A California senator sponsoring a bill to legalize possession of psychedelics in the state says the proposal is a step toward eventually decriminalizing all drugs.
“We want to get there,” he said in a recent meeting with activists and researchers, though he added that it’s possible the broader reform would need to be decided by voters.
Sen. Scott Wiener (D) made the comments last week in a chat hosted by the Psychedelic and Entheogen Academic Council (PEAC), discussing next steps for his psychedelics legislation after it passed in the Senate earlier this month. He said advancing the measure in the Assembly will be “very challenging” due to a number of factors, but he sees progress in the legislature.
It’s also unclear where Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) stands on the reform, he said—though the governor has long been an outspoken opponent of the war on drugs.
“This is the first time that this idea has ever been introduced in the legislature,” Wiener said. “It’s a brand new idea” that “many of my colleagues have never interacted with.”
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.
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.
Since clearing the Senate, SB 519 has been referred to two Assembly committees—Public Safety and Health—but the clock is ticking to move it this session. The senator said it must be heard by the panels by July 15, and then it would go the the Appropriations Committee, which would need to take action by late August.
If all goes well, Wiener told the PEAC members that a floor vote in the Assembly would happen in early September. Should the chamber approve it, the bill would go back to the Senate for concurrence on any amendments (or otherwise go right to Newson’s desk). The governor would need to receive the bill by September 10, and then he would have 30 days to act on it.
Assembly passage is far from a given, however. There are “rivalries” and “tensions” between the two chambers, Wiener said, despite the fact that they’re controlled by the same party.
Colleagues in the same chamber might be more willing to “give you a benefit of the doubt in helping you move forward bills,” he said. What’s more, members in the Assembly go up for reelection more frequently than in the Senate, making them less inclined to back novel legislation like the psychedelics proposal.
The senator said one possible amendment that could be expected in the Assembly would be to remove ketamine from the list of psychedelics that would be included in the reform.
“There are disagreements within the psychedelic world on it,” he said. “It might come out. 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.
If enacted into law, the bill would remove criminal penalties for possessing or sharing numerous psychedelics—including psilocybin mushrooms, DMT, ibogaine, LSD and MDMA—for adults 21 and older.
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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.
But this bill, Wiener emphasized at the beginning of the meeting, is ultimately an incremental step to ending the drug war.
“My view is we should be decriminalizing possession and use of all drugs—and we want to get there,” he said. “This is a step just like cannabis [legalization] was a step. And ultimately we may need to go to the voters for the broader drug decriminalization like Oregon.”
For the time being, however, the senator encouraged PEAC members in San Francisco, where lawmakers are more amenable to psychedelics reform, to reach out to people in other areas of the state to apply pressure on their representatives.
Meanwhile, a group of California activists announced plans earlier this year to put an initiative to legalize the use and retail sale of psilocybin on the state’s 2022 ballot. That group, Decriminalize California, said that it would first work to convince lawmakers to pursue reform and then take the issue directly to the people if the legislature fails to act.
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.
The Northampton, Massachusetts City Council passed a resolution in April to deprioritize enforcement of laws against the possession, use and distribution of a wide range of psychedelics such as psilocybin and ayahuasca. It’s the third city in the state to advance the policy change, following Somerville and Cambridge.
These are some of the latest iterations of a national psychedelics reform movement that’s spread rapidly since Denver became the first city to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in 2019.
In Oregon, November’s election saw the passage of a historic initiatives to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes and more broadly decriminalize possession of all drugs.
The governor of Connecticut signed legislation last week that includes language requiring the state to carry out a study into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms.
Texas lawmakers also recently sent their governor a bill to require the state study the medical benefits of psychedelics for military veterans.
A New York lawmaker introduced a bill this month 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 recently 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 last month. 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.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.