If passed, new legislation in California would decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms, as well as LSD, MDMA, ketamine and DMT. (Moha El-Jaw)
You know what's a wild topic right now? The discussion around decriminalizing and destigmatizing the use of hallucinogenic substances and psychedelic plants.
Start with the money. Psychedelic pharmaceutical stocks are such a hot trend that on April 20, a day known for celebrating marijuana, Nasdaq provided a guide for potential investors.
On the medical side, there's been ample research into the healing properties of psychedelic mushrooms, but there probably isn't a study more convincing than the testimony of Mike Tyson, who in an interview published last week said that taking shrooms saved his life.
And when it comes to the legislative aspects, one can look at Oakland, where mushrooms were decriminalized in 2019. Some of the same people who backed that legislation two years ago celebrated a new milestone last week, when a bill to decriminalize psychedelics statewide made some significant progress.
Last Tuesday, the California Senate narrowly approved SB 519. The bill, authored by San Francisco Senator Scott Wiener, would allow prescription of psychedelics for medical use, plus possession of psychedelics for personal use, and would expunge the records of those previously convicted of possession. This would include "psilocybin, psilocyn, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ibogaine, mescaline, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), ketamine, and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)," according to the text of the bill.
While managing to convince a slight majority of California senators (21 out of 40) to support the bill is impressive, it still needs to pass the Assembly and be signed by Governor Newsom in order to become law. But there's a definite buzz in the air. In our lifetime—and perhaps very soon—acid, shrooms, and ecstasy could all be legal. How wild is that?
Carlos Plazola and Larry Norris, co-founders of the advocacy group Decriminalize Nature, play a significant part in the conversation I've been following. They tell me that people all over the world are talking about decriminalizing natural hallucination-inducing plants, known as entheogens, but that "the cutting-edge work is happening here in the U.S.," Plazola says.
There's a tiered system of how countries categorize these plants, ranging from legal, to decriminalized, then unenforced and on down to illegal. And here in the United States, it's pretty much the same, with different states having drastically different laws. Look at Oregon, where mushrooms were first legalized, and then look at the neighboring state of Idaho, "one of the toughest U.S. states when it comes to the legality of magic mushroom spores."
"Maybe it’s just about us having a new conversation around nature," says Norris. "How can somebody make a plant that grows out of the ground illegal? That’s mind-boggling."
Decriminalize Nature has already backed decriminalizing legislation that's passed in seven different cities across the United States, including Washington, D.C. Now, with Oakland and Santa Cruz already decriminalized, all eyes are on the state of California.
It's essential to understand why advocates like Decriminalize Nature aim for decriminalizing instead of legalizing. A decriminalized status means that people who grow, gather or give away mushrooms won't be prosecuted. It addresses the failed war on drugs, supports people who use psychedelics for spiritual practices, and, importantly, undercuts the predatory profit of big business.
Many believe that barrier to entry for big business is the only safeguard keeping the psychedelic industry from turning into the marijuana industry, with all its inequity. A 2017 study from Marijuana Business Daily showed that 81% of cannabis business owners and founders were white.
"Prop. 215 was pushed by people who cared about the medical cannabis decriminalization movement," says Plazola, referring to the 1996 initiative that allowed medicinal marijuana in California. But while decriminalization can help those most in need, he explains, full legalization can open the floodgates for investors. "Prop. 64 raised tons of money," he says, in reference to the 2016 legislation that legalized recreational cannabis in the Golden State, "but it came with quid pro quos; that’s when the industry got corrupted."
Another person wary of big money in psychedelics is Reggie Harris. He's the founder of Oakland Hyphae, a business that advocates for "plant medicine cultivators and enthusiasts." Harris, an advisory board member of Decriminalize Nature, says it's a no-brainer that big business would want to get into the psychedelic game once legislation changes.
So, a few months ago, he decided to do something about it.
"For everybody who smokes cannabis, you know, you got the Cannabis Cup or the Emerald Cup," Harris says. "I felt like it was only right to put a flag down and do the Psilocybin Cup."
The multi-day virtual conference, held this past April, allowed people from all over the world to connect and discuss entheogens and all they entail. Along with touching on the money issues, the medical side and the legality of it all, the Psilocybin Cup allowed attendees to have the potency of their products tested—which Reggie says is rare, and could potentially change a grower's fortune.
Prior to the cup, Harris was providing tests for free. His slogan was "if you can get your sample to Oakland, I’ll test it." Now, Harris says, "the best cultivators are paying me to take samples of their mushrooms and test them."
Through sharing those test results, Harris says he's gotten calls from large companies in countries where mushrooms are completely legal. That made him realize the value of being able to identify a quality product.
At the Psilocybin Cup, Harris worked with a number of African American growers, and waived their entry fee so he could test their products–which will hopefully lead to them getting a foothold in the growing market.
How does Harris test?
"It’s a machine where you take samples of mushrooms—five grams," Harris tells me, explaining that the shrooms are ground into a dust-like form and then mixed with a solvent solution that separates the various components.
Harris, who studied political science at Florida A&M but obviously knows a thing or two about mycology, continues: "And then we run the solution through the chromatograph. And it spits out info on a computer screen that has peaks and valleys. And we measure that against what we call a standard"—the standard level of all the psychoactive components of a magic mushroom, including psilocybin, psilocin, baeocystin, and norbaeocystin.
"Based on those peaks and standards, we can calculate how many parts per million are in that sample," Harris tells me, all casually, like he's not explaining chemistry to an Arts and Culture writer. "Does that makes sense?"
Verbally, I said that I understood, but what I was really thinking was that this conversation about decriminalizing plants had gotten deeper than I had expected.
I pivoted and asked the obvious next question: how do you determine a winner of the Psilocybin Cup?
"Let the data do the talking," says Harris.
Last week, Harris announced the second Psilocybin Cup, set for September 20, Magic Mushroom Day.
Until then, this discussion around shrooms and other entheogens will continue. The data will talk, as will community organizers and elected lawmakers.
And while we might be on the "cutting edge" of change, at least in the way we know the world in its current incarnation, there's something Larry Norris said that sticks out to me.
"There are cave paintings in Algeria," he told me, paintings which suggest human beings have been eating shrooms since 7,000 years ago. "People have been working with plants and mushrooms for a long time."
I don't know what's wilder—the fact that those paintings still exist, or that the first agricultural societies were talking about mushrooms the way we are now, 7,000 years later.
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