State leaders eye psychedelics

Most advocates for drug law reform felt a sense of relief over Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump for the presidency and were buoyed by the legalization of weed around the country. Now some California lawmakers want to take the win and run a little bit further: decriminalizing psychedelic drugs, too.

From a wider perspective, it seems like Election Day 2020 marked a turning point for reform, with voters in several states, including conservative strongholds like South Dakota and Montana, legalizing cannabis for adult use. On top of that, voters in Oregon and the District of Columbia voted to legalize or decriminalize psychedelics.

Inspired in part by these developments, California Sen. Scott Wiener announced on Twitter last week he would try to move the state in the same direction.

“When the Legislature reconvenes, I’ll introduce legislation to decriminalize psychedelic drugs,” he said. “These drugs have been shown to have medicinal value treating depression, PTSD & other conditions.”

The wave of reform is holistic. That is, the arguments have gone from “weed is relatively harmless, so let’s just legalize it” to “arresting people for drug use has destroyed millions of lives and cost billions of dollars, so let’s stop doing it.” Wiener said as much, tweeting: “We need to stop criminalizing drug use & addiction.”

Oregon voters by a 56-44 majority legalized the use of psilocybin, a.k.a. “Magic mushrooms,” for therapeutic use in “supervised, licensed facilities.” Voters also voted to decriminalize possession of the substance. First will come a “two-year development period,” during which the state will devise a regulatory scheme for administering psilocybin. That’s not an easy task. Unlike cannabis, psychedelic mushrooms and other hallucinogens are powerful drugs and can be dangerous if not used with care.

At the same time, recent research reveals that, in small doses, they can be equally powerful agents for treating a range of mental and emotional maladies. They also are thought by some shamanistic types to enable spiritual awakening. And yes, for “recreational” users, they can be fun—but proponents of loosening the laws tend to gloss over that last point.

Oregon is the first state to decriminalize or legalize hallucinogens (D.C. voters overwhelmingly decriminalized psilocybin and other entheogenic substances), but that’s an expansion of a trend of cities doing so. Denver did it last year, followed quickly by the Oakland City Council, which heard witness after witness testify about the positive effects of the substances. “They saved my life,” one man said. The Santa Cruz City Council followed suit in February.

Though momentum seems to be gaining, drug law reform advocates are disappointed that Democrats lost some House seats and might have failed to take back the Senate. Runoff elections in Georgia in January will determine control of the upper body, where in recent years, drug reform goes to die.

Wiener, who represents San Francisco and parts of San Mateo County, said he is working with Assemblymembers Evan Low, who represents the South Bay and Silicon Valley, and Sydney Kamlager-Dove, who represents a big chunk of Los Angeles, to craft legislation to be debated in the coming year.

In the meantime, Americans seem to be coming around to accepting cannabis and hallucinogens, thanks in no small part to the work of Michael Pollan, the popular, Berkeley-based author and journalist whose books about food have had a major impact on the American diet.

His recent book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence, ended up on the coffee tables of suburban, middle-class people across the country. As a result, Pollan has been widely, and somewhat erroneously, described as an “advocate” of hallucinogenic drug use. He supports decriminalization, and the careful use of the substances for therapy. But he draws the line at legalization and the creation of a shroom industry similar to the pot business.

“The risks of unsupervised psilocybin use are considerable, and of a different order than the risks of cannabis,” he wrote last year. Government officials, take note: this won’t be as simple as legalizing weed.


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