The movement to reform drug policy celebrated a number of victories in the recent election, with voters across America opting to legalize marijuana and decriminalize narcotics in an unprecedented overhaul.
Now, a California lawmaker has announced he will take on the arduous battle to decriminalize psychedelics in the state, citing Oregon, which voted to decriminalize hard drugs and legalize psilocybin, and the District of Columbia, which has decriminalized psychedelics, as inspiration.
“The war on drugs has been an abject failure,” Scott Wiener, the California state senator who plans to introduce the legislation, told the Guardian.
To drug policy activists who doubted ever seeing their efforts take hold on a legislative level, the moment marks a sea change in the political will to overturn America’s failed drug policies. Should Wiener find success when he introduces the bill in the next legislative session, California would be the largest state to decriminalize psychedelics in the US.
“We have come a really long ways,” said David Hodges, the founder of Zide Door Church of Entheogenic Plants, an Oakland-based mushroom and cannabis club. “Just the fact that there’s a chance that this could be done through the legislature rather than through voter initiative is just a sign of how far things have moved.”
Wiener, however, faces an uphill battle. Despite California’s reputation as a relatively drug-friendly state – and cities such as Oakland and Santa Cruz already decriminalizing psychedelics at a local level – convincing politicians to appear to take a public stance in favor of a controversial issue like drugs will never be easy.
The majority of changes in the 2020 election were done through voter initiatives, meaning drug reform advocates had to go through a lengthy and expensive process of collecting the tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of signatures needed to get a proposal on their state’s ballot.
This is the traditional route for most drug reforms, advocates said. “Historically on controversial issues, including drugs, the people have been way ahead of the politicians,” said Anthony Johnson, a longtime advocate and chief petitioner for Oregon’s Measure 110, the initiative that just decriminalized personal possession of small amounts of all illicit drugs. In New Jersey, the issue of legalizing recreational marijuana went to the ballot after it failed in the state legislature.
These initiatives are time-consuming and costly. Measure 110 cost about $3.5m just for the campaign, but Johnson estimated that including the cost of getting on the ballot and Covid-19 restrictions, the price tag was probably closer to $5m. “And that’s for a state of about 6m people,” he said. “Extrapolate that over a state like California” – with a population of close to 40m and land mass more than one and a half times the size of Oregon – “and you can get a sense of how expensive that can be.”
Without statewide reforms, local measures such as those in Oakland and Santa Cruz can only go so far. Local officials can’t change state laws, so they can only instruct their police departments to de-prioritize certain drug crimes. “Then either your police department cooperates or it doesn’t,” Wiener said.
This predicament was clearly illustrated in Oakland when, in August, police officers stormed into Zide Door Church of Entheogenic Plants with their guns drawn. While they made no arrests, they confiscated $200,000 in cannabis and psilocybin mushroom products, according to Hodges, the church’s founder.
Decriminalization on the state level would prevent something like that from happening again. Hodges always thought that decriminalizing psychedelics in California would take a voter initiative – a group had tried to get a measure on the ballot for the 2020 election, but couldn’t get enough signatures in time. “I would never have imagined there would be talk about doing this within the California senate,” he said.
Advocates credit the public awareness around drug use and addiction with the changing perception and political will. “People saw that marijuana really wasn’t that bad, and then they start wondering, what else isn’t so dangerous?” Hodges said. Scientists have started exploring using psilocybin to treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction, but have consistently run up against legal barriers.
“In the Nixon days, it was easy to blame drugs on people of color and the hippies,” Johnson said. “Now the president-elect’s son is open and honest about his drug addiction issues. It’s become apparent that it’s no longer a cultural divide. Drug addiction and drug use affects everyone’s lives.”
Wiener is still in the early phases of putting together his bill, and is working out the fine details. He knows the challenges before him. “Drug policy is always challenging in the legislature,” he said. But in 2018, he was able to get a bill that allowed for supervised, safe drug injection sites in the state to then-governor Jerry Brown’s desk. Brown vetoed it. “We have been able to pass drug policy bills in the legislature,” Wiener said. “The democratic caucus in both chambers is very diverse. We’ve got a shot.”
Wiener said he would love to eventually introduce a bill similar to Measure 110 in Oregon – one that decriminalizes the use and possession of small amounts of all drugs.
And for that, Johnson knows all eyes will be on Oregon for the next few years. He says he’s excited that people are already turning to his state as an example.
“When you pass a measure like this and then it just immediately builds progress, whether it’s a legislator in California speaking up or a measure in Washington taking shape, it’s a relief to see science beginning to win the day.”