California Bill to Decriminalize Some Psychedelics Advances Through the Legislature
Supporters of a psychedelic decriminalization bill in California are hopeful that a new version of the legislation, which focuses on plant-based psychedelics, will be more successful than a similar bill which was stalled by legislators last year.
Sponsored by Senator Scott Wiener, SB 58 would decriminalize the possession and use of some psychedelic substances in California. The proposed legislation was passed by the Senate Public Safety Committee on March 21 and will now be sent to the Appropriations Committee.
SB 58 would decriminalize psilocybin, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ibogaine, and mescaline (excluding peyote). The legislation is sponsored by Heroic Hearts Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting military veterans struggling with mental trauma with therapies based on plant based psychedelic medicines.
While SB 58 retains much of the language from last year’s legislation SB 519, the bill now focuses more narrowly on plant based medicines. Synthetic psychedelics including MDMA and LSD, which appeared in SB 519, have been removed to address opposition by the California Police Chiefs Association. SB 519 was amended to remove ketamine to appease legislators on the Assembly Public Safety Committee in June 2021.
Following his press conference on SB 58 in December, Senator Wiener explained that the California Police Chiefs Association, who had opposed SB 519 during the previous session, had agreed not to oppose the legislation if MDMA and LSD were removed. He reflected on the significance of working with the organization and their support for the new legislation.
“The police chiefs are a very impactful institutional player in the capital, it’s a very, very respected organization,” says Wiener on their decision not to oppose SB 58. “I’ve found the police chiefs to be a very thoughtful law enforcement organization that we can have nuanced conversations with. And they worked with us in good faith last year, and I’m appreciative that they haven’t been opposed.”
In 2022, SB 519 was passed by the state Senate and progressed to the state Assembly before being gutted by the Assembly Appropriations Committee and pulled by Senator Wiener.
“Last year we almost got the bill all the way through the Senate, and got all the way to the last committee in the Assembly,” says Wiener. “We think that had we gone on to the Assembly floor last year, we probably would’ve been able to pass it. And so it was unfortunate it got gutted at its last committee, so we abandoned it. But [SB 58] is strong. We have a strong coalition behind it.”
Supporters and Opponents of SB 58
An analysis developed by legislative staff ahead of the hearing by the Senate Public Safety Committee includes the names of prominent supporters in the coalition to support SB 58. They include the San Diego drug policy reform group, A New Path, the Alameda County Democratic Party, California Institute of Integral Studies, California Public Defenders Association, the California cities of Eureka and West Hollywood, Disability Rights California, Dr. Bronner’s, National Association of Social Workers, Oakland City Council Member Rebecca Kaplan and the San Francisco Public Defender.
Analysis by the Assembly Public Safety Committee also offers insight into which groups are opposing the legislation. Wiener points out that “a lot of the police unions have opposed.”
The list of those in opposition to SB 58 includes 29 entities, 26 of which are law enforcement organizations and lobbying groups. These include the California District Attorneys Association, California State Sheriffs’ Association, and California Statewide Law Enforcement Association. The three non-law enforcement groups listed in opposition include: California Contract Cities Association which lobbies for legislation that strengthens local control for California cities, Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a “nonprofit mental health watchdog group” founded by the Church of Scientology in 1969, and Concerned Women for America, a lobbying organization whose stated mission is promoting “Biblical values and Constitutional principles through prayer, education, and advocacy.”
Addressing the opposition that SB 58 has received from police unions, Wiener observes that “there are police unions instinctively opposed to everything in terms of criminal justice reform, and they apparently support the war on drugs and incarcerating people for drug use, which is a failed strategy.”
Wiener notes that opponents of SB 58 are “entitled to their view,” but questions the larger purpose of that resistance.
“It’s really, really freaking stupid to arrest someone using mushrooms. Like what purpose does that serve?” asks Wiener. “Why are they taking the time to use paper and ink to oppose a bill for substances that are not addictive and are not causing any kind of meaningful harm?”
While local police unions and law enforcement lobbying organizations have influence in the California legislature, Wiener explains that many of the smaller law enforcement groups lobby specific lawmakers. “It depends on their relationship with individual members,” says Wiener who notes that opposition was “totally expected.”
SB 58 Goes In Front of The Public Safety Committee
During the Senate Public Safety Committee hearing [1:10:00]:, Senator Wiener introduced SB 58 saying, “I want to be very very clear what this bill does and what it doesn’t do. This bill means that people will no longer be arrested and prosecuted simply for possessing or using these drugs. This bill does not decriminalize sale of drugs. This bill does not decriminalize anything in terms of under the age of 21. This is about simple possession and use of these psychedelic substances.”
SB 58 passed the Senate Public Safety committee on March 21 in a 3:1 vote, with one Senator abstaining. The sole ‘Nay’ vote during the hearing came from State Senator Aisha Wahab, a Democrat from California’s District 10, representing parts of the South Bay, from Hayward to Cupertino. Prior to the vote, Wahab expressed concern for those “under the age of 26 whose brain is not fully developed” and expressed concern regarding the lack of “framework around the mental health component.”
“I do believe the war on drugs has been detrimental, but at the same time, I think this is much more significant in regards to anybody under the age of 26 potentially utilizing this,” said Wahab.
Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh from California’s District 23 who represents portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties refrained from voting on the measure after opposing SB 519 in the previous session. Before the vote, Ochoa Bogh explained that she sees the value in psychedelics, but was concerned about passing the legislation without “the infrastructure in place to have the safeguards that we need to have in order to address the side effects which may happen.”
Ochoa explained that she is in “great support of the medicinal, under regulated supervision.” She offered to write a letter of support with Senator Wiener to move federal action to “work on this within the medical field if we need to,” but says she wants to see more safety nets.
“The consequences of having the decriminalization of certain natural elements and components, I’m reserved to do that,” said Ochoa, acknowledging her reservation to support the legislation. “It becomes the wild west when we don’t have that infrastructure in place.”
Following Wiener’s introduction to SB 58, Jason Moore Brown, a U.S. Army veteran testified in support of the bill, describing his own experience traveling outside of the U.S. to receive psychedelic-assisted therapies.
“Recently, Heroic Hearts, a non-profit and the sponsor of SB 58 sent me and six other veterans to a retreat center in Latin America where we had access to plant medicines not readily available, nor legal in the U.S.,” says Brown. “They have been sending veterans on retreats like this since 2017. It took me four days of travel, a grant from Heroic Hearts, and thousands of dollars of my own to find the healing I’ve been in search of for almost half of my life.“
Brown’s experience with psychedelics in Latin America was life changing, but he realizes many are not so fortunate. “I am fortunate, not all veterans are. The veteran suicide epidemic is still very real. According to the VA’s most recent report, 6,146 veterans committed suicide in 2020. How many of those over 6,000 lives might have been saved if veterans had access to those plant medicines here in the U.S. without fear of prosecution?”
Following testimony in support of the legislation two speakers testified in opposition. First was Joseph Holcomb Adams, a bioethicist and educator who serves on the City of Berkeley Community Health Commission and has written articles for DoubleBlind.
Adams explained his hesitancy to support the bill saying, “This bill would make it legal for anybody to open up shop in their basement, charge hundreds of dollars an hour for psilocybin-assisted healing sessions,” says Adams. “No regulations such as licensing requirements for facilitators or requirements that clients be screened for mental health contraindications.”
Adams worries that without more guidelines, practitioners could represent their services in ways that are not accurate or evidence based, making misleading or unfounded claims about safety which put certain individuals at a heightened risk. “We need guard rails and safety measures. We need education,” says Adams.
The loopholes Adams refers to were introduced alongside the same amendment to SB 58 that added possession limits to SB 519. That amendment aggregates the allowable amounts a person may possess, and is intended to allow for situations such as ayahuasca ceremonies where a single person might be holding a psychedelic substance for a larger group of people.
Senator Wiener argues that residents of California can’t wait to develop a regulatory structure to stop the possibility of arrest under current laws. “The idea that we should continue to arrest people for possessing psychedelics until you can set up a whole medical infrastructure around it, respectfully, just didn’t make any sense,” says Wiener.
Another speaker in opposition to the bill was Kristen Nash, founder of The William G Nash Foundation. Nash started the organization after the death of her son to advocate for harm reduction and psychedelic education, such as the Safety First curriculum developed by Drug Policy Alliance.
“I lost my 21-year-old son three years ago in an accident due to psychedelic use,” Nash testified. “He and his friends were in their own home. Moderate dosing. He went into a psychosis, and he’s gone. They were thinking what popular culture is telling us, that these are safe enough. I support the healing benefits of these, I do, but along with the power and the potential, there are also harms.”
Nash says she would like to support SB 58, but can’t unless it’s amended to include more safety measures. “Let’s decriminalize possession and get rid of the loophole for an unregulated service economy. And let’s add safeguards: information, harm reduction, first responder training. That’s what this bill needs.”
Although she didn’t say so explicitly, Nash appears to be asking for the bill to be amended to include something similar to the working group proposed in SB 519. This would have directed the Department of Public Health to convene a committee to develop research and educational materials such as training for first responders. That section of the bill was removed in SB 58 to more narrowly focus the legislation on decriminalization. Nash says her organization has reached out to Wiener to discuss adding more safety measures to SB 58.
When Lucid News spoke to Wiener’s staff back in December, they said that removing the working group focuses the bill more deliberately on decriminalization and reduces objections about its expense. But Wiener still appears to hope that the working group and other components of the bill may be added later.
“We cut the working group to focus and pair down SB 58 so it will pass,” said Catie Stewart, who served as Wiener’s Communications Director at the time. “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.”
Wiener says he empathizes with Nash and the loss of her son, but believes that criminalization of substances is a key factor in preventing more harm reduction and making safety measures available for people having adverse experiences with psychedelics.
“If you support criminalizing drug use and possession, then you are not supporting harm reduction,” says Wiener. “That’s the opposite of harm reduction. Support [for] harm reduction is inconsistent with criminalizing drug use.”
In his closing arguments to the committee, Wiener thanked the opposition for advocating for some sort of legalization model saying “I’m happy to work with you on that.” He acknowledged, however, the inevitable opposition to any such legislation from groups such as the California District Attorney’s Association who currently oppose SB 58.
“To say in response to a bill which says we don’t want to arrest you for possessing anymore, that we can’t support that because we have to have full legalization, honestly, it’s a bit of a red herring,” said Wiener.
The most effective way to make drug use as dangerous as possible, says Wiener, is to criminalize it. “We push it into the shadows, and we make it less safe, because they’re committing a crime simply by possessing that drug. For the witness whose son died, who you heard from today. What a horrific tragedy which no parent should ever have to go through. That child died under a criminalization model.”
Wiener acknowledges that the legislation isn’t the last step in addressing these concerns. “But this is an important first step: to say “we’re not going to arrest you because you possess or use these psychedelic drugs.”
Legislative Strategies and Path Forward
Those lobbying state representatives to support SB 58 say they are also contending with a decrease in funding available to support the bill. As reported last year, much of the funding for SB 519 (and now SB 58) has come through the Dr. Bronner’s Soap Company Charitable Donations Program, which donated over $3,000,000 to support drug policy reform efforts in 2020 and nearly $4.5 million in 2021.
This reduction in funding was expected since there was a surplus in available donations during the 2020/2021 financial year, resulting from an increase in pandemic soap sales. While a lobbyist for the legislation notes that they have taken a pay cut to support the bill this year, Senator Wiener says he is confident about their team. “I feel we’re very well staffed on this bill,”
Wiener observes, however, that passing decrim legislation for the possession and use of psychedelics in California involves engaging with opposition that associates psychedelics with other drugs that they believe cause social harms.
“This bill’s always right on the edge because people have a lot of stereotypes about psychedelic drugs.Sometimes these drugs inaccurately get lumped in with some of the addiction problems that we have,” says Wiener who expects that drug law reformers will always need to fight against false narratives.
“Of course, these drugs are not addictive and can help with opioid addiction. So it makes all the sense in the world to decriminalize them. I support decriminalizing all drug use possession, because drug use is a health issue, not a criminal issue.”
More Legislation Addressing Psychedelic Therapies
Another pending bill in the California legislature, The End Veteran Suicide Act (AB 941), would authorize a licensed professional clinical counselor to administer controlled substances to combat veterans. The legislation was introduced by Marie Waldron, a Republican representing parts of San Diego and Riverside county. The bill offers some protections for combat veterans seeking psychedelic-assisted therapies.
The proposed legislation would require the psychedelic-assisted therapy to take place over a minimum of 30 sessions and would require a therapy session to be a minimum of 12 hours in duration, which may occur overnight, as necessary. The bill would also require two or three licensed professional clinical counselors to be present per patient at a psychedelic-assisted therapy session.
Added together, this means that AB 941 would require a minimum of 720 to 1,080 therapist hours per patient, making the cost of these treatments unfeasible for many, particularly those from marginalized communities. Asked for his thoughts on the bill, Senator Wiener said “I appreciate that my colleague is working in the space and is open to us. But I don’t think it makes sense to limit the bill only to veterans.”
While Wiener says that he recognizes the importance of providing support to veterans, he also understands that the need for healing is much broader. “Obviously, our sponsors are veterans, and veterans need access, but they’re not the only ones,” says Wiener of SB 58. “The idea that if psychedelics would benefit you for mental health reasons or otherwise, but you’re not a veteran, you don’t get access. That just doesn’t make sense.”
Featured image: by Pax Ahimsa Gethen