California’s effort to decriminalize or legalize psilocybin mushrooms statewide by popular vote has ended—for now. An important deadline passed on April 21 for organizers to collect over 600,000 voter signatures to qualify their initiative for the November ballot. But the explosion of the coronavirus pandemic and mandatory social distancing orders in California effectively ended their voter outreach activity weeks ago.
“Today was the deadline to submit 623,212 valid signatures to the state of California to qualify for the November 2020 ballot and we never made it even close to that count because of COVID-19,” wrote Decriminalize California in an April 21 email to supporters. “As of yet we have not received a single indication that the California government will allow for an extension or electronic signatures. In other words, today it rained.”
The Decriminalize California campaign kicked off in 2019, a successor to a similar but unrelated campaign that tried and failed to decriminalize mushrooms in 2018. Decriminalize California initially aimed simply to prevent arrests and jail time for possession and cultivation of mushrooms—not unlike city-level psychedelic decriminalization efforts that passed in Oakland and Santa Cruz.
The initiative was then revised to propose legalizing sales of mushrooms through licensed shops. It would also have allowed doctors and therapists to offer psilocybin treatment in healthcare clinics. The campaign got a boost late in the year when British psychedelic research pioneers at the Beckley Foundation agreed to help them.
The organizers held events, strategy meetings and media interviews throughout 2019 and earlier this year. But the action couldn’t officially begin until January, when state election officials approved the text of the initiative. The next step for Decriminalize California was to collect 623,212 voter signatures by April 21, a requirement under state law.
The campaign recruited staff and volunteers throughout the state to tackle this task, but the sudden spike in coronavirus cases disrupted everything. On March 19, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a “shelter-in-place” order for the state’s 40 million residents. The order restricted “non-essential” activity, businesses and social gatherings. Any in-person get-out-the-vote campaign was now impossible.
In response, Decriminalize California’s organizers requested that state elections officials extend the deadline for them to collect the voter signatures. They also asked if they could use digital tools to collect signatures electronically. “COVID-19 has made a vast array of structural dysfunctions obvious—one being that in the age of the Internet, it’s pretty archaic to have to gather millions of signatures in crowded high-traffic areas to get citizens’ voices heard,” they wrote.
Decriminalize California said that it plans to keep its operations running, and file again in the next California election. Voter outreach work will resume once social distancing orders are lifted.
Now that their 2020 efforts have failed, the organizers are pivoting. They are joining up with activists behind other ballot initiatives in California and beyond to demand electoral reforms. “[We] are now looking into a legal path to push the state of California into allowing electronic signatures,” they wrote. “We are also reaching out to all the other state initiatives around the union that also got paused mid-signature collection, to see if they would be interested in forming a national movement for electronic signatures for initiatives, referendums, recalls, and voting.”
A renewed, national alliance between psychedelic and voting rights activists may be impactful. Decriminalize California is not the only psychedelic reform campaign hat has been slowed down by COVID. And in a critical national election year, the pandemic has already put the simple right to vote in serious danger.
“For every state that passes electronic voting,” wrote Decriminalize California, “it will remove one more barrier between the people and their government, meaning the cost to push any future initiatives will be far cheaper.”