Shortly after the November election, in the wake of a slew of drug policy wins across the nation, California State Sen. Scott Wiener announced that he intends to introduce legislation to decriminalize psychedelic drugs in California. While a draft of his plan has yet to be released, Wiener says that he was inspired both by Oregon’s recent decriminalization of drugs, and its plan to allow supervised psilocybin use for medical purposes.
In Oregon, decriminalization and legalization were two separate ballot measures. Voters approved a decriminalization measure, which allows for the personal possession of small amounts of illegal drugs. Separately, they legalized psilocybin, the substance in so-called “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms,” for physician-administered medical use. The second can’t exist with the first; decriminalization would not enable medical professionals to possess and sell psilocybin to patients legally.
They’re two very different approaches, and neither is perfect. What exactly Wiener’s legislation will entail could be crucial in shaping the future of drug policy in California, with equity and access to a legal supply hanging by a thread.
Oregon’s ballot measure legalizing psilocybin mushrooms was drafted by two Portland-based psychologists, Sheri and Thomas Eckert. Under the new law, the Oregon Health Authority will issue licenses to medical professionals who meet a strict set of standards, enabling them to administer it at licensed facilities.
This is not the same as the old medical marijuana laws in California; it will not be dispensed for personal use at home, and clients would only be able to purchase, possess and consume mushrooms at so-called “psilocybin service centers” after attending a mandatory preparation session. It’ll be awhile before they get there; qualifications, training protocols and exams will need to be established.
The use of psilocybin for psychological treatment has been studied extensively; even the Food and Drug Administration has christened psychedelics as “breakthrough therapies” for mental health conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Any substance can be harmful, so I’m not suggesting that anything is like nirvana,” Wiener told AP. “But we know that psychedelics can be used safely. We know they appear to have significant medicinal uses.”
But recreational use of psychedelics can also be therapeutic, and drug policy advocates worry that legalizing psychedelics through our medical industry could limit access for people who need it, and unfairly criminalize communities — such as indigenous people — who have been guiding people through psychedelic treatment for centuries.
Larissa Maier, a postdoctoral scholar in clinical pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco, says that we need to acknowledge that the majority of people using psychedelics are doing so on their own, or in small groups. Those small groups can offer their own form of supervision, as people care for each other while they trip.
Maier is part of the core research team behind the Global Drug Survey, which surveyed 55,000 people who use drugs just last year. Results have shown that psilocybin is a very low-risk drug, bringing into question the hard requirement of consuming it only around medical professionals.
“We see year after year, since 2014, that magic mushrooms have the lowest risk potential of adverse effects, from 0.2 to 0.4% of people seeking medical care following use,” Maier says. “People cannot overdose and die from psychedelics. They are non-addictive and when used in the right setting, and especially the right mindset, there is no risk of death or accident.”
In fact, the biggest threat to consumers of psilocybin, Maier points out, is criminalization and incarceration.
“If we talk about harm reduction we also need to discuss what harm is caused by regulations or the current prohibition that is in place,” she says. “Historically marginalized communities and people without serious mental health symptoms are unlikely to access psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy via the medical model. Therefore, community healing and guided tripping need to be discussed as well. You want to be able to hold practitioners accountable for misconduct, but the self-regulation of communities should not be underestimated.”
Ifetayo Harvey, the founder of the People of Color Psychedelic Collective, spoke to this issue during a recent Harvard panel titled “Can Psychedelics Save America?”
“The medical industry is an extension of the carceral system in a lot of ways,” Harvey explained. “A lot of times medical institutions mirror bad practices that we see from police, and they work in conjunction with law enforcement. There’s a history of deep mistrust and abuse from the medical community, especially toward the Black community. If we just go with a medical approach we’re going to hinder the social justice aspect of decriminalizing these substances. We have to be holistic in our approach.”
Wiener appears to agree, and the complications of establishing an equity-based approach to legalization, not to mention the rigorous regulations required, have meant that he’s not pursuing that approach, yet. For now, he’s sticking with decriminalization, which is it’s own journey.
“To be clear, decriminalizing psychedelics is simply one step in ending the War on Drugs,” he tweeted on Friday. “We ultimately need to decriminalize all drug use and stop putting people in prison for drug use and possession. We’re working on all of this. But for now, let’s get it done with psychedelics.”
Regardless of Wiener’s intention to move gradually with drug decriminalization, it’ll be a challenge to get even psychedelics passed in Sacramento. While California’s voters may be amenable to such a plan, its legislators and governor prevent a formidable hurdle.
But at the very least, the conversation has started, and that, Meier says, is a first step. “I really think it’s helping to change the narrative, and that’s what we’ve been advocating for years.”
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