Decriminalizing these substances, he argued, promotes responsible use. “If you think you’re doing something wrong, you’re less likely to seek information or talk to someone about how to be safe,” he said.
His bill would also order the state’s health agency to form a workgroup that would make recommendations regarding supervised medical use of these psychedelics — although any psychedelic-assisted therapies first need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
This is the second time Wiener has tried to decriminalize psychedelics; the first failed last year. This time around, his bill is more narrow in that it excludes synthetic psychedelics, such as LSD.
If Wiener’s bill makes it through the Legislature and across the governor’s desk, California would follow Oregon and Colorado, where voters have already decriminalized psychedelics. Some cities in the Golden State are a step ahead — Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Cruz and most recently Berkeley, have already passed measures that order law enforcement to back off arresting people for using plant-based psychedelics.
Benefits and risks of psychedelics
Supporters of decriminalization point to promising data about some psychedelic-assisted therapies now in end stages of clinical trials, such as the use of MDMA (commonly known as “ecstasy”) to treat symptoms in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Additionally, psilocybin, found in hallucinogenic mushrooms, is being studied for treating depression. For example, early data from The Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, has shown that psilocybin therapy can reduce major depressive disorder symptoms for up to a year.
Wiener has taken combat veterans and retired first responders to testify before the Legislature about their “transformational” experiences using psychedelics to help relieve suicidal thoughts and PTSD symptoms.
According to the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department, about 6% of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point in their lives. About one in five adults live with a mental illness, according to some national estimates.
Researchers believe public attention on the worsening mental health crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic may also play a role in this renewed interest in psychedelics.
“Suddenly you’ve got this discussion about mental health issues in a way that, at least in American culture, we really hadn’t been discussing,” said Jennifer Mitchell, a neurology professor at the University of California, San Francisco who has been working on the development of psychedelic therapies and collecting safety data.
Mitchell opposes Wiener’s decriminalization bill because she believes access to psychedelics for therapeutic use should come before personal use.
Currently, psychedelics are only allowed for clinical research. If and once therapies are approved by the FDA, those lessons, she argues, could then help inform safety guidelines for personal access.
“[Psychedelics] are actually exceedingly safe physiologically; psychologically is where we get into trouble,” Mitchell said. “Because if you take a drug and think you can fly, you’re capable of self-harm. If you take a drug and think you can breathe underwater, you are capable of self-harm. And those are the types of reasons why when you take a psychedelic, we want you to be in a facilitated environment where you’re being watched and well maintained.”
A California mother’s campaign
One powerful voice opposing Wiener’s bill is a coalition led by mothers who have lost a child to an adverse reaction after ingesting psychedelics. Kristin Nash, for one, has widely shared the story of her son who died 21 months before his college graduation. In blogs and Op-Eds, Nash has shared that in 2020, Will took two grams of psilocybin mushrooms and in his altered state mistook a jar of protein powder for a water jug and suffocated.