The movement to reform America’s outdated drug laws hit a big snag this week as the activist group Decriminalize California was forced to end its campaign to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms due to COVID-19.
To get its initiative on the state’s 2020 ballot, Decriminalize California needed to gather nearly 625,000 signatures by April 21. The campaign’s signature drive started strong, but that momentum evaporated due to the unexpected outbreak of COVID-19, which has made it virtually impossible for canvassers to gather signatures while obeying the state’s social distancing order.
“Today was the deadline to submit 623,212 valid signatures to the state of California to qualify for the November ballot and we never made it even close to that count because of COVID-19,” Ryan Munevar, the campaign director for Decriminalize California, wrote in an email to supporters on April 21. “As of yet we have not received a single indication that the California government will allow for an extension or electronic signatures.”
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The State of California currently upholds the federal prohibition of psilocybin, which is classified alongside heroin as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. That means the federal government sees psilocybin as a drug that has “no currently accepted medical use” and “a high potential for abuse.”
Both of those definitions have become outdated in light of recent research, which shows that psilocybin has several potential medical uses. The FDA has even put synthetic psilocybin on the fasttrack to become a prescription medication in assisted psychotherapy for depression, once the drug development phase is complete.
“The biggest misconception [about psilocybin] is that it’s an addictive drug,” Matthew Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral studies at Johns Hopkins University, told Healthline last year.
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“The classic psychedelics like psilocybin are really a different creature, compared to virtually all the other classes of abused drugs,” he added. “So, it can be abused, which is to say it can be used in a way that’s dangerous to the individual or the people around them. But we do know that it’s not a drug of addiction….It doesn’t have the reliable euphoria and associated dopamine response that you see with most of the other drugs of abuse, which are addictive. Someone can use it dangerously, but no one’s jonesing for their next fix.”
In other words, psilocybin does not have a “high potential for abuse” like heroin and other addictive drugs. In fact, magic mushrooms can help people kick their addiction to other, more toxic substances, according to Johnson’s research, which found that psilocybin is more effective than nicotine patches at helping smokers overcome addiction. “[P]silocybin is roughly doubling the success rates of nicotine replacement, which is great,” he told Healthline.
Psilocybin is also the subject of vast research, exploring its efficacy in combating serious conditions like treatment-resistant depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, alcoholism and “end of life distress”. With each successful study, science is slowly chipping away at the federal government’s justification for psilocybin prohibition.
The Decriminalize California campaign tried to speed up that process by changing the state’s approach to magic mushrooms. If passed, the campaign’s ballot initiative would’ve prevented anyone in California who is 18 or older from being charged with cultivating or possessing magic mushrooms for personal, spiritual, religious or dietary use. It would’ve also legalized the production, distribution, sale and consumption of psilocybin for medicinal or therapeutic use within the state.
Having missed the signature deadline, the campaign is effectively over—for now. Decriminalize California intends to revive the initiative for the next election cycle. Moreover, the campaign vowed to push the state of California to accept electronic signatures for ballot initiatives so that this problem doesn’t happen again.
Despite not getting on the ballot for this November, the Decriminalize California campaign is nonetheless proud of their efforts.
Until COVID, the campaign was indeed very successful. “Our initiative has the best language of any decriminalization/legalization drug reform initiative out there and we worked on that with some of the best people from the cannabis industry to avoid all the pitfalls that cannabis legalization has created,”Paul Antico, the campaign’s communications director, told DoubleBlind via email. “[W]e involved and mobilized over 1000 volunteers through the state of California. We ran sold out ‘how to grow mushrooms’ classes up and down the state, educating and spreading the word about the safety of psilocybin mushrooms as well as the many potential benefits possible with responsible use.”
Antico says Decriminalize California will be able to build on this base for the next election cycle. “These things take time and we are moving forward,” he added.
There’s no denying that having to end the 2020 campaign early is disheartening for Decriminalize California, but Antico stressed that they are not at all discouraged by this setback.
“While the virus situation was disappointing, we are rooted in the bigger picture of a longer game,” he said. “Like a mushroom journey where one gets what one needs more so than what one wants, we know how to ride the energy of the present and what life presents us. The date for the ultimate vote is moved ahead and that gives us more time, which is useful in this uncertain virus situation. We are comfortable with the uncertainty as we move forward toward our goal of decriminalizing and legalizing these mushrooms.”
The campaign also took a moment this week to thank the tireless volunteers who kept the initiative alive for as long as they could.
“[Y]ou are some of the craziest, coolest, most brilliant people I have ever met and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for going this far on the journey with me,” campaign director Ryan Munevar said in an email to supporters on April 21. “I hope you have enough energy for the next wave because it’s going to be a big one.”
James McClure is a journalist, playwright and scholar based in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada who specializes in cannabis culture, international drug policy, hockey and English literature. His work has appeared in Civilized, Mental Floss and other publications.