SANTA CRUZ — At first glance, it looked like an ordinary gardening workshop. On a table at the front of the room sat soil additives, humidity detectors and an oyster mushroom the size of a grapefruit.
“This is a younger shiitake mycelium,” said instructor Will Goss, passing around a bag of wood chips covered in thin white filaments. He then described how to grow the rootlike mycelium from spores and coax it into producing mushrooms. All of the people who attended the workshop were provided with their own grow kits, but they were told they needed to find their own spores.
That’s because they weren’t learning how to grow shiitakes. They were finding out how to cultivate psychedelic mushrooms — illegal to possess under state and federal laws.
The workshop at Santa Cruz’s Louden Nelson Community Center was sponsored by Decriminalize California, a statewide group of activists like Goss who are not only seeking to raise awareness about the use of psychedelic mushrooms but also to persuade California voters to support a November ballot measure that would legalize the hallucinogenic fungi.
Goss, a longtime fungi enthusiast, believes education is the best way to influence public perceptions of the drug and inform people of its potential benefits.
“This is potent medicine we’re talking about,” he said.
Denver last year became the first U.S. city to decriminalize the possession and use of psychedelic mushrooms. Oakland quickly followed, expanding its resolution to include all hallucinogenic plants, including ayahuasca and peyote. And similar campaigns have popped up in dozens of cities across the country — including Santa Cruz, where the City Council in late January voted unanimously to pass a resolution calling on police to not spend city funds to pursue drug charges for the use or possession of all psychedelic fungi and plants.
But Goss’ group is aiming much higher. Its initiative would not only legalize the possession and use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, but also allow commercial sales and distribution of the drug across the Golden State.
For its measure to appear on November’s ballot, the group will need to gather at least 623,212 signatures of registered voters by June 6.
Ryan Munevar, director of the initiative campaign, said nearly a thousand volunteers are now collecting signatures throughout California. Paid signature gatherers will be deployed later in the campaign if needed, funded in part by David Bronner, cosmic engagement officer of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps.
If the measure qualifies for the ballot, it is expected to be fiercely opposed by law enforcement groups, parent organizations and many of the same groups that fought Proposition 64, the 2016 initiative that legalized the possession and sale of recreational marijuana.
Used for thousands of years by indigenous groups in North and Central America, psychedelic mushrooms were popularized in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when they were commonly called “magic mushrooms” and “shrooms.” But they were banned in 1970 when psilocybin and psilocin, the two main psychoactive compounds, were listed as Schedule 1 drugs under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act.
Hallucinogenic mushrooms aren’t nearly as popular as marijuana, but advocates of the proposed initiative say they should be decriminalized because they’re not addictive, have few harmful side effects and don’t have the cultural stigma of Schedule 1 drugs such as methamphetamine.
In addition, scientists who research psychedelic drugs are increasingly touting the potential therapeutic benefits of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
Psilocybin’s chemical structure is similar to that of serotonin, a chemical that affects stress levels and mood. While the way psilocybin affects the brain is still being studied, clinical trials at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore suggest that the chemical may be effective against substance abuse, anxiety and depression.
“By opening pathways in the brain,” psilocybin “may allow someone to be in a state of mind where they can learn new behavioral patterns and temporarily feel a reset in their thinking,” said Alli Feduccia, a researcher at the Santa Cruz-based Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies.
Feduccia recently co-founded Project New Day, a group that supports research into psychedelics and the creation of psychedelic-assisted group therapy for addiction — think Alcoholics Anonymous with hallucinogenic mushrooms.
“We don’t believe that it’s just the substance itself that can help people overcome addiction or overcome mental health conditions. It’s a combination of the therapeutic approach and the integration that comes after,” said Feduccia, who holds a doctorate of neuropharmacology from the University of Texas at Austin. “Having a group of peers to support that process — that’s really where the transformation comes in.”
Law enforcement groups, however, say legalizing the sale of hallucinogenic plants would have disastrous consequences.
“This is a horrible concept aimed only at increasing crime and despair,” said Ronald Lawrence, president of the California Police Chiefs Association. “It only stands to increase drug dependency for individuals, and it’s an absolutely inhumane way of addressing addiction issues within our state.”
Carlos Plazola, who spearheaded the Oakland effort to relax the city’s enforcement of mushroom laws, noted that police there were “very supportive” of the local resolution, in large part because the Oakland Police Department had made only a dozen arrests involving hallucinogenic mushrooms in a recent five-year period.
But Lawrence, the police chief in Citrus Heights in Sacramento County, said he believes decriminalization of the drug will increase homelessness, street crime and the illegal drug trade.
“With something of this magnitude, a ballot initiative is not the right way to go,” he said. “At least let it go filter through the legislative process and have the debate occur and have the science come into this. Have the public safety professionals weigh in and have all the facts presented.”
Although the initiative campaign shows clear parallels to Prop. 64, Munevar said the legal cannabis industry is not a model Decriminalize California wants to follow.
The mushroom initiative, for example, stipulates that no excise or sales taxes may be added to psychedelic mushrooms — unlike cannabis, which is heavily taxed at both the state and local levels. That, Munevar said, means legal cannabis is far more expensive than it should be, making the drug inaccessible to many Californians.
In the case of mushrooms, he said, the ease of cultivation will ensure that everyone has access to a homegrown product.
Added Munevar: “A person can produce psychedelic mushrooms for themselves, their significant other, their family, their friends and their neighbor lady who they want to get tomatoes from for about 125 bucks a year.”
Since last spring, a movement to decriminalize hallucinogenic fungi and plants has been gaining steam.
- In May, the Denver City Council passed a resolution stating that the use and possession of mushrooms by people 21 years old and older will be “the city’s lowest law-enforcement priority.”
- In June, the Oakland City Council passed a similar resolution that also included “entheogenic plants,” a term that includes mescaline-containing cacti and plants used in ayahuasca, a traditional brew popular in South America.
- In November, Oregon activists began gathering signatures for a proposed statewide ballot initiative that would allow the use of psychedelic mushrooms under the guidance of state-licensed therapists.
- In December, a separate group of activists in Portland, Oregon, announced plans for a ballot initiative that would legalize the possession, use and limited sales of hallucinogenic fungi and plants in the city.
- On Jan. 6, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra issued the official summary of a November ballot measure that would make California the first state in the country to allow the widespread sale and distribution of all psychedelic fungi and plants.
- On Jan. 28, Santa Cruz became the third U.S. city in the country to decriminalize psychedelic fungi and plants, passing a resolution similar to Oakland’s.
Source: Bay Area News Group reporting