Oakland Takes Step Toward Decriminalizing Psychedelic Mushrooms

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Fresh magic mushrooms sit in a fridge for sale in England, where they were legal before being banned in 2005. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

A resolution to decriminalize certain natural psychedelic plants and fungi — such as "magic" mushrooms — was approved by an Oakland City Council committee Tuesday night and is expected to go to the full council for a vote on June 4.

If the measure passes, Oakland would become the second city in the country to decriminalize entheogenic plants, following Denver earlier this month.

The proposal would make the "investigation and arrest of individuals involved with the adult use of entheogenic plants on the federal Schedule 1 list be amongst the lowest priority for the city of Oakland."

"We're here to fix a wrong that never should have occurred," said Carlos Plazola, chair of Decriminalize Nature Oakland, which was sponsoring the resolution.

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Plazola gave a presentation on the proposal Tuesday night to the Oakland City Council's public safety committee, which ultimately passed the resolution with three votes and one abstention. The presentation included a number of doctors speaking on the potential mental health benefits of entheogenic plants and nearly an hour of public testimony — and one standing ovation — largely in support of decriminalization.

"They should never have been Schedule 1 substances in the first place based on any sort of scientific evidence," said Dr. Kelan Thomas, a psychiatric pharmacist. Thomas told the committee he had published one of the first review papers on clinical trials with psychedelics and, while there have only been limited studies so far, the plants have been found to be incredibly effective in treating mental health issues.

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"There's some evidence that one of the active components in psilocybin mushrooms can be used as a medical treatment in some patients, but this is also based off studies that have been small or very preliminary," said Dr. Brian Anderson on KQED's Forum on Wednesday. Anderson is a psychiatrist at San Francisco General Hospital who has done studies on the use of psychedelic plants in religious ceremonies.

Anderson noted that trials have shown these plants work distinctly differently from other available treatments for mental health. Psychedelic mushrooms' effects on depression, for instance, can be large, when used as a form of drug-assisted psychotherapy. But this has been tested only on a few hundred patients in the last few years in the U.S. and maybe a couple of thousand in clinical trials in the last 20 years, he said. "It's a little early to think we'll be able to get FDA permission at this time."

However, that's far from what is being proposed in Oakland.

"This is about decriminalization. This is not about legalizing and being able to go get it from your physician," said Anderson.

While proponents argue psychedelic plants and fungi can ease depression and anxiety, and can even be used to treat cancer patients, critics have concerns about educating the public on safe use.

"One of the things I'm focused on is that we introduce things the right way," said Councilwoman Loren Taylor, who ultimately abstained from the vote. "How we deploy and how we support safe use and responsible use [is] a big piece for me."

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Although Taylor said he's supportive of how valuable psychedelic plants can be in certain settings, he's also concerned about making sure mushrooms don't become a fad with high school kids or get into the hands of those who are vulnerable or susceptible.

It's a concern that Plazola, who is sponsoring the measure, acknowledged both in his presentation to the committee and on KQED's Forum Wednesday morning.

"It's really about education," Plazola said on Forum. At the meeting Tuesday night, he presented an education resource guide and a plan for how his organization and others would reach out to Oakland residents over the next two years to provide support and information. For example, he said, they would advise anyone with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder to consult with a doctor before taking entheogenic plants.

Plazola, however, also argued that the criminalization of these plants has contributed to mass incarceration based on "irrational fears." At the same time, he said, the mental health crisis has also hit those communities who do not have access to these resources.

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"The question that people should be asking themselves is, 'What did the world look like before [these plants] were criminalized?'" he said. There is a long history of different plants being used in various religious ceremonies throughout the world, like ayahuasca tea among certain groups in Brazil or peyote among indigenous peoples in Mexico.

Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan agreed with the assessment that the plants and fungi never should have been criminalized in the first place.

"Richard Nixon launched a war [on drugs] that we all know is stupid, racist, wasteful and expensive, and it is long past time for us to continue fighting Nixon's war for him," she said.

The Oakland Police Department said they have dealt with 19 cases of suspected psychedelic mushrooms over the last five years, and were not certain about cases of other plants listed in the resolution.

If it passes, Plazola said Decriminalize Nature Oakland hopes to use the measure as a model for other cities and states.

Decriminalization in Denver was passed by ballot, with 51 percent of the vote. A similar measure is likely to be on the ballot in Oregon in the fall of 2020.

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