"This is not Oregon": 5 Questions on California's decrim bill for state senator Scott Wiener
Senator Wiener on SB 519 and the concerns around the language used in the bill.
In March 2021, California state senator Scott Wiener introduced Senate Bill 519, which would allow possession and “social sharing” of psilocybin, DMT, ibogaine, mescaline, LSD, and MDMA for anyone over 21. While cities like Oakland, California and Somerville, Massachusetts have made enforcement of drug possession laws the lowest priority for police, SB 519 could be the first state-wide bill to decriminalize possession of psychedelic drugs. The bill is similar to Colorado’s ballot initiative 61, an effort to decriminalize entheogenic plants and fungi, which Coloradoans may vote on in November — but passing a state-level bill and securing citizens’ votes for a ballot initiative require markedly different political tactics.
Wiener’s bill narrowly passed in the California Senate and two Assembly committees, but in August 2021, he paused the bill’s advancement. Now, SB 519 is back in play — it’s scheduled for a hearing before the California Assembly Appropriations Committee on August 3. If the committee votes to approve the bill, the Assembly floor will vote on it — that will determine whether the bill dies or goes on to California Governor Gavin Newsom for a signature.
While some advocates are enthusiastic about the state’s decriminalization efforts, others have raised concerns. Critics say the proposed legislation leaves open a loophole for drug-related profits; facilitators could “give away” a drug while charging for facilitation services. SB 519 explicitly allows assisting others with “facilitated or supported use,” which it defines as “the supervised or assisted personal use of a substance. . . within the context of counseling, spiritual guidance, community-based healing, or related services.” In fact, the bill even specifically lays out “reasonable fees for counseling, spiritual guidance, or related services” as distinct from “financial gain” from providing drugs.
The Microdose spoke with Senator Wiener about SB 519 and the concerns around the language used in the bill.
Last summer, you tabled SB 519. Why?
Early last year, we got the bill passed through the Senate and two of its three committees in the Assembly. We were very close to the end of the process, but we realized we needed more time to build more support in the assembly, so we hit the pause button and the bill carried over to this year. August will be the do or die month for the bill.
The bill has changed a bit since you first introduced it. What have the biggest changes been?
Last year we added some quantity limits to the bill, and we removed ketamine from the bill. We were getting a lot of pushback on that — and it wasn’t worth tanking the bill for ketamine, because people can already access it. [Editor’s note: Some members of the California Senate raised concerns that ketamine was a “date rape drug,” Lucid News reported at the time.]
The bill creates a “working group” run through the State Department of Public Health “to study and make recommendations regarding public education, public health, and harm reduction” before 2024. What’s your thinking behind establishing this working group alongside the rest of the bill, rather than something like what Oregon did, where working groups give recommendations before the state establishes rules?
You'll notice that in Oregon, it was the voters that passed Measure 109, which would have had zero percent chance of getting through as legislation. I'm a believer in trying to propose bills that could pass. There's a strong case to make that a big step would be to stop arresting people for possessing or using. We don’t have to solve the problem in the first step. The first step is to stop arresting people. And then we can take it from there. As for the task force, that’s to advise the legislature on next steps, which is full legalization, certification of therapists and other items.
One critique I’ve heard of SB 519 is the concern that the bill doesn’t define what constitutes a facilitator. Oregon, for instance, has been using that two-year period to set up rules for training for facilitators. What’s your thought process for leaving that open?
This bill is not Oregon. Oregon is full legalization; this is not full legalization, this is simply decriminalization. We’re saying, “We’re not going to arrest you for possessing or using it, [and] we’re not going to arrest you if you’re using it with other people.”
If critics believe people should be arrested and prosecuted for using psychedelics, I just fundamentally disagree with that. Maybe at some point we’ll get to legalization and creating a legal market. I would certainly support that direction, but that is not what this bill is about.
What do you see as the dividing line between decriminalization and legalization? As I understand it, the concern here is that this functionally allows people to offer services with psychedelics without oversight, and that’s what has folks worried.
People worry all the time. And I personally don't worry about decriminalizing drugs. The bill does not decriminalize selling drugs; this is about possessing and using. Arresting and prosecuting people for possessing and using drugs is a failed policy.
Legalization and creating a legal market is a much more nuanced and complicated issue, and it's something that I support, but it is a much heavier lift. The purpose of this bill is to say, let's take what we know is the right thing to do — to decriminalize possession and use — and let’s study and evaluate the other things we should consider for creating a legal market, like certifying therapists. Let's do the thing we know is right immediately, and then we can focus on evaluating the more complicated stuff.
I really think that some people overthink decriminalization; they’re like, “What about all these other things? Why aren't we solving everything at once? Why aren’t we regulating everything out of the gate? And why don't we just study every possible issue before we do anything?” And that's just not how the real-life legislative process works. If there’s a piece that makes sense, you just do it, and then you can study the harder, more challenging issues going forward.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
This senator has such a good head on his shoulders. Right on.