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NY Assembly Bill to Legalize Psilocybin Raises Questions Among Activists

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NY Assembly Bill to Legalize Psilocybin Raises Questions Among Activists

Following the success of local campaigns to decriminalize psychedelic substances, a bill has been introduced in the New York State Assembly to legalize psilocybin, a psychoactive compound found in more than 200 species of mushrooms. But some drug reform advocates are concerned that the proposed law, if passed in its current form, may not lead to outcomes they want to see. 

The bill, A10299, does one thing: it removes psilocybin from the NY State Controlled Substances Act. While the possible passage of the legislation might appear to be a big win for the movement to reform drug laws, veteran activists are not so sure.  

“The bill is inscrutably simple,” says Noah Potter, an attorney and policy consultant who worked on the Decriminalize Denver campaign. “It’s less than a paragraph. It’s one strike through. It makes no provision for amounts, cultivation, distribution, anything.”

While the bill contains no language about mushrooms, psilocybin can be synthesized in a laboratory. A growing number of companies producing psilocybin-assisted therapies are using a synthetic version of psilocybin instead of a version extracted from mushrooms. 

If the bill is intended to benefit these companies, activists find its lack of transparency and clarity unsettling. “I don’t understand the point of the bill,” says Potter. “Is it a rhetorical statement? Is it an actual attempt to facilitate viable policy change?  If it’s a rhetorical statement, you would expect that there would be publicity, a big press release, a press conference. There’s none of that. It’s a total under the radar kind of thing.”  

Other psychedelic advocates contacted by Lucid News also have concerns about the bill, which was introduced by Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal. Most, however, would only speak off the record, not wanting to alienate a potentially ally. 

Despite repeated requests from Lucid News and other news outlets, Rosenthal has yet to make a public comment. This leaves activists with unanswered questions, including who the bill is meant to benefit and how it would be implemented. 

As originally reported by DoubleBlind, the bill leaves psilocin, another psychoactive substance found in magic mushrooms, on the list of prohibited substances. As a result, magic mushrooms would remain contraband, says attorney David Holland, legal director of Empire State NORML. “The mushroom itself arguably is still prohibited because they want this to fall into a pharmaceutical setting.”

Some psychedelics advocates, among them the author and ethnobotanist Dennis McKenna, disagree with this approach. “That’s totally not the way to do it. The legislation has to be written to make mushrooms legal,” says McKenna. 

The effect of the legislation, activists agree, would be to legalize the production and distribution of synthesized psilocybin, which requires a certain level of resources and technical sophistication. In effect, they claim, the bill would benefit businesses intending to produce psilocybin based products, while maintaining the legal ban on the cheap and plentiful supply of homegrown psilocybin. 

The decriminalization efforts in Denver, Oakland and Santa Cruz set out to protect the personal use of psychedelic plants and fungi. But not all legalization efforts follow that playbook. An Oregon ballot initiative to legalize psilocybin-assisted therapy, which is currently collecting signatures to appear on ballots in November, does not address the use of psilocybin outside of an approved therapeutic context. The soap company Dr. Bronner’s recently announced a $1 million donation to support the Oregon campaign, which intends to establish a comprehensive system to provide psilocybin-assisted therapy across the state. 

Potter draws a sharp contrast between the Oregon effort and the New York legislation. The Oregon measure, says Potter, is “a 71 page bill. It provides for a full on, start to finish, regulated medical system. It expressly does not decriminalize any conduct outside the scope of that closed medical system.” 

In comparison, Potter says that the New York bill “removes the criminal penalties and does nothing to provide any regulated system. It doesn’t make any provision for how this would work in practice.”  

The state of New York could introduce regulations in the future, Holland observed. “The state would certainly still have the power to put safety standards on the production of psilocybin.” 

If the bill passes, anyone could, in theory, produce and sell synthesized psilocybin in any form without restriction. “There will be no crime for selling it,” says Holland “But I don’t know what representations can be made about it, if you’re selling it at a pharmacy versus selling it on a street corner. But once it is taken off the controlled substances list in New York State, it’s not going to be a crime for me to sell it to you, because it has no imposed restrictions on it.”

“While it may not be a state crime,” Holland added, “it will still be a federal crime under the Controlled Substances Act.”

Hadas Alterman, the Director of Legislation and Policy for Decriminalize Nature NYC, notes in an email that there is no one way to pursue legalization of psychedelic substances. She suggests that different localities call for different approaches. “From FDA approval to Oregon’s PSI 2020 to Decriminalize Nature resolutions around the country,” says Alterman. This legislation, “will ultimately be complementary to one another. Not everyone shares identical goals. But the vast majority want psilocybin therapy to be affordable and accessible to people who can safely engage with it, and will support efforts in furtherance of this goal, so long as they are informed by, and of benefit to, the relevant stakeholders.” 

Speaking on behalf of Decriminalize Nature NYC, Alterman expresses concern about the NY Assembly bill and the process that led to its introduction, which, she says, was not inclusive. “It was informed neither by the robust tradition of indigenous ceremonial use, nor the decades of experience of the underground psychedelic community.”

Alterman added that drug law reform activists were not invited to comment on the legislation, “The discussion around the bill lacked transparency,” says Alterman, “and the draft was worded in a way that aroused suspicions regarding legislative intent.” 

Despite the lack of clarity around the bill, Potter is encouraged by Rosenthal’s support for psychedelic legalization, in any form. Potter believes that having an ally in the state Assembly would be a boon to the movement, and he praises Rosenthal’s engagement. “This is a great service that she’s done. This opens the door,” says Potter. “This is a stupendous opportunity for her to communicate with the advocates who are able to provide the elements of a full on regulatory system that can assist with the mental health fall out of the virus. There’s no time like the present.”

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