Berkeley has long been a center around which psychedelic culture swirls, which is why it’s surprising that the city has lagged on reforming local laws around them, even as more than a dozen other local governments around the U.S. have already moved to do so.
But yesterday, city leaders finally agreed to make it easier to use such substances for recreational, medical and spiritual purposes without fear of prosecution.
Berkeley police will officially scale back criminal enforcement against personal use of some psychedelic plants and fungi, such as magic mushrooms and ayahuasca. The Berkeley City Council unanimously approved the new policy during Tuesday’s meeting, coinciding with a swell of research into psychedelic-assisted psychotherapies for treating mental health conditions such as depression and substance abuse.
This does not mean these drugs are technically “decriminalized;” rather, easing penalties for these naturally occurring psychoactive chemicals is as close as a local government can get while they remain federally classified as “Schedule One” drugs — narcotic substances considered to be easily abused with no legitimate medical use.
Notably, Berkeley’s resolution does not loosen the prohibition on giving away, sharing or distributing entheogenic drugs, which are naturally occurring psychoactive substances typically consumed to achieve divine, mind-altering experiences within a ritual or cultural setting. The policy also does not deprioritize enforcement of all psychedelic substances, including drugs that are artificially synthesized in a laboratory, such as LSD and MDMA.
Peyote, a cactus containing mescaline, was also not included, honoring a request from the National Council of Native American Churches and the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative. These groups are concerned that decriminalization and poaching will further threaten sustainability of the plant, which indigenous communities have used as a spiritual sacrament for hundreds of years.
Berkeley was actually the first city in the nation to suggest decriminalization of these drugs back in 2019, a measure drafted by activists with Decriminalize Nature, an Oakland-based nonprofit.
But after disagreements about inclusion of synthetic psychedelics stalled that effort throughout the pandemic, Berkeley is now the 19th U.S. city to approve such a policy, following behind Oakland, San Francisco and Santa Cruz locally.
“It’s a smart path, it’s a progressive path, but it’s a responsible path,” said Councilmember Rigel Robinson, adding that the current resolution provided cleaner direction than what he helped propose five years ago. “This is part of a growing movement and part of the city of Berkeley’s legacy as a leader in sensible drug policy and advocating for a public health paradigm — not just a law enforcement paradigm — relating to substance use.”
The policy was passed only hours after a state Assembly committee advanced a bill written by Sen. Scott Wiener (D) that would legalize possession and facilitated use of psychedelics like psilocybin and ayahuasca across California.
Councilmember Sophie Hahn, who sponsored the resolution and chairs the Health, Life Enrichment, Equity, & Community Committee, said the committee rewrote the resolution in its entirety to crystalize a narrower concept of de-emphasizing enforcement.
She said the final changes aimed to avoid unintentionally creating a “grey,” or unofficial, market, which has proven to be a challenge in Oakland and other cities that have loosened laws around these drugs.
“These substances have much promise, but we do need to move forward with caution,” Hahn said, clarifying that the city’s Health, Life Enrichment, Equity, & Community Committee also removed assertions of both safety and risks of using these drugs, in order to allow public health officials to control that kind of information with the community.
Dozens of speakers during Tuesday’s meeting celebrated the city’s vote, sharing their own beneficial experiences recreationally, medically and spiritually consuming entheogenic drugs.
Larry Norris, a co-founder of Decriminalize Nature who teaches college courses on psychedelics across the country, lauded the city for joining a “chorus of voices seeking to end punitive approaches” to these substances.
However, Norris also unsuccessfully asked the city council to amend the resolution to also decriminalize peyote cultivation, especially in its local endemic habitat, as well as loosen enforcement on community sharing of these drugs that can be beneficial for healing.
“While there are currently flyers and telephone poles all around Berkeley selling these substances, the Berkeley City Council would be making a choice to stigmatize sharing amongst friends and family,” Norris said. “While some folks are able to grow, many cannot and they fear they’ll be left out.”
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