Last week, Denver voters approved an initiative to decriminalize the use, possession and production of psilocybin—the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms.” And while they are the first in the nation to do so, other states like Oregon and California are also considering putting ballot measures on psychedelics up for a vote in 2020.
But as states are beginning to move toward psilocybin decriminalization, don’t expect the issue to garner the same level of attention in Washington, D.C. that cannabis is currently enjoying—at least not yet. Legislators on Capitol Hill who either come from a state considering psychedelics legislation or have a history of championing marijuana reform—another federal Schedule I substance—had no comment on the issue when asked over the past week.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a longtime supporter of cannabis reform legislation, was willing to answer questions about what it will take for a marijuana banking bill to pass the Senate, but when asked by Marijuana Moment if states’ rights apply to psilocybin, the senator demurred.
“I don’t, I don’t have a comment on that,” he said, picking up his pace and hurrying down the hall in Dirksen Senate Office Building.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), who represents Denver, has filed several bills aimed at protecting state cannabis laws from federal intervention following Colorado voters’ approval of legalization in 2012. But her office did not respond to several queries about how the congresswoman voted on the local psilocybin ballot measure last week or what actions she is prepared to take to support it at the federal level.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), whose state may put a psilocybin measure on the ballot in 2020, was somewhat aware of the issue but said his office hasn’t considered it deeply.
“As you know, there have been a host of areas where, when the federal government has dragged its feet, the states have moved,” Wyden said.
The senator then directed Marijuana Moment to a health policy aide, who in turn referred to another staffer in the senator’s office who handles cannabis issues, who ultimately said it was an issue they haven’t looked into.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Reps. Lou Correa (D-CA), Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and Conor Lamb (D-PA), who have all introduced or cosponsored cannabis legislation, and most of whom come from states considering psilocybin reform, all said they did not know enough about the issue to comment.
Lamb, who has signed onto bills calling for more research into cannabis’s potential medical benefits for military veterans, admitted he didn’t know what psilocybin was.
And Correa, who is the chief sponsor of the same veterans legislation, said, “I don’t know what a mushroom looks like—if it’s big, tall or what.”
Activists in Correa’s home state of California are preparing to place a psilocybin decriminalization measure on the state’s general election ballot next year.
The reluctant response isn’t surprising to advocates. Jag Davies of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates for the decriminalization of all drugs, including marijuana and psilocybin, says that cannabis is by far the most well-known Schedule I substance among politicians.
“That shows right there how different [psilocybin] is from marijuana, where it isn’t… a name people are familiar with,” says Davies.
— Senator John Cornyn (@JohnCornyn) May 9, 2019
And many D.C.-based cannabis advocacy groups also do not have plans to incorporate mushrooms into their daily lobbying agenda.
“We have marijuana on the door, not drug,” Justin Strekal of NORML told Marijuana Moment.
Part of the reason for this, especially among advocates, is the impact level. Exponentially more Americans are arrested every year for cannabis possession than for mushrooms. According to the Denver district attorney’s office, only 11 psilocybin cases went to trial there over the past three years. Conversely, in Colorado the year before marijuana became legal, more than 12,000 people were arrested on cannabis-related charges.
Davies says singling out specific, smaller-impact drugs like psilocybin is a mistake that results in the lack of attention given to the issue on the federal level. Advocates feel that instead of trying to tackle the issue piecemeal, states and municipalities trying to end drug prohibition should take a holistic view of decriminalization, as the Colorado legislature has done in passing a bill that decriminalizes single possession of a Schedule I or Schedule II drug—which includes psilocybin. That bill is now headed to the Gov. Jared Polis (D), who is expected to sign it.
Most advocates agree, though, that psilocybin likely would not have been decriminalized had cannabis not already paved the way. And even so, it wasn’t until multiple states legalized marijuana for recreational use that Congress began to take cannabis legislation seriously. When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, for example, his campaign took pains to clarify that he didn’t even support decriminalizing cannabis; but in 2019, Democratic presidential hopefuls are practically tripping over each other to show greater support for legalizing marijuana outright.
For most politicians on Capitol Hill, cannabis is where their focus is going to stay for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve spent years setting the table for the blueprint, dealing with cannabis legalization,” says long-time cannabis advocate Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who released a ‘blueprint’ detailing the path toward comprehensive cannabis legalization on the federal level last year.
“I’m resisting the siren call of being involved with each thing that comes down the path,” he said when Marijuana Moment asked whether he would endorse the proposed psilocybin measure that could appear on the ballot in his home state of Oregon next year.
But even while there appear to be no members of Congress who are currently ready to actively champion broader drug policy reform concerning psychedelics, some are keeping an open mind on the issue.
“Let me tell you how I came to the conclusion that veterans needed to be treated with cannabis: they came to me,” said Correa, who has since led the charge to expand veterans-focused marijuana research.
“I think [also considering psilocybin research for veterans] is a possibility,” the congressman added. “I think we need to look at other alternatives to treating patients, to treating veterans, other than opioids.”
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.
New Jersey Voters Will Decide On Marijuana Legalization Next Year, Senate Leaders Say
New Jersey lawmakers are giving up on plans to enact marijuana legalization through the legislature and are now seeking to put the question before voters on the 2020 ballot.
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D) announced on Monday that while they had “made further attempts to generate additional support in the Senate to get this done legislatively,” the “votes just aren’t there.” As a result, they filed a proposal that would allow residents to vote on legalization as a constitutional amendment.
“We are moving forward with a plan to seek voter approval to legalize adult use marijuana in New Jersey,” the leaders said in a press release. “We introduced legislation today to authorize a public referendum for a proposal that will lead to the creation of a system that allows adults to purchase and use marijuana for recreational purposes in a responsible way.”
— Brian Thompson (@brian4NY) November 18, 2019
“This initiative will bring cannabis out of the underground so that it can be controlled to ensure a safe product, strictly regulated to limit use to adults and have sales subjected to the sales tax,” they said.
The plan, which NJ.com first reported, is to have the legislature to approve the referendum proposal and get the ballot measure set for a vote in the general election next November. Sweeney and Scutari said they are “confident it will be approved by the Senate, the Assembly and the voters.”
“We will now move forward with a plan that helps correct social and legal injustices that have had a discriminatory impact on communities of color,” they said. “We can make real progress towards social justice at the same time that cannabis is made safe and legal.”
Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said he is “disappointed that we are not able to get this done legislatively and that our failed status quo—which sends roughly 600 people to jail a week for possession, the majority of them people of color—will continue.”
I am disappointed that we are not able to get this done legislatively and that our failed status quo – which sends roughly 600 people to jail a week for possession, the majority of them people of color — will continue.
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) November 18, 2019
“However, I have faith that the people of New Jersey will put us on the right side of history when they vote next November,” he said. “By approving this ballot measure before the end of this legislative session, New Jersey will move one step closer to righting a historical wrong and achieving what I have spent more than three years advocating for.”
By approving this ballot measure before the end of this legislative session, New Jersey will move one step closer to righting a historical wrong and achieving what I have spent more than three years advocating for.
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) November 18, 2019
After months of negotiation, it became apparent that that progress wasn’t going to happen legislatively in the short-term, with Sweeney indicating as early as May that legalization would likely have to be decided through a voter referendum.
Text of the resolution calling for a referendum doesn’t offer many details about what the proposed legal cannabis market would look like; rather it generally describes a system allowing adults 21 and older to use and purchase marijuana from authorized retail facilities. The state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission would be responsible for regulating the program. And cannabis sales would be subject to the state sales tax, with no additional excise tax added.
As written, the draft ballot question is worded somewhat confusingly. Voters would be asked: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’?”
“Only adults at least 21 years of age could use cannabis,” it continues. “The State commission created to oversee the State’s medical cannabis program would also oversee the new, personal use cannabis market. Retail sales of cannabis products in this new market would be subject to the State’s sales tax, and no other form of tax.”
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) said in a press release that his chamber “will vote on legislation to put an adult-use cannabis question before the voters.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) November 18, 2019
“We plan to pass the measure this year and next in order for New Jerseyans to have the opportunity to make the decision in November 2020 when we expect voter turnout to be high due to the presidential election,” he said.
Prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana celebrated news of the legislature abandoning plans to pursue legalization legislatively this session and said it would invest resources into a campaign to dissuade voters from supporting the proposed ballot initiative.
BREAKING: New Jersey State Senate abandons push to legalize marijuana during 'lame duck' session.
The marijuana industry outspent SAM 86-1 in this effort.
Our statement: pic.twitter.com/MPtI2fNIzx
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) November 18, 2019
While adult-use legalization hasn’t panned out as advocates hoped, Murphy did sign a bill significantly expanding the state’s medical cannabis program in July. Sweeney had pointed to that reform move as one reason legalization negotiations stalled.
It’s not clear how the ballot approach is going to impact discussions about regionally coordinating legalization plans in the Northeast, which has been ongoing since New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) met to talk about the issue over the summer.
During a joint meeting of governors from around the region last month, Murphy said that “doing things in an intelligent, coordinated, harmonious way is good for the entirety of not just our states but our residents” and emphasized the need for social justice components in a legal cannabis market.
Read the text of the New Jersey marijuana legalization referendum resolution below:
This story has been updated to include comments from the governor and assembly speaker.
Sanders Pledges Legal Marijuana ‘In Every State’ As Biden Faces ‘Gateway Drug’ Backlash
As former Vice President Joe Biden faces a backlash over his suggestion that marijuana could be a ‘gateway’ drug, rival presidential candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), as well as entrepreneur Andrew Yang, are touting their own support for cannabis reform proposals
One day after Biden said he doesn’t support national cannabis legalization because there’s “not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug,” Sanders offered a competing vision, emphasizing in a speech that he wants to “make marijuana legal in every state in the country,” rather than allow prohibition to continue in certain states.
The senator also discussed other elements of a cannabis reform plan he released last month, including his pledge to “expunge the records of those arrested for possession of marijuana” and provide funding to promote participation in the legal industry by individuals from communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
“It sounds unfair that when we legalize marijuana, you end up having a handful of corporations controlling that industry,” Sanders said during the Sunday event in Las Vegas. “We have built into our criminal justice program an effort to provide many billions of dollars in help to people in the African-American community, Latino community, other communities, the people who have been hit the hardest by the war on drugs, to help them profit off a legal marijuana system.”
Watch Sanders’s marijuana comments, around 33:00 into the video below:
Sanders described his three-step plan to prevent large corporations from controlling the cannabis market during an interview on Showtime’s Desus & Mero last month.
Separately, he took to Twitter on Sunday to highlight new polling showing that a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana.
The American people are united on issue after issue. We must legalize marijuana now—and expunge all past marijuana convictions as a matter of racial and economic justice. https://t.co/NQjp7WOko3
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) November 17, 2019
Meanwhile, Harris also appeared to take a direct hit at Biden over his “gateway drug” comment, stating that the debate on that matter is already settled.
Let's be clear: marijuana isn't a gateway drug and should be legalized. Glad to see my bill with Rep. Nadler take the next step in the House this week. https://t.co/d6BcMFlpYT
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) November 18, 2019
“Let’s be clear: marijuana isn’t a gateway drug and should be legalized,” she tweeted, adding that she’s glad that a bill she and House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) filed earlier this year to federally deschedule cannabis is scheduled for a vote in the House this week.
Harris herself has faced pushback from reform advocates and challengers who point out that the senator was involved in criminalizing cannabis consumers, and opposed legalization, during her time as a prosecutor.
Yang, for his part, presented a visual contrast to Biden on Monday, sharing photos of him smiling, surrounded by dozens of trimmed marijuana plants in an undisclosed facility.
He also wrote in a tweet that cannabis “should be legal nationwide” and linked to a campaign site page laying out his reform plan.
Marijuana should be legal nationwide. It is already legal in several states, it reflects a safer approach to pain relief than opiates, and our administration of drug laws is deeply uneven and racist. https://t.co/0Uhl17MW98
— Andrew Yang🧢 (@AndrewYang) November 18, 2019
“It is already legal in several states, it reflects a safer approach to pain relief than opiates, and our administration of drug laws is deeply uneven and racist,” Yang said.
Biden has drawn criticism from lawmakers outside of the presidential race as well, with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) calling him out on Monday.
Get with the program, @JoeBiden.
Not only do we have legislation that would solve the issue of research, the American people overwhelmingly support legalizing cannabis—period.
The war on drugs has ruined countless lives. It's past time we end this senseless prohibition.
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) November 18, 2019
“Get with the program, @JoeBiden,” the congressman, who has spearheaded Capitol Hill efforts to end federal prohibition, said. “Not only do we have legislation that would solve the issue of research, the American people overwhelmingly support legalizing cannabis—period.”
“The war on drugs has ruined countless lives,” he said. “It’s past time we end this senseless prohibition.”
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.
AOC Calls For Decriminalizing The Use Of All Drugs
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) voiced support for decriminalizing the use of all drugs on Sunday.
The freshman congresswoman tweeted that drug decriminalization, as well as marijuana legalization, are “matters of public health.”
Marijuana should be legalized, and drug consumption should be decriminalized.
These are matters of public health.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) November 18, 2019
This marks a development in Ocasio-Cortez’s drug policy platform. Previously, she called for decriminalizing the use and research of psychedelics, emphasizing the therapeutic potential of the substances.
To that end, she introduced an amendment to a spending bill in June that would remove a rider that advocates argue has inhibited research into the potential therapeutic benefits of Schedule I drugs such as psilocybin and LSD. The House rejected that measure in a floor vote, however.
There’s a growing push to decriminalize the personal possession of drugs beyond cannabis. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), both Democratic presidential candidates, are in favor of the policy. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang supports decriminalizing opioids as a means to combat the drug overdose crisis.
Ocasio-Cortez recently gave her endorsement to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). But while the senator was the first major presidential candidate to back marijuana legalization during his 2016 run, he said this year he’s “not there yet” on broader drug decriminalization. It’s not clear if the congresswoman’s role as a surrogate on his campaign will ultimately influence him to adopt the policy.
But as more candidates debate the best way forward on various drug reform proposals, with cannabis legalization being a given for almost all contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden remains several paces behind. He opposes adult-use legalization and said on Saturday that marijuana may be a gateway to other, more dangerous substances.
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.