Army veteran urges California lawmakers to decriminalize psychedelic drugs
By ANDREW SHEELER | The Sacramento Bee | Published: April 7, 2021
SACRAMENTO (Tribune News Service) — Jose Martinez believes psychedelic drugs saved his life.
The 32-year-old U.S. Army veteran said he felt worthless and depressed when he returned from a deployment in Afghanistan, where he lost both legs and an arm after stepping on an improvised explosive device.
"I just wanted to disintegrate," Martinez told The Sacramento Bee in an interview.
Then, six years ago, he said he discovered psilocybin mushrooms. He credits them with bringing him back from the brink.
"I went back to surfing," said Martinez, who lives near San Bernardino. "It made me go from feeling worthless to feeling worthy of living this life."
On Tuesday, Martinez urged California lawmakers to help others like him by advancing a bill that would decriminalize psychedelic drugs like mushrooms and LSD. He told the Senate Public Safety Committee the therapies could be used to prevent suicides.
The committee voted to approve the bill, which now goes before the Senate Health Committee.
Under both state and federal law, possession of psychedelic drugs is illegal under most circumstances. Senate Bill 519, authored by State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, would decriminalize possession and sharing of several drugs, including ketamine, psilocybin, LSD and mescaline, for people 21 and older. The bill notably excludes peyote and GHB from decriminalization.
The bill also would create a state Department of Public Health working group that would be tasked with researching the regulation of psychedelic drugs and making recommendations to the Legislature.
Speaking in support of the bill, Wiener pointed out that California would be following in the footsteps of states like Oregon, and nations like Portugal, which have decriminalized possession of drugs.
The medical community in recent years has opened up to exploring the treatment possibilities of psychedelic drugs. The Department of Veterans Affairs is funding research into the effectiveness of psychedelics in treating post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans.
What worries law enforcement
The bill is opposed by several groups, including the California Narcotic Officers' Association and the Congress of Racial Equality.
John Lovell, a lobbyist who represents the California Narcotic Officers' Association, warned lawmakers that passage of the bill would carry lethal consequences.
"You're going to see dead bodies around this bill," he said in an interview with The Bee.
Lovell's primary concern with the bill centered on the term "social sharing," defined in the bill's language as "the giving away or consensual administering of mescaline by a person 21 years of age or older, to another person 21 years of age or older, not for financial gain, including in the context of group counseling, spiritual guidance, community-based healing, or related services."
Lovell said that decriminalizing social sharing of psychedelic drugs will open the door to accidental poisonings. He gave an example of someone taking what they think is ketamine, which actually is a powerful synthetic opioid such as fentanyl.
"The reality is that the sharing of pills, of medications, the social sharing, is fraught with enormous risk," Lovell said.
Tak Allen, president of the Congress of Racial Equality, pointed out to lawmakers that one of the drugs that would be decriminalized, ketamine, has a history of being used as a date rape drug.
"I would particularly be nervous for college students at this point," Allen said in an interview with The Bee.
'Ending the failed war on drugs'
The bill is supported by a variety of groups, including veterans groups Heroic Hearts Project and Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions, which are both so-sponsors of the legislation, as well as groups such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, also known as MAPS.
Ismail Ali, policy and advocacy counsel for MAPS, told The Bee that decriminalizing psychedelics "is a step toward ending the failed war on drugs and beginning the process of what a post-prohibition world looks like."
He said that decriminalizing social sharing is critical because the safest way to use psychedelics is in groups with a trained facilitator.
"Social sharing is really a way to acknowledge for some of these substances the use rarely occurs in personal context," he said.
Ali disputed the statement that decriminalizing ketamine would lead to a spike in drug-assisted sexual assaults.
"Alcohol is the most commonly used date rape drug and it's perfectly legal," he said.
Ali said that he would like to see more honest education about what psychedelic drugs actually do, but that this legislation would be a good first step.
"It's not the whole picture. It's not the silver bullet that's going to fix all our mental health problems. But it's a significant step."