Berkeley isn’t the first city that decriminalized psychedelics. It’s not even the first city in California. But with this action it shows the ongoing trend of psychedelics reform in the US. Read on for more information about what Berkeley did, and what it means for residents.
Berkeley decriminalized some psychedelics
The subheading is important here, this is not a sweeping decriminalization. Berkeleyside reported that on June 11th, the Berkeley City Council decriminalized psychedelics via unanimous vote. Such compounds include DMT, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and mescaline. The vote was about whether the city should de-prioritize enforcement of laws related to the possession and use of these plant compounds.
The voted-in measure, introduced by Councilmember Sophie Hahn, states that users of some psychedelics should have access to health-related resources in Berkeley, and shouldn’t have to worry about getting in trouble. It likens the scenario to harm reduction programs, like needle exchanges. Technically, this isn’t a legal change. Its just telling law enforcement to make going after violators, the lowest priority; and not allowing funding for this purpose. Its a resolution, not a law.
The measure also makes it easier for researchers to investigate the use of psychedelics, to treat different mental health issues. It doesn’t, however, legalize any kind of sales market or treatment program. The following actions are still banned by law: “giving away, sharing, distributing, transferring, dispensing, or administering” the psychedelic compounds in question.
The version of the bill that passed, had a narrower scope than other previously submitted measures. Hahn explained, “These substances have much promise, but we do need to move forward with caution,” and that one of the earlier versions “could have opened the door to sharing and selling, which has not gone well in Oakland, where a gray market for potentially helpful, but also potentially dangerous, substances has taken root. We do not want to replicate this in Berkeley.”
Of the legislation, Councilmember Ben Bartlett said this: “Microdosing is not just a fad, it’s a new health paradigm, building upon our cannabis health paradigm.” He reminded that this paradigm could help replace the “the pill paradigm.” And that “these natural remedies appear to be working.”
More about what is and isn’t covered
Berkeley decriminalized psychedelics, but it didn’t decriminalize everything. The focus of the legalization, is entheogenic plants; meaning plants that contain an entheogenic compound, like DMT or psilocybin. The resolution that passed, does not include drugs “produced through artificial synthesis.” It specifically only allows “plant – or fungus-biosynthesized psychedelic drugs.”
Excluded from this are drugs like MDMA and LSD, which are made synthetically. Another big exclusion, is peyote, one of the plants that houses mescaline. Both the peyote plant, and the mescaline derived from peyote, are not a part of the decriminalization. This has nothing to do with the plant causing health issues; but because there are native populations that use the plant for ritual and ceremonial purposes. The National Council of Native American Churches and the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, were both concerned about things like sustainability and poaching.
The reality of mescaline, is that of all the psychedelics, its already most legal; as it sits within two loopholes. One allows its use if it comes from plants like Peruvian Torch or San Pedro cactus, or any other mescaline containing plant that is likewise not mentioned in drug scheduling. The only one that is mentioned, is peyote. As long as the mescaline isn’t extracted, the plants themselves are not regulated, and therefore, legal.
The second loophole applies to peyote. The plant is already legal for religious use under the 1994 update to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. This states that the production, possession, and use of peyote are protected actions when used for religious purposes. A previous amendment to the law in 1991 (it was originally written in 1978), opened up coverage to anyone using the plant in this way, beyond Native American cultures. Currently, Texas and Idaho are the only two states that bar such use outside of native-American populations.
What about giving it out?
The new Berkeley resolution that decriminalized psychedelics in plant form, specifically doesn’t include “giving away, sharing, distributing, transferring, dispensing, or administering” the drugs. This raises concerns that even in a ceremonial or therapeutic capacity, there’s no way to legally abide.
Councilmember Rigel Robinson spoke about this in a phone interview with Berkeleyside on the 12th, saying there was sympathy towards that argument. According to Robinson, “individuals and businesses are able to use provisions for sharing to effectively but indirectly purchase or sell the product. This can happen by selling an experience as a guide or as part of a ceremony and then ‘sharing’ or ‘gifting’ someone some product as part of that experience, which is clearly just a workaround to restrictions on purchase.”
The measure was helped along by the grassroots organization Bay Staters for Natural Medicine, which also assisted six locations in Massachusetts, with decriminalization policies. This organization did not push for distribution, saying via cofounder James Davis, “this measure strikes the right balance by acknowledging that this should be something people research cautiously for their own wellbeing. Not something that should be sold and traded like candy, as has unfortunately happened in Oakland, nor commercialized for massive profits like in Oregon and Colorado.”
This was backed up by Hahn, who said “The Berkeley City Council’s Health, Life Enrichment, Equity & Community Committee benefited from advice from Bay Staters for Natural Medicine, who emphasize safety and personal responsibility in use rather than sharing and gifting.” This idea was not supported by another advocacy group, Decriminalize Nature, which helped Oakland get its decriminalization through. Decriminalize Nature opposed the lack of ability for distribution provided by the resolution.
Berkeley and psychedelics
Berkeley is a hub for psychedelics research. In 2020, UC Berkeley launched the Center for the Science of Psychedelics; using $1.25 million of anonymous seed funding. The purpose of this public education center, is to research psychedelics topics: like their affects on cognition, perception and emotion; and how they work in the brain. There are also future plans to provide educational programs for the public.
One of the Center’s founding members, neuroscientist David Presti, explained “There’s never been a better time to start a center like this. The renewal of basic and clinical science with psychedelics has catalyzed interest among many people.” Other co-founders include psychologist Dacher Keltner, and journalism professor Michael Pollan.
Said Pollan, “We’re really interested in what psychedelics can teach us about consciousness, perception, creativity and learning. Psychedelics have a particular value later in life, because that is when you are most stuck in your patterns. They give you the ability to shake them loose.”
UC Berkely joins other universities that have opened departments for psychedelics research. These include most notably, Johns Hopkins University, and its Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research; and Imperial College London, home to the Centre for Psychedelic Research.
As mentioned, the Berkely resolution, is not a legally-binding law. But the state is in the process of trying to pass a real one. SB 58, introduced by Sen. Scott Weiner, would do much the same thing as the resolution, but in a more legally official capacity. It would decriminalize several entheogenic plants for the entire state of California; including psilocybin, psilocin, DMT, ibogaine and mescaline.
The bill already passed the state’s Senate and is currently in the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. It’s gone through many edits, and its impossible right now to say what the final version will be if passed, or exactly what it will allow. Should it pass, it will put California in line with Oregon and Colorado, which also passed statewide psychedelics measures.
It’s not a legal change exactly, but Berkeley California decriminalized psychedelics by de-prioritizing possession and use of entheogenic plants. Though there are certainly some limitations to the new resolution – like not containing provisions for dissemination; it also stands as a reminder that we’re definitely on a trajectory, and that this trajectory is leading us closer to legal psychedelics.
Many states are looking into passing policies that range the gambit from legalizing use, to medical allowances, to research initiatives. It is a quickly changing world, with new things popping up all the time. To get an idea of some of what’s going on, check out this article on Rhode Island’s bill, and some of the other legislation currently in action.
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