The California Senate legislation to decriminalize certain psychedelic substances under state law, SB 519, has been amended by its authors to include possession limits during a challenging path through the State Assembly. Possession limits have become a contentious issue for activists who have differing views of how they will impact users.
Changes were made to the bill prior to a State Assembly Health Committee hearing on July 13th (starting at 1:21:47) where the bill was moved forward in a 8-4 vote, with three committee members abstaining. The Assembly Health Committee consists of fifteen Assembly members with a range of views on drug law reform.
The language of SB 519 was amended by its authors prior to the Health Committee to add thresholds for personal possession and exchanging the term “social sharing” for “facilitated or supported use” to more explicitly allow for ceremonial group consumption. Without these amendments in place, the bill received too much pushback to pass.
The bill has also been amended to include a mandate that the working group formed as part of the bill provide an additional report by January 2023 with recommendations for mitigating risk, providing harm reduction resources and state-wide education, including training for California first responders. This is in addition to the report from the working group originally stipulated by the bill, detailing recommendations for possible regulatory models, still due in January 2024.
Possession Limits for Psychedelic Substances
Legal personal possession thresholds added to the bill dictate the point at which law enforcement has jurisdiction to investigate possible crimes and enforce laws. When allowable possession limits are low, there is more room for discriminatory enforcement which continues to disproportionately target marginalized communities.
The challenges associated with thresholds are compounded in the case of psychedelic substances where one person is often responsible for preparing doses in ceremonial settings for multiple people. The spirit of the bill’s original language intends to allow psychedelic ceremonies for healing purposes. With new possession thresholds in place, however, those holding these substances will be at a higher risk for enforcement than if no such limits existed.
To address this, the language around thresholds in the new version of the bill makes it clear that allowable amounts can be aggregated among multiple persons for use in the context of facilitated or supported use. Additionally, the language only allows the weight of the substance itself to be considered. Two grams of the molecule psilocybin is quite different from two grams of dried mushrooms, for example.
The language makes it clear that only the chemical substance itself can be included in the weight when determining legality, thus requiring prosecutors to conduct lab tests that confirm actual amounts of a substance before convicting a defendant of violating state drug laws. This requirement may offer possible protection to facilitators of ceremonies where psychedelics are used, even if some may still be hesitant to practice in the open.
According to the amended bill, an “allowable amount” does not include the weight of any material of which the substance is a part or to which the substance is added, dissolved, held in solution, or suspended, or any ingredient or material combined with the substances specified in this subdivision to prepare topical or oral administrations, food, drink, or other product, including, but not limited to, in a brew or tea.
Senator Scott Wiener, who has sponsored the bill, thanked his colleagues on the Assembly Health Committee for working with him to help pass the measure.
Lucid News has estimated how many doses may be included in proposed threshold limits for the legislation.
Possession Limits Proposed By Amendments to SB 519
|Substance||Possession Threshold||Approximate Doses|
|DMT||2 grams||40 (50mg doses)|
|Ibogaine||15 grams||30 (500mg doses)|
|LSD||0.01 grams||50 (200μg doses)|
|Psilocybin||2 grams or 4 ounces of plant or fungi (113 grams)||22.5 (5g doses)|
|Psilocyn||2 grams or 4 ounces of plant or fungi (113 grams)||22.5 (5g doses)|
|MDMA||4 grams||26.5 (150mg doses)|
|Mescaline||4 grams||16 (250mg doses)|
From “Social Sharing” to “Facilitated or Supported Use”
The term “social sharing,” included in the previous drafts of SB519 has been exchanged for “facilitated or supported use” to more explicitly address the intention of the bill – which is to allow access to these substances for those needing alternative mental health treatment. The definition in the bill now reads:
“Facilitated or supportive use means assisting a person or persons 21 years of age or older with the personal use or use by multiple persons as part of a group, as specified, including giving away and possessing aggregate amount for use by multiple persons as part of a group including in the context of counseling, spiritual guidance, community-based healing, or related services.”
Mixed Response From Activists
The sponsors of the amendments to SB 519 intend to set a balance that addresses the concerns of legislators, while still protecting the majority of users and facilitators. However, some advocates have expressed deep concerns about having thresholds for personal possession of any kind.
Decriminalize Nature (DN), a nonprofit organization which initially supported the passage of SB 519, has changed their position, calling for advocates to remain neutral on passage of the legislation due to the addition of thresholds.
Carlos Plazola, Chair and Co-Founder of DN, wrote in an email to members of the Oakland City Council who signed on in support of the bill that “Setting limits for personal use, possession, and transport sends a message to law enforcement about when it is ok to arrest for simply using, possessing, or transporting, and presumes people guilty simply for the amounts they have. They need not have the intent to sell. This will impact communities-of-color most, as has been our legacy for 70 years with the war on drugs.”
In addition, DN has posted a series of Instagram posts accusing New Approach PAC and other groups working with SB 519 author Senator Scott Weiner of backroom dealing with the intention of profiting from substances included in the measure.
While advocates of SB 519 agree in principle with the problems of putting limits on personal possession, DN’s attacks on groups they disagree with follows a larger pattern which has put the organization at odds with other activists in the psychedelic space.
A response from David Bronner, a board member of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and an activist who provided financial support for SB 519, explains some of the context for difficult decisions that must be made as the bill moves through the legislative process.
“There was fundamental disagreement with Decriminalize Nature (DN) on whether it was politically possible to convince the Health Committee to go for no limits. We’re taking our lead on this from Senator Wiener, who understands the political landscape much better than we do. I love DN’s passionate case and couldn’t agree more in principle; however, that wasn’t in the cards according to Wiener’s office, and was not an issue of further education for health committee, as DN was proposing. We are trusting our legislative champion to advise us on what is politically possible to navigate this bill into law,” wrote Bronner.
Bronner added that he hoped DN and its members would understand the strategy that he and other SB 519 supporters are pursuing.
“We’ve been working hard on this in the past week and a half with DN’s (former) lobbyist Anthony closely involved, and had hoped DN would understand and be supportive of our workaround to make sure people who produce or gift the quantities for groups are protected (alongside proposing relatively high personal use limits that we thought could make it through the Committee),” adds Bronner. “It’s also the case that any local city remains totally free to have no limits for local enforcement, and nothing changes in the city of Oakland.”
With SB 519’s passage through the Health Committee, the bill’s next stop will be in the Assembly Appropriations committee. Should the bill be passed out of appropriations, it will continue on to the floor of the Assembly for a final vote. If it passes there, the bill will be sent to Governor Newsom for signature.
Image: Tony Webster