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Decriminalization of Psychedelics Bill Met With Skepticism in California Legislature

After passing through a variety of committees, California’s bill to decriminalize most psychedelics met with deep reservations from both sides of the aisles during a health committee hearing. If the bill were to pass to a floor vote at least two lawmakers indicated they would have difficulty supporting it.

(CN) — A bill to decriminalize a suite of psychedelic drugs in California encountered its first bout of opposition in the health committee of the California Assembly, foreshadowing possible bipartisan opposition if it proceeds in front of the entire body. 

Democrat Wendy Carillo exemplified the consternation over Senate Bill 519, saying she was concerned that decriminalizing such drugs would lead to more drugs in her community. 

“If it helps introduce these drugs to the street, then I am sorry I can’t support that,” she said. 

Other Democrats like Autumn Burke also expressed reservations. 

“It took me a long time to get to where I could support the bill,” she said. 

The Democratic hesitancy to support a bill authored by Democratic State Senator Scott Weiner could be a sign of discomfort with the bill that extends beyond just the Republican members of the Assembly. If enough Democrats defect and oppose the bill, it will not survive in the state Legislature that enjoys a Democratic supermajority in both houses. 

Weiner was not there on Tuesday to introduce his bill or to answer lawmakers’ concerns over possible unintended consequences that attend decriminalization. Instead, Buffy Wicks, a Democratic Assemblymember attempted to answer questions and provide detailed data for why decriminalization would be beneficial for the state. Wicks repeatedly noted that she didn’t have access to details requested by her fellow lawmakers. 

Chad Mayes, a former Republican who is currently registered as an independent, indicated he would vote to move the bill out of committee but remains undecided as to whether he will support it once hits the Assembly floor. 

“Many veterans organizations are supporting this bill,” he said. 

Jesse Gould, the founder of the Heroic Hearts Project, has testified at previous hearings about how his post-traumatic stress disorder after three combat missions nearly killed him, but a treatment that used various psychedelic drugs saved his life. 

“I was barely holding on and I turned to psychedelics as a last-ditch effort to survive,” he said. “Fortunately, it worked very well.”

Wicks said the assistance to veterans struggling with mental health was the most “powerful part of the bill.”

But the Democrats in the public safety committee, where criminal justice reforms are popular with committee members, appear more bullish on the bill than their counterparts on the health committee. 

“I don’t know if I will support this bill once it comes to the floor but I want the conversation to move forward,” said Adrin Nazarian, a Democrat. 

Nazarian did note that police unions and their lobbyists opposed marijuana legalization vociferously, making several claims about how the legalization of the drug would lead to an increase in crime and other detrimental effects. 

“None of those predictions came to pass,” he said. 

A raft of scientific studies have shown psychedelics may prove useful in treating a gamut of mental health issues, including treatment-resistant depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction issues. 

The bill does not decriminalize the sale of psychedelics in the state. However, a group called Decriminalize California has announced plans to place the legalization of selling psilocybin mushrooms on the 2022 ballot. 

The legislation initially proposed revisiting the sentences of those convicted for possession of psychedelics while sealing criminal records, but that provision was removed from the bill during the committee process. The bill would task the California Department of Public Health with creating a working group that would explore the possible legalization and use of psychedelics in certain contexts. 

The legislation would also repeal provisions in the California criminal code that prohibit the cultivation and transportation of spores of mushrooms associated with the psychoactive ingredient.

Republicans have expressed skepticism of the bill, saying the removal of stigma from the drugs could encourage their use among the young. On Tuesday, some Democrats proved to be of the same mind. 

Oregon became the first state to legalize psychedelic mushrooms for use in therapy and also decriminalized possession of a small amount of all drugs in two ballot measures approved by voters in the November 2020 election.

In California, Santa Cruz and Oakland are two cities that have successfully passed bills that decriminalize the personal use of psychedelics. 

Denver, Colorado, became the first city to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in 2019. Three cities in Massachusetts have followed suit. 

Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Washington D.C. have legalized the personal use of plant- or fungi- based psychedelics. 

The movement is not restricted to progressive enclaves. The Texas Legislature, one of the more fiercely conservative lawmaking bodies in the country, recently formed a committee to study whether “magic mushrooms” could help veterans recover from the trauma of their war experiences. 

Follow Matthew Renda on Twitter

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