Newly Proposed California Bill Would Decriminalize Natural Psychedelics

California Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), unveiled new state legislation on December 19 which he believes will overcome past resistance by lawmakers to decriminalize the possession and use of psychedelic substances proposed by a similar bill in 2021.

The new legislation, Senate Bill 58, would decriminalize the possession and use of some psychedelic substances in California, including psilocybin, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ibogaine, and mescaline (excluding peyote). The bill’s language would also allow for plant compounds such as ayahuasca, which combines DMT with already legal MAO Inhibitors such as that found in the caapi vine. Notably, the bill does not include MDMA and LSD which were included in last year’s version of the bill.

Wiener anticipates that the bill will have an easier time moving through the legislature because it focuses more deliberately on plant-based substances. Past attempts to decriminalize psychedelics in California has illustrated the complexities of how legislators regard different types of psychedelics and the expense of evaluating them. 

Catie Stewart, Wiener’s Communications Director, said that the Senator believes that SB 58 will pass primarily because there is now more acceptance of therapies that use psychedelic plants. “You can see with states like Oregon and Colorado, that there’s more of a precedent, and an openness around things that are plant-based or natural,” says Stewart. “And obviously, MDMA is incredibly important and LSD. We’re not trying to minimize the importance of those substances for healing, but we think that this has a better chance of passing because there’s more precedent, and I think people in general are more comfortable with things that are found in nature as opposed to made in a lab.”

A similar bill, SB 519, was sponsored by Wiener during the 2021-2022 legislative session 

where it was passed by the state Senate as well as two Assembly committees before stalling, and eventually being gutted by the Assembly appropriations committee. 

SB 58 and SB 519 follow similar, successful local efforts to decriminalize these substances in Washington, D.C., Oakland, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz, California, as well as ballot measures that passed in Oregon and Colorado. 

Evolution From SB 519 to SB 58

Language from SB 519, which would have decriminalized certain amounts of LSD and MDMA, was removed by Wiener in 2021 prior to review by the Assembly appropriations committee. Support for the decriminalization of LSD and MDMA significantly decreased after a representative of the California Police Chiefs Association said that the organization would not vocally oppose the bill if those substances were removed. Despite these changes, SB 519 was still removed from consideration by the Assembly appropriations committee. 

Additional language which would have decriminalized ketamine was also removed from SB 519, as the bill was reviewed by the Assembly Public Safety Commitee, after a member of the committee suggested that ketamine is used as a date-rape drug. 

A Focus on Veterans and Mental Health

Advocates for SB 58 argue that decriminalization of psychedelic substances included in the bill would offer significant relief to veterans who seek more effective therapies for mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. 

SB 58 is sponsored by Heroic Hearts Project, a service organization which connects veterans to psychedelic therapy for treating complex trauma. The legislation is co-authored by Senator Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) and Assembly members Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley), Matt Haney (D-San Francisco), Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles), Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles), Alex Lee (D-Fremont), and Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland). Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) is a principal co-author. The large coalition which supported SB-519 is also expected to return to support this new legislation. 

At a press conference held in front of the San Francisco Veterans Memorial, Senator Wiener stood with California veteran and Heroic Hearts advocate Michael H. Young and others to announce the new legislation and discuss its significance. 

“Psychedelics helped heal the unseen scars from my 10 years of service in the War on Terror,” said Young in a statement. “This sacred plant medicine showed me how to put myself back together again. I am more whole now. I can love again. I am ready to serve my community again. Every veteran deserves responsible access to psychedelic healing modalities. Decriminalize psychedelics now!”

“Psychedelics have tremendous capacity to help people heal, but right now, using them is a criminal offense,” said Wiener in a press release. “These drugs literally save lives and are some of the most promising treatments we have for PTSD, anxiety, depression, and addiction. We need to end the outdated, racist, failed War on Drugs and finally pursue drug policies that help people instead of incarcerating them.” 

Removing the Working Group

SB 58 does not include a provision in SB 519 which would have directed the California Department of Public Health to convene a working group to study the legislation. That language would have tasked the working group with developing two reports, one to provide recommendations for mitigating risk and providing education, and another to recommend possible pathways to regulatory systems for the substances decriminalized by the bill. 

An Assembly Appropriation Committee analysis estimated the working group removed from SB 58 would cost taxpayers around $5.3M, making it the most expensive part of SB 519. With this language removed, supporters suggest that SB 58 should save the state money by reducing costs related to law enforcement and incarceration. 

This is notable, given that California is currently experiencing a budget deficit of around $25B, forcing legislators to find opportunities to reduce the cost of their bills to get them passed during the 2023-2024 legislative session. 

Stewart explained that removing the working group focuses the bill more deliberately on decriminalization and reduces objections about its expense. But she says that Wiener still hopes that the working group and other components of the bill may be added later.

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“We cut the working group to focus and pair down SB 58 so it will pass,” says Stewart. “There’s a lot of important stuff that needs to happen, but we’re hoping there’ll be follow up legislation once we can get this one across the finish line. This isn’t a one and done kind of situation. It’s our intention to keep fighting to make sure every key component of this gets across the finish line”

What is in the Bill?

Decriminalization of Plant Substances
SB 58 supports the decriminalization of personal possession, use, cultivation, and facilitated use of controlled substances, including psilocybin, psilocyn, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ibogaine, and mescaline (not derived from peyote)

Possession Limits
SB 58 retains controversial “allowable amounts” language established in a July 2021 amendment to SB 519. This language sets limits for how much of each substance an individual is allowed to possess. Allowable amounts included in the bill are as follows: 

SubstancePossession Threshold Approximate Doses
DMT2 grams40 (50mg doses)
Ibogaine15 grams30 (500mg doses)
Psilocybin2 grams or 4 ounces of plant or fungi (113 grams)22.5 (5g doses)
Psilocyn2 grams or 4 ounces of plant or fungi (113 grams)22.5 (5g doses)
Mescaline4 grams16 (250mg doses)

Prohibits Financial Gain
SB 58 would not allow for what the bill considers “financial gain” for the substances that it seeks to decriminalize. “Financial gain” does not include reasonable fees for counseling, spiritual guidance, or related services that are provided in conjunction with facilitated or supported use of psychedelic substances. .

Aggregate Amounts for Facilitated or Supported Use
An exception for the possession of larger amounts of each substance is included in the bill’s language for what is referred to as “facilitated or supported use.” This would allow a person who is facilitating a plant medicine experience for multiple people to be in possession of the aggregate of allowable amounts per participant. An example of this would be an ayahuasca ceremony in which one communal batch is brewed by a facilitator rather than being possessed in smaller amounts by each individual. 

SB 58 does not specify how an aggregate group is claimed legally leaving the specifics of how this might be applied ambiguous. Asked whether the vagueness of this language might require further legislation in the future, Stewart says, “if it needs to get further defined in committee or whatever, we’re open to that. But at the moment, we’re not trying to overly qualify.”

Paraphernalia and Drug Checking
Paraphernalia used in the preparation and use of substances included in SB 58 would be removed from existing laws prohibiting their use. Additionally, items used in the testing and analysis of these federally controlled substances will be exempted from existing state prohibitions.

Featured Image: State Senator Scott Wiener introducing SB 58 in San Francisco. (Photo by Allan Steiner)

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