that he doesn’t want to lose momentum by slowing things down, and said his goal is to “pass this bill this year and to have it signed into law this year.”
Other advocates say they are taking a practical position on the revision, accepting the possession limits in the interest of advancing the reform through a legislature that could otherwise defeat the bill if it contained no such restrictions. That would leave criminalization in place across the board.
As currently drafted, these are the prescribed limits for personal possession that would be legalized:
-2 grams of DMT
-15 grams of ibogaine
-0.01 grams of LSD
-4 grams of mescaline
-2 grams of the controlled substance psilocybin or 4 ounces of a plant or fungi containing the controlled substance psilocybin.
-2 grams of the controlled substance psilocyn or 4 ounces of a plant or fungi containing the controlled substance of psilocyn
-4 grams of MDMA.
It should be noted that while personal possession limits would be imposed under the revision, facilitators could have aggregate amounts for group use, meaning they could possess the allowable amount for each individual involved in a ceremony. And when it comes to personal cultivation, there would not be any limits.
In a prior Assembly panel, Wiener supported a committee amendment that removed ketamine from the list of psychedelics included in the reform. That’s in addition to a series of technical revisions that have been made to the legislation since it was first introduced.
Wiener has described its prospects going forward as “very challenging,” but he made the case at a recent press event that it is a necessary policy change to advance mental health reform and end criminalization.
Under the measure, the state Department of Public Health would be required to establish a working group “to study and make recommendations regarding possible regulatory systems that California could adopt to promote safe and equitable access to certain substances in permitted legal contexts.” Those recommendations would be due by January 1, 2024.
For psilocybin specifically, the legislation would repeal provisions in California statute that prohibit the cultivation or transportation of “any spores or mycelium capable of producing mushrooms or other material” that contain the psychoactive ingredient.
The bill originally included record sealing and resentencing provisions for people previously convicted of psychedelics possession offenses, but that language was removed in its last committee stop prior to the Senate floor vote as part of an amendment from the sponsor.
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Wiener said the reasoning behind that deletion was that the policy “ended up generating a huge price tag” based on a fiscal analysis, but it could be addressed in separate legislation if the main bill passes.
Speaking at an event hosted by the Psychedelic and Entheogen Academic Council (PEAC) in June, the senator said advancing the legislation would be first step toward decriminalizing all currently illicit drugs. He later reiterated that point, stating that “this bill is one step in the direction of ending the failed war on drugs.”
While the bill is being described by lawmakers and advocates as simple “decriminalization,” the official legislative analysis of the proposal states that it would “make lawful” the personal possession of these substances.
If the bill does ultimately clear the Assembly, it still remains unclear whether Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) would sign it—though the governor has long been an outspoken critic of the war on drugs.
Mescaline, a psychoactive compound derived from peyote and other cacti, is another controversial psychedelic.
It was specifically excluded from the bill’s reform provisions in peyote-derived form, but the possession of the compound would be allowed if it comes from other plants such as “the Bolivian Torch Cactus, San Pedro Cactus, or Peruvian Torch Cactus.”
That decision on the peyote exclusion was informed by native groups who have strongly pushed back against decriminalizing the cacti for conservationist reasons and because of its sacred value for their communities.
Meanwhile, California activists recently filed a petition for the 2022 ballot to make the state the first in the nation to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for any use.
The psychedelics effort in the California legislature, which Wiener first previewed back in November, comes as activists are stepping up the push to enact psychedelics reform locally in cities in the state and across the country. The bill notes those efforts in an explanation of the proposal.
Psychedelics reform is currently advancing in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Easthampton, Massachusetts and Arcata, California, for example.
Other Massachusetts cities that have enacted the policy change are: Northampton, Somerville and Cambridge. And earlier this month, state lawmakers also heard testimony about a bill to create a task force charged with studying the implications of legalizing psychedelics like psilocybin and ayahuasca.
The Ann Arbor, Michigan City Council approved the policy change last year—and last week, local lawmakers passed a resolution to officially designate September as Entheogenic Plants and Fungi Awareness Month.
Voters in Washington, D.C. approved a ballot measure to decriminalize psychedelics in the nation’s capital in November.
For the most part, the burgeoning psychedelics movement has been limited to decriminalization—with the exception or Oregon, where voters elected to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes during last year’s election.
All of these latest developments are some of the latest iterations of a national psychedelics reform movement that’s spread since Denver became the first city to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in 2019.
The Aspen, Colorado City Council discussed the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like psilocybin and proposals to decriminalize such substances at a meeting in May. But members said, as it stands, enacting a reform would be more better handled at the state level while entheogens remain strictly federally controlled.
Seattle lawmakers also recently sent a letter to members of a local task force focused on the opioid overdose epidemic, imploring the group to investigate the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like ayahuasca and ibogaine in curbing addiction.
The psychedelics conversation is also catching on at the federal level.
But in a setback for advocates, the U.S. House of Representatives recently voted against a proposal from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) that would have removed a spending bill rider that advocates say has restricted federal funds for research into Schedule I drugs, including psychedelics such as psilocybin, MDMA and ibogaine. However, it picked up considerably more votes this round than when the congresswoman first introduced it in 2019.
Report provisions of separate, House-passed spending legislation also touch on the need to expand cannabis and psychedelics research. The panel urged the National Institute On Drug Abuse (NIDA) to support expanded marijuana studies, for example
It further says that federal health agencies should pursue research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for military veterans suffering from a host of mental health conditions.
When it comes to broader drug policy reform, Oregon voters also approved an initiative in November to decriminalize possession of all drugs. This year, the Maine House of Representatives passed a drug decriminalization bill, but it later died in the Senate.
In May, lawmakers in Congress filed the first-ever legislation to federally decriminalize possession of illicit substances.
Photo courtesy of Dick Culbert.