On Saturday October 7th California’s Governor, Gavin Newsom, returned Senate Bill 58 to the Senate without his signature, effectively vetoing it.
As a reminder, SB 58 would have decriminalised the personal possession and use of small quantities of psilocybin (and psilocin), DMT and mescaline.
It seemed like California voters were generally on-board with the measure, with an August survey by FM3 reporting that 60% of likely 2024 voters in the Golden State saying Newsom’s signature on the bill would have a positive or neutral impact on their opinion of the Governor. So, why might Newsom—who was a vocal proponent of California’s 2016 cannabis legalisation campaign—oppose the decriminalisation of a handful of (handfuls of) psychedelics?
We alluded to Newsom’s rumoured Presidential ambitions back in September, and most analysts seem to agree that national political sensitivities may have superseded state-level support for the measure.
Look at UC Berkeley’s Psychedelic Survey results, for example: their representative sample of U.S. voters found that 49% support the decriminalisation of personal possession and use of psychedelics. While that’s a significant portion of the population, it’s also evidence of a hotly-contested issue. What’s more, the majority of voters have strong opinions about the matter, with 31% strongly opposing it and 29% strongly supporting it. And, even of the 49% that support decrim., 41% of them said psychedelics are not “good for society”.
And there’s clear political contouring to it. Despite colleagues noting that psychedelic policy reform is a firmly bipartisan issue, it’s still not quite there yet. If we remove the “don’t know” answers Berkeley’s poll, for example, shows that conservatives are nearly four times as likely to oppose psychedelic decriminalisation versus liberals. Among self-identified moderates, the margin between support and opposition is razor thin with 2% fewer opposing than supporting. That’s well within the +/-2.5% margin of error for the survey, and with a substantial portion of respondents responding, “don’t know”, this is a political hot potato, especially in swing states.
All this to say, it’s perhaps not surprising that psychedelic decrim. doesn’t fit into Newsom’s electoral calculus.
But for advocates of such a move, it’s not all doom and gloom because:
a) Newsom didn’t shut the door entirely, and
b) the California public could get their say on the matter at next year’s elections.
Let’s take a closer look.
a) Newsom didn’t shut the door entirely
The Governor issued a short letter to the Members of the California State Senate to explain his veto of SB 58. Despite its conclusion, the letter strikes a somewhat optimistic tone about the potential of psychedelics.
“Both peer-reviewed science and powerful personal anecdotes lead me to support new opportunities to address mental health through psychedelic medicines like those addressed in the bill”, the letter explained, adding that psychedelics, “have proven to relieve people suffering from certain conditions such as depression, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and other addictive personality traits.” (Note: the phrasing is odd in that it implies that the conditions listed are addictive personality traits, though that presumably wasn’t intentional.)
“This is an exciting frontier and California will be on the front-end of leading it”, Newsom exclaimed.
The Governor prescribes that “California should immediately begin work to set up regulated treatment guidelines – replete with dosing information, therapeutic guidelines, rules to prevent against exploitation during guided treatments, and medical clearance of no underlying psychoses.” “Unfortunately,” he continues, “this bill would decriminalize possession prior to these guidelines going into place, and I cannot sign it.”
Newsom then encourages (“urge[s]”, even) his colleagues to “send me legislation next year that includes therapeutic guidelines”, adding that he is “committed to working with the legislature and sponsors of this bill to craft legislation that would authorize permissible uses and consider a framework for potential broader decriminalization in the future, one the impacts, dosing, best practice, and safety guardrails are thoroughly contemplated and put in place.”
That’s an odd way to grapple with a decriminalisation bill, isn’t it?
It is true that SB 58 contemplated establishing a framework for governing therapeutic or facilitated use of the psychedelics included. But, this was a secondary element of the Bill, which would have instructed California Health and Human Services to convene a workgroup to explore this piece. Far and away the most substantive element of the Bill was decriminalisation of the aforementioned drugs.
So Newsom’s reasons for not lending his autograph to the Bill are a little befuddling… decriminalisation should be agnostic of the venue or context in which psychedelics are used, so long as it is in-line with the limitations of the statute (e.g., adhering to permissible quantities). Things like “dosing information” and “therapeutic guidelines” are relevant to ‘therapeutic’ or facilitated use models only.
The most straightforward interpretation is that Newsom wants ‘therapeutic use’ to come ahead of any decriminalisation. Indeed, the fact that he signed AB 1021 into law a week ahead of his SB 58 veto was a hint at this tack. (AB 1021 ensures that California law is automatically harmonised with federal scheduling decisions, meaning that prescribing formerly-Schedule I drugs would be possible immediately following a federal downscheduling decision. Of course, this could shorten the time-to-market for drugs like MDMA and psilocybin in the state, if approved by the FDA and rescheduled by DEA.)
So, what next? As I mentioned when chatting to Celia Ford for her piece in Wired, Wiener is expected to return next session with yet another psychedelics bill. Third time’s a charm? But this time I expect it to be more tightly focused on ‘therapeutic use’. Where that line will be drawn is unclear, though… does it include the type of facilitated use seen in Oregon, and soon Colorado?
But before that, we will learn whether questions on two psychedelic initiatives make it to the state’s 2024 ballot.
b) the California public could get their say on the matter at next year’s elections
If, as suggested by FM3’s polling, CA voters are on-side, we could see success for two psychedelics ballot initiatives at next year’s elections.
But first, they have to collect over a million signatures between them in order to secure a place on the November 5 ballot.
The first of the two initiatives is a straightforward psilocybin legalisation one (it’s even titled straightforwardly, “The California Psilocybin Mushroom Legalization Initiative”).
It would legalise and regulate the cultivation, processing and distribution of psilocybin mushrooms for medical, therapeutic, religious or recreational use. It also directs the state to “implement qualification requirements and protocols for psilocybin-assisted therapy”, allows “qualified healthcare practitioners” to use psilocybin mushrooms in research, treatment and therapy, and authorises the sealing of criminal records for prior psilocybin-related offences if the person’s sentence is spent.
This one will need to gather 546,651 valid signatures by January 10th, 2024.
The second is the “California Establish TREAT Institute Initiative”, where TREAT stands for Treatment, Research, Education, Access, and Therapies.
As mentioned in our earlier reporting, this initiative would authorise state general obligation bonds to the tune of $5 billion, which would fund the project with up to $500m a year.
This initiative, which would lead to constitutional amendments and state statute changes, requires 874,641 valid signatures.
Signature collecting is underway for both initiatives.