California Senator Explains Next Steps For Psychedelics And Broader Drug Reform After Bill Stalls
A bill to legalize the possession of psychedelics in California has been put on pause until next year, but the Senate sponsor says the move is part of the “complicated legislative process” to get reform enacted—and he’s confident it will ultimately prevail.
Sen. Scott Wiener (D) submitted in a video message to a psychedelics policy forum led by the Chacruna Institute on Wednesday and discussed the challenges of passing such novel legislation. He said that it took significant compromise both internally and externally to get the bill through the Senate and two Assembly committees before he ultimately decided to temporarily pull it last month to build broader support for passage next year.
The senator also reiterated that he feels psychedelics reform is just one part of the mission. And he shares that perspective with David Bronner, another panelist at the forum who is the CEO of the soap company Dr. Bronner’s and has contributed financially to a number of drug policy reform efforts.
“In the big picture, we need to end the war on drugs—for all drugs—and we should not be criminalizing possession and use of drugs,” Wiener said. “Drugs are a health issue, drugs are many things, they’re not a criminal issue.”
“We need to stop packing our prisons full of people who are using drugs, who maybe have an addiction and so forth,” he added. “We need to take a health focus—and I believe that we will get to the point in California where we achieve full drug decriminalization just like Oregon did” during the 2020 election.
Bronner said that he’s expecting statewide measures to decriminalize all drugs in 2024 in at least three additional states: California, Colorado and Washington State.
And so in the interim, the activist funder said he can accept certain revisions to the California psychedelics legislation, such as possession limits that were recently added, even if advocates don’t ultimately agree with them.
“I think it’s totally accomplishable to raise or eliminate these cut-offs [for psychedelics possession] in another decrim ballot measure, and I’ll be pushing hard on that,” Bronner said.
Wiener, meanwhile, said that it “may take us some time to get there” on broader decriminalization, but he’s confident that the state’s move to legalize marijuana could be followed up with psychedelics reform as his bill calls for—and, from there, they can work on comprehensively ending drug prohibition.
“This legislation has gone frankly further than I thought it would go,” he said. “We need more time to build support in the Assembly, but I was not sure that we would make it this far in our first try. Sometimes it takes multiple tries, so I’m really proud of our coalition and of all the supporters. The legislative process is a complicated one, and sometimes you have to have give-and-take take so that not everyone might be in full agreement, as with any coalition.”
While advocates broadly support ending psychedelics criminalization, the community did splinter on certain provisions as the senator’s legislation advanced. There were disagreements about the right policy for peyote because of sustainability concerns; there were disputes about possession limits that were added to the bill; there were concerns about the impact of legalizing the possession of ketamine.
The senator said that they’ve “tried to have an open door and be inclusive, and we will continue to do so” moving forward.
“I think that we still have a very strong piece of legislation—and we are committed to passing it in 2022,” Wiener said. “I look forward to working with this amazing community.”
The sponsor has spent significant energy building support for the reform proposal as it has moved through the legislature, 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 one committee, the bill currently includes language laying out the limits for what is an allowable personal possession amount for each substance. That led Decriminalize Nature (DN), a group that’s worked to enact psychedelics reform across the country, to call for the tabling of the legislation.
This pause on the bill until 2022 is likely welcome news for DN to that end, as members now have more time to make the case for eliminating the possession limitation provision, or reaching some kind of compromise.
Other advocates, however, say they were taking a practical position on the revision, accepting the possession limits in the interest of advancing the reform through a legislature that may otherwise defeat the bill if it contained no such restrictions.
In the Public Safety Committee, Wiener supported an amendment from the panel that removed ketamine from the list of psychedelics included in the reform. That’s in addition to a series of technical revisions that were made to the legislation.
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 reiterated that point on Monday, 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 “makes possession and facilitated or supported use of specified hallucinogenics legal.”
If the bill does ultimately pass through the legislature next year, 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.
Members of the psychedelics panel on Wednesday said in response to a question from Marijuana Moment that the governor’s office has not been involved in negotiations over the specifics of the bill, and they plan to engage in outreach with the administration later in the legislative process.
Previously, Wiener backed a prior ketamine-related amendment in an effort to build support for the legislation.
“There are disagreements within the psychedelic world on it,” the senator said at a meeting with activists in June. “My view as you keep things in until you have to make a give, and that’s one that we could potentially give on. You don’t want to spontaneously give on things without getting some ability to move the bill forward as a result.”
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 psychedelics 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. And a fiscal analysis of the proposal found that it would save the state millions in enforcement costs and also generate state and local tax revenue.
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.
Michigan senators introduced a bill last week to legalize the possession, cultivation and delivery of an array of plant- and fungus-derived psychedelics like psilocybin and mescaline.
The Ann Arbor, Michigan City Council approved entheogenic decriminalization last year—and in July, local lawmakers passed a resolution to officially designate September as Entheogenic Plants and Fungi Awareness Month.
Efforts are also underway in Grand Rapids to enact a policy change for the psychedelic substances.
In California, Oakland and Santa Cruz have already enacted psychedelics decriminalization.
Meanwhile, Denver activists who successfully led a 2019 campaign to make the city the first in the U.S. to decriminalize psilocybin possession have their eyes set on broader reform, with plans in the works to end the criminalization of noncommercial gifting and communal use of the psychedelic.
Massachusetts cities that have enacted the policy change are: Northampton, Somerville and Cambridge. In July, state lawmakers heard testimony about a bill to create a task force charged with studying the implications of legalizing psychedelics like psilocybin and ayahuasca.
The governor of Connecticut recently signed legislation recently that includes language requiring the state to carry out a study into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms.
Texas also recently enacted a bill to require the state study the medical benefits of psychedelics for military veterans.
A New York lawmaker introduced a bill in June that would require the state to establish an institute to similarly research the medical value of psychedelics.
In Oakland, the first city where a city council voted to broadly deprioritize criminalization of entheogenic substances, lawmakers approved a follow-up resolution in December that calls for the policy change to be adopted statewide and for local jurisdictions to be allowed to permit healing ceremonies where people could use psychedelics.
After Ann Arbor legislators passed a decriminalization resolution last year, a county prosecutor announced that his office will not be pursuing charges over possessing entheogenic plants and fungi—“regardless of the amount at issue.”
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. In response, the task force issued a recommendation for the widespread decriminalization of all drugs. The group said psychedelics in particular could represent a promising treatment to address substance abuse disorders and mental health issues.
Meanwhile, Portland, Oregon activists are mounting a push to have local lawmakers pass a resolution decriminalizing the cultivation, gifting and ceremonial use of a wide range of psychedelics.
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.
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