Psychedelic Decriminalization Picks Up Steam

It seems like every other week or so, another city or state is working on the decriminalization of psychedelics. In fact, the whole country is virtually awash in legislative action related to reforms about psychedelics. 

It’s been an active three years, with no slowdown in sight for 2022.

Denver decriminalized psychedelics in May 2019; Oakland, California did it in June 2019; Santa Cruz, California in January 2020; Washington, D.C. in November 2020; Somerville, Massachusetts in January 2021; Cambridge, Massachusetts in February 2021; Northhampton, Massachusetts in March 2021; Easthampton, Massachusetts in October 2021; Ann Arbor, in September 2020; New Jersey, in February 2021; and Seattle did it in October 2021

Some states are still looking into various other approaches to decriminalization, such as Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Washington.

Decriminalization Fails

And some decriminalization efforts just haven’t worked so far, such as the decriminalization bill introduced in late January by Virginia lawmakers, Del. Dawn Adams (D), and Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D) along with Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D) that was voted down and now sits in a committee for consideration in 2023. 

Or the decriminalization bill filed by a 21-year-old Kansas lawmaker in January that died in committee in May. 

Similar bills failed in Maine, Chicago, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia.

But New York is working on legislation to establish the psychedelic research institute and developing a psychedelic substances therapeutic research program; plus a new bill (the first failed in May 2020)  to decriminalize psilocybin, noting that “many cities, including Denver, Colorado, Santa Cruz, California, and Oakland, California, have already decriminalized the use and possession of psilocybin, and New York should do the same.”

Colorado is going one step further, aiming to become the second state to legalize psilocybin (after Oregon did it in November 2020) with the Natural Medicine Health Act of 2022 (Initiative 58), to be voted on in November, which, if approved, would begin rule-making by January 2024. Legalizing ibogaine and DMT could follow, through with an advisory board that the initiative proposes.

All of that action is part of an evolving drug reform policy first fired up by cannabis advocates around 1996, resulting in the Compassionate Use Act in California that went on to help legalize medical cannabis. Now more advocacy groups for psychedelics are rising up.

For example, the Drug Policy Alliance created a Psychedelic Justice Campaign to protect—and expand—the safety, wellness, and freedom of people who can benefit from psychedelics with three goals: Exposing and overcoming ongoing barriers to scientific and medical research; Changing the conversation about how psychedelics are perceived and managed; Eliminating the role of criminalization in psychedelic drug policy and repairing the harms of psychedelic prohibition.

Federal Level

The DPA has gone one step further with the introduction of the Drug Policy Reform Act of 2021, H.R. 420, introduced in June 2021 (with no additional action as of this date). One stated finding: “While drug decriminalization cannot fully repair our broken and oppressive criminal legal system or the harms of an unregulated drug market, shifting from absolute prohibition to drug decriminalization helps restore individual liberty, protect against some police abuses, better assist those in need, and save tax dollars.” 

The DPA act wants the secretary of Health and Human Services to establish a “Commission on Substance Use, Health, and Safety” consisting of people with current or past substance use needs and qualified persons in the fields of general and behavioral healthcare, harm reduction, and substance use disorder treatment.

Also in June, responding to a May inquiry by Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) about the current state of psychedelics studies, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Joshua Gordon, and the director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Nora Volkow, wrote that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has worked closely with the FDA, DEA, and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy on a proposed framework to facilitate the process of obtaining a DEA registration to conduct research with controlled substances, including psychedelics. Other details of the NIH work were explained.

But there’s more. 

Other organizations are jumping into the decriminalization and legalization fray to offer their take on what is going on. One example is the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, at Harvard Law School, which is engaged in a three-year initiative to examine the ethical, legal, and social implications of psychedelics research, commerce, and therapeutics that was launched in summer 2021. 

Graham Boyd, co-founder and executive director of the Psychedelic Science Funders Collaborative, which is a community of philanthropists supporting psychedelic medicine and science. Boyd, speaking at the summer 2021 launch event for the collaborative, helped understand the true aim of decriminalization. He said that there really isn’t a legal impediment to ending the arrest of people who use psychedelics. “It’s a political one,” Boyd said. “Each state has the power to change its law, and municipalities have the power to instruct their police to deprioritize arresting people who use psychedelics. Politically there are some very serious obstacles, but legally there is not.”

Dave Hodes

David Hodes is a business journalist based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He has contributed feature articles to several cannabis and psychedelics publications, as well as general business/lifestyle publications, on a variety of topics. Hodes was selected as 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access. He is a member of the National Press Club, and the deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.

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