On the eve of a key committee vote, a California senator was joined by military veterans, medical professionals and former law enforcement officials at a press conference on Monday to build support for his bill to legalize possession of psychedelics in the state.
The Senate has already approved the legislation, which faces its first Assembly hearing on Tuesday.
Sen. Scott Wiener (D), sponsor of SB 519, held the event days after opponents—including a candidate for state attorney general—rallied against the proposal.
Right-wing anti-science voices — the ones who push the failed War on Drugs — are spreading flat-out lies on our bill to decriminalize psychedelics.#SB519 is being driven by combat veterans & parents who’ve seen psychedelics’ life-saving power to treat mental health & addiction.
— Senator Scott Wiener (@Scott_Wiener) June 28, 2021
“We’re here today to talk about solutions—real solutions for our veterans, real solutions for Californians of all backgrounds struggling with trauma, with depression, with anxiety, with addiction,” Wiener said at his press event. “Psychedelics have shown huge promise in treating mental health and substance use disorders and have been a lifeline for so many.”
“Mental health is a critical reason to decriminalize psychedelics,” the senator said. “But let’s be clear that there’s another reason, and that is that the racist war on drugs, which has fueled mass incarceration and torn apart communities, particularly communities of color, but has not made us any safer.”
Marine Corps veteran Juliana Mercer, Heroic Hearts Project Founder Jesse Gould and Law Enforcement Action Partnership’s Diane Goldstein were among those who participated in the event.
“Decriminalizing psychedelics will allow law enforcement to prioritize serious threats to public safety and redirect resources away from ineffective drug control strategies to strategies that actually work and are grounded in evidence-based practices,” Goldstein, who served as a lieutenant in the Redondo Beach Police Department, said. “Our current system fails to recognize the medical uses of psychedelics and prevents so many of our vulnerable veterans from seeking the care that they need.”
Gould said that she “tried all that was offered to me by military medicine” to treat mental health conditions that he developed after his time in service.
“I was barely hanging on,” he said. “I turned to psychedelics as a last ditch effort to survive.”
Proud to stand w/ veterans & healthcare professionals in support of #SB519, our bill to decriminalize psychedelics.
Psychedelics have shown great promise in treating PTSD, depression, anxiety & more. This is a critical mental health & criminal justice reform bill. pic.twitter.com/i8eLIRk10P
— Senator Scott Wiener (@Scott_Wiener) June 28, 2021
The Senate approved the bill earlier this month, and it’s scheduled for action in the Assembly Public Safety Committee—one of two panels it’s been referred to in the chamber—on Tuesday. Wiener has described its prospects going forward as “very challenging,” but he made the case at Monday’s conference that it is a necessary policy change to advance mental health reform and end criminalization.
The measure would remove criminal penalties for possessing or sharing numerous psychedelics—including psilocybin mushrooms, DMT, ibogaine, LSD and MDMA—for adults 21 and older.
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) this month, 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.”
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.
Wiener said this month that 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.
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 this month 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 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.