It took New York nearly 20 years to legalize medical marijuana after Assemblymember Richard Gottfried introduced a bill, inspired by California’s 1996 initiative to legalize pot for those with a doctor’s recommendation. It then took the Empire State another half decade after passing medical cannabis and falling behind nearby states like New Jersey or Massachusetts to finally legalize marijuana for adult use this year. Unlike states like California or Colorado, New York does not have an initiative process for citizens to propose and vote on their own legislation—and so, the rate of progress can lag. All that said, given the hype over the most populous state’s newfound marijuana legalization program, activists now have their sights set on psychedelics.
“Cannabis is such a fundamental building block in the War on Drugs that removing that block creates an opening, socially and culturally, to considering what else is possible,” says Aaron Genuth, who does policy and outreach for both the Hudson Valley Psychedelic Society and Decriminalize Nature New York State. “We see the opportunity to shorten the timeline to get psychedelic legislation introduced and passed.” As the founder of his own religious nonprofit Darkhei Rephua (Hebrew for “paths of healing”), Genuth says psychedelics, such as magic mushrooms, have deepened his relationship to nature, religion, and spirituality. And while above-ground mushroom ceremonies only exist in places like Jamaica or Mexico, he’s hoping to add New York to that list. To that end, he co-founded not only Decriminalize Nature New York City, but also a state-level version of the group, aiming to decriminalize “entheogens” and establish ways for communities to access them.
There’s two of a smattering of decriminalization efforts abuzz in the Empire State. From the state capitol in Albany to the Big Apple to a handful of small towns upstate, legislators and activists are pushing bills and resolutions that would decriminalize certain psychedelics and push New York to the front of psychedelic drug reform. Among the efforts:
- At the capitol, an assembly member filed a bill to decriminalize psilocybin statewide.
- In New York City, a Decriminalize Nature group wrote a resolution to decriminalize all entheogens within city limits.
- In Rochester, Ithaca, and the Hudson Valley, groups have formed to decriminalize some psychedelics and create ways for communities to access them.
Weed Shows the Way
Psychedelic policy reform has yet to pass anywhere in the Empire State, but many New Yorkers are more optimistic than ever about the prospects of it happening soon. They draw hope from the fact that their state just legalized cannabis with a sweeping bill that is surprisingly liberal, allowing for home grows and releasing some prisoners who’ve been locked up for low-level cannabis offenses.
New York’s multitude of efforts are chiefly following the wildly successful model of Decriminalize Nature. The movement launched in 2019 when Oakland, California passed a resolution barring local cops from prosecuting the cultivation, use, and gifting of natural psychedelics such as ayahuasca, mushrooms, and DMT. In other words, local cops won’t mess with plants and fungi.
Decriminalize Nature New York City drafted a resolution that follows the Oakland language, and. New York’s weed legalization energized the psychedelic efforts. “Cannabis opened people’s minds to plant medicine,” co-founder Natalie Kovach-Anta says. The coalition has been connecting with city council members, but there’s no timeline for a vote, Kovach-Anta says. It’s important to keep in mind the scope of Decriminalize Nature New York City’s mission: New York City is so big that decriminalization within its jurisdiction would impact more people than all the psychedelic policy changes in all seven decriminalized cities and Oregon combined.
Advocates believe psychedelic decriminalization happening somewhere within New York State is only a matter of time. “We have such an incredible group of passionate advocates in New York right now, spanning from the city to the state to individual municipalities,” says Courtney Barnes, a lawyer who advises several of the decriminalization efforts. “One trailblazer locality could start the dominos falling for decriminalization.”
The Rising Tide Nationwide
Nationwide, the drug policy reform movement is in the midst of stunning successes. Roughly 42 Decriminalize Nature chapters having cropped up from coast-to-coast, says Larry Norris, who co-founded the original Decriminalize Nature group in Oakland. And city councils are welcoming them. Across the country, in six cities from Santa Cruz to Northampton, Mass., 45 of the last 46 city council members voting on decriminalization decided in favor, Barnes says.
Politicians are seeing that in none of the cities that have pursued reform has the sky fallen; no notable mushroom emergencies have yet to arrive in Denver hospitals, for example, since voters decriminalized mushrooms in May 2019. Even the city district attorney said there’s been no disaster.
And no longer is decriminalization confined to Western jurisdictions with a reputation for being progressive, such as Denver, Oakland, or Oregon. It’s inching in New York’s direction, happening just south, east, and north of New York in Washington, DC, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and three small cities in Massachusetts.
New York’s Psychedelic History
In some ways, New York state is a logical place for decrim efforts. The tie-dye of the Sixties still hasn’t rinsed off Woodstock and the Millbrook commune of Timothy Leary and Ram Dass. Today, Alex and Alllyson Grey’s Chapel of Sacred Mirrors showcases the glories of visionary art, inspired by psychedelics. With decriminalization, “New York can reclaim some of its psychedelic glory,” says Daniel Grauer, director of the Hudson Valley Psychedelic Society. The liberal enclave of New Paltz is so trippy that a satire site joked that it had a “High Trail,” where official placards commemorate historic “trips” to interdimensional portals and feelings of “a warm, selfless love for all living things.”
A Difficult Path?
But the path to reform in New York may come with its own hurdles, even in liberal towns like New Paltz, where council meetings include woke discussions of Native American rights and the opioid crisis. When activists from the Hudson Valley Psychedelic Society brought a psychedelic decriminalization initiative to the Village in March, the deputy mayor declined to even bring it up for discussion. She voiced worries that the resolution would be seen as supporting drug use, a message that could be taken the wrong way by the Village’s young people.
So while there is optimism among many advocates in New York, many others see a long road ahead.
“New York is progressive in some ways, but not in all ways,” says Linda B. Rosenthal, a state assembly member who sponsored a measure to decriminalize psilocybin. She points that the state was nine years behind Colorado on adult-use marijuana and nearly two decades behind California on medical. New York was home to the Rockefeller drug laws that set a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison for selling two ounces of cannabis, and stop-and-frisk, a New York City police program which disproportionately affected Black and Brown young men. But Rosenthal also knows that drug laws can and will change, just as the Rockefeller drug laws have been repealed and stop-and-frisk is now less common.
Rosenthal is working toward a Drug War truce, and she’s starting with mushrooms. She filed a bill that would remove psilocybin and psilocin (a metabolite of psilocybin) from the state’s list of controlled substances. Her bill argues that the drug “could assist cancer patients in combating anxiety and dark moods” and “help people struggling with substance use disorder, addiction to nicotine and anorexia nervosa.”
Lawyer Courtney Barnes said that Rosenthal’s bill is more sweeping that it appears. It would take psilocybin mushrooms out of the purview of the state completely. In others words, mushrooms wouldn’t be the state’s business to regulate at all, as long as they’re not being sold. (The feds, although, might still be interested.) So mushroom gatherings or ceremonies might not be any different, to state and local cops, from a chili cook off or a pie-eating contest or any other innocent upstate shindig, as long as no money is involved.
“I think in the next year we’re gonna have a bunch of towns and hopefully some counties pass entheogenic decriminalization legislation,” says Genuth. “In five years in New York State, I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to have made significant progress against the Drug War, including some sort of significant overall drug decriminalization that will include broad psychedelic access.”
Rosenthal, however, isn’t sure her bill will make it out of the health committee, noting that “the Drug War is far from over here.”
While Rosenthal says that she’s never tried mushrooms herself, she knows what it’s like to be different, and to seek refuge in New York. In 1939 just before the Holocaust, her parents escaped Germany and eventually settled on the Upper West Side, where Rosenthal’s dad Rudi made shirts and her mom Eva raised their children. Rosenthal thinks her family’s brush with history’s darkest cruelty sensitized her to the plight of the underdog—which is why she often writes legislation fighting for the forgotten, like workers who are undocumented, animals who are neglected, and, by proxy, reformers upstate working to create a place to seek a better life.