Supporters of a California bill that would have decriminalized psychedelic substances have pulled the legislation after lawmakers removed decrim language from the bill, leaving behind only a proposed working group tasked with developing reports.
On August 11, the California Assembly Appropriations Committee passed SB 519 “as amended to retain the department of public health study,” putting the bill on track to be voted through by the full Assembly but removing language related to decriminalization. A last minute attempt by the bill’s author to remove synthetic substances (MDMA and LSD) from the bill’s language after law enforcement organizations agreed to change their position to neutral was ultimately unsuccessful.
Officially, the purpose of the Assembly’s Appropriation Committee (where the bill was amended to remove decriminalization) is to hold bills with a fiscal impact to allow the legislature to set priorities for how the state’s tax dollars will be spent in the upcoming year. Unofficially, these committees have become the place where controversial bills are sent for a quiet death when legislators don’t want to be on the record regarding their opposition.
The Assembly Appropriation Commitee’s own analysis of the bill notes that decriminalization would save state taxpayers money. The analysis states: “Assuming a sentence of two years for transportation and possession, if five fewer people are sentenced to state prison because of this bill, savings would be $1 million.” The committee’s same analysis notes that the expense of the working group, which remains in the bill, would cost the state an estimated $5.3M.
Assemblymember Chris Holden, chair of the Appropriations Committee, declined to comment when asked why the appropriations committee, tasked with assessing the fiscal impact of legislation, would remove language supporting decriminalization – which the committee’s own analysis noted would save taxpayers money. Holden would also not say why language supporting decriminalization was removed from the bill.
The amended legislation is now more narrowly focused on the formation of a working group tasked with developing two reports to, as the bill explains, “study and make recommendations regarding public education, public health, and harm reduction, and possible regulatory systems that California could adopt to promote safe and equitable access to certain substances in permitted legal contexts.”
On August 12, California State Senator Scott Wiener sent out a press release addressing the amendment. “I’ve now confirmed that SB 519 – decriminalizing possession and use of small quantities of certain psychedelic drugs – was amended by the Assembly Appropriations Committee to remove the decriminalization aspect of the bill. As a result, the soon-to-be-amended version of SB 519 is limited to a study.”
What’s Still in the Bill?
In its current form, SB 519 would direct the California Department of Public Health to convene a working group tasked with developing two reports. The first report would provide recommendations for mitigating risk, providing harm reduction resources and statewide education, including training for California first responders. The second report would detail recommendations for possible regulatory systems that California could adopt to promote safe and equitable access to certain substances in permitted legal contexts. These reports would be due in January of 2024 and 2025 respectively.
According to the legislation, the working group writing the reports would include people with expertise in psychedelic therapy, medicine and public health, drug policy, harm reduction, and youth drug education; law enforcement and other first responders; and people with experience with the traditional indigenous use of psychedelic substances, including representatives from the National Council of the Native American Church and Indian tribes in California.
What has been removed from SB 519?
Decriminalization – Decriminalization of personal possession, use, cultivation and facilitated use of psilocybin, psilocyn, DMT, ibogaine, LSD, and MDMA, and mescaline (not derived from peyote) is no longer included in the language of SB 519. This means that aspects of the bill such as possession limits and allowances for aggregate amounts are eliminated from the bill as well.
Expungement of Records – The bill would no longer permit the expungement of records for past criminal convictions involving substances named in legislation prior to the amendment.
Reduction of Penalties – The bill no longer reduces penalties and criminal charges related to substances covered by earlier drafts of the legislation.
Paraphernalia and Drug Checking – The bill no longer removes prohibitions on the use of paraphernalia used in the preparation and use, or testing and analysis of substances included in previous drafts of the language. This language would have removed barriers to drug checking initiatives, which have been proven to be an effective form of harm reduction.
Pulling the Bill
Now that SB 519 has passed through the Assembly’s final committees, the bill’s next stop would be a vote on the floor of the Assembly where it would require a simple majority to pass. However the coalition behind SB 519 no longer supports the bill in its current form. Wiener, who authored the legislation, says he will pull the bill prior to the Assembly vote to prevent it from moving forward. There are plans to reintroduce the legislation in the next legislative session as Wiener explained in his August 12 press release.
“While I am extremely disappointed by this result, I am looking to reintroduce this legislation next year and continuing to make the case that it’s time to end the War on Drugs,” reads the statement. “Psychedelic drugs, which are not addictive, have incredible promise when it comes to mental health and addiction treatment. We are not giving up.”
Diane Goldstein, Executive Director at Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) and has been a key member of the coalition supporting SB 519 explained the coalition’s decision not to support the working group only version of the legislation.
“The working group wasn’t about how decriminalization would work. The working group was to set up a process for safe access in the future and to look at other potential issues around the sensible regulation of psychedelics – two different things.” Goldstien continued, “The working group is not about decriminalization and reversing the damages of the drug war, and how the drug war has this huge unintended consequence (or maybe it was intended) of keeping people criminalized and in the illicit market.”
Nara Dahlbacka, a partner at the Milo Group, one of three lobbying firms promoting the bill, said the previous version of the bill had strong support as it moved through the legislative process. “We had an amazing and broad coalition of veterans, first responders, people who have suffered from complex PTSD, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, advocates, and experienced medical professionals who have seen the transformations that these medicines are able to achieve,” said Dahlbacka. “Our coalition made it through six policy committees and were able to address opposition to the bill. It is very likely that had this bill moved forward, it would have passed the assembly. We could have made history.”
It’s not clear why the Assembly Appropriations Committee removed decriminalization from the legislation, and given the committee’s opaque operations, it’s possible that this will never be publicly disclosed. As Dahlbacka notes, the committee believed the legislation would be passed by the Assembly following the coalition’s recent lobby day.
Given that the bill’s fiscal impact was understood to be negligible, the coalition may have focused their lobbying effort on the approaching floor vote. Meanwhile, a group opposed to the bill could have targeted their lobbying on members of the appropriations committee in a successful effort to quietly kill the bill. Members of the committee might also have removed the decriminalization language due to their own beliefs about drug decriminalization, knowing it would be unpopular, but assuming the public would likely never know how they voted. Whatever the reason, advocates emphasize that the cost of not moving decriminalization forward this year is many people across the state with depression and PTSD who will not have access to life saving therapies.
Dahlbacka spoke to the impact of removing decriminalization from SB 519. “It’s incredibly disappointing and heartbreaking that people’s lives will be lost because they aren’t willing to risk breaking the law to access these medicines. The least, and I mean it, the bare minimum that we could possibly do, is not arrest people for possessing entheogenic plants,” says Dahlbacka. “We will be back. We will get this done. The war on drugs failed and it’s high time for our government to catch up. This year has been a disappointing one legislatively for drug policy in California. I hope the next session will be better.”