California Inches Toward Decriminalizing Psychedelics

California senators pointed to the “failed” War on Drugs and new scientific evidence regarding the benefits of certain hallucinogens.

A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles, May 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — The effort to decriminalize psychedelic drugs in California gained momentum Tuesday after a key state Senate committee voted in favor of allowing adults to freely use and possess magic mushrooms and LSD.

Mirrored after similar criminal justice reform measures recently approved in Oregon and various U.S. cities, Senate Bill 519 would decriminalize several drugs currently listed as Schedule I controlled substances by the federal government — including psilocybin, LSD, ketamine, DMT, MDMA, ibogaine and mescaline. In addition to decriminalizing psychedelics or hallucinogens for people over 21, the bill calls for the expungement of old criminal records, penalties for furnishing drugs to minors and a new working group to further study the safety and efficacy of psychedelic use in the Golden State.

State Senator Scott Wiener testified his proposal is not intended to promote the use of the banned substances. Instead, he wants to erase damaging holdover policies enacted during the War on Drugs.    

“By decriminalizing we’re not inviting people to use. We’re taking, instead of a criminal approach to drug use, a health-minded approach,” Wiener told the Senate Public Safety Committee.

Wiener and supporters are looking to capitalize on new scientific research and other successful criminal justice reform efforts enacted across the nation and make hallucinogens easier to access.

While the substances Wiener wants to decriminalize and destigmatize are placed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in the same regulatory category as heroin and marijuana, other federal agencies are taking a more welcoming view when it comes to some hallucinogens.

In 2019, the Federal Drug Administration designated psilocybin as a breakthrough therapy — an action meant to boost the development and review process for new drugs intended to treat serious conditions. The FDA points to preliminary evidence the currently banned mushrooms can help the estimated 17 million Americans experiencing severe depression.

The designation was granted to the nonprofit Usona Institute, which is currently conducting trials involving one-dose treatments for people with major depressive disorder.

Meanwhile, some states and cities are taking a more rapid approach as public opinion of hallucinogens and psychedelics continues to do a 180.  

Oregonians voted in 2020 to decriminalize personal use of hallucinogens and all other substances, while cities including Oakland, Santa Cruz and Washington have decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms. Advocates also want to take the issue directly to California voters through a proposed ballot measure that would allow residents to grow, sell and possess magic mushrooms. A similar effort stalled in 2020 when the pandemic quashed in-person signature gathering efforts.

Aside from decriminalization, SB 519 would expunge criminal records for people convicted of possession or use of the hallucinogens. Backers say the War on Drugs perpetuated draconian notions about the drugs researchers now believe could be beneficial if used properly, and as a result prior convictions should be erased.  

“SB 519 is a step toward dismantling the failed and racist War on Drugs, because locking people up for drug use doesn’t work,” Wiener claimed.

Several military veterans testified in support of decriminalization saying the substances helped them fight depression and PTSD.

Jose Martinez, a U.S. Army veteran and triple amputee, told the committee he became addicted to prescription opiates following his injuries but eventually psilocybin helped turn his life around. Martinez, who lost both his legs and an arm from an IED explosion in Afghanistan, is now a Paralympic surfer and husband.

“Gracefully [psilocybin] has changed my life,” Martinez said. “I’ve been able to help out a lot of veterans find their own treatment and we’ve been able to get them off addiction.”

Joining Martinez in support of the bill are California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, Entheogenic Research, Integration and Education Board, Pacific Neuroscience Institute and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, UC Berkeley Chapter.

The committee ultimately voted 4-1 to advance SB 519 to the Senate Health Committee, but not before hearing opposition from law enforcement groups.

A lobbyist for the California College and University Police Chiefs Association said he was worried about the potential for “unmitigated social sharing” and subsequent overdoses among college students.

In an opposition letter, the Peace Officers’ Research Association of California warned decriminalization will only lead to “greater crime and arrests”.

“As we have seen so many times, it is often the most vulnerable populations, and those who have the weakest support systems, that will be most susceptible to the increased access and use of drugs,” the letter states.

Before reaching Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk, SB 519 must still clear the Senate and then the Assembly later this summer.

The Public Safety Committee also approved plans to allow San Francisco and Los Angeles counties to run overdose prevention programs commonly known as safe injection sites. Senate Bill 57 would enable people to use illegal drugs like heroin at designated sites under the supervision of staff trained to prevent and treat drug overdoses.  

There are more than 100 injection sites throughout the world, but litigation has held up the opening of sites in interested U.S. cities including San Francisco and Philadelphia. Similar versions of the bill have failed in the California Legislature or been vetoed.

Wiener said the intent is to combat overdoses and public drug use, both of which have skyrocketed during the pandemic.

“These sites help transition people into recovery,” “We’re seeing record overdose deaths in California.”

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