Psychedelic Conversations: SB519
What happened to SB519? Reggie Harris and Monica Cadena interviewed David Bronner, Ben Unger, and Ismail Ali about the rise and fall of CA's plant medicine decrim bill.
Remember when plant medicine was only murmured about in the underground? Politicians never spent time or energy discussing psychedelics; if they did, it was always in the context of psychosis, addiction, or prosecution — talking points lifted from Reagan's Drug War echo chamber.
Now, we hear about plant policy almost daily. Oakland decriminalized psychedelic plants! Oregon legalized psilocybin therapy! Denver decriminalized mushrooms! Santa Cruz decriminalized natural psychedelics! Ann Arbor did it, too! San Francisco just joined the movement! Deprioritizing psychedelic plants on the city level (or not directing city resources to pursue cases involving these substances) inspired the basic framework for one of the country's most progressive drug initiatives known as SB519. This now-defunct Senate bill would have fully decriminalized most psychedelic plants and fungi in California.
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So, where does that leave us now? Reggie Harris and Monica Cadena recently hosted an illuminating webinar on the past, present, and future of SB519 in collaboration with DoubleBlind. They interviewed David Bronner, MAPS's policy director Izzy Ali, and New Approach's psychedelic policy director Ben Unger, and effectively cleared the air on many issues (and rumors). Here's a recap of one of the most fascinating conversations on SB519 to date.
Possession Limits: What's the Deal?
You've likely seen hoards of people arguing about possession limits on social media. Some people say there shouldn't be limits on psychedelic plants or fungi whatsoever, arguing that limits are inherently anti-decriminalization because cops can slap you with a felony for exceeding the allowable amount of a specified substance.
But is unlimited possession of psychoactive plants realistic in a country with a dogged drug war ideology? Izzy Ali, MAPS's policy wiz, says it's not. While he admits he's theoretically against limits, he said most politicians are mortified by the idea of no limits on possession.
"I believe there should be no limits," he said. "But it's not based on the reality of what would have actually happened with SB 519. Us not defining limits doesn't mean that possession of these substances would be unlimited. It just means we wouldn't be the people creating the limits."
In other words, it would be cops or other ill-informed policymakers creating the limits. Izzy explained to me after the webinar that creating limits in SB519 is a way to avoid meager limits while also meeting skeptical government officials halfway.
"There's nowhere in the world where you can possess an unlimited amount of drugs and call it personal use. It's an admirable goal, and I understand the instinct, but it's unrealistic," Izzy said. "Everything we're doing here is based on our current political environment. Having a bill with explicitly no limits would not get a sponsor."
Carlos Plazola, the founder of Decriminalize Nature, is one of the leading advocates for unlimited possession. He was not a part of the webinar, but we talked to him afterward, and he says that having no limits on possession is realistic and within the realm of possibility. The key to no limits, he thinks, is educating our policymakers about why it's necessary.
"What Izzy is saying about no limits on possession is untrue," Carlos said. "I know this because they didn't even try. In fact, when we shared our education pitch with the consultant of the Health Committee of the Assembly…she started off by saying, 'There's no way you're going to get this passed without setting limits.' Then a half hour later, she said, 'Oh, now I get it, I think the only way [to move this forward] would be to slow this down and educate the members, but I don't really see that happening now because we are too far down the line.' So we are absolutely convinced that if you can do the education with the members, you can get to no limits. But frankly, they don't want no limits because it means abundance, which means fewer profits for them."
Carlos said the issue of no limits is the hill he's willing to die on and will not support a broader plant medicine measure in the future if it includes limits. (In the webinar, Bronner and Izzy said they plan to support a plant medicine policy in the future, which will have some possession limits.)
According to Carlos, defining limits in psychedelics policy is comparable to the cannabis Multi-State Operators (MSOs) that are (and have been) trying to get home grows outlawed for cutting into their profits. "We know that as soon as you open the door for limits, it's going to become more and more limits over time because there is no precedent in capitalism where corporate lobbyists and interest groups push for more abundance and less scarcity. It's the opposite. There's always pushing for more scarcity to get more profits."
How Did Senator Scott Weiner Get Involved?
Senator Scott Weiner was the sponsor for SB519. But how the hell did he become the point person? In short, he announced on Twitter in November 2020 that he wanted to get a bill on the books.
"When Senator Weiner made the Tweet at the end of 2020, we were all like 'Ahhh, something is happening,' so we had to catch up to that train," said Izzy. "It wasn't like we had this plan to get [Scott Weiner] involved. We all had to get organized and moving as soon as we saw his tweet."
Slowly, a coalition of different groups came together, like MAPS, Decrim Nature (temporarily), Heroic Hearts Project, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Sacred Garden, and several others, to help Senator Weiner's team create the bill.
"This whole process was mystifying to me up until a couple of years ago," said Izzy. "Different people within a coalition might play different roles. Bills that go through the legislature are drafted by the legislative drafters or analyst's office within that body, so what that means is the actual physical drafting of the language is done by someone who is inside of the state house. And they work directly with the sponsor, who in this case was Senator Weiner. The point of having a coalition of different people is to do different things in the process, from conceptualizing the bill with the sponsor and his colleagues to supporting conversations bridging different areas of life the bill may impact, such as social justice and health care, for instance, or educating [policymakers] on studies, and much more."
As Reggie pointed out, the process is not a situation where these groups are writing the sponsors a check to get them to incorporate (or exclude) specific language.
What Protections Do Plant Medicine Facilitators Have Now?
Monica pointed out that many people in the ceremonial space are moving less discreetly due to the prospect of a state-level decrim measure passing, along with numerous local-level initiatives. Operating underground and detached from the policy world often results in not knowing the current status of our legal rights. Her question to Izzy, Bronner, and Ben Unger was: What protections do facilitators have now that SB519 is defunct?
The short answer: None. "These substances are still illegal, and even though there are advancements and conversations about advancing both decrim and sacramental use, I do have some fear that people will get ahead of themselves," Izzy said. "Recognizing that many people who have experience with psychedelics — probably well over 90 percent, if not 99 percent — have them in a criminalized context, I think that it's important for people to know that we haven't won the fight yet, and it's going to be an ongoing struggle and conversation."
Izzy explained that people working with plant medicine should avoid putting themselves on blast, especially if they are working with communities and congregations. "Putting yourself out there is a risk that could put others at risk, which is something I worry about. I'm not telling anyone what to do. I'm just saying that staying underground is the best way to avoid undue attention."
Bronner agreed. Staying underground and not drawing attention to yourself is the best way to stay safe now that state-level decriminalization isn't happening for a while. He also suggests researching the Sacred Plant Alliance and their published best practices regarding entheogenic churches.
"There are things a community can do to optimize their legal posture in case they are raided and need to exercise their religious freedom under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is a federal law," said Bronner. "There are a lot of churches that are not proactively raising their flags, but they have positioned themselves in a way where law enforcement is deprioritizing the culture shift that is underway…but still be careful."
What's the Difference Between Deprioritization and Decriminalization?
Izzy brought up a key point of confusion: The difference between decriminalization and deprioritization. We regularly hear about different cities in the United States "decriminalizing" plant medicine, but the truth is these local initiatives "deprioritize" natural psychedelics through resolutions passed by city councils. It's not true decriminalization.
"Deprioritization at the municipal or city level means that a particular law enforcement agency will make [plant medicine] the lowest priority, which means using little to no resources to pursue a thing," Izzy said. "That does not stop a prosecutor from prosecuting someone if there is another agency going to do an arrest or some other process."
Conversely, decriminalization operates at the state level. "Criminal law is enforced primarily at the state and federal level," Izzy said. "But decriminalization at the state level would protect all people from all law enforcement within that state, except for federal agents."
Even if we deprioritize natural psychedelics in every single city within the state of California, CHP can still bust you. While it doesn't offer the same robust protections as decriminalization, deprioritization at the city level is still helpful because it's the first step towards getting politicians onboard, protecting the public, and proving there's support for state-level decrim measures.
What's the Issue with Peyote?
The peyote issue is complex and layered, but it boils down to these primary topics: Climate change, Indigenous traditions, tribal sovereignty, race, politics, and ownership. That's why discussions about peyote get HEATED: You're not only talking about a cactus — you're talking about several triggering issues.
The Native American Church (NAC) made it clear they don't want peyote included in Decriminalize Nature's campaigns, nor in SB519. The reason is because the Lophophora williamsii cactus is practically extinct, and thus, the NAC has generally asked for non-Natives to use other mescaline-containing cacti instead of peyote. Plus, part of the Peyotist framework is that the cactus was put on this Earth specifically for Indigenous communities. Many people in the psychedelic community are triggered by this, arguing that no one has ownership over nature or plants, including peyote.
People who stand with the NAC say the peyote issue is a matter of respect for Native Americans and their culture, and honoring the fact that the cactus is severely endangered. This side of the issue argues that Native Americans have had everything taken from them, including the freedom to practice their religion at one point, so why can't they have this one thing? (Peyotism was made illegal by the US Government in 1888. It wasn't until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978 that Native Americans were finally given legal protections to openly practice their religion.)
In the webinar, Bronner (who's talked with the Native American Church about this topic at length) explained that the NAC's concern with decriminalizing peyote is that it will send the wrong message to the non-Native public that the cacti aren't endangered. The reality, however, is the peyote gardens in southwest Texas — where the NAC procures most of its sacramental supply — are in a state of ecological collapse.
"The Native American Church is worried that if we decriminalize [peyote], it will open up demand, and they need that not to happen," Bronner said. "Just because you cultivate [peyote] doesn't fix the ecological issue of right now. It takes 10 years [at minimum] for the cacti to grow, but these laws could spike demand in the meantime and put a huge amount of demand pressure on a situation that's not in great shape."
In time, the situation may shift. For now, this is what the peyote-consuming people of our continent are asking. "This is their medicine and their continent," said Bronner. "There are other mescaline-containing cacti that non-Natives can use, like San Pedro and huachuma."
Izzy said the NAC's current stance on peyote is based on a strategy these institutions are pursuing with the federal government on the conservation question. "There's a desire to let it breathe for some time, potentially years, before a major shift occurs."
Does Bronner Have Plans to Join the Psychedelics Industry?
This was probably the most interesting question asked in the webinar, partly because there are rumors about Bronner wanting to capitalize on the psychedelic industry. So, Monica asked Bronner straight up if he had plans to join the industry outside of philanthropy.
"It's not on the radar right now," Bronner said about starting a psychedelics business. "If there were an opportunity to do something in an ethical way, I'd probably do it in a non-profit way. I am in the cannabis space with a not-for-profit platform [called Brover David] with Sun and Earth Certified for cannabis, which is a not-for-profit deal that helps craft cannabis farmers who grow cannabis under the sun and in soil with no chemicals and in the fair labor community."
Aside from donating money to research and various decrim and legalization initiatives around the US, Bronner says he is staying occupied with the tasks (aka-his magical soap empire) in front of him.
The Hyphae team conducted a sharp interview with influential people in the psychedelic policy space. The transparent conversation set the record straight on many issues. We recommend you watch the whole webinar.
Hyphae News is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.