Oakland could become the second city in the country to decriminalize certain natural psychedelics — including “magic mushrooms” — if elected leaders approve a resolution that would instruct law enforcement to stop investigating and prosecuting people using the drugs.
The resolution is scheduled for its first public hearing before the City Council’s public safety committee Tuesday night and could go before the full council as early as June 4. It applies only to psychedelics that come from plants or fungi, not synthetic drugs like LSD or MDMA, also known as ecstasy.
Councilman Noel Gallo, who introduced the resolution, said he hopes that the decriminalization of natural psychedelics could help people with mental health issues.
I believe we need to continue to support efforts to help end mass incarceration and I recognize that the war on drugs has been a racist, expensive, wasteful failure.
“We need all the help we can get to deal with the mental health issues that we have,” Gallo said. “If I can bring it publicly and talk about the benefit and talk about (how it can) deal with the mental illnesses that we have in the city, why not?”
Gallo said he decided to support the resolution after being approached by Decriminalize Nature Oakland, a community group promoting natural psychedelics for mental health and overall well-being, and became educated on the benefits it could have for those suffering from mental health issues.
Council President Rebecca Kaplan said Friday she supports the resolution.
“I believe we need to continue to support efforts to help end mass incarceration and I recognize that the war on drugs has been a racist, expensive, wasteful failure,” Kaplan said. “I also believe there are strong public health reasons to support this change.”
The move comes amid a wave of decriminalization efforts nationwide that some advocates are calling a psychedelic “renaissance.” Denver voters approved decriminalization of hallucinogenic mushrooms earlier this month, and statewide initiatives are brewing in California and Oregon. The Oakland measure would decriminalize mushrooms containing psilocybin, as well as the psychedelic plants ayahuasca, cacti and iboga.
The concept of using natural psychedelics for medical reasons has seen a resurgence of interest in recent years, including from mainstream research institutions that for decades had avoided study of hallucinogens after they were roundly maligned in the 1960s and ’70s.
“Things are starting to roll. We’re getting calls from L.A. and other states in the U.S.,” said Carlos Plazola, a co-founder of Decriminalize Nature Oakland. “There’s an international movement and we’d like to weigh in for Oakland.”
Local authorities say they are not alarmed or particularly concerned by the potential decriminalization of psychedelic mushrooms. In Alameda County, the number of arrests made per year for use or possession of psychedelic drugs is low — perhaps a dozen per year — said Sgt. Ray Kelly, of the county’s Sheriff’s Office.
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“On the scale of concerns about illicit drugs, they’re not as high up there as meth and coke and heroin and fentanyl,” Kelly said. “They’re more down in the recreational drug use category.
“The only thing we would be concerned about in regards to public safety is obviously someone driving under the influence of psilocybin mushrooms. Just like we are concerned about people driving under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or prescription drugs.”
Plazola and others noted that while there are similarities to preceding efforts to decriminalize and eventually legalize cannabis in California and elsewhere, they recognize that the drugs are different both in how they’re used and their effects on the body and mind.
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As with cannabis, the first steps are in deprioritizing enforcement of federal laws on psychedelic use. After that, it’s unclear what the path toward legalization will look like for psychedelics, assuming that’s the agreed-upon end goal. Few people want, or expect, psychedelic dispensaries to pop up next door to cannabis shops.
What advocates are pushing for now is safe access to drugs that are increasingly seen as potentially “paradigm-shifting” therapies for a host of mental health issues, from post-traumatic stress and depression to end-of-life despair and addiction.
Studies that began four or five decades ago have resurfaced under a new generation of scientists who have taken interest in the mind-bending capabilities of psychedelic drugs. Most of the work is focused on psilocybin, the compound found in psychedelic mushrooms.
Research out of Johns Hopkins University has shown that the drug could help people quit smoking. UCSF scientists are studying psilocybin as a possible treatment for long-term AIDS survivors who are feeling general malaise and demoralization.
“The data are really impressive. We should be cautiously but enthusiastically pursuing these threads,” said Matthew Johnson, an associate professor in psychiatry and behavior sciences at Johns Hopkins who worked on the smoking cessation research. “We want to be aware of overexuberance, but at the same time, we have to avoid falling into a kind of dogmatic skepticism.”
Johnson said that while he generally supports decriminalization efforts as a human rights issue — it’s widely understood now that low-income people and communities of color are unfairly targeted by drug laws — he’s wary of full legalization and opening up access to psychedelics in the same way cannabis has been in several states.
“I don’t encourage the use of these things outside of structured settings like our research trials,” Johnson said. “Decriminalization is not the same thing as saying we encourage use and there are no risks.”
The risks, though, are not nearly as pronounced as they once were thought, said Johnson as well as proponents of more widespread legalization. A small percentage of people who are already prone to serious mental illness like schizophrenia may be at risk of a psychotic episode. More generally, anyone can have a so-called bad trip that at best is disturbing and at worst could cause them to hurt themselves or others, though those cases are rare, Johnson said.
Casual use of psychedelics — such as recreationally at a bar or club — is of more concern, say scientists like Johnson and those who advocate for improved access. People experiencing a psychedelic trip are vulnerable and may not be able to protect themselves or their belongings.
Still, most people pushing decriminalization in Oakland say they would, in fact, like to see more people using psychedelics — and not necessarily in a research or traditional medical setting — for mental health or just general well-being.
“The reality is people are already using it and growing it in their homes, it’s just underground,” Gallo said. “Where we are today in the city of Oakland … we have a great problem when it comes to mental illness. That is what led me to bring this to the table.”
Erin Allday and Sarah Ravani are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com Twitter: @erinallday, @SarRavani