A project to decriminalize natural psychedelics that lingered for three years in the Berkeley City Council will come back to life in a few weeks. But unlike other jurisdictions that have taken steps to chip away at the national and state ban on psychedelics, Berkeley is about to consider an even broader proposal: one that could make it the first in the U.S. to decriminalize LSD.
Of the 15 U.S. cities that have softened restrictions on psychedelics, none has included this synthetic hallucinogen. Berkeley Community Health Commissioners Joseph Holcomb Adams and Karma Smart explained that the logic for decriminalizing LSD is that it meets the technical definition of psychedelics. And in their view, said Smart, “nobody deserves to go to jail for having a psychedelic experience.”
Berkeley’s resolution was initially drafted by the Oakland-based nonprofit Decriminalize Nature in 2019, and proposed decriminalizing only natural psychedelics, such as psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, and mescaline cacti. The resolution spent two years in the hands of the city’s Community Health Commission (CHC), one of 22 civil commissions advising the City Council. Over the last year, Adams and Smart, the two commissioners appointed to study it, entirely rewrote it. If approved by the City Council, the personal consumption of psychedelics will cease to be criminalized in Berkeley; sharing, giving, or distributing psychedelics will, however, continue to be crimes.
Because of these changes, Decriminalize Nature now opposes the project and expects that, if the project reaches the City Council, the original version will be discussed. This will be known on Tuesday when the CHC decides on whether or not to refer the resolution to the City Council for a final vote.
But the resolution’s introduction alone would make Berkeley the first city to officially renounce decades of social stigma around the consumption of LSD.
Psychedelics use has surged
Back in the 1960s, when LSD left clinical trials and melded with popular culture, it caused what historian Erika Dyck has called the “acid panic.” “LSD became a symbol of an emergent youth counterculture,” wrote Dyck in her book Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from Clinic to Campus. It was seen “as a catalyst for a cultural revolution whereby a drug-crazed generation of North American youth would steer the world into a future of chaos and immorality. “
But in recent years, the use of psychedelics has surged all over the U.S.
The last National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, found that in 2020 2.6 million Americans used hallucinogens, including LSD, MDMA, and natural psychedelics such as peyote, psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca. That figure was 400,000 more people than in 2019, and 800,000 more than in 2015, when the NSDUH began asking about hallucinogens.
LSD has followed this trend. According to a study from Columbia University, published three months ago in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction, LSD use among U.S. adults in 2019 was four times what it was in 2002.
When Berkeley’s decriminalization resolution was first drafted in the summer of 2019, it did not mention psychedelic drugs. Instead, it spoke of entheogenic plants and fungi, a more specialized name for natural psychedelics, which refers to their ability to induce mystical and spiritual experiences.
The resolution followed the pattern that Decriminalize Nature used in the 14 other cities — including Oakland and San Francisco — where they have successfully lobbied for decriminalizing natural psychedelics. It stated that no public funds would be invested in persecuting adults for possessing one of these plants, and it lowered the law-enforcement priority of investigating and arresting those who plant, cultivate, consume, share, purchase, transport, or distribute the plants.
That alone doesn’t make psychedelics legal, as California state laws still forbid their use.
“We don’t need to legalize air, we don’t need to legalize sunlight, we don’t need to legalize water,” said Larry Norris, co-founder of Decriminalize Nature. “Like mushrooms that grow on the ground, they’re just things that exist in the environment. And if there’s no crime against having them, then you shouldn’t have to legalize it.”
A few weeks after Decriminalize Nature and Councilmember Rigel Robinson wrote the resolution back in July 2019, the City Council requested a report from the Community Health Commission. The CHC created a special subcommittee to study the project, but in early 2020 halted activities due to COVID-19 as the Commission’s resources were redirected to the pandemic response.
When subcommittee members Adams, a bioethicist, and Smart, a public health advocate, reconvened to assess the resolution earlier this year, they were worried that it enabled the unregulated buying and selling of psychedelics, and that it had neither a health angle nor a harm reduction strategy.
They began by erasing the references to entheogenic plants. “What we are calling here entheogenic plants and fungi is psychedelic drugs,” said Adams, who has written for the psychedelic-specialized DoubleBlind magazine and worked for the Ketamine Research Foundation and the William G. Nash Foundation, which advocates for safety and harm reduction strategies in psychedelic consumption. “Entheogenic plants is just sugarcoating for psychedelics.”
That change had consequences. The new proposal defines psychedelic drugs as those substances that stimulate “a specific subtype of serotonin receptor (5-HT2A)” in the brain. That definition covers all of what scientists call classical psychedelics, which include psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline, DMT, ayahuasca and LSD.
“Basically, we’re grouping these compounds based on shared pharmacology and effects,” Adams said.
With this definition, ibogaine, the psychoactive compound in iboga trees, was left out of the project, since it does not work on the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor.
They also excluded peyote, which would have been decriminalized in the previous version of the resolution. The decision followed a request by the National Council of Native American Churches, which issued a written statement with the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative last year asking all cities considering decriminalization to exempt the cactus to ensure its preservation.
“Broken treaties in this land, the preciousness of native traditions, ecological threats to the medicine itself, and the importance of spiritual respect in its use makes peyote a tenuous plant to include explicitly in any decriminalization effort,” the statement said.
Law enforcement, DAs opposed failed bill
The revised resolution aims to prevent what commissioners called “gray markets” by keeping sharing, giving, distributing, and transferring psychedelics illegal in Berkeley and not deprioritizing its persecution. Adams said the Commission hopes the regulation will prevent the pop-ups and informal markets that have emerged in Oakland and other jurisdictions. “We want to, at least for the time being, avoid those unintended consequences,” he said.
The new version also calls on the city to work with external organizations to provide psychedelic education and harm-reduction strategies, which might involve companies such as the Fireside Project, a peer-support hotline that provides emotional support during or after a psychedelic experience, and DanceSafe, a nonprofit that educates people in concerts and other cultural events for a safe and responsible drug use.
Last year, law enforcement groups and the California District Attorneys Association opposed a bill to decriminalize psychedelics in California. The bill did not pass.
Decriminalize Nature does not support the new initiative and its leaders hope the City Council will consider the original resolution, sponsored by the organization. “The rewritten resolution by the Community Health Commission has a lot of unnecessary complexity, requests, and edits and changes the essence of the original resolution, which has proven to be a successful and effective policy,” said Norris.
“We believe the simplicity of the original version, removing criminal penalties for growing, gathering, and gifting of natural entheogenic plants and fungi and practices, will have a better chance of passing at council.”
Councilmember Robinson, who was re-elected for another term, said he will “review” the resolution when it “comes back to council.”
Adams, on the other side, believes that if the new version passes, it may have far-reaching implications.
“Our society’s the beginning of this whole conversation,” he said.
Juan Pablo Pérez-Burgos is a Colombian writer and journalist. He has covered transitional justice, conflict, corruption, and politics in Colombia’s first independent media outlet, La Silla Vacía, and now is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism.