In Historic First, Legislation to Decriminalize Possession and Personal Use of Psychedelics Passes Senate Public Safety Committee

April 6, 2021

SACRAMENTO - Senator Scott Wiener’s (D-San Francisco) legislation, Senate Bill 519, which decriminalizes the possession and personal use of certain psychedelic drugs, passed the Senate Public Safety Committee by a vote of 4-1. Research from top medical universities shows that these substances can have significant benefits, particularly for treating mental health and substance use disorders, and decriminalizing their personal use is part of the larger movement to end the racist War on Drugs and its failed and destructive policies.

The following substances are included in SB 519: psilocybin, psilocyn, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (“MDMA”), Lysergic acid diethylamide (“LSD”), ketamine, Dimethyltryptamine (“DMT”), mescaline (excluding peyote), and ibogaine,

SB 519 also expunges any criminal records for people convicted of possession or personal use of these substances. Finally, SB 519 establishes a commission charged with producing recommendations to the Legislature regarding which regulatory system it recommends California adopt for personal use of these specified substances in the future.

This legislation follows similar, successful efforts to decriminalize these substances in Washington, D.C., Oakland, and Santa Cruz, as well as the successful 2020 Oregon ballot measures that decriminalized personal use of all scheduled substances, and authorized the creation of a state-licensed, psilocybin services program over the next two years.

Studies show that psychedelics show great promise in the treatment of mental health and substance use disorders. Recent clinical trials studying MDMA as a treatment for PTSD led the FDA to distinguish MDMA-assisted therapy as a “Breakthrough Therapy”: two-thirds of study participants no longer qualified as having PTSD after experiencing MDMA-assisted therapy. In a 2018 clinical trial, MDMA treatment showed promise in treating chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in military veterans, firefighters, and police officers. In a 2020 study, MDMA used in combination with therapy showed the potential to reduce anxiety in patients facing life-threatening illnesses. In both 2018 and 2019, the FDA issued Breakthrough Therapy distinction to psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”).

In two different clinical trials, psilocybin was shown to reduce symptoms in patients with treatment-resistant depression. A John Hopkins study showed a decrease in depression and anxiety in cancer patients using psilocybin, and another showed promise for smoking cessation. There is also research indicating that LSD may be an effective treatment for anxiety and alcoholism. Observational studies have also documented the use of ayahuasca (which contains DMT) and ibogaine as potential treatments for substance use disorder. There’s also evidence that psychedelics can help with smoking cessation.

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, our mental health and addiction crises are worsening. With so many people dealing with unemployment and financial distress, a lack of community and social isolation, and loss of friends or family to COVID-19 — anxiety, depression, overdose and suicide rates are up across the country. And with prisons and jails serving as COVID-19 hotspots, it’s critical that we look to alternatives to criminalizing and incarcerating people who are using psychedelics to heal.

SB 519 is co-sponsored by veteran service organizations: Heroic Hearts Project and Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS). Heroic Hearts is an organization that connects veterans to psychedelic therapy for treating complex trauma. In the past few years, Heroic Hearts has become an international voice for veterans demanding effective mental health treatment options. VETS is an organization working to end the veteran suicide epidemic. VETS provides resources, research, and advocacy for U.S. military veterans seeking psychedelic-assisted therapies for traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction, and other mental health conditions.

SB 519 is co-authored by Senator Josh Newman (D- Fullerton) and Assemblymembers Evan Low (D-San Jose), Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), and Bill Quirk (D-Hayward).

“It’s time to take a science and health-based approach to drugs, including psychedelics,” said Senator Wiener. “The War on Drugs has been an abject failure. It hasn’t made us safer. It hasn’t reduce drug use or addiction. But it has cost taxpayers a massive amount of money, in addition to tearing apart communities. The evidence is clear: Psychedelics can be transformational for those struggling with mental health and addiction challenges, and we need to empower people to access alternative mental health treatment, rather than criminalizing them for doing so.”

“So many veterans, like myself, have been left with lasting trauma after their service,” said Jesse Gould, the Founder and President of the Heroic Hearts Project. “Decriminalizing psychedelic therapy to allow these promising treatments is essential in supporting and addressing the current mental health crisis among our veterans.”

During today’s committee hearing, legislators heard from Jose Martinez, an Afghanistan veteran who became an amputee during his time of service. Martinez has used psilocybin therapy as a way to overcome his trauma from his time in Afghanistan and as a way to help mitigate some of his pain he has had as a result of becoming an amputee.

“Psilocybin therapy helped me take control over my life again,” said Martinez. “After my time in Afghanistan and adjusting to a new life after sustaining life-changing injuries, psychedelics helped me through the physical and mental pain that I suffered as a result. Without access to this type of treatment, I wouldn't be where I am here today."

“There is a growing catalogue of sophisticated scientific research that shows that psychedelic therapy may help many that are suffering from trauma and depression who have yet to find relief from talk-therapy and pharmaceutical drugs alone,” said Robert Grant, MD, MPH, a professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco who is currently performing research focused on novel transformative interventions for depression and anxiety, including ketamine and MDMA assisted psychotherapies.