Could California Become the First State to Decriminalize Magic Mushrooms?

The group Decriminalize California hopes L.A.’s influencers and podcasters will help that vision quest become a reality

Last week, Oakland’s City Council voted unanimously to decriminalize magic mushrooms, making the Bay Area burg the second city in the United States to do so. Unlike the Denver initiative passed in May, Oakland’s resolution will allow people to possess not only psilocybin but also peyote and other psychedelic plants without the added paranoia of being locked up.

Mushroom activist group Decriminalize California sees the win in Oakland as the second beachhead in a long battle toward ending the prohibition of psychedelics on a national level. Next on the tactical front: the entire state of California.

Los Angeles will be home base for Decriminalize California as it begins a campaign to—as the organization’s name suggests—decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in the state for “medicinal, therapeutic, and religious purposes.” In addition to the hub in L.A., it has set up outposts in San Francisco, San Diego, and Irvine to recruit volunteers and mobilize its movement.

The process started in May, when the group submitted a request to the Legal Council of California asking for assistance in drafting its initiative. It faces a steep hill of nearly a million signatures needed to make it on the ballot in 2020; to put that into perspective, a similar initiative failed to find half that support in 2018. Despite the daunting number, Decriminalize California director Ryan Munevar is feeling pretty good about the odds, partly because the group has made L.A. the movement’s focus. “We’re setting up our office in Hollywood because it’s the entertainment capital of the world,” he said over the phone. “Los Angeles County also has the largest concentration of eligible voters and social media influencers in the country.” Influencers, he says, will play a huge role in the campaign.

By now, people with large social media followings are all but essential to any 21st century political campaign, but Decriminalize California is hoping to lean specifically on podcasters.

On the day of the Denver vote, comedian and podcast host Joe Rogan said in an Instagram post, “You folks have a real shot at getting the ball rolling in this country and opening up the hearts and minds of so many people.” Munevar was on the ground canvassing at the time and witnessed the effects firsthand. “His post came the day of the [Denver] election,” Munevar says. “If [Rogan] would have come in a month earlier and promoted it, they probably would have won by an extra 10 to 15 percent.”

Rogan’s podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, attracts people on both ends of the political spectrum, and that’s crucial to this uniquely purple issue. As Munevar puts it, “Democrats want to end the war on drugs, and conservative libertarians don’t want the government telling them what they can or can’t do. … This is a bipartisan issue.”

In addition to getting volunteers and influencers to canvas—on the ground and on the internet—Decriminalize California hopes to educate the public and clearly define what the initiative will do. In its first year the cannabis industry failed to produce the tax revenue it was expected to, partly due to tricky banking issues and competition with the black market. For that reason, Munevar thinks the “legalize-because-taxes” argument is likely to fall flat.

Munevar says that Proposition 64, aka the Adult Use Marijuana Act that resulted in legalization in California, was “a clusterfuck in many different ways, but the one thing it got right was the lowering of penalties [for marijuana possession].”

An upcoming initiative in Oregon is aiming to legalize mushrooms for medicinal use, but according to Munevar, “Our initiative won’t allocate any government resources toward creating another permitting system or industry. … It will just allow people to do mushrooms if they want to.

“Besides,” he continues, “[mushrooms are] cheap and easy to grow yourself. All you need is some birdseed, inoculated wood chips, a pressure cooker, and a closet.”

The final pillar to the campaign, however, will be expensive. “Fundraising is a major focus along with influencers and education” Munevar explains. “We’re going to need $3 million in funding to even get it on the ballot. After that, it’ll take about $9 million worth of marketing [to pass].”

If mushrooms were decriminalized in California, specific language within the initiative seeks to lay the groundwork for decriminalization across the U.S. The second part of Decriminalize California’s proposal calls for the establishment of a “Research Review Panel of ten representatives … to give guidance on the formulation of dosage and testing protocol research studies for the drafting of future regulations.” This part of the initiative would create guidelines for the responsible cultivation and consumption of mushrooms, which will be used to “create a springboard for similar policies in other states,” Munevar explains. Their ultimate goal is to change the current Food and Drug Administration scheduling of psilocybin from Schedule 1—meaning that it has no known medicinal use—to being removed from the drug scheduling system completely.

In 2018 Johns Hopkins researchers recommended rescheduling psilocybin from Schedule 1 to Schedule 4 (meaning it would go from the group that contains heroin to the group that contains Xanax), but Decriminalize California wants to take things a step further. Given the legal hurdles that come with doing research on a Schedule 1 drug, the organization believes any change would open the doors to allow for a more in-depth look into some of psilocybin’s more practical uses.

Coming off the high of the recent wins in Denver and Oakland, Munevar admits that other cities need to push for similar initiatives to make a statewide measure easier. He sees West Hollywood, Venice, San Francisco, and Berkeley as likely candidates to decriminalize psychedelics next because they’ve “generally they’ve been cool with Cannabis and have a hip city council.”

Decriminalize California hopes to join forces with Decriminalize Denver and similar organizations across the United States and Canada to form a coast-to-coast branch of the movement. “First it was ending alcohol prohibition, then weed,” he says. “Decriminalizing mushrooms is just the natural next step.”

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