Over two years ago, in June 2019, the city of Oakland, California became the first in the US to decriminalize plant-based entheogens including psilocybin, iboga, ayahuasca and mescaline cacti. Since then, the reform seems to be having its intended effect of preventing arrests for these substances. However, as the psychedelic decriminalization movement grows in the city and state, how much help will it lend in the efforts to decriminalize all drugs and prevent overdose deaths?
“We have not heard of any arrests in Oakland for entheogens,” Carlos Plazola, co-founder of Decriminalize Nature, told Filter. His organization was instrumental in lobbying the city to decriminalize.
The only known instance of arrests around entheogen use post-decriminalization involved an August 2020 raid on a religious establishment, the Zide Door Church. The organization was reportedly exchanging and selling cannabis and mushrooms for spiritual use under a member-owner cooperative model. It attracted attention from health authorities and law enforcement, and was shut down.
“It’s all positive in terms of enforcement.”
But even in this case, Plazola said that Oakland Police Department (OPD) omitted “psilocybin” from the arrest warrant, in an effort to respect the decriminalization measure. “It’s all positive in terms of enforcement,” he said, adding that “we’ve had no reported emergencies of anyone using mushrooms and doing something stupid.”
Plazola who does not himself communicate with the OPD, cited Oakland Councilman Noel Gallo, who sponsored the successful psychedelic resolution, in reporting this information. The Oakland City Attorney’s Office did not respond to Filter‘s requests for comment.
The Alameda County Health Department told Filter that in the last six months of 2019, across the whole county they recorded five emergency room visits and two hospitalizations for “all hallucinogens (not LSD)”. “There is no discernible patterns and nothing is statistically significantly different from before and after June 5, 2019,” they said.
It’s important to note that the apparent virtual absence of entheogen arrests comes in the context of rates that were already low. Prior to decriminalization, the OPD reported only 19 cases of psilocybin confiscation in five years, but kept no data on arrests for other entheogens.
“There was not significant enforcement of psychedelics prior to 2019,” Savannah O’Neill, associate director of capacity building at the National Harm Reduction Coalition (NHRC), told Filter. “It is great to have this victory to show a public shift around drug use, but in terms of enforcement it isn’t the bulk of drug enforcement.”
“It hasn’t significantly impacted how police engage with people who use [other] drugs.”
Neither does she believe that psychedelic decriminalization has created any domino effect to improve how police interact with people who use other drugs in the city where she lives. “It hasn’t significantly impacted how police engage with people who use drugs in Oakland.”
Arrest data from the state justice department for Alameda County, home to Oakland, suggest a larger trend. The most recent peak for felony drug arrests saw over 4,800 made in 2014. But numbers have dropped every year since, falling to only 641 arrests in 2020. It was in 2014 that California passing Proposition 47, reclassifying certain felony offenses as misdemeanors.
The data here are limited, as we don’t know how many misdemeanor arrests were made for drugs, nor how many drug arrests occurred just in Oakland. So no solid conclusion can yet be reached on the impact of psychedelic decriminalization on arrests for other drugs.
Still, the impact of the Oakland resolution goes beyond preventing arrests. “In a policy lens,” O’Neill said, “it has created more room to talk about decriminalizing drugs, treating drugs as a public health issue and talking about the benefits of different drugs.”
And Plazola said with pride that the reform has inspired more people in the city to learn about and work with entheogens. It’s something that means a lot to him personally.
Growing up, “In my Chicano community in San Jose, we only knew psychedelics as ‘dangerous drugs the same as PCP or heroin,’” he said. “It wasn’t until I was in my late 40s that I learned about their healing potential.”
“When I tried it my immediate reaction was, why are these illegal? These should be readily available. Here we have all these Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous communities on the losing end of the War on Drugs, and we need to heal this trauma.”
“In all these communities, word is out. People are healing.”
The work of Decriminalize Nature, he said, includes reaching out to the communities in Oakland that have the least. Since 2019 they have helped share educational resources about entheogens with veterans, including unhoused folks, and with local organizations working in Black, Brown and Asian communities. Plazola was wary of getting into specifics about this work to protect the privacy of other parties involved.
Plazola also claimed—citing an anonymous source—that home-growing of psilocybin for personal use has increased significantly since 2019.
“More and more people are using mushrooms and entheogens to heal,” he said. “We hear from our ayahuasca churches that their participants have diversified, more Black, Brown and Asian participants, which was our goal.”
“In all these communities, word is out,” he continued. “People are healing. You go to a farmer’s market in East Oakland, they’re talking about mushrooms, they might even be exchanging them. You go to social justice community organizations, and they’re talking about these substances. It’s everywhere.”
Plazola and his organization are now looking to build upon the original reform by winning city residents the right to use these substances in communal settings. In December 2020, Decriminalize Nature successfully lobbied the City Council to pass the Oakland Community Healing Initiative resolution. It simply calls on the state government to give the city legal protection to allow people to use entheogens in group “healing ceremonies.”
Plazola explained that group healing ceremonies are technically decriminalized in the city of Oakland. People can gather together in, say, an ayahuasca center, and not seriously risk arrest from city police. These organizations may even solicit donations from participants, which is not technically legal but police are not focusing on it–with the exception of the Zide Door Church.
But city law doesn’t prevent state or federal authorities from enforcing their own drug laws. That’s why the Oakland Community Healing Initiative calls for the state government to legally guarantee that cities allowing group healing ceremonies will not be raided.
Statewide psychedelic decriminalization is now a step closer to becoming reality. On June 29, a California Senate committee approved Senate Bill 519, which would remove criminal penalties for possession or sharing of psilocybin, DMT, ibogaine, LSD and MDMA. It would also require the state health department to study how California could regulate “safe and equitable access to certain substances in permitted legal contexts.” State Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco sponsored the bill.
Plazola is encouraged by this progress, and clear-eyed about the end-goal, as he sees it, of access for all.
But while it is clear that psychedelic decriminalization in Oakland—and California—is rapidly picking up steam, the success of this very specific movement raises a question: Will it bring the city or state any closer to decriminalization of all drugs?
In November 2020, California’s neighbor to the north, Oregon, became the first US state to decriminalize all drugs. This year, there are efforts to follow suit in a handful of other states—including from lawmakers in New York, Massachusetts and (at least in terms of “studying” the issue) Virginia. Reported lobbying efforts in Washington state may also result in a bill being introduced.
But California is not on this list. Why not?
“We do have concerns with this approach, because it is our nature to create a false narrative that there are good versus bad drugs.”
Jeanette Zanipatin, the California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Filter that her organization initially considered lobbying to introduce a decriminalization bill in the legislature. However, after assessing the best prospects for meaningful success, DPA shifted its focus to supporting a 2024 ballot initiative to decriminalize—with a focus on ending racial disparities in arrest and incarceration rates, and increasing access to substance use disorder treatment.
I asked Zanipatin for her thoughts about the impact of efforts like Decriminalize Nature on prospects for the wider reforms she and her organization are pursuing.
“In some instances local jurisdictions passing measures to decriminalize psychedelics could potentially add to the conversation about all-drug decriminalization,” she said. “However, we do have concerns with this approach—decriminalization of psychedelics first—because it is our inherent nature to create a false narrative that there are good versus bad drugs, and that a certain segment of society is more deserving [to not be] criminalized and have access to treatment.”
Despite its reforms, California remains a fierce drug-war battleground, but the impacts are felt unequally. One illustration is the mixed results of California’s efforts to decriminalize and legalize marijuana. Racial disparities in arrests persist—and even worsened in its two biggest cities, San Diego and Los Angeles. And a significant portion of marijuana tax revenue is helping fund more policing, instead of benefitting communities directly.
These continuing injustices are a reminder that well-meaning and beneficial drug policy reforms are not in themselves sufficient to end systemic racism.
Another important goal of decriminalization is to make drug use safer and thereby save lives. Oregon’s all-drug decriminalization plan illustrates this: It is just as much about helping people with substance use disorder get connected to treatment as it is about preventing arrests. In fact, the initiative takes money from cannabis tax revenues and uses it to expand access in a state with one of the worst treatment systems in the nation.
By promoting education about safe and responsible use of entheogens, Decriminalize Nature Oakland is surely helping to prevent negative experiences or medical emergencies related to these substances.
But when we talk about drug-related medical emergencies, we have to be clear about the most pressing problem facing California: a lethal drug overdose crisis, consisting mostly of poly-drug “overdoses” that involve synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and increasingly, stimulants like methamphetamine.
According to the state health department, drug overdose deaths in Alameda County remained relatively stable between 2008 and 2018, rising very slightly in 10 years to about 9.6 deaths per 100,000 people. That’s less than half of the national death rate.
A June 2018 notice from the county stated that opioid-involved deaths specifically decreased 49 percent since 2015. It cited a combination of factors contributing to this fall, including better access to buprenorphine and naloxone.
Of course, focusing only on opioids can obscure less visible but still harmful trends in drug use and overdose. An October 2019 CDC study showed drug overdose deaths were increasing faster in California than in 37 other states. Many of those deaths involve methamphetamine or fentanyl, with California having one of the highest meth-involved fatality rates in the US.
Is it possible that psychedelic reforms in Oakland can help to reduce overdose, and other harms like HIV? It depends who you ask. The text of the Oakland psychedelic resolution adopted by City Council in June 2019 proposed that certain psychedelics may help people overcome substance use disorder related to opioids, methamphetamine, alcohol and other drugs.
“We should create access to psychedelics as a form of healing, but I push back on the idea that these are the solutions or a cure to other drug use.”
While various evidence supports some of these claims, not all are universally accepted, including by some harm reduction-oriented experts. And different impacted people, obviously, have very different experiences. But setting aside those debates, the logic seems to go that by making it easier for everyone to use these substances, we will also encourage more people with substance use disorder to self-treat with psychedelics.
We have to be sensitive in how we talk about this, said O’Neill.
“Harm reduction means that people center their own needs, define what violence is in their lives and have bodily autonomy,” she said. “We should create access to psychedelics as a form of healing, but I push back on the idea that these are the solutions or a cure to other drug use. We want more options for people.”
By framing psychedelics as the savior of people who are addicted to other drugs, advocates risk supporting the “good versus bad drugs” narrative of which Zanipatin warned—perpetuating harms by denying people who use other drugs the safe supply they want and continuing to subject them to arrests.
O’Neill commended members of Decriminalize Nature for taking a more holistic focus on these issues than many in the psychedelic movement. She and they were both involved with a task force in Oakland to decide if and how to reduce the Oakland police budget, in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests.
“The people I have engaged with seem committed to the decriminalization of drugs,” she said. “Some of the Decriminalize Nature folks were part of our reimagining public safety process and were on board with recommending de-prioritizing enforcement of all drugs. [There was even support to] de-prioritize laws related to drug dealing, which is impressive.”
“People who want to safe consumption sites and those who want to host group healing ceremonies with entheogens share similar goals.”
In Oakland, there is another intersection between psychedelics and overdose prevention. As Decriminalize Nature was fighting to have the state government protect group healing ceremonies, the Oakland City Council called for this legal protection to be included in Senate Bill 57.
SB 57 was an effort by legislators to authorize safe consumption sites in California—including a pilot in Oakland—to prevent deaths. Senator Wiener, who sponsors the psychedelic decriminalization bill, authored SB 57, too. But legislators pulled the bill in July due to a lack of support in the legislature.
Obviously, people who want to open safe consumption sites and those who want to host group healing ceremonies with entheogens share similar goals. All need lawmakers with the courage to protect them from federal law enforcement. Perhaps in the near future, these two movements will really join forces in California to win that right.
Though the psychedelic decriminalization movement has its critics—including from inside the drug policy reform and harm reduction movements—it is here to stay and growing stronger. For opponents of the drug war, the psychedelic movement shows a clear model for how to engage with local decision-makers and earn their support, and its reforms hold intrinsic value. But its successes, together with the drugs and people they leave out, demand psychedelic advocates’ vigilance against psychedelic exceptionalism.
DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.