In America, “legalizing” a mind-altering substance doesn’t only mean that use and possession will no longer carry criminal penalties. It also means that billions of investment dollars will pour into companies that mean to manufacture or sell the substance. As a quick look at any of the states that have taken cannabis out of the criminal code over the past decade reveals, “legalize” is almost synonymous with “commercialize.”
That partially explains why so much money and attention is now being invested in psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms, whether for pharmaceutical use or, perhaps eventually, “recreational” use and sale.
But legalization for recreational use is far from imminent, and some of that money might be better parked elsewhere for the next couple of years. Recent moves by state and local governments to decriminalize some hallucinogens have spurred much of this investment, but even those—remarkable as they might seem—are tiny steps.
But that doesn’t mean people aren’t trying. Last week, the California Attorney General’s office gave the go-ahead for advocates of the California Psilocybin Initiative to gather signatures for the 2022 ballot. The proposed measure is meant to “legalize” so-called “magic mushrooms” and enable their cultivation and sale, according to Decriminalize California, the main group promoting the initiative.
As noted by Marijuana Moment, the attorney general’s language is different in that it uses the word “decriminalize,” though it also mentions cultivation and sale. For it to be placed on the ballot in November of next year, proponents must gather 623,212 signatures. Getting to that number will be “a tough fight in a state that tends to have a much higher conservative vote than people think,” Attorney Griffen Thorne wrote over the weekend on the website of his firm, L.A.-based Harris Bricken, which specializes in cannabis law. He noted that Proposition 64, which legalized cannabis for adult use in 2016, “passed with less than 60 percent support.”
A bill to decriminalize certain psychedelics passed the California Senate and has gained support in the Assembly where it has passed out of two committees. But apparently, that support has fallen short, and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Scott Wiener, of San Francisco, has put a hold on it to give himself time to lobby hesitant Assembly members.
So far, the jurisdictions that have decriminalized hallucinogens have stopped short of anything like full legalization. Oakland and Santa Cruz, along with Ann Arbor, Denver and Washington, D.C., have all decriminalized some psychedelic drugs. Oregon has also decriminalized psilocybin statewide and also legalized its use to treat mental conditions in a therapeutic setting.
In all of these jurisdictions, police can still arrest someone for possessing hallucinogens. The measures simply instruct law enforcement to make such arrests a “low priority.” And anyone selling the stuff, or cultivating it for sale, is still subject to criminal penalties.
The tide seems to be turning, largely, as it did with cannabis, but it’s not just “conservatism” that makes policymakers hesitant. Many are concerned about the powerful psychoactive effects of psychedelics, which can go far beyond those of cannabis. Use too much cannabis, and you might be in for an unpleasant few hours. Use psychedelics unwisely and you might end up in the psych ward. They can be especially dangerous for people with schizophrenia and other psychotic ailments—the irony is that, administered carefully, they can also potentially treat a range of mental-health maladies.
Straight-up freakouts are rare: there are far fewer “bad trips” from, for example, mushrooms, than is commonly believed. But when a trip goes bad, it might go really bad. Those old, campy high-school health-class films depicting a kid yelling “I can fly!” before hurling himself off a rooftop weren’t necessarily off the mark, just over the top.