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Why efforts to legalize mushrooms in California aren't making progress

A vendor packages psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis market in Los Angeles on May 24, 2019. State Senator Scott Wiener says he will propose a therapy bill again next year similar to the one that failed this year.

Richard Vogel/Associated Press

As a former Army Ranger, Jesse Gould is used to lawmakers thanking him for his service. But those well-wishes ring hollow after Sacramento lawmakers rejected a proposal to legalize psychedelic drugs for therapeutic use that could have helped veterans with PTSD and other ailments.

It's the third time the Legislature or Gov. Gavin Newsom has killed a bill to legalize psychedelics, and this time it comes months after a campaign to decriminalize psychedelics failed to collect enough signatures to get on the November ballot.

Advocates are baffled and frustrated by the rejections and are pondering what their next move will be in a state that has been a leader in drug policy since legalizing medical cannabis nearly three decades ago but has failed to make a breakthrough on psychedelics.

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Gould, who now advocates for veterans' interests, said there is little time to lose for the war veterans and first responders battling debilitating mental health issues. The Food and Drug Administration has designated psilocybin as a “breakthrough therapy” for treatment-resistant depression, a sign that even the federal government recognizes its potential therapeutic value. In June, the agency released its first guidelines for researchers interested in using psilocybin for medical treatments.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans struggling with mental health issues commit nearly 18 suicides each day, 72 percent more than non-military adults.

Gould is frustrated that while lawmakers pay lip service to honoring veterans, “when we actually show them ways they can help us or at least stem the tide of suicides that are hurting the veteran community, there's nothing there,” says Gould, who founded the Heroic Hearts Foundation to support veterans after using psychedelics to ease his own mental health issues following his military service.

What is particularly disappointing about this defeat, says Gould, is “that there is nothing else. It's not as if the politicians who rejected this bill had some kind of magical plan to help veterans.”

The bill, SB 1012, which failed to advance to a Senate vote this month, would have allowed Californians over the age of 21 to use certain psychedelic drugs in a therapeutic context under the supervision of a licensed and trained facilitator. There is a possibility the bill could be reintroduced through a gut-and-amend process.

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Even if it did, it would face the same financial challenges as trying to create a new state regulatory infrastructure in a year when California has a $27.6 billion budget deficit, despite the state making $17 billion in cuts last month. A Senate analysis found that SB 1012 would incur “unknown significant ongoing costs, likely in the low millions.”

Even this relatively small amount of Newsom's proposed $288 billion budget was not cut, perhaps because it was partly a new program.

“I firmly believe that the bill was shelved because of cost and because we have a huge budget deficit and so a lot of costly bills were shelved in a terrible fiscal year,” said Senator Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat who has advocated for the legalization of psychedelics for four years.

Wiener doesn’t give up.

Last year, Wiener authored a bill to decriminalize psychedelics. The bill made it to Newsom's desk, but the governor issued what Wiener called a “thoughtful veto.”

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Newsom has spoken about his friendships with veterans and said he knows how psychedelics are used to treat PTSD. In his veto message, he saw psychedelic research and treatment as “an exciting area, and California will be at the forefront of that,” before calling for legislation this year that would include “therapeutic guidelines.” In 2016, Newsom led the campaign to legalize recreational cannabis in California.

To meet Newsom's demand, Wiener narrowed the focus of his proposed legislation this year, moving from calling for the decriminalization of psychedelics to focusing instead on using them solely for therapeutic purposes under the supervision of licensed professionals.

The measure garnered bipartisan support, particularly for its potential to help veterans, from lawmakers such as Republican Senate Leader Brian Jones, who represents parts of veteran-rich San Diego County.

While Jones supports the limited use of psychedelics for therapeutic purposes, he is not in favor of decriminalizing them and understands why some lawmakers are reluctant to do so.

“Some people, of course, put it in the same category as all other illegal drugs and don't take the steps to actually test psychedelics to see if they have any benefit,” Jones said. “That's the easiest way. I understand that. I mean, I would have done that too if I hadn't had that relationship with the veterans in San Diego.”

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Jones was referring to the work of Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions, a five-year-old San Diego-based organization that has helped obtain grants for more than 1,000 veterans to receive psychedelic drugs in therapeutic settings to treat mental health issues.

Because these substances are illegal in most parts of the U.S., patients typically have to leave the country “they were willing to die for” to receive this treatment, said Amber Capone, co-founder of VETS. Her husband, Marcus, is a military veteran who found relief from his mental health issues through the therapeutic use of psychedelics.

“We believed that California could lead the way and set an example for other states across the country in creating a legal framework that would provide veterans with safe and effective access to these therapies,” said Amber Capone.

Thinking of all the veterans who take their lives every day, Capone said, “For us, time is of the essence.”

But the next political step is still in flux.

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Supporters aren't sure yet whether to try again to put a bill on the ballot in 2026. It cost about $12 million to collect enough signatures to put a bill on the ballot in 2022, and that number is expected to rise by 2026. Even if a psychedelics-related bill were to make it to the ballot, a campaign would need another $10 million.

“It is very expensive to qualify a ballot proposal and then spend money to get it through,” said Wiener. “You really have to have the means and a broad coalition to do it. And our coalition will have to make this assessment.”

Regardless, Wiener promised to resubmit a therapy bill next year similar to the one that failed this year.

“If you're committed to the issue, just keep going and eventually you'll get there,” Wiener said. “It's an issue that's very close to my heart.”

Reach Joe Garofoli: jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @joegarofoli

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