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Is California on the Path to Decriminalize Psychedelics?

Since the state of California legalized marijuana in 2016, the discussion has shifted towards decriminalizing psychedelics. So, in February 2021, SB-519, a bill aiming to decriminalize possession of psychedelic drugs, was introduced in the California Senate by Scott Wiener. Now, California California State Senator Scott Wiener is moving forward with it. This bill provides a new way to end the “War on Drugs,” using a health-based rather than criminal approach. The bill also aims to expunge criminal records for people previously convicted of possession of psychedelic drugs. If the bill were to be implemented into law, it would decrease the incarceration of discriminated individuals as well as provide an opportunity for some to get effective treatment involving psychedelic drugs for mental illnesses. Specifically, the bill aims to decriminalize small possessions of psychedelic drugs, namely: “up to 2 grams of DMT; 15 grams of ibogaine; 0.01 grams of LSD; 2 grams of psilocybin; 2 grams of psilocin; and 4 grams of MDMA.” 

Even though this bill has sparked a lot of interest, decriminalization of psychedelics is not new in California politics. In 2019, Oakland was the first Californian city to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms. The Alameda County Health Department has not recorded a significant rise in hospitalizations related to hallucinogens. In addition, the decriminalization of “natural entheogens” has not affected the way police interact with individuals possessing other types of drugs as many crime-fighting activists feared. 

In December 2019, the campaign Decriminalize Nature lobbied the Oakland Community Healing Initiative to the Oakland City Council. The initiative aimed to improve mental health services by normalizing the use of psychedelics along with modern science. Moreover, it strived to make it possible for practitioners to use psychedelics within the legal framework. It prompted the state to consider policies regarding the medical uses of drugs and their decriminalization and sent a hopeful message to drug policy reform activists. Indeed, drug policy reform advocates often assert the medical benefits of psychedelics. The mounting scientific evidence has revealed that psychedelic drugs have the ability to treat mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety. The scientists at UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics have conducted studies in which psychedelics showed astonishing results when conventional medical treatments failed. 

Brian Anderson, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Science of Psychedelics, has been investigating the effects of psychedelics in therapy. In his study on psilocybin-assisted group therapy, he observed that the psychedelic enticed “memories that happened to them [the patients in the study] that might seem provocative”. It also “induced an altered state of consciousness – more profound emotional responses, memories, psychological insights.” Professor Anderson emphasized psilocybin is beneficial primarily when “paired with psychotherapy or other types of psychological support.” However, Anderson recognizes the potential risks of psilocybin-assisted therapy claiming it can “precipitate an episode of psychosis or mania” and warrant a physical health concern “in people who have underlying cardiac conditions.” Reverting to the public policy aspect of decriminalization, Anderson acknowledged “a drastic shift in regulatory policy.” Anderson sees his research as a way to “help inform public health-related policies.” Referring to the bill 519, Anderson noted “the bill proposes to decriminalize the possession and use of psychedelic drugs and addresses the issue of whether or not it is appropriate for people to be subjected to criminal penalties for using substances.” It is also “meant to facilitate for people to use these substances for healing, psychological therapy, and spiritual purposes.” 

The therapy purposes of psychedelics have recently been expanded to PTSD research. As indicated in the research by the New York University, psilocybin helps with trauma through neurogenesis. Psychedelic use in PTSD therapy has significant implications for military veterans who, as of now, are forced to leave for other countries if they wish to get effective treatment. Making it illegal for the veterans to get effective treatment stunts their recovery. Furthermore, SB-519 could lead California further down the path to destigmatizing substance-use disorders and focusing on recovering the individuals. 

Besides advancing medical treatment, decriminalization of psychedelics could lead us on a path to bettering the criminal justice system. The new bill brings us a step closer to limiting unnecessary arrests and prosecution regarding low-level drug offenses. Many reformists argue possession of a psychedelic substance is a health issue, and thus people should not be placed in jail for it. Along with clearing criminal records, decriminalization of psychedelics would bring their underground use public by opening discussions regarding their safe use. Destigmatizing drug use could encourage drug addicts to seek help and treatment. Drug abusers are more likely to receive necessary help in rehab as opposed to a jail cell. Research has shown that most correctional facilities discontinue drug abuse treatment during incarceration. As long as the psychedelics are used in the criminalized context, the government does not have a framework to regulate the drug. Thus, the bill would contribute to the expansion of treatment for mental illnesses, while allowing people to keep a clean criminal record instead of having petty drug offenses hanging over their heads for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, legalizing psychedelics in California could lead to the prioritization of health and safety over criminal prosecution.

Another measure that bill 519 could limit is the disenfranchisement of former felons. Individuals with drug offenses are refused the right to vote even after the period of incarceration. This practice bars minorities, who are disproportionately arrested for low-level drug offenses, from having proportional representation, and thereby having the power to affect the political system. By implementing drug war policies, entrenched politicians remain in power as they shrink the voting power from a sizable portion of the population. As the drug war subjugates racial minorities, it has recently been referred to as the “New Jim Crow.” Although white individuals had the highest recorded drug usage, the largest number of drug-related arrests was associated with African-Americans. This racial disparity further develops/evolves/advances the pathway towards racial discrimination as the enforcement of laws is used to justify racial bias. Lowering the number of low-level drug arrests by decriminalizing psychedelics would likely limit the disproportionate arrests of African-Americans. 

On the other hand, law enforcement adamantly denounces the bill and claims decriminalization is a slippery slope leading to the greater abuse of drugs. The Drug Enforcement Administration website “Just Think Twice” claims that: “Marijuana is a frequent precursor to the use of more dangerous drugs and signals a significantly enhanced likelihood of drug problems in adult life.” Even though this claim has gained popularity, research conducted by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has previously concluded there is no causal relationship between decriminalizing substances and increased drug use. Moreover, groups such as Smart Approaches to Marijuana have been researching the effects of the drugs contributing to public safety. Some argue that powerful drugs such as psychedelics have tragic effects, even if they could be used beneficially in therapy. However, the negative effects of these drugs shouldn’t prevent decriminalization. Rather, efforts should be focused on combating these effects by educating people about drugs, their effects, and proper use. 

Still, public health groups such as Community Action Service Advocacy (CASA) emphasize that the new bill could promote drug culture as penalties usually serve as a deterrent. This claim is unfounded as the bill aims to expunge criminal records for people with low drug offenses and help those for whom psychedelic treatment could be beneficial, rather than supporting drug abuse. Lastly, it is commonly believed that decriminalization of drugs leads to an increased crime rate. However, this claim has been debunked by research which found no significant correlation between the increased drug use and the crime rate. A research project funded by the National Institute of Justice found a minimal effect on crime rates with the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado. 

The Bill 519 advocate, Scott Weiner, stated the bill is likely to pass as Decriminalize California is collecting signatures for this initiative. The impending decriminalization of psychedelics in California will most probably have huge consequences for society. First of all, clearing the criminal record will give many individuals the chance to apply for housing or get employed, likely alleviating the issue of poverty since “people who have been incarcerated see their subsequent see their earnings reduced by an average of 52 percent.” Decriminalizing such substances could partially solve the problem of mass incarceration as many US citizens are incarcerated for possession of drugs. The worrisome mental health crisis in California and the United States calls for more effective treatment options which could be accomplished with the use of psychedelics. Lastly, putting an end to drug possession arrests would open up money and resources to be used in more useful ways as legal proceedings and jail costs would decrease. 

The debates arising from the decriminalization controversy accurately portray the troubling issue at hand: the tendency of law enforcement to massively incarcerate people and use their prejudiced views as justification. Painting an unfoundedly negative picture of the decriminalization of drugs keeps many away from receiving the necessary psychedelic treatment or maintaining a clear criminal record.

Featured Image Source: Berkeley News

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