In a way, the legal status of psychedelics in California is a microcosm of what’s happening nationally with cannabis: Just as states continue to legalize weed even as Congress drags its feet—and knuckles—on the issue, a bunch of California cities are legalizing or decriminalizing substances like psilocybin while the state government hasn’t been able to follow suit.
Or, Gov. Gavin Newsom hasn’t been able to follow suit. The Legislature approved a bill to legalize certain psychedelics this year, but Newsom vetoed the measure. That bill was put forward by San Francisco Democrat Rep. Scott Wiener, who has tried and failed twice now to get reform passed.
He’ll keep trying, though. Last week during a virtual event hosted by the Psychedelic and Entheogen Academic Council and housed by the University of California San Francisco, Wiener declared he would take another stab at reform this year with a pared-down bill that would stop short of decriminalization and focus on getting psychedelics approved for therapeutic use. The issue is at an “inflection point,” he said, citing increased popular acceptance of psychedelics for therapeutic uses.
He likened the situation to the gradual acceptance of cannabis reform. “When you look at the polling—and we’ve seen polling in California and nationally—it actually was surprising to me the level of awareness that there is in the state and in the country about the potential benefits of psychedelics,” he said.
Still, cannabis reform at the state level came in the form of legalization, and Wiener’s new bill won’t even include decriminalization, since that was part of the reason Newsom nixed his last bill.
“I personally continue to be of the strong view that we should not be arresting and prosecuting people for possessing and using these substances, that is not an actual productive way of making them safer. But it is what it is; it’s water under the bridge,” Wiener said.
The bill will call for approval of certain psychedelics for therapeutic use, something that researchers and mental-health professionals and advocates increasingly endorse. After that, Wiener said, maybe the state can finally take psychedelics out of the criminal code.
Meanwhile, five municipalities in California—including two big cities—have already done the equivalent.
Oakland in effect decriminalized entheogenic substances in 2019 in a unanimous city council vote to prohibit city money being used to enforce laws against them. Santa Cruz did much the same the next year, followed by Arcata in 2021 and San Francisco last year.
In October, Eureka passed a similar measure in the wake of Newsom’s veto. Reportedly, not a single one of the speakers at the city council meeting where the measure was approved was against the measure.
The parallels with cannabis reform at the national level are striking. For instance, just as Colorado and Washington beat California to the punch on cannabis legalization, Denver preceded Oakland in decriminalizing psychedelics.
And just as liberal states like California, Colorado and Oregon were the first to legalize weed, the same is happening with liberal cities in California decriminalizing shrooms and other psychedelics. The momentum is certainly there, but it might yet be a while before cities like Fresno and Bakersfield even talk about allowing psychedelics.
There seems to be little reason not to take Newsom at his word that, in vetoing the statewide measure, he was merely being cautious. He said he was open to revisiting the issue after “frameworks” for therapeutic care were established.
Psychedelics, after all, aren’t like cannabis. They’re pretty heavy drugs and must be used with caution. That doesn’t mean people should be thrown in jail for possessing or using them, but establishing solid standards for therapeutic care seems to make sense.
This is why though Newsom seemed sincere in expressing his concerns, his critics recoiled: He didn’t really explain why the cops should keep busting people even as treatment standards were being developed.