Will California Become The First State To Decriminalize Psychedelic Mushrooms?

A recently submitted ballot initiative seeks to put the issue before the state's voters in 2018.

Kevin Saunders doesn’t believe the state of California should lock up people for offenses related to psychedelic mushrooms, a broad category of fungi that contains the psychoactive compound psilocybin.

Last week, the longtime medical marijuana advocate and dark horse mayoral candidate turned that position into a statewide campaign, submitting a ballot initiative on Friday that would decriminalize the use, possession, sale, transport and cultivation of the mushrooms for adults over 21. He’ll need to collect at least 365,880 valid voter signatures within 180 days of filing to qualify for next year’s ballot, where it would require a majority vote to pass.

Saunders is running for mayor in Marina, a beachside town about 100 miles south of San Francisco. He says the state’s 2016 vote to legalize cannabis is proof that Californians are ready to scale back harsh laws that consider mushrooms to be among the most dangerous drugs.

“What I want to do is take the shackles off. I want to have an adult conversation,” Saunders told the Sacramento Bee. “Not only are the soccer moms high now, but some of them are taking mushrooms.”

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times Saunders touted the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, which has shown promise as a treatment for a number of psychological disorders.

“I think we’re seeing something that could literally heal our brothers and sisters,” he said. “We’re talking about real cutting-edge stuff.”

Recent scientific studies suggest Saunders may be right. Last year, researchers published the results of two separate clinical trials on the effects of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy on patients with cancer-related anxiety and depression. All told, between 60 and 80 percent of the subjects showed clinically significant reductions in both conditions after treatment. Patients reported that the benefits of a single dose of psilocybin along with therapy lasted up to seven months, with minimal side effects.

Psilocybin has also frequently been cited as a potential treatment for addiction. Scientists are currently studying how psychedelic drugs like mushrooms might be used to tackle alcoholism and the opioid epidemic. Saunders claims a mushroom trip helped him quit using heroin 15 years ago.

Under federal law, psilocybin-containing mushrooms are classified as Schedule I drugs, considered to have a high potential for abuse and no legitimate medical purpose. Heroin, MDMA (or ecstasy), LSD and marijuana are also in this category.

There’s scant evidence to support such a classification for mind-altering mushrooms. They’re generally not regarded as addictive, and an international survey of drug users conducted last year found that mushrooms were the safest recreational drug, according to an assessment of related medical treatment.

Saunders is part of a growing movement against the longstanding prohibition on psychedelic drugs and in favor of a more open-minded examination of their therapeutic applications. Activists like Martin Ball, an Oregon professor, and Tom and Sheri Eckert, founders of the Oregon Psilocybin Society who are working to legalize psilocybin in their state, are among those that have joined this psychedelic renaissance.

But recent polling shows that a majority of Americans are also interested in unlocking the power of psychedelics. In a June survey conducted by YouGov, 63 percent of respondents said they support the use of psilocybin in additional medical trials. The same number said they would be willing to use psilocybin themselves if it were proven to be a safe treatment for depression or anxiety.

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