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California’s bad trip

IN THE NEWS | The Golden State may decriminalize psychedelics—but at what price?

A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis market in Los Angeles. Richard Vogel/AP

California’s bad trip
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When narcotics expert Keith Graves fields questions about hallucinogenic drugs, one experience comes to mind from his early days as a police officer in Livermore, Calif.

Graves and other officers responded to a call that a 14-year-old girl was running in circles around a busy four-lane intersection, naked and screaming. Convinced she was in a burning house, the girl fought the officers who tried to apprehend her.

Later, she admitted to consuming hallucinogens. But she didn’t know which drug or how much.

Today, California is on the cusp of decriminalizing certain hallucinogenic drugs. On Sept. 6, the state Assembly approved Senate Bill 58, which would make it legal to possess or cultivate plant-based hallucinogens such as psilocybin, or “magic,” mushrooms for adults aged 21 and older. The bill also calls for a state-funded study group to plan for the drugs’ therapeutic use.

The state Senate approved an amended version of SB 58 on Sept. 7. It now heads to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. If he signs it into law, SB 58 would make California the largest state to remove criminal penalties for using certain psychedelic drugs, joining Oregon and Colorado. Already, four major California cities, including Oakland and San Francisco, have decriminalized psychedelics.

Advocates for decriminalization include veterans groups and mental health experts who tout the drugs’ potential therapeutic value to treat addiction and mental disorders such as depression and PTSD.

The California bill’s author, Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, argues psychedelics show “great promise” as a treatment option. A similar decriminalization measure that included synthetic psychedelics like LSD and MDMA failed to pass last year.

A Colorado man uses psilocybin mushrooms as a treatment for his cluster headaches.

A Colorado man uses psilocybin mushrooms as a treatment for his cluster headaches. Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Critics argue decriminalization will proliferate psychedelic usage without safeguards, putting users and others at risk and worsening the state’s spiraling drug crisis. One coalition of mothers fighting SB 58 shared stories of losing their children to hallucinogen-related accidents. Dozens of state and local law enforcement groups also oppose the bill.

“People take this thinking, maybe it will help me … then they have a bad trip. What’s going to happen to that person?” said Graves, a former narcotics detective now working as a drug training con­sultant for law enforcement.

Federal survey data indicates that the share of young adults using hallucinogens has risen dramatically in the past decade, up from 3 percent in 2011 to 8 percent in 2021. Experts attribute the increase to a normalization of drugs as more states legalize marijuana—and to social media reports of psychedelics having potential therapeutic benefits.

California is one of more than 20 states that had psychedelics-related bills pending this summer. The decriminalization movement is fueled by recent studies from institutions including Johns Hopkins and UCLA showing evidence that psychedelics may help treat conditions like addiction, anxiety, and depression. However, research is in early stages, and it’s difficult to control for a placebo effect.

If you legalize these hallucinogens, it opens the door to legalize more.

In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued its first draft guidance on clinical trials using psychedelics to treat psychiatric and substance use disorders. Psychedelics research was stalled for decades after federal officials labeled nearly all major psychedelics Schedule 1 drugs “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

In 2015, Jon Kostas participated in a clinical study on psilocybin and addiction through NYU Langone. Starting at age 16, Kostas fought a nearly 10-­year battle with alcoholism. He tried rehab, recovery groups, ­therapy, and medication. But by age 25, he was downing 20 drinks in one sitting.

Kostas felt anxious about his first psilocybin session. He recalls hallucinating while lying on a couch with an eye mask and earbuds playing classical music—then talking with doctors afterward. After one round, Kostas said, he stopped craving alcohol completely.

Now, Kostas promotes clinical research into psychedelic drugs. But it concerns him when people co-opt his story for a decriminalization agenda.

“I don’t want to mislead people that I think they can get the same treatment, or the same standard of care that I was lucky enough to get, just by getting mushrooms off the street,” he said.

Currently, few of the proposed state bills, including SB 58, outline clear medical oversight or licensing requirements. That’s problematic since ­psychedelics can sometimes trigger anxiety, paranoia, flashbacks, short-term psychosis, or even schizophrenia-­like symptoms.

Graves knows firsthand what those harms look like on the street.

“If you legalize these hallucinogens, it opens the door to legalize more … our youth drug rate for hallucinogens will go up exponentially because it’s more available,” he said. “Are you OK with a 14-year-old using psilocybin?”

—This story includes a post-press update to reflect the California Assembly’s passage of SB 58 on Sept. 6 and the state Senate's final passage on Sept 7.


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