A second California Assembly committee on Tuesday approved a Senate-passed bill to legalize possession of psychedelics like psilocybin and and LSD. But new amendments that add limits on allowable amounts of the substances is creating controversy among advocates.
The Assembly Public Health Committee advanced the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D), in a 8-4 vote. This comes weeks after the Public Safety Committee approved the measure.
Wiener has spent significant energy building support for the reform proposal as it has moved through the full Senate and now two Assembly committees, including by holding a recent rally with military veterans, law enforcement and health officials.
SB 519 would remove criminal penalties for possessing numerous psychedelics—including psilocybin mushrooms, DMT, ibogaine, LSD and MDMA—for adults 21 and older.
“Our racist and failed war on drugs and war on drug policy approach has done nothing to make us safer,” Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D), who presented the bill on behalf of Weiner, said ahead of the vote. “But it’s led to massive public expenditures, torn apart communities, deeply impacted brown and black communities and did nothing to make drug use safer or reduce overdoses. Indeed, the opposite is true.”
“It’s time we stopped this failed mass incarceration strategy and acknowledge that not all substances are harmful or dangerous,” she said. “In fact, quite the opposite has been found of psychedelics.”
But now, as a result of changes approved by the latest panel, the bill includes language laying out the limits for what is an allowable personal possession amount for each substance. That’s led Decriminalize Nature (DN), a group that’s worked to enact psychedelics reform across the country, to call for the tabling of the legislation.
“Setting allowable amounts is just a creative way to say when can law enforcement arrest you,” DN argued.
In a letter about its board’s recent decision to switch from a supportive position on the legislation to neutral, DN listed several reasons not to include the possession limits provision. Beyond enabling law enforcement to penalize people possessing certain amounts of entheogenic substances, it also said the measure has sacred value for communities who’ve used them for centuries and local decriminalization initiatives without possession limits have had “no negative impacts.”
But other advocates say they are taking a practical position on the revision, accepting the possession limits in the interest of advancing the reform through a legislature that may otherwise defeat the bill if it contained no such restrictions.
David Bronner, CEO of the soap company Dr. Bronner’s who has contributed considerable financial resources to reform efforts across the country, is one such advocate.
“As always, do we let the perfect be the enemy of the good?” he said in an email. “Senator Wiener is doing an amazing job for us, and we are able to preserve the essential goal that people can heal in ceremony together, and legally produce and consume quantities of the medicine adequate for community-based healing. And there’s nothing stopping local city level efforts that have no limiting language whatsoever.”
SUPPORT SB 519 TO DECRIMINALIZE #PSYCHEDELICS IN CALIFORNIA!
— Dr. Bronner’s (@DrBronner) July 13, 2021
Bronner said that stakeholders discussed the changes extensively, and “Decriminalize Nature had full chance to input and review, and we all would have been beyond psyched if their eloquent defense of not having any limits whatsoever could convince the Health Committee chair, but it was unlikely and it hasn’t.”
As passed in committee on Tuesday, these are the prescribed limits for personal possession that would be legalized:
-2 grams of DMT
-15 grams of ibogaine
-0.01 grams of LSD
-4 grams of mescaline
-2 grams of the controlled substance psilocybin or 4 ounces of a plant or fungi containing the controlled substance psilocybin.
-2 grams of the controlled substance psilocyn or 4 ounces of a plant or fungi containing the controlled substance of psilocyn
-4 grams of MDMA.
“SB 519 still represents protection of community-based healing and the quantities of medicine involved, which is the crucial goal,” Bronner said.
Responding to accusations from DN that the possession limits are part of a plot to help “deep-pocketed investors” corner the market for psychedelics, Bronner said there are “no backroom deals going on and that “DN has been fully looped real time as we’ve been navigating this.”
While “social sharing” would have been allowed under the bill as introduced, those provisions were also reframed in the new committee amendment to provide for “facilitated or support use” so that people could provide the substances to one another in a group context.
The new amendment adopted on Tuesday also requires the state Department of Public Health to develop harm reduction education for the substances.
In the prior Assembly panel, Wiener supported a committee amendment that removed ketamine from the list of psychedelics included in the reform. That’s in addition to a series of technical revisions that were made to the legislation.
The full Senate approved the bill last month. It now heads to the Assembly Appropriations Committee as its final stop before potentially heading to the floor of that chamber. If approved there, it will have to go back to the Senate for concurrence on recent changes before it can be sent to the governor’s desk
Wiener has described its prospects going forward as “very challenging,” but he made the case at a recent press event that it is a necessary policy change to advance mental health reform and end criminalization.
Under the measure, the state Department of Public Health would be required to establish a working group “to study and make recommendations regarding possible regulatory systems that California could adopt to promote safe and equitable access to certain substances in permitted legal contexts.” Those recommendations would be due by January 1, 2024.
For psilocybin specifically, the legislation would repeal provisions in California statute that prohibit the cultivation or transportation of “any spores or mycelium capable of producing mushrooms or other material” that contain the psychoactive ingredient.
The bill originally included record sealing and resentencing provisions for people previously convicted of psychedelics possession offenses, but that language was removed in its last committee stop prior to the Senate floor vote as part of an amendment from the sponsor.
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Wiener said the reasoning behind that deletion was that the policy “ended up generating a huge price tag” based on a fiscal analysis, but it could be addressed in separate legislation if the main bill passes.
Speaking at an event hosted by the Psychedelic and Entheogen Academic Council (PEAC) last month, the senator said advancing the legislation would be first step toward decriminalizing all currently illicit drugs. He reiterated that point on Monday, stating that “this bill is one step in the direction of ending the failed war on drugs.”
While the bill is being described by lawmakers and advocates as simple “decriminalization,” the official legislative analysis of the proposal states that it would “make lawful” the personal possession of these substances.
If the bill does ultimately clear the Assembly, it still remains unclear whether Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) would sign it—though the governor has long been an outspoken critic of the war on drugs.
Wiener backed the prior ketamine-related amendment in an effort to build support for the legislation.
“There are disagreements within the psychedelic world on it,” the senator said at a meeting with activists last month. “My view as you keep things in until you have to make a give, and that’s one that we could potentially give on. You don’t want to spontaneously give on things without getting some ability to move the bill forward as a result.”
Mescaline, a psychoactive compound derived from peyote and other cacti, is another controversial psychedelic.
It was specifically excluded from the bill’s reform provisions in peyote-derived form, but the possession of the compound would be allowed if it comes from other plants such as “the Bolivian Torch Cactus, San Pedro Cactus, or Peruvian Torch Cactus.”
That decision on the peyote exclusion was informed by native groups who have strongly pushed back against decriminalizing the cacti for conservationist reasons and because of its sacred value for their communities.
Meanwhile, a group of California activists announced plans earlier this year to put an initiative to legalize the use and retail sale of psilocybin on the state’s 2022 ballot. That group, Decriminalize California, said that it would first work to convince lawmakers to pursue reform and then take the issue directly to the people if the legislature fails to act.
The psychedelics effort in the California legislature, which Wiener first previewed back in November, comes as activists are stepping up the push to enact psychedelics reform locally in cities in the state and across the country. The bill notes those efforts in an explanation of the proposal.
The Northampton, Massachusetts City Council passed a resolution in April to deprioritize enforcement of laws against the possession, use and distribution of a wide range of psychedelics such as psilocybin and ayahuasca. It’s the third city in the state to advance the policy change, following Somerville and Cambridge.
These are some of the latest iterations of a national psychedelics reform movement that’s spread rapidly since Denver became the first city to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in 2019.
In Oregon, November’s election saw the passage of a historic initiatives to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes and more broadly decriminalize possession of all drugs.
The governor of Connecticut 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.
A New York lawmaker introduced a bill last month 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.
After Ann Arbor legislators passed a decriminalization resolution last year, a county prosecutor recently announced that his office will not be pursuing charges over possessing entheogenic plants and fungi—“regardless of the amount at issue.”
The Aspen, Colorado City Council discussed the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like psilocybin and proposals to decriminalize such substances at a meeting in May. But members said, as it stands, enacting a reform would be more better handled at the state level while entheogens remain strictly federally controlled.
Seattle lawmakers also recently sent a letter to members of a local task force focused on the opioid overdose epidemic, imploring the group to investigate the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like ayahuasca and ibogaine in curbing addiction.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman.