The California bill that would decriminalize certain psychedelic substances under state law, SB 519, advanced onto the floor of the state senate during a May 20 Suspense Hearing, following a cost assessment by the Appropriations Committee. While in suspense, the bill was amended, removing a section focused on the expungement of past criminal convictions.
The amended bill still includes decriminalization and the formation of a working group.
Senator Scott Wiener, who authored the bill, says he plans to introduce legislation focused on expungement as separate legislation in a future session, similar to a previous California law which automated expungement for convictions related to cannabis.
What Does the Bill Do?
If passed in its current form, SB 519 would decriminalize the possession, use, cultivation and social sharing of a number of controlled substances including: psilocybin, psilocyn, DMT, ibogaine, mescaline not derived from peyote, LSD, ketamine, and MDMA. It would also decriminalize associated paraphernalia and remove prohibitions related to the testing and analysis of controlled substances (i.e. drug checking services).
The bill would convene a working group to study, among other things, the regulation and safe use of substances made lawful by the bill, for both therapeutic and non-therapeutic uses.
Importantly, the bill does not allow for sales or commercial use of substances decriminalized by the legislation, nor does it create a regulatory framework or allow for what it defines as financial gain. The bill also doesn’t allow for possession or use by anybody under the age of 21 or on school property, and sharing substances with anybody under the age of 21 remains criminalized.
Additionally, peyote, which is endangered, is excluded from decriminalization to protect traditional Native American spiritual practices, relying instead on existing federal allowances.
Understanding the Legislative Process
To understand SB 519’s current status, it’s helpful to understand California’s legislative process.
Like the federal government, California’s State Legislature is bicameral, meaning it is made up of two houses. In California, these houses are the Senate (with 40 members) and the Assembly (with 80). Before a bill is sent to the governor to be signed into law, it must be approved by both chambers.
Legislators in either house may propose a bill, but if legislation is introduced in one house, it must also be approved by the other. SB 519 was introduced by Senator Scott Wiener on February 12, with Senators Sydney Kamlager and Josh Newman, and Assembly Members Evan Low and Bill Quirk as coauthors.
Before a bill can be voted on by either house, it must first be approved by committees. There are a number of committees that may need to vote on a single bill. The Rules Committee, which is responsible for referring legislation to relevant policy committees, assigned SB 519 to the Senate Public Safety Committee, where it passed in a (6 – 2) vote on April 6, as well as the Health Committee where it passed in a (4 – 1) vote on April 14. You can find analysis of the bill by each committee here.
Because its passage would require the use of state funds, SB 519 also needed to be heard by the Appropriations Committee. At a hearing on May 3, SB 519 was added to what’s known as the Suspense File, where it remained until being moved forward in a (5 – 2) vote at the May 20 Suspense Hearing.
The bill now moves to the Senate floor to be read into the record and voted on. The date for this vote has not been set, but the Senate must vote prior to a June 4 deadline.
SB 519 in Suspense
The Appropriations Committee sends bills to the Suspense File for a few reasons, but the most common (with a threshold in the Senate of just $50,000) is the expected cost to the state. In theory, holding bills in suspense prevents lawmakers from bankrupting the state by passing too much expensive legislation, however in practice the suspense file process is full of bargaining among legislators.
During a recent appearance on the KQED Forum radio program, Senator Wiener acknowledged one such bargain: SB 519 is being amended to change a section detailing expungement.
Previous versions of the legislation included provisions that automatically started the process of expunging certain criminal records related to psychedelic substances. But with an estimated price tag in the tens of millions, this section has been amended to lower the bill’s cost.
The expungement provisions, which accounted for most of the bill’s cost, was the most difficult part of the legislation to get through the Appropriations Committee. Expungement is expensive because it commits the state to the cost of judges, prosecutors and others tasked with reviewing and reassessing all relevant records.
Senator Wiener plans to introduce legislation in a future session to revisit expungement language. This would likely be similar to AB-1793 which automated the expungement process for cannabis following the passage of Proposition 64.
The budget required by other aspects of SB 519 are relatively low. Decriminalization is inexpensive as it costs very little for law enforcement and prosecutors to stop enforcement.
The working group aspect of the bill is a bit costlier, likely around $2.5 million, because members of the working group (health officials, stakeholders, and others) must be compensated for their time, with their research funded.
Now that SB 519 has passed out of committees, it moves to the floor of the Senate where it will be debated and voted on. The legislative calendar sets a deadline of June 4 for this vote. On it’s way, the bill will be read into the record a second and third time (now in its final form), and given another round of analysis.
If a bill passes in both houses, it is sent to the governor’s desk where it is either signed into law, or vetoed. For the 2020-2021 legislative session, the deadline for this signature is Oct 10, 2021.
Outlook for SB 519
Advocates pushing for passage of SB 519 are optimistic about the bill’s prospects.
“We’ve kind of been surprised by how open minded certain senators are. Especially on the health committee, we were expecting it to be a very close call and we actually found the health committee to be really amenable and open,” says Ismail L. Ali, policy and advocacy counsel at MAPS. The bill was passed by the Senate Health Committee in a 4-1 vote.
So far, SB519 has received limited opposition, mostly from law enforcement organizations. While it has received “nay” votes in committee from a few senators, these votes were largely expected based on voting history.
Much of the opposition so far has been reminiscent of arguments made by drug war advocates in years past. In the bill’s Public Safety Committee analysis, The Peace Officers’ Research Association of California writes, “We believe many of the penalties related to controlled substances work as a deterrent or a reason for individuals to get the treatment they need to turn their lives around. Furthermore, we believe SB 519 will cause an increase in the selling and personal use of drugs, which will lead to greater crime and arrests in our communities.”
California Attorneys for Criminal Justice responded to this opposition, stating, “These kinds of criminal sanctions do not improve public safety, deter use, or help those people experiencing addiction, but instead contribute to further mass incarceration.”
Behind the Scenes
Lobbyists, advocates, and other stakeholders play an important role in helping members of Congress understand the impact of their vote for their constituents. This is also true for SB 519.
“At its core, lobbying is about helping people navigate the political system.” says Nara Dahlbacka at the Milo Group, one of the firms lobbying in favor of SB 519, along with Anthony Molina, Dan Seeman and others. In the case of SB 519 this means helping stakeholders like New Approach, MAPS, Dr. Bronners, Decriminalize Nature, Chacruna Institute, and Sacred Garden Community, (along with other organizations and grassroots advocates) get their voices heard by representatives in Congress.
Two such prominent advocates reflecting on what people should understand about this legislation, highlight complexities involved in passing this legislation.
“[Legislators need to understand this bill] is about healing, and treatment, and stopping arrests of people, so it’s more of a public health issue, and not a ‘drug decriminalization effort’ which hits a lot of trigger words for moderate conservative legislators,” says Carlos Plazola, Chair of Decriminalize Nature.
Statements supporting the healing potential of SB 519 are important since there are so many powerful stories associated with the substances included in this bill. Those stories have proven themselves convincing to lawmakers again and again. At the same time, some supporters say it’s important that drug policy advocates not rely too heavily on arguments that focus on healing and medicinal value to justify the importance of decriminalization.
“I think it’s really important to be justifying decrim on decrim, because it’s unjust for people to be getting arrested for, and sent to jail, and incarcerated for what they’re consuming in their bodies,” says Ali. “If you say these psychedelics should be decriminalized because they have medical value, it puts future drug decriminalization efforts at risk.”
These ideas are not as contradictory as they may first appear, but instead represent a constant juggling act for drug policy advocates navigating the complex systems of legislative politics. This process simultaneously recognizes crucial opportunities for community healing, while avoiding arguments that further stigmatize drug users and create barriers to future reforms that start to undo harms of the drug war.
Senator Wiener’s Broader Drug Policy Package
In addition to SB 519, Senator Wiener has sponsored a number of other bills on drug policy reform. One such bill is SB 57 which would legalize overdose prevention programs including safe consumption sites. This bill was passed in the Senate on April 22 and is currently awaiting its first reading in the Assembly.
Another piece of related legislation is SB 110 which would legalize “contingency management” for users of meth and other substances potentially making this treatment eligible for Medi-Cal. This bill was heard during the same May 20 suspense hearing as SB 519 where it will be moved to the floor of the Senate for a vote prior to the June 4 deadline.
SB 73, also sponsored by Wiener, would end mandatory jail sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. This legislation was passed by the Senate and is currently in the Assembly where it was referred to the Public Safety committee on May 13 .
Getting Involved in the Legislative Process
Supporters of SB 519 and other related bills can get involved in the legislative process as a constituent by reaching out to lawmakers who represent them in the California state senate and assembly.
For those interested in tracking bills, this helpful guide is a good resource for understanding LegInfo, California’s website for tracking specific legislation. This useful tool allows anybody to receive alerts when new hearings are scheduled. Offering testimony at hearings as bills move through the legislature can be a powerful way to support important issues through this lengthy process.