The movement to reform drug policy celebrated a series of victories in recent elections, with voters across the United States opting to legalize marijuana and decriminalize narcotics in unprecedented reform.
Now, a California lawmaker has announced that he will face the uphill battle to decriminalize psychedelics in the state. quoting Oregon, which voted to decriminalize hard drugs and legalize psilocybin, and the District of Columbia, which 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.
For drug policy activists who doubted their efforts would take hold at the legislative level, the moment marks a sea change in the political will to reverse America’s failed drug policies. If Wiener succeeds when he introduces the bill in the next legislative session, California would be the largest state to decriminalize psychedelics in the United States.
“We’ve come a long way,” said David Hodges, founder of Zide Door Church of Entheogenic Plants, an Oakland-based mushroom and cannabis club. “The very fact that there is a possibility that this could be done through the legislature rather than through the initiative of the voters is just a sign of how far things have come.”
Wiener, however, faces an uphill battle. Despite California’s reputation as a relatively drug-friendly state, and cities like Oakland and Santa Cruz already decriminalizing psychedelics locally, it will never be easy to convince politicians to appear to take a public stance in favor of a controversial topic like drugs.
Most of the changes in the 2020 elections were made through voter initiatives, meaning that drug reform advocates had to go through a long and costly process of collecting the tens of thousands, sometimes Hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to get a proposal on your state’s ballot. .
This is the traditional route for most drug reforms, advocates said. “Historically, on controversial issues, including drugs, people have been way ahead of politicians,” said Anthony Johnson, advocate and lead petitioner for Oregon 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 polls after it failed in the state legislature.
These initiatives are time consuming and expensive. Measure 110 cost about $ 3.5 million for the campaign alone, but Johnson estimated that, including the cost of getting on the ballot and Covid-19 restrictions, the price was likely closer to $ 5 million. “And that’s for a state of about 6 million people,” he said. “Extrapolate that to a state like California,” with a population close to 40 million and a land mass more than one and a half times the size of Oregon, “and you can get an idea of how expensive it can be.”
Without statewide reform, local measures like those in Oakland and Santa Cruz can only go so far. Local officials cannot change state laws, so they can only instruct their police departments not to prioritize certain drug-related crimes. “So either your police department cooperates or they don’t,” Wiener said.
This situation was clearly illustrated in Oakland when, in August, police officers stormed the entheogenic plant church of Zide Door with their weapons drawn. While they made no arrests, they seized $ 200,000 worth of cannabis and psilocybin mushroom products, according to Hodges, the church’s founder.
Decriminalization at the state level would prevent something like this from happening again. Hodges always thought that decriminalizing psychedelics in California would require a voter Initiative: One group had tried to put a measure on the ballot for the 2020 elections, but could not get enough signatures in time. “I never would have guessed there would be talk of doing this within the California Senate,” he said.
Advocates attribute changing perception and political will to public awareness of drug use and addiction. “People saw that marijuana really wasn’t that bad, and then they started wondering, what else is not so dangerous?” Hodges said. Scientists have begun to explore the use of psilocybin to treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction, but have consistently run into legal barriers.
“In the Nixon days, it was easy to blame people of color and hippies for drugs,” Johnson said. “Now the president-elect’s son is open and honest about his drug addiction problems. It becomes clear that it is no longer a cultural divide. Drug addiction and drug use affect everyone’s life. “
Wiener is still in the early stages of drafting his bill and working on the details. Know the challenges that lie ahead. “Drug policy is always a challenge in the legislature,” he said. But in 2018, he was able to get a bill allowing supervised and safe drug injection sites in the state for the desk of then-Gov. Jerry Brown. Brown vetoed it. “We have been able to pass drug policy bills in the legislature,” Wiener said. “The democratic caucus in both houses is very diverse. We have a chance. “
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 because of that, Johnson knows that all eyes will be on Oregon for years to come. He says he’s excited that people are already turning to his status as an example.
“When you pass a measure like this and then immediately build progress, whether it’s a legislator in California speaking or a measure in Washington taking shape, it’s a relief to see science start to win the day.”
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