Oakland, California may become the first city in the United States to legalize the distribution and sale of psychedelic drugs, including psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca, in a way similar to how the city was the first to normalize commercial medical marijuana sales.
Much has to happen before that broader drug policy reform becomes a reality, but the Oakland City Council took a decisive first step on Tuesday when it voted 6 to 0 to approve a measure decriminalizing the possession of “entheogenic” plant- and fungi-based substances, also including mescaline and ibogaine.
Such plants have therapeutic potential in treating mental health conditions like addiction, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a slowly but steadily growing chorus of researchers and experts, but access to patients remains risky illegal behavior under current federal and state laws prohibiting them.
Under the terms of the unanimously approved Oakland resolution, “entheogenic plant practices,” including ayahuasca ceremonies and the consumption of mushrooms, are now “amongst the lowest priority” for law enforcement, and “any city funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties” for adult use and possession is restricted.
In the immediate term, Decriminalize Nature Oakland, which led the charge to build support for the measure, will run similar campaigns in other California cities. The first will be next door in Berkeley, said Larry Norris, a cofounder of Decriminalize Nature.
“People see this, they can see we brought a community out, we made a resolution happen,” he told Marijuana Moment.
Lawmakers heard more than an hour of very personal, often emotional testimony from dozens of advocates who claimed the plants in questions solved addiction and other life-threatening conditions.
“I was homeless. I was hopeless. I hated myself,” said Christopher Laurance, who said “one experience” with ibogaine helped him overcome an addiction to heroin.
Similar “lowest priority ordinances” singularly focused on marijuana have preceded the establishment of licensed cannabis cultivation and sales in Oakland and other cities.
And last month, voters in Denver narrowly approved a ballot initiative that also decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms, but not the other naturally derived substances included in the Oakland plan.
Now that local lawmakers have made the initial move of decriminalizing psychedelics, the way is clear for advocates to begin building toward the next step: legal and reliable access.
Councilmember Noel Gallo, the sponsor of the decriminalization measure approved on Tuesday, told Marijuana Moment in an interview that lawmakers can now “establish a process” similar to what occurred with cannabis.
That would possibly require action via the statewide ballot.
Last year, proponents of a California legalization initiative that sought to legalize hallucinogenic mushrooms for adults 21 and over failed to collect enough signatures to qualify the measure for a vote.
But other advocates are already working to place a psilocybin decriminalization initiative on the California statewide ballot in 2020, and now they’ll be working with the momentum picked up from Oakland’s successful vote.
Gallo voiced support for such an effort on Tuesday. But for now, at the municipal level, what was likely to have been the chief obstacle—resistance from law enforcement—seems mostly sorted, Gallo said.
“The police have agreed” in principle to the far-reaching moves, Gallo said before Tuesday’s City Council meeting, with some caveats.
It didn’t hurt that law enforcement reported only a handful of arrests for possessing hallucinogenic plants over the past decade, according to testimony given before a successful first decriminalization vote at a Public Safety Committee hearing last week—and it’s also helpful that there does not appear to be a violence-inducing, for-profit illicit trade in the substances.
The lone voice of caution at last week’s hearing, Councilmember Loren Taylor, introduced a series of amendments intended to “mitigate” any negative impacts. Among them: A disclaimer that entheogenic plants “are not for everyone”—particularly people with personal or family histories of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder—and exceptions to the lowest-priority ordinance for anyone driving while under the influence of the plants, possessing them in schools or “causing a public disturbance.”
Still, not all is completely copacetic. “There are some plants that the police say are way out there” and not appropriate for decriminalization, Gallo said, without specifying which species they have in mind.
“Now,” he added, “we have to agree on what’s being regulated and identify a pathway for distribution and sales. Like with marijuana, we have to establish a process.”
The details will require more legislating but, if cannabis is any precedent, it would look something like this: With possession decriminalized, psychedelic plants will become generally easier to obtain. The permissive atmosphere might allow for private “clubs,” like the storefronts that sold recreational cannabis under Measure Z, a lowest-priority law for marijuana that Oakland voters approved in 2004.
Once those sorts of operations are up and running, the path towards some kind of regulated commercial retail sales of psychedelic plants is at least visible, if not open.
“Oakland was the first city in the nation to legalize, tax, and regulate cannabis sales,” City Council President Rebecca Kaplan, who was also that measure’s author, told Marijuana Moment. Thus, doing something similar with entheogenic plants at least has precedent.
In addition to the local and statewide efforts in California, Oregon activists are currently collecting signatures to place a 2020 measure to legalize the medical use of psilocybin and otherwise lower penalties for the substance before voters. And in Iowa, a Republican state lawmaker has introduced a mushroom-related bill in the state legislature.
This story has been updated to reflect that the vote tally was 6 to 0 and not 8 to 0 as initially reported. Two Council members were not present for the vote.
Florida Would Study Psychedelics’ Medical Benefits Under Top Senate Democrat’s New Bill
The top Democrat in the Florida Senate filed a bill on Friday that would require the state to research the medical benefits of psychedelics such as psilocybin and MDMA.
If enacted, the state Department of Health would be directed to “conduct a study evaluating the therapeutic efficacy of alternative therapies” such as those substances, as well as ketamine, “in treating mental health and other medical conditions,” including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, chronic pain and migraines.
The proposal, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book (D) is modeled on legislation enacted into law in Texas earlier this year that similarly instructs officials in that state to research the therapeutic value of certain psychedelics, although that bill had a narrower focus on helping military veterans with PTSD.
A companion version of the Florida measure is being carried in the House by Rep. Michael Grieco (D).
“This is one of the rare times it would be ok to Texas our Florida, since the Lone Star State is one of many who embrace the FDA’s breakthrough designation for alternate mental health therapies such as psilocybin,” Grieco told Marijuana Moment. “This bill will send our state in the right direction, especially amongst our veterans, for patients who are resistant to traditional mental health therapies.”
— Lauren Book (@LeaderBookFL) September 25, 2021
Book said in a press release that the legislation “provides a natural pathway to wellness for patients with debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder and treatment-resistant depression.”
“Psilocybin treatment is a safe alternative for those who have exhausted all other avenues for mental health and wellbeing, and I am proud to sponsor legislation to ensure Floridians have medical access to this life-saving natural treatment,” she said.
Grieco added in the release that “Florida does not have to be the last state to catch up with science every time.”
“Between medical marijuana and climate change, our state seems to never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” he said. “The science regarding psilocybin is real, cannot be ignored, and soon will be a universally-accepted form of treatment in the U.S. Veterans and veterans organizations should be watching closely on behalf of folks suffering from addiction, PTSD and depression.”
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The governor of Connecticut signed a bill in June that includes language requiring the state to carry out a study into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms.
Earlier this year, Grieco filed a more far-reaching bill that would have created a broader program of legal access to psilocybin for therapeutic use, similar to the ballot measure approved by Oregon voters last year. That legislation failed to advance through committee, however.
“After authoring a very ambitious 59-page bill last year, one that started a broader conversation,” Grieco said, “I am ready to work with both my Republican and Democratic colleagues to create a framework designed to help those patients who need it.”
Last week, Florida activists filed a marijuana legalization initiative they hope to place on the 2022 ballot. The move comes after the state Supreme Court invalidated two prior measures the justices deemed to be “misleading.”
Meanwhile, Florida isn’t the only state where psychedelics policy moves are being made.
Jurisdictions across the country are increasingly removing or reducing penalties around drug possession and consumption, especially when it comes to psychedelics. Since Denver in 2019 became the first U.S. city to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, a number of states and municipalities have made similar changes to dismantle the drug war.
Oregon voters passed a pair of initiatives last November to legalize psilocybin therapy and decriminalize possession of all drugs. On the local level, activists in Portland are mounting a push to have local lawmakers pass a resolution decriminalizing the cultivation, gifting and ceremonial use of a wide range of psychedelics.
Washington, D.C. voters also approved a ballot measure last year to deprioritize enforcement of laws criminalizing psychedelics.
In California this month, activists were cleared to begin collecting signatures for a historic initiative to legalize psilocybin mushrooms in the state. Oakland and Santa Cruz have already enacted psychedelics decriminalization.
Detroit currently stands to become one of the next major cities to decriminalize psychedelics, with the reform proposal making the local ballot for this November.
Elsewhere in Michigan, the Ann Arbor City Council has already elected to make enforcement of laws prohibition psychedelics like psilocybin, ayahuasca and DMT among the city’s lowest priorities—and lawmakers recently followed up by declaring September Entheogenic Plants and Fungi Awareness Month. Advocates have also introduced a reform resolution to the Grand Rapids City Council.
Massachusetts cities that have enacted the policy change include 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.
In Seattle, the City Council is considering a resolution to decriminalize psychedelics.
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.
Meanwhile, Denver activists who successfully led the 2019 campaign to make the city the first in the U.S. to decriminalize psilocybin possession have set their eyes on broader reform, with plans in the works to end the criminalization of noncommercial gifting and communal use of the psychedelic.
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.
NIDA also recently announced it’s funding a study into whether psilocybin can help people quit smoking cigarettes.
In May, lawmakers in Congress filed the first-ever legislation to federally decriminalize possession of illicit substances.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman.
Seattle City Council Takes First Step Toward Decriminalizing Psychedelic Plants And Fungi
A Seattle City Council committee considered a resolution on Friday that would decriminalize a wide range of activities around psychedelic drugs, including cultivation and sharing with others, by declaring those activities among the city’s lowest law enforcement priorities.
The council’s Public Safety and Human Services Committee heard comments from the proposal’s supporters, including Councilmember Andrew Lewis and the advocacy group Decrim Nature Seattle. While the panel did not vote on the draft resolution, Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the committee, said the full City Council will likely take up the measure in coming weeks.
“Hopefully the city—as tends to be the case on many impactful progressive issues in the state of Washington—can lead the way on setting the table for an important conversation many communities around the country are having,” Lewis, who introduced the measure, said at the meeting.
As introduced, the proposed resolution expresses the City Council’s support for what it calls “full decriminalization” around psychedelics used “in religious, spiritual, healing, or personal growth practices.” It would apply to plants or fungi that contain substances “including, but not limited to” psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, igoba and mescaline, though it would not include the peyote cactus.
If adopted, the resolution would declare “that the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of anyone engaging in entheogen-related activities…should be among The City of Seattle’s lowest enforcement priorities” and request that the Seattle Police Department “move towards the formal codification and adoption of that practice as departmental policy.”
It would further express the council’s intent to analyze the city’s municipal “to determine what changes would be necessary to protect from arrest or prosecution individuals who cultivate entheogens.” Those changes would be made through a subsequent city ordinance.
It’s already city policy neither to detain nor arrest individuals caught with psychedelics, nor to confiscate those substances, the resolution says—the result of a state Supreme Court decision earlier this year. But other activity, including cultivation and distribution, remain punishable by arrest and incarceration.
Supporters say there are compelling reasons to expand decriminalization beyond simple possession: The resolution points to the disproportionate impact of the drug war on people of color and low-income communities, calling decriminalization “an effort to begin to correcting the irreparable harm.” It also acknowledges the emerging potential of psychedelics, in conjunction with therapy, to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), end-of-life anxiety, substance use-disorder and others.
The resolution was inspired in part by the City Council’s interest in reducing opioid-related deaths. In June, Lewis Herbold formally asked a task force to examine “public policy governing psychedelic medicines” as a way to combat the overdose epidemic. Late last month, the task force came back with recommendations that the city decriminalize psychedelics and consider removing criminal penalties around all drugs.
At the same time, the advocacy group Decrim Nature Seattle (DNS) has been lobbying the council to make the policy change around plant- and fungi-derived psychedelics. The group began its work two years ago, and in May it submitted a draft ordinance to Lewis’s office at the councilmember’s request. Members have also appeared regularly at council meetings to urge the policy change.
Lewis told Marijuana Moment this month that it’s his “personal goal” to introduce an ordinance to decriminalize psychedelics by the end of this year. “And frankly, if there’s sort of a consensus and there’s lightning in a bottle, I don’t think it’s inconceivable that an ordinance could be passed this year,” he said. “I think it’s actually pretty reasonable.”
In an email to Marijuana Moment ahead of Friday’s committee meeting, Tatiana Luz Quintana, DNS’s co-director and co-chair of education and outreach, said the group expects the resolution “will prepare the council to spend time creating a work plan to address full decriminalization, meaning possession, cultivation, social sharing (non-monetary exchange) and community-based healing and ceremony.”
“The implications of this policy change would be long lasting,” Quintana said. “Within Seattle, after these reforms, many people who operate in the underground will be more free to advertise their services. Decriminalization will also promote a consciousness shift in the public, increasing exposure to conversations around psychedelics, helping to break the ice and break down stigmas, and create an environment ripe for integrating these substances into our culture.”
DNS said the change will allow Seattle to establish best practices, including around education and community-based healing. Advocates also presented to the City Council committee a sign-on letter in support of decriminalization signed by more than 40 area healthcare professionals.
The policy change would not apply to peyote, which is excluded from its definition of entheogens due to the cactus’s special cultural significance to certain Native American peoples and the ongoing effort to protect the plant. Peyote matures slowly and is currently categorized by conservationists as “vulnerable” after an uptick in illicit harvesting. The cactus, native to Mexico and parts of the American Southwest, has no federal protection in the U.S., while in Mexico it can be harvested legally only by Indigenous groups.
Both the city resolution and the opioid task force recommendations also call for psychedelics reform at the state level. The resolution says the city’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations add to its agenda for the 2022 legislative session “support for full decriminalization of entheogens at the state level, including the drafting of legislation that could be sponsored by a state legislative representative.”
Like much of the rest of the country, Washington State is contemplating major changes in how it treats drug use. Earlier this year, lawmakers considered legislation that would have removed all penalties for possession of relatively small, “personal use” amounts of drugs and instead invested in treatment and recovery services. While that bill died in committee, lawmakers from both parties acknowledged at the time that the state’s drug control apparatus was broken.
Shortly thereafter, the state Supreme Court overturned Washington’s felony law against drug possession completely, sending lawmakers scrambling to replace the law. Ultimately they approved a modest reform, reducing the state’s felony charge for drug possession to a misdemeanor and earmarking more money for treatment.
Earlier this month, advocates announced a push to put a measure on Washington’s 2022 ballot that would decriminalize all drugs and invest state money in treatment and recovery.
In California last week, activists were cleared to begin collecting signatures for a historic initiative to legalize psilocybin mushrooms in the state. Oakland and Santa Cruz have already enacted psychedelics decriminalization.
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.
Read the full Seattle psychedelics decriminalization resolution below:
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mädi.
House Committee Will Vote On Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill Next Week, Days After Banking Reform Advances
A bill to federally legalize marijuana will be voted on by the House Judiciary Committee next week, the panel announced on Friday.
The development comes one day after the House voted in favor of a defense spending bill that includes an amendment that would protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s (D-NY) Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act will receive a markup on Wednesday. The panel will consider a dozen pieces of legislation during the meeting, according to a press release. That includes his bill to “decriminalize marijuana federally and invest in communities that have been disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs,” Nadler said.
“Many of these bills were reported out of the committee and passed by the full House of Representatives last Congress, and I look forward to working with all my colleagues once again to get these bills through Congress and on to the president’s desk,” the chairman said.
Nadler’s cannabis legislation passed the House last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control. This time around, advocates are optimistic that something like the chairman’s bill could be enacted now that Democrats run both chambers and the White House, and as more states are moving to enact legalization.
The legislation would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), allow people with cannabis convictions to have their records expunged and create a federal tax on marijuana with the revenue going to support community reinvestment and other programs.
It also contains language to create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for cannabis offenses, protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over marijuana and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearance due to its use.
“We are excited to see Chairman Nadler and House leadership move forward once again with passing the MORE Act,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, said. “Public support and state-policy demand for repealing federal marijuana criminalization has never been higher and Congressional action on this legislation is long overdue. The days of federal marijuana prohibition are numbered.”
There’s been some contention between advocates and stakeholders on which reform should come first: the bipartisan banking legislation that’s cleared the House in some form five times now or the comprehensive legalization bill that passed the chamber for the first time late last year.
Legalization advocates do want to see legislation from Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) become enacted, as there are public safety problems caused by all-cash businesses and it would take an important step toward normalizing the growing industry. But social equity-minded activists argue that advancing the incremental reform first would mainly benefit large marijuana businesses without addressing the harms of cannabis criminalization.
The fate of the banking proposal will likely be decided in conference with the Senate, which has not included the policy change in its National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and where key lawmakers have insisted that they will push for broader reform before allowing the incremental change to be enacted.
Separately, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (R-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are also leading the charge on a legalization bill in their chamber. But weeks after a public comment period on a draft version of the proposal closed, finalized text has yet to be formally filed—and it’s far from certain that Schumer will be able to find enough votes to advance the comprehensive reform through his chamber.
It should be noted that President Joe Biden remains firmly opposed to adult-use marijuana legalization. While he supports more modest reforms such as decriminalizing cannabis, expunging prior records and letting states set their own marijuana policies, there’s an open question about whether he would be moved to sign a broad bill like the MORE Act or the Senate legalization legislation should such a proposal reach his desk.
With respect to the MORE Act, the latest version does not include language that was added just before last year’s House floor vote that would have prevented people with previous cannabis convictions from obtaining federal permits to operate marijuana businesses. That was a contentious provision that appeared at the last minute and which advocates strongly opposed.
And whereas the the prior version of the legislation contained language to help economically disadvantaged people enter the legal marijuana market, that language was revised to extend Small Business Administration (SBA) aid—such as loans, financial literacy programs and job training—to help people who have been harmed by the war on drugs pursue business opportunities in any industry, not just cannabis.
Advocates are encouraged by the new revisions to the bill, but there are still additional components they hope to see changed as it goes through the legislative process. For example, they also took issue with provisions added to the MORE Act prior to last year’s vote that would have stipulated that cannabis can still be included in drug testing programs for federal workers.
The current version of the MORE Act has 66 cosponsors, including seven lawmakers that signed on this week. All are Democrats.
Separately, a proposal to federally deschedule marijuana that does not include social equity components was filed by a pair of Republican congressmen in May.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.