SB 519 reverses outdated War on Drugs policies criminalizing substances that can help treat conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD
SACRAMENTO – Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced Senate Bill 519, which decriminalizes the possession and personal use of the following substances: psilocybin, psilocyn, 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (“MDMA”), Lysergic acid diethylamide (“LSD”), ketamine, Dimethyltryptamine (“DMT”), mescaline (excluding peyote*), and ibogaine. Research from top medical universities like Johns Hopkins, Yale, UCLA and NYU shows that these substances can have therapeutic and medical benefits, and decriminalizing their personal use is part of the larger movement to end the racist War on Drugs and its failed and destructive policies.
SB 519 also expunges any criminal records for people convicted of possession or personal use of these substances. And, SB 519 establishes a commission charged with producing recommendations to the Legislature regarding which regulatory system they recommend California adopt regulations 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.
Most of our current drug policies stem from the War on Drugs – a failed set of racist policies starting in the early 20th century and accelerating in the 1970s and 1980s, established under the guise of addressing addiction and drug dealing. The War on Drugs, rather than addressing the root causes of substance use disorder and mental illness, instead criminalized addiction and helped create our current system of racist mass incarceration, which disproportionately punishes Black, brown and low-income communities for low-level, nonviolent drug-related offenses. Senator Wiener believes that California needs to ultimately decriminalize all drug use and possession.
Despite their current classification as Schedule I drugs, psychedelics have shown potential in treating mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and have also demonstrated benefits for end-of-life care. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Schedule I drugs have “no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse,” and possession and use of Schedule I drugs comes with higher penalties than Schedule II or III. Ketamine is the only psychedelic substance classified as Schedule III, and it has now been approved to treat depression. The drug classification system is another relic of the War on Drugs era, is anti-science and criminalizes drug use, even when this approach has clearly failed for the last 50 years.
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.
A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, our mental health crisis is worsening. With so many dealing with unemployment and financial distress, a lack of community and social interaction, 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 a critical reform that acknowledges the reality of our mental health crisis, the proven potential psychedelics have shown in treating mental illness, and the failure of the current punitive approach to substance use, mental health and public health and safety.
SB 519 is co-sponsored by Heroic Hearts Project, 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. It is also co-sponsored by Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS), 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 Assemblymembers Evan Low (D-San Jose) and Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), and Bill Quirk (D-Hayward).
SB 519 focuses on decriminalization and ending the war on drugs and studying a system for responsible access to psychedelics that maximizes health and safety. SB 519 does not imagine a “cannabis model” or lay a foundation for retail trade in psychedelics; rather, it proposes to end the failed War on Drugs approach to addressing psychedelics while building on the science and research in the psychedelic field to create the potential for a therapeutic framework that could help people struggling from the effects of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other health conditions.
“Policy should be based on science and common sense, not fear and stigma,” said Senator Wiener. “The War on Drugs and mass incarceration are destructive and failed policies, and we must end them. Moreover, given the severity of our mental health crisis, we shouldn’t be criminalizing people for using drugs that have shown significant promise in treating mental health conditions. People should be able to seek alternative treatment for diseases like anxiety, depression, and PTSD, and we need to make science-based treatments available to those in need. Cities like Washington, D.C. and states like Oregon have led the way, and now it’s California’s turn.”
:This bill is part of a larger push to end the failed War on Drugs, which has disproportionately harmed underserved communities of color,” said Assemblymember Evan Low. “This legislation could offer scientists opportunities to make groundbreaking progress in understanding how to help people who suffer from anxiety and post-traumatic stress. Our bill helps to lead us on a path to decriminalizing substance abuse so we can focus on providing addiction treatment instead of paying for jail cells and ignoring the larger problem.”
“We all must come together to stand up for those that have put their lives on the line for this country,” said Heroic Hearts Project founder, Jesse Gould. “Psychedelic-assisted treatments have the potential to save countless veteran lives and we as American citizens have an obligation to listen to the needs of these warriors.”
“Veteran healthcare and suicide risk is a national crisis, and we believe that psychedelic treatments with trained faciiltators can help. As an organization that helps connect veterans in need to psychedelic therapy and healing, we have seen first hand the difference it can make in the life of a veteran suffering from trauma,” said Veterans Exploring Treatment Options (VETS) co-founder Amber Capone. “By passing SB 519, California can take the first step in providing veterans and others access to the psychedelic treatment that has made a profound difference in our lives and the lives of thousands of veterans around the country.”
“As a brain tumor specialist, many of my patients have malignant brain tumors and ultimately succumb to their illness,” said David F. Kelly, M.D., a physician who provides end-of-life care for terminally ill patients. “At Pacific Neuroscience Institute we also treat numerous patients with other serious and often terminal neurological disorders including dementia, stroke, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. As such, I am a strong advocate for the safe and judicious use of psychedelic-assisted therapies in the appropriate setting for patients with chronic and terminal illnesses. There is now ample evidence from clinical trials completed over the last decade showing that psilocybin is safe and remarkably effective in relieving anxiety and depression in this patient population.”
“We are in a mental health pandemic, and the causes of trauma are multiplying faster than the solutions,” said Lauren Taus, LCSW, and a Ketamine-Assisted Therapy practitioner. “As a licensed therapist, I have seen how psychedelic assisted therapies can accelerate the healing process and create breakthroughs for people in need when all other methods fail. I currently provide ketamine assisted therapy, and I know that profound transformational changes can happen when trained clinicians use psychedelics in a thoughtful and regulated way. Decriminalization combined with a well structured therapy program can help end the criminalization of healing while creating a true opportunity to provide effective treatment to individuals suffering from depression, anxiety, trauma and countless other mental health conditions.”
“In 2017, I began working with individuals at the end of their lives who were seeking closure, healing and forgiveness, mostly of themselves,” said Kat Kurner, End of Life Guide, who serves on the Decriminalize Nature Council of Elders and is a member of the Cherokee Nation. “Psilocybin mushrooms are truly magical when treating end of life anxiety and it has been my honor and privilege to sit with people at this most challenging time of their lives. I work with veterans suffering from PTSD, drug addicts who are trying to heal, and I work with people who are suffering from treatment resistant depression and anxiety. Over the years I have bared witness to the incredible healing powers of our plant allies. To think that I could go to prison for doing the work I do is not only terrifying, it’s immoral.”
“Drug decriminalization is a necessary first step to repairing the harms from the decades-long public health disaster of the War on Drugs,” said Natalie Lyla Ginsberg, MSW, director of policy & advocacy at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). “Criminalization has failed to deter drug use – over the last 50 years, drug use has actually increased. However, in countries like Portugal where drug policies have shifted from a criminal justice to a public health centered approach, drug-related deaths and illnesses have dropped dramatically.”
“Psychedelic use can come with some risks, but criminalization only increases those risks by creating an unregulated market in which difficult-to-verify dosages and the presence of adulterants like fentanyl threaten public health,” said Ismail Lourido Ali, JD, policy & advocacy counsel at MAPS. “Decriminalizing harm reduction interventions like substance analysis may save lives with its potential to prevent accidental overdoses.”
“Psychedelics, with proper guidance and under the right conditions have the potential to help heal great psychological and spiritual harms, especially within marginalized communities,” said Ayize Jama, M.Div, M.A., M.F.A, and Chief Members Steward at the Sacred Garden Community Church in Oakland. “The continued criminalization of substances that prove more effective in dealing with intergenerational and systemic trauma than pharmaceuticals seems to be the real crime. As an African-American community minister and a therapist, I’ve borne witness to entheogens providing succor and solace to former military members, former substance abusers, those suffering from depression, and those in need of hospice care. The sooner decriminalization comes, the sooner we can start looking at how to respectfully and earnestly use entheogens to help in healing our disenfranchised communities.”
“We applaud Senator Wiener for his introduction to SB 519, which will decriminalize the personal possession and use of entheogenic plants and fungi,” said Decriminalize Nature National Board Chair Carlos Plazola. “The legislation has a strong focus on ensuring social justice and equitable access for traditionally marginalized communities, while enabling multiple modalities for mental health treatment.”
(*Due to habitat loss, illegal poaching, and other cultural and environmental reasons, peyote is a threatened and protected species. SB 519 will not decriminalize peyote and does not decriminalize mescaline that is sourced from peyote.)
Information provided by Senator Scott Wiener