Our California communities are gripped by an unprecedented addiction crisis. We lose 18 of our neighbors to overdoses every single day. Addiction also creates generational trauma within our families that manifests as violent crime and disillusionment with society at large. Folks who fall into substance use as a way to cope with trauma come from virtually every walk of life — nurses, veterans, first responders, and everyone in between. Luckily, the city of Berkeley is offering a path forward.
As a police officer who grew up and served for over three decades in San Francisco, I strongly support the measure before the Berkeley City Council to officially make arrests for possession of all psychedelics, including LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, the lowest priority of law enforcement. This measure goes above and beyond similar measures passed in San Francisco and Oakland by requiring Berkeley to work with community partners to promote caution and collect data to inform the work of public health officials.
This will be a huge win for mental health in the Bay Area. Designated as a breakthrough therapy by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), psilocybin mushrooms have been proven to alleviate depression and anxiety by over two decades of clinical trials. These benefits are underscored by a study of 44,000 Americans in the U.S. Journal of Psychopharmacology, which found that a single use of psilocybin mushrooms is associated with a 40% reduced risk of having an addiction to opioids.
LSD, which is similar to psilocybin on a molecular level just with longer-lasting effects, was shown by a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology to substantially reduce addiction to alcohol. A study of 200,000 U.S. inmates showed the single use of a psychedelic substantially reduces the likelihood of reoffending, especially for those with a substance use issue. In the big picture, this suggests that Berkeley’s embrace of personal decriminalization will yield long-term benefits for public safety by way of mental health.
This measure will also promote harm reduction to keep our community safe. Officers in our community are frequently called to scenes where people are acting belligerent from the excessive use of alcohol or have tragically succumbed to overdose from opiates. However, serving in the dense, urban Tenderloin neighborhood for decades where crime tends to spill across the bay, I never once witnessed psychedelics posing a serious risk to public safety. I have never seen someone acting belligerently on psychedelics. I have never seen anyone overdose on them, either.
And yet, Berkeley’s measure is critical because, as neighboring San Francisco and Oakland have decriminalized the sharing of these substances (which Berkeley’s measure would not do), none have taken the necessary steps to promote careful dosing and harm reduction. Berkeley is taking a cautious and informed step forward by only decriminalizing possession of LSD as well as personal cultivation and possession of psilocybin. In this sense, Berkeley’s actions will force other cities nationwide to reflect on how decriminalization policies should be coupled with robust data collection and education.
Removing criminal penalties for personal use of psychedelics also presents an opportunity to help public servants who protect our communities, often at the expense of their own mental health and well-being. From police officers, firefighters, and first responders suffering post-traumatic stress from witnessing human suffering to our veterans returning home with severe traumas, psychedelics represent a lifeline. It is morally unacceptable for our California communities to let two veterans take their lives every day, and dozens of first responders take their lives every year for lack of treatment options.
The Berkeley City Council has the choice to end prohibition of these life-saving tools and refocus public safety resources on the underlying traumas that drive crime. To restore hope and healing in our communities, we must demand an end to this pointless war on drugs to instead prioritize public health. Berkeley, with its robust protections, should lead the way.
Sgt. Carl Tennenbaum (retired) served for 32 years with the San Francisco Police Department, including roles as an undercover narcotics officer and D.A.R.E program instructor. As a sergeant, he also served as the commander of the San Francisco Housing Authority Community Policing Team that oversaw quality of life and crime issues across thousands of public housing property units.