California Senate Bill SB 519, the legislation that would decriminalize several psychedelic substances in the state – including psilocybin, psilocyn, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), mescaline (excluding peyote), and ibogaine – for adults 21 and older, was delayed by its authors prior to an August 26 appropriations hearing in the State Assembly.
The legislation is still alive, but is being extended into the next legislative session to give the coalition behind the bill time to educate lawmakers and build support without needing to rush a vote prior to the end of the legislative session on September 10.
Once the legislature reconvenes on January 3, 2022, the bill will continue from where it stands. It will need only to pass the Assembly Appropriations committee before it’s ready to be debated and voted on by the full State Assembly. Should it be approved in the Assembly, SB 519 will be sent back to the Senate to confirm new amendments added by the Assembly before being sent to the governor’s desk for signature.
“Senator Scott Wiener’s (D-San Francisco) Senate Bill 519, which decriminalizes the possession and personal use of certain psychedelic drugs, will now become a two-year bill,” explains a press release about the legislation. “The bill thus remains alive and will be eligible to move forward next year. This groundbreaking legislation moved significantly farther than anticipated — passing the full Senate and passing all of its Assembly policy committees. That said, more time was needed to lay educational groundwork with members and the public to ensure the bill’s success.”
According to the press release, “Delaying full Assembly consideration of the bill until next year will allow the SB 519 coalition of advocates and supporters – which includes veterans who have used psychedelics to treat PTSD, parents whose children overcame addiction with psychedelic therapy, and physicians – to capitalize on the momentum from this year while building support in the Assembly for next year.”
Senator Wiener confirmed the decision to shift SB 519 to a two-year bill on Twitter:
“Good news/bad news: Our bill to decriminalize psychedelics (#SB519) is alive & well, but we’re pausing its further consideration in the Assembly until next yr. In technical talk, it’s now a ‘2 year bill.’ We’ll spend the next year continuing to build support in the Assembly.”
Coalition of SB 519 Supporters
SB 519 is co-sponsored by combat veteran service organizations Heroic Hearts Project, an organization that connects veterans to psychedelic therapy for treating complex trauma and Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS), which provides resources, research, and advocacy for U.S. military veterans seeking psychedelic-assisted therapies for traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction, and other mental health conditions.
SB 519 is co-authored by Senator Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) and Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblymembers Evan Low (D-San Jose), Alex Lee (D-Fremont) and Bill Quirk (D-Hayward).
The large coalition of advocates across the psychedelic space gave SB 519 broad support early on, including the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, Chacruna Institute, City of Oakland Councilmember Noel Gallo, City of Oakland Councilmember Sheng Thao, DC Marijuana Justice, Dr. Bronner’s, Health in Justice Action Lab, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, McAllister Garfield, P.C., Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies MAPS, New Approach Advocacy, North Star Project, Pacific Neuroscience Institute, Sacred Garden Community Church, San Francisco Bay Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, San Francisco Psychedelic Society, San Francisco Public Defender, Students for Sensible Drug Policy UC Berkeley Chapter, The Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and Traditional Art, Unlimited Sciences, and Veterans of War.
Groups that have stated their opposition to SB 519 include the California College and University Police Chiefs Association, California Narcotic Officers’ Association, California Police Chiefs Association, California State Sheriffs’ Association, Congress of Racial Equality, International Faith Based Coalition, and the Peace Officers’ Research Association of California.
The primary funding source behind SB 519 has been Doctor Bronner’s Magic Soap Company and its Cosmic Engagement Officer (CEO) David Bronner. Bronner and his company have been a major source of funding across the psychedelic space, as detailed in the company’s 2020 financial stewardship report.
Reflecting on the costs associated with supporting SB 519, Bronner emphasizes the differences between changing laws through the legislature versus through ballot initiatives.
“Generally legislative costs at the state level are minimal relative to a ballot measure,” says Bronner. “In the case of SB 519 there’s now two paid lobbyists, probably $15 to $20 K cost between them a month.”
Two lobbyists, Dan Seeman and Nara Dhalbacka of the Milo group, have been instrumental in building support for the bill.
Bronner notes that these costs are in stark contrast to funding required by ballot measures in which procuring signatures and educating voters often costs millions of dollars. The amount spent by Dr. Bronners on SB 519 is not included in the 2020 report, but appears to be between $100,000 and $200,000 to date. “The tradeoff with the legislative effort is that you have to navigate committees and unfriendly legislators that, depending, can force amendments on your ideal bill, as has already happened with SB 519.”
New Approach PAC, which counts Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps as one of its donors, is part of the larger coalition that is advising Senator Wiener’s office to craft the language for SB 519 and navigate the many challenges of moving a bill through the legislative process.
The New Approach PAC is a nonprofit political action committee that aggregates donations to candidates and supports ballot initiatives with a focus on cannabis and criminal justice policy reform. The organization has supported a number of state level drug reform initiatives including Proposition 64 that legalized adult cannabis use under California law and Oregon Measure 109.
New Approach’s Director of Psychedelic Policy, Ben Unger, says New Approach’s mission is to reform legislation that supports the War on Drugs and replace it with policies that prioritize public health, science, healing, and community instead of criminalization.
Why Delay SB 519?
There are myriad reasons for delaying a piece of proposed legislation, chief among them when it’s clear that the bill doesn’t yet have the votes necessary to pass. Advocates have long acknowledged the difficulty of passing SB 519 in the state’s more conservative Assembly.
Those close to the bill have also expressed concerns related to the effort by Republicans to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom. With the recall election currently underway to unseat Newsom, some expect the governor to move more cautiously in the next few months, making it possible that a bill such as SB 519 would be left unsigned.
This news comes a little more than a month after Decriminalize Nature, who were originally part of the coalition in support of the bill, pushed to table SB 519 until 2022 to educate elected officials about the benefits of preventing limits on personal possession. The group argued that with more time, legislators might be convinced that such limits are unnecessary.
“Setting allowable amounts is just a creative way to say when law enforcement can arrest you,” read a July Facebook post from Decriminalize Nature. The post also includes a letter the advocacy group wrote to the CA State Assembly Public Health Committee, appealing for them to “table SB519 until 2022 to educate the elected officials instead of setting limits on amount of natural plants and fungi, which threatens people in marginalized communities of color.”
Decriminalize Nature’s current position is neutral unless limits on naturally occurring entheogens – including psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, and ibogaine – are removed. A recent Facebook post from Chair of the Board of Decriminalize Nature, Carlos Plazola, explains: “we must choose to step outside of the concept that government needs to coddle us in the face of the big, scary, dangerous nature out there, and be courageous enough to stand up to the true nature of Nature and accept nothing short of our own sovereign right to live a true life on our own terms.”
Decriminalize Nature’s “bearing witness” campaign which aims to “expose” true intentions of those behind the legislation have put them at odds with the coalition. Some coalition members claim these allegations represent a conspiracy smear campaign against the bill’s supporters
In a series of blog posts, David Bronner addressed claims that Decriminalize Nature have made about him which he says are false. “There is also absolutely no requirement for licenses to grow, transport, gift, facilitate, or so on. I believe DN’s leadership understands this, but is choosing to misrepresent in order to paint me and others in as villainous a way as possible.”
“We are navigating the real terrain that Senator Wiener communicated we had to,” argues Bronner. “Rather than accept reality and navigate it, DN chose to grandstand and posture so they don’t have to make the hard compromises and choices to get this over the finish line. They’ve also been spinning off-base conspiracy theories that we are trying to monopolize and profit off medicine, which is similar to how they reacted when the National Council of the Native American Churches advised that they did not want peyote included in the effort.”
The Future of SB 519 and Possession Limits
As for what’s in store for the bill’s future, Unger explains “It’s possible there might be additional changes. As we have from the beginning, we will fight to keep the current bill intact, but we know there are some key Assembly members who may make their support contingent on more amendments,” says Unger.
“We will be working hard to educate and engage Assembly members in a way that earns their support without changes to the core policy” But Unger added, “It’s extremely unlikely that possession limits would be removed.”
The reasons members of the coalition behind SB 519 believe it’s so unlikely for limits on possession to be removed from the language of SB 519 are multifaceted. For one, the amendment which added possession limits was a condition required by members of the Assembly Health Committee who were otherwise unwilling to vote in favor of the bill. According to Unger, “we don’t believe we can maintain and build majority support for SB 519 if the limits are removed.”
“In [the] Assembly Health Committee, some legislators asked for defined possession limits to make the purpose of the bill more clear and to provide an objective safe harbor for individuals under the new law,” Unger adds. “After discussing this with the coalition, we ultimately agreed that this was the right move both strategically (locking down votes we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise) and from a policy perspective (protecting people from the subjective interpretations of law enforcement).”
Still, Plazola says “Decriminalize Nature plans to organize locally and nationally to convince Senator Wiener to remove limits on entheogens when SB519 returns in 2022.” While it may be technically possible to remove the amendment adding possession limits, such a scenario would face steep political opposition.
While specific limits were left out of the original bill, some believe some believe the term “personal possession” in the original bill would be interrupted in a way that leaves it up to judges —who likely know little about the substances in question— to define what constitutes a reasonable amount for a single person to possess.
Over time, advocates for the bill suggest this would lead to a legal precedent for what constitutes allowable amounts. They note that there is the possibility that specific limits, determined through this process over time, would be less than the amounts proposed in the amendment to the bill. In other words, fighting to remove the current possession limits is not the same as fighting to allow individuals to possess an unlimited amount of psychedelic substances named in the legislation.
A working group formed by bill would offer the opportunity to develop recommendations to the legislature regarding possible regulatory systems California might adopt for personal use of these specified substances in the future.
|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)|
A Strong Start
Advocates within the coalition in favor of SB 519 agree that the bill’s progress to date has gone far beyond initial expectations. As a new idea in the legislature, many expected a psychedelic decriminalization bill such as SB 519 to take a few tries to get as far as it has currently progressed.
“It’s a credit to the strength of the bill, the work of the coalition, and the commitment of Senator Wiener and his team that we have gotten it so close to passage,” emphasized Unger.
To get SB 519 this far along in the legislation process, a number of amendments have been made to appease legislators. To date these amendments include removing automatic expungement of records, the addition to specific limits to define “personal possession,” and the removal of ketamine as one of the substances included within the bill.
Additional amendments exchange the language of “social sharing” for “facilitated or supported use.” Legislators also added a second report from the working group formed by the bill focused on statewide harm reduction. This study was in addition to the originally proposed report on possible regulations requested by legislators.
Forward Progress on SB 519 and Other Bills
Despite the challenges posed by amendments for SB 519, Wiener emphasizes that “Decriminalizing psychedelics remains an urgent issue. Research from top medical universities shows that these substances can have significant benefits, particularly for treating mental health and substance use disorders. Decriminalizing their personal possession and use is part of the larger movement to end the racist War on Drugs and its failed and destructive policies.”
Wiener remains optimistic about the legislation. “Our progress is a testament to the power of the issue and the urgency of the need to act,” says Wiener. “I’m so grateful to my colleagues for working with us and advancing the bill so significantly. Now that we have more time, I’m optimistic through education and member engagement we can pass this critical legislation next year.”
In addition to SB 519, Wiener continues to be involved in other bills related to mental health and addiction which did pass an Assembly appropriations committee hearing on August 26 and will be moving forward for a vote by the full assembly. These include:
SB 110: Substance use disorder services: contingency management.
SB 221: timely access to mental health and addiction care
SB 357: loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense.
SB 73: Probation eligibility: crimes relating to controlled substances.
These bills will be debated and voted on by the full assembly prior to a September 10th deadline, and if approved, would be returned to the Senate to approve any new amendments before finally being sent to Governor Newsom for a signature.