City lawmakers in Berkeley, California have voted to decriminalize naturally occurring psychedelic drugs. It means local police will be advised not to arrest people for possessing and growing these substances, and the city will avoid spending tax dollars on enforcement. Back in 2019, Berkeley was one of the first cities to consider this change; several years later, it’s finally become the latest of over a dozen in the United States to decriminalize psychedelics.
On July 11, Berkeley City Council unanimously voted to adopt a resolution to “[De-prioritize] the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties for Entheogenic/Psychedelic plants and fungi for personal use.” This category applies to psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca or DMT, ibogaine and mescaline cacti. These plants or fungi containing psychedelic compounds are used throughout the world, including for recreational, spiritual, religious, therapeutic or medical purposes.
Councilmember Sophie Hahn sponsored the resolution, which also states that city public health officials will collect data on psychedelics use, and work with local organizations to “address the use of psychedelics.”
“Berkeley is making a statement to the world to end punitive approaches to entheogenic plant and fungi practices.”
“We are excited for Berkeley to join Oakland, San Francisco, and 16 other cities and counties nationwide,” said Larry Norris, PhD, Cofounder of Decriminalize Nature National and Decriminalize Nature Berkeley, which led the local decriminalization campaign, in a statement. “Berkeley is making a statement to the world to end punitive approaches to entheogenic plant and fungi practices, and allow for additional forms of healing as well as personal and spiritual growth for the community.”
“Although I’m a little surprised it took Berkeley so long to get on board, I’m very excited to see the Bay Area now be a united front on this movement,” added Taylor Blevons, a Decriminalize Nature activist and former Greenpeace regional director, in a statement shared with Filter. “After years of trying to convince the public that it’s past time we take dramatic environmental action, I think what we need more than anything is a shift in consciousness. I believe allowing people to develop their own relationship with these gifts from nature will help humanity remember our connection to the natural world, heal ourselves and the earth.”
Berkeley lawmakers first introduced a version of this bill in 2019. At that time, activists Alexander Williams and Larry Norris were leading the charge, working with the Berkeley Entheogenic Society and supported by Decriminalize Nature Oakland. There was some initial success, as Councilmember Rigel Robinson took on the resolution and it passed the public safety committee. But a hearing in the health committee, initially scheduled for October that year, was delayed throughout the fall. It eventually passed that committee, but the committee was required to complete a report for the other council members. But then, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled certain Council activities and indefinitely delayed the resolution.
To understand how this reform might work in practice, we can look down San Pablo Avenue—to the neighboring city of Oakland, which became the first city to decriminalize all psychedelic plants and fungi after a unanimous vote from its own lawmakers in 2019.
Berkeley’s resolution is more restrictive than the current rules in Oakland, however.
In the two years that followed, Filter learned that there were virtually no arrests for these substances—which admittedly isn’t surprising, as there were few arrests before the law changed. Emergency room visits concerning psychedelic use also remained low. One Oakland advocate related anecdotally to Filter that the reform sparked a wave of interest in mushroom growing—and an underground trade—and that local organizations and communities were hosting more conversations and activities around psychedelics.
Berkeley’s resolution is more restrictive than the current rules in Oakland, however. It permits possession, cultivation, processing and preparation of these substances for personal use—but not selling or sharing these substances with other people. In Oakland, a followup 2020 initiative protects people who gift and share psychedelics, or who help other adults who want to use them. San Francisco also protects “transporting, distributing, [and] engaging in practices with” psychedelics, which includes some group use—in line with the agenda of Decriminalize Nature. It seems that the Berkeley City Council wasn’t yet willing to go that far.
One other potential sticking point with Berkeley’s resolution is how it treats peyote cacti—which are not decriminalized. These species grow naturally in the Rio Grande region of the southwest US and Mexico, and contain mescaline. San Pedro and Peruvian torch species of cacti also include the compound. But peyote faces unique ecological challenges. Its wild populations are rapidly declining, as a result of industrial mining, cattle ranching, real estate development and human harvesting.
Peyote is sacred to many Indigenous traditions in the US and Mexico. But groups including the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative and National Council of Native American Churches have publicly opposed its decriminalization, arguing that it will encourage more human harvesting. Berkeley lawmakers excluded peyote on this basis. Yet Decriminalize Nature has continued to support decriminalizing peyote, arguing that nobody should face arrest and jail time for using the plant, and that the way to protect wild peyote is to sponsor large-scale cultivation projects.
In just a few years, psychedelic decriminalization has exploded throughout the US. It arguably started when Denver, Colorado voters approved a 2019 ballot measure to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, before Oakland’s broader reform was enacted later that year.
Decriminalize Nature has championed an approach that is perhaps less sexy than statewide ballot campaigns, but demonstrably effective. It’s old-fashioned, local politics—meeting with your lawmakers, stating your concerns, and persuading them to support you.
Since 2019, 16 cities before Berkeley, plus two counties and two states, have passed similar psychedelic decriminalization measures—including San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, Washington, DC, and smaller jurisdictions in California, Washington, Michigan and Massachusetts. During this time, we’ve seen Oregon voters approve both legalizing psilocybin for healing purposes and the decriminalization of low-level possession of all drugs. And Colorado voters approved both the legalization of psychedelics for healing and decriminalization of simple possession.
Decriminalize Nature hasn’t supported all these efforts, but its widespread city-level successes have helped inspire other advocates.
Update 07/17/2023: Corrected to clarify Larry Norris’ early role in the initial campaign, and why the City Council delayed action on the resolution during the pandemic.