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California nearly decriminalizes psychedelics – but governor hits brakes

A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis marketplace in Los Angeles.

California will have to put more work into decriminalizing hallucinogens before Governor Gavin Newsom will sign a bill, said a statement from the governor on Saturday, announcing that the bill had been vetoed.

The rejected law, which was anticipated to take effect in 2025, would have done away with criminal penalties for people possessing natural psychedelics for personal use. It also would have required the state to form a group to study and make recommendations about the drugs’ therapeutic use.

Newsom, a Democrat who championed legalizing cannabis in 2016, said in a statement on Saturday that more needed to be done before California decriminalized the hallucinogens.

“California should immediately begin work to set up regulated treatment guidelines – replete with dosing information, therapeutic guidelines, rules to prevent against exploitation during guided treatments, and medical clearance of no underlying psychoses,” Newsom’s statement said. “Unfortunately, this bill would decriminalize possession prior to these guidelines going into place, and I cannot sign it.”

The legislation, which echoed similar measures in Oregon and Colorado, came after years of effort from drug reform advocates and state lawmakers. Scott Wiener, a state senator who represents San Francisco and introduced the bill in late 2022, has argued it is an important way to undo the harms of the “war on drugs” and open new avenues of mental health treatment.

“Veterans and anyone suffering from PTSD and depression should not face criminal penalties for seeking relief,” Wiener said in a statement after the measure passed the legislature. “Plant-based psychedelics are non-addictive and show tremendous promise at treating some of the most intractable drivers of our nation’s mental health crisis.”

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Wiener backed a previous effort in the legislature in 2021, but that bill also failed to advance. This year’s bill was crafted in consultation with law enforcement groups and medical experts and takes a “moderate approach”, Wiener said.

Veterans’ groups promoting alternative therapies for trauma have praised the legislation.

“Every day that criminal penalties prevent veterans from accessing psychedelic plant medicines is a day their lives are at risk,” said Jesse Gould, veteran and founder of the Heroic Hearts Projects, in a statement shared by Wiener’s office.

“Psychedelics helped heal the unseen scars from my service in the War on Terror after traditional medicine failed me for years. Since then I’ve dedicated my life to educating veterans in the safe and effective use of psychedelics. Removing criminal penalties for the use of these substances will help that work, not hurt it.”

Wiener called the veto a missed opportunity for California to follow the science and lead the nation.

“This is a setback for the huge number of Californians – including combat veterans and first responders – who are safely using and benefiting from these non-addictive substances and who will now continue to be classified as criminals under California law,” Wiener said in a statement on Saturday. “The evidence is beyond dispute that criminalizing access to these substances only serves to make people less safe and reduce access to help.”

He said he would introduce new legislation in the future. Wiener unsuccessfully attempted to pass a broader piece of legislation last year that would have also decriminalized the use and possession of LSD and MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy.

Lawmakers can override a governor’s veto with a two-thirds vote, but they have not tried in decades.

Three Republicans joined with Democrats to support the bill, giving it the votes needed to pass the assembly and move on to the state senate, where it was approved. One of those lawmakers, Bill Essayli, said he initially opposed the bill but was swayed by the age requirements and limits on personal use.

Essayli told Courthouse News that if psychedelics could help people struggling with mental health, they should have access to them.

“Our approach to mental health in the medical community is not working,” he said.

In Oregon, voters in 2020 opted to decriminalize small quantities of hard drugs as well as supervised use of psilocybin. The state is the first to offer controlled use of the psychedelic mushroom to the public, and thousands of people are seeking treatment. Supporters hope the initiative will revolutionize mental health care.

In California, cities including Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Berkeley have decriminalized natural psychedelics that come from plants and fungi.

Despite Newsom’s veto, California voters might have a chance to weigh in on the issue next year. Advocates are attempting to place two initiatives to expand psychedelic use on the November 2024 ballot. One would legalize the use and sale of mushrooms for people 21 and older, and the other would ask voters to approve borrowing $5bn to establish a state agency tasked with researching psychedelic therapies.

Nathan Howard, the director of operations for InnerTrek, which trains psilocybin facilitators, said Oregon’s experiment had been a success and that the state’s progress had probably helped California’s bill gain steam.

“It’s really working. That’s not just important for us in Oregon and all the people who will have sometimes lifesaving experiences, it’s also super important because people are watching this closely.”

In California, cities including Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Berkeley have decriminalized natural psychedelics that come from plants and fungi.

The Associated Press contributed reporting

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