IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

New California bill would decriminalize psychedelics, expunge criminal records

"The war on drugs has been a complete failure," state Sen. Scott Wiener said. "It hasn't stopped people from using drugs and it hasn’t stopped addiction."
Image: Magic Mushrooms in a grow room
Magic mushrooms are seen in a grow room at the Procare farm in Hazerswoude, central Netherlands, on Aug. 3, 2007.Peter Dejong / AP file

LOS ANGELES — California could be on the verge of becoming the latest state to decriminalize psychedelics for personal and therapeutic use, building on a growing movement across the country to rethink the so-called war on drugs.

The bill, introduced Thursday by state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat who represents San Francisco, would decriminalize substances such as psilocybin, MDMA, LSD, ketamine, DMT and mescaline.

Psilocybin, a hallucinogen found in certain types of mushrooms, and ketamine are already being used in psychedelic-assisted therapy by patients and doctors who extoll the health and wellness benefits of psychedelics to treat mental health disorders, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The bill excludes the use of peyote, an endangered plant, to ensure its availability for traditional Native American spiritual practices, according to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, a global psychedelic research and education organization.

"The war on drugs has been a complete failure," Wiener said. "It hasn't stopped people from using drugs and it hasn’t stopped addiction."

Psilocybin, LSD, MDMA and peyote remain illegal at the federal level and are classified as Schedule 1 drugs, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Image: Tablets of MDMA
A police officer shows seized MDMA tablets, during a press conference at the El Dorado Airport, in Bogota, Colombia, on June 22, 2017.Fernando Vergara / AP

Last year, voters in Oregon and Washington, D.C., approved measures to allow for the therapeutic use of psychedelic mushrooms, which are already being prescribed to help some terminally ill patients in Canada cope with pain and end-of-life anxiety.

The cities of Denver and Oakland, California, each adopted resolutions in 2019 decriminalizing mushrooms.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill earlier this month loosening the penalty for anyone found possessing up to an ounce of psychedelic mushrooms. That bill downgraded small amounts of the substance from a third-degree crime to a disorderly persons offense punishable by up to a $1,000 fine or a 6-month prison sentence, rather than a 3- to 5-year sentence.

Similar bills to reduce criminal penalties for psychedelics have also been passed in Santa Cruz, California; Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Cambridge and Somerville in Massachusetts.

“Psychedelic use can come with some risks, but criminalization only increases those risks by creating an unregulated market in which difficult-to-verify dosages and the presence of adulterants like fentanyl threaten public health,” said Ismail Lourido Ali, policy and advocacy counsel at MAPS.

California's bill would also expunge criminal records for people with prior convictions related to possession of psychedelics. And it would create a commission to recommend a regulatory body tasked with overseeing psychedelic-assisted therapy for the treatment of mental health disorders.

In a recent study at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, researchers found that psilocybin, the active ingredient found in mushrooms, combined with psychotherapy was more effective at treating major depressive disorder than traditional antidepressants.

A separate Johns Hopkins study prescribed patients synthetic psilocybin to help with cancer-related depression and anxiety. Eighty percent of participants said their symptoms faded, and the effects lasted six months.

Despite a growing body of research and a shift in public perception, psychedelics for personal consumption and therapeutic use remain a touchy subject for some lawmakers and voters who might be hesitant to rewrite long-standing drug laws.

"Momentum is building for decriminalization, but it won't happen overnight," Wiener said. "It's a slow-moving process."

Just 10 years ago, recreational cannabis was illegal in all 50 states. That started to change in 2012 when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Now, 15 states, two territories and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and 34 states and two territories allow medical marijuana.

Wiener sees the potential for a similar domino effect to happen with psychedelics but said that a ballot measure might be more successful if lawmakers ultimately vote against his bill, which he hopes will receive a committee hearing in the state Senate sometime in March or April, according to his office.

"In many ways, the voters are ahead of the elected officials when it comes to criminal justice reform," he said. "This is the first time this idea has been in the Legislature. Many of my colleagues won't be familiar with the issue."

A grassroots initiative is already gaining traction in California at the same time lawmakers are considering the decriminalization bill. Decriminalize California has set a goal of collecting 623,212 valid signatures to qualify the California Psilocybin Decriminalization Initiative for the November 2022 ballot.

That measure would allow adults to cultivate, possess, distribute, transport, and consume magic mushrooms in California.