California’s shadiest rules for lawmaking derail needed psychedelic decriminalization bill

·3 min read
Richard Vogel/AP

The effort to decriminalize psychedelics as a commonsense drug reform and mental health policy, in a liberal state lagging behind some of its own cities, was derailed this week by lawmaking processes so arcane that even the bill’s author had no clue what happened.

Senate Bill 519, authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, would have allowed California adults over the age of 21 to possess or use psychedelic substances such as LSD, psylocibin mushrooms, MDMA, mescaline and others. To the surprise of some, it gained legs after the San Francisco Democrat introduced it last year, advancing out of the Senate with a razor-thin majority and votes from both political parties. Wiener took a more cautious route this year to help generate support in the lower house.

On Thursday, the bill survived the shadowy Assembly Appropriations Committee where most controversial and costlier bills either get killed quietly or emerge with some serious momentum toward a floor vote. There was just one problem. The decriminalization piece that would have allowed people with mental illnesses to safely pursue psychedelic therapies was cut out.

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Through an opaque amendment process, the Appropriations Committee removed the heart of the proposal, sending what amounts to a legislative middle-finger to veterans and people with debilitating mental health issues and addiction disorders who would’ve benefited. The process was so bizarre that a full day elapsed before Wiener found out what happened, let alone why. It could take additional days before the amendments are made public.

Law enforcement groups that initially opposed the bill had supposedly relented and were willing to accept a compromise. A spokesperson for Wiener’s office said that he was “prepared to scale the bill back” to be responsive to some of the concerns that were raised over the past year. That included even making it plant-oriented and removing LSD and MDMA, the chemical compound found in ecstasy, from the list of substances.

In the end, none of that mattered.

That makes the final changes to the bill, reducing it to a public health study of some sort, hard to fathom. There was no organized opposition, bipartisan support, and public polling that showed 58% of California voters supported decriminalizing psychedelics. There was a clear path to putting it on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk for a final signature.

Now? Wiener is abandoning it in legislative purgatory.

The lack of transparency that surrounds appropriations committees, which hold immense power in the Legislature, makes it difficult to find out what exactly happened. A spokesperson for Assemblyman Chris Holden, the committee chair, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Bill lobbyists, supporters, and even Wiener’s own staff were still in the dark on Friday evening.

In a statement, he committed to reintroducing it next year. “Psychedelic drugs, which are not addictive, have incredible promise when it comes to mental health and addiction treatment,” Wiener said. “We are not giving up.”

Broad decriminalization of psychedelic substances had never been discussed in the state Capitol until last year. For the bill to have survived this long is remarkable, making it through six committees — two of which were health-related.

The problem, as with all moral victories in politics, is that real people suffer from the delay. Like the cancer-stricken veterans who waited years for Congress to expand health care coverage to include burn pit exposure, those with PTSD will have to wait longer until they can safely access psychedelics in California that could save their lives. The same applies to people with addiction disorders or other mental illnesses who struggle to find relief.

All they have to do is survive until California lawmakers realize that their crooked practices have consequences.