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Oakland Lawmakers Advance Psychedelic Decriminalization Measure

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Oakland, California is taking a step towards becoming the second city in the United States to decriminalize the possession of hallucinogenic mushrooms containing psilocybin.

But going even further than a measure recently approved by voters in Denver, the resolution given initial approval on Tuesday also seeks to end criminal penalties for other plant-based psychedelics, including ayahuasca, mescaline and ibogaine.

The City Council’s Public Safety Committee voted—with three ayes and one abstention—to advance to the full Council a measure that would declare enforcement of laws prohibiting the possession of “entheogenic plants” among adults the “lowest priority” for police.

The measure would also seek to block officials from using “any city funds or resources to assist” in enforcing bans on naturally derived psychedelics.

If the resolution sponsored by City Councilmember Noel Gallo is enacted, Oakland would follow Denver—where voters narrowly approved a psilocybin decriminalization measure earlier this month—in declaring its support for allowing adults to possess certain psychedelics without fear of arrest, fines and imprisonment.

The substances—which, like marijuana, remain in Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act—would still be illegal under both federal and state laws.

“This is nothing new. These plants have been used for healing for thousands of years,” Gallo told Marijuana Moment before Tuesday’s hearing.

Gallo’s grandmother in Mexico “didn’t go to Walgreen’s” to find medicine, Gallo said—she used herbs from her garden, in keeping with indigenous tradition. And Gallo’s nephew, an Iraq War veteran, also sought healing for post-traumatic stress disorder using psilocybin.

“It made a real difference,” he said.

The lone self-described “downer” vote came from Councilmember Loren Taylor.

Entheogenic plants are “valuable in certain settings, I’m not arguing or contradicting that,” he said. “It’s how we deploy it.”

Taylor expressed worry that psychedelics could “become the fad in schools.”

“It is something that could be taken advantage of,” he said. “That’s the piece for me. I want to make sure we’re thinking through all the implications.”

Council President Rebecca Kaplan, who supported the move to advance decriminalization, criticized the “racist, wasteful and expensive” war on drugs and said it is “long past time” for prohibitionist policies to be challenged.

The resolution will be considered by the full City Council on June 4.

Should the full body approve the measure and Oakland become a successful small-scale test case for psychedelics reform, Gallo expects that advocates working to place a psilocybin decriminalization initiative on the statewide ballot in 2020 will get a boost in their efforts. A previous attempt to qualify a mushroom measure failed to collect a sufficient number of signatures.

If a statewide push to decriminalize plant-based therapeutic hallucinogenics ultimately prevails and the “feds back off,” some kind of legalized access—most likely following a model similar to cannabis, which was grown in nonprofit collectives before it became a commercialized commodity sold by well-capitalized corporations—could follow, Gallo predicted.

Meanwhile, similar efforts to loosen restrictions around access to hallucinogenic plants are already underway elsewhere, including in Oregon, where advocates are currently collecting signatures to qualify a 2020 ballot measure to legalize the medical use of psilocybin and otherwise lower penalties for the substance.

Though the issue appears to have political support in Oakland and is not dissimilar from cannabis legalization, which has broad bipartisan backing even in Congress, most federal lawmakers have thus far proven unwilling to discuss decriminalizing psychedelics.

On Tuesday, more than 60 people signed up to testify at the well-attended Oakland hearing.

“These medicines are safe,” said Gary Kono, a retired surgeon, speaking to the Council. “There is not a single case” showing the plant-based psychedelics cause addiction, he argued. “More people die from taking selfies for social media.”

In recent years, psychedelic drugs have grown in popularity not only among the constantly innovating Silicon Valley elites—for whom “microdosing,” or ingesting tiny amounts of various drugs in an effort to spark creativity, carries cultural currency—but among a wider mainstream population seeking relief for profound maladies of the consciousness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, addiction and coping with end-of-life scenarios.

Such uses for psychedelic drugs were the focus of a recent book by the author Michael Pollan.

Last fall, researchers at Johns Hopkins University recommended that psilocybin be rescheduled to allow for medical use, suggesting that, when administered in a controlled setting, the drug has potential for treating anxiety, depression and addiction.

As for why psychedelics are enjoying a moment, Carlos Plazola, one of the organizers with Decriminalize Nature Oakland, the advocacy group behind the resolution, offered a few theories.

The spectre of opiate addiction, the existential threat of climate change and the rise of authoritarian governments in former liberal democracies across the world are all crises that may be compelling humans to “connect to nature, and bring back the healing that nature provides,” he told Marijuana Moment before Tuesday’s hearing.

Among all cities in progressive California, Oakland—which has long had some of the most progressive drug laws in the United States—is probably the likeliest candidate for experimentation with psychedelics decriminalization.

Oakland was one of the first cities to allow medical cannabis dispensaries; a stretch of downtown once sported dozens and earned the sobriquet “Oaksterdam,” a name used by the country’s first “cannabis grow college,” also headquartered in Oakland. Sales of recreational cannabis went on in private clubs—with knowledge of Oakland police—after voters passed a lowest-priority ordinance called Measure Z in 2004. And the city has embraced commercial cannabis, with annual sales of the drug at about $100 million a year, according to state sales tax figures recently published by the San Jose Mercury News.

Psychedelic drugs already appear to be a low priority for local law enforcement. Every year in Alameda County, which includes Oakland as well as nearby Berkeley, there are roughly 12 arrests for possession of psychedelic drugs, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Among the dozens of supporters who showed up for the night’s hearing was Ryan Miller, a Marine Corps veteran and medical-cannabis advocate who says he, too, achieved spiritual healing through psychedelic rituals.

For veterans with mental-health issues, cannabis is “an effective palliative treatment,” Miller told Marijuana Moment. “But if we want to get serious about the veteran suicide epidemic, we definitely need access to the stronger plants.”

Most Oregon Voters Favor Legalizing Psilocybin Mushrooms For Medical Use, Poll Finds

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.

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Chris Roberts is a reporter and writer based in San Francisco. He has covered the cannabis industry since 2009, with bylines in the Guardian, Deadspin, Leafly News, The Observer, The Verge, Curbed, Cannabis Now, SF Weekly and others.

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