.No Real Progress: Despite advances in cannabis legalization, hurdles to ending the War on Drugs remain

The past couple of months have been good, on balance, for the reform of California’s drug policies and for the state’s cannabis-industry regulation. But, as always, it seems as if the best that reformers can hope for is one step back for every two steps forward.

That’s better than the previous, decades-long norm of no steps forward, but it still tends to dishearten those working for more equitable drug policies.

Last month, the Legislature finally eliminated the cannabis-cultivation tax, which was hobbling the entire industry and destroying the livelihoods of many growers. But lawmakers this term also decided not to cut the excise tax on cannabis, opting instead to freeze the rate at its current 15 percent for three years. That means legal weed will likely not become price-competitive with the illicit market any time soon. Illicit weed can be had at prices that are often nearly two-thirds lower than the prices at dispensaries.

In the meantime, struggling equity-owned businesses, particularly retailers, received almost no help beyond a minuscule tax-relief measure that many equity owners see as an insult.

Still, along with some other measures that recently passed the Legislature—including one preventing employers from penalizing workers for using cannabis while not at work, and another preventing local governments from banning pot delivery—there has been some real progress.

Or it seemed, until late last week when the Assembly Appropriations Committee gutted a bill that would have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of psychedelic substances such as psilocybin mushrooms, DMT, MDMA (Ecstasy) and LSD.

Without explanation, the committee yanked the provision from the bill. What’s left: a directive to the California Department of Public Health to “study” hallucinogens.

The news came as a surprise to its supporters, and especially Sen. Scott Weiner, of San Francisco, who introduced the bill. Early on, he had forecasted that the bill had a 50-50 shot. But then it passed through the Senate, and Assembly committees, and was poised to go to Gov. Newsom for his signature.

Nobody, including Wiener, is exactly sure why the committee gutted the bill.  Wiener has indicated a willingness to compromise—such as by removing LSD and MDMA from the proposal. Police groups, which had led opposition to the bill, reportedly backed down in the face of overwhelming public support and the series of legislative victories.

In a statement, Wiener indicated that he’ll keep trying: “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. Psychedelic drugs, which are not addictive, have incredible promise when it comes to mental health and addiction treatment. We are not giving up.”

While nobody’s sure what happened in the Appropriations Committee, the goal of legalizing even small amounts of hallucinogenic substances has always been seen as a major challenge. Both Republicans and moderate Democrats in the Legislature have been skeptical, at best, about legalization.

That’s not necessarily due to knee-jerk, anti-drug sentiment, or to pandering to conservative voters. Hallucinogens have some well-established therapeutic uses—such as treating addiction to narcotics and PTSD—and many potential ones. But they can also be very dangerous if misused. That obviously doesn’t mean they should be illegal, but given the history of drug policy in the United States, many people just naturally equate “legalization” with “endorsement.” That sentiment is one of the major challenges Wiener and his allies will have to overcome.

It’s also part of why enacting sensible cannabis policy reform is such a challenge. Every proposal to lower taxes or ease regulations is seen, by some, as “encouraging drug use.” That’s especially the case when local governments refuse to issue licenses to cannabis businesses, as most of them have, hobbling the industry perhaps more than anything else has. Local officials often say outright that they oppose legal weed. Or they say they worry that young people will be encouraged to take up cannabis use, despite all evidence saying the opposite.

It turns out that Prop. 64 wasn’t the end of the process of legalizing weed and reforming California’s drug policy. It was just the beginning.

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