Oakland's Psychedelic Decriminalization Approved Unanimously by City Council
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A resolution passed unanimously by Oakland City Council on December 15 has once more put the city in the spotlight for its progressive policies surrounding the decriminalization of psychedelic substances. The measure actively urges Oakland’s leadership to work with the State of California to decriminalize, rather than legalize, entheogenic plants and fungi.
The Oakland state decriminalization resolution also urges the California legislature to allow citizens from local jurisdictions to hold community-based healing ceremonies with these plants and fungi without fear of arrest or prosecution from city or state authorities. Both goals are in line with a bill currently being drafted by California Senator Scott Wiener, who says he plans to bring the bill before the state legislature in 2021. The substances proposed for regulation under the bill are still illegal under federal law.
The resolution also paves the way for activist organization Decriminalize Nature and others to work with community groups and establish guidelines for conduct in eventual state and locally sanctioned ceremonies. This proposed regulatory framework would be developed through the Oakland Community Healing Initiative, or OCHI, a DN-authored ordinance that seeks to establish safe practices and guidelines for plant and fungi-based healing ceremonies. That move has some members of the city’s psychedelic community expressing concern about whether this proposed system gives DN too much say over the process of regulating ceremonies and who can hold them.
Decriminalization Versus Legalization
During the December 15 meeting, Councilmember and bill sponsor Noel Gallo, prompted by DN, shifted the resolution’s language, which originally called on Oakland to support the move to “decriminalize or legalize the possession and use of entheogenic plants and fungi” at the state level. The resolution was revised to include only the mention of decriminalization, not legalization.
The difference in the terms is important. Decriminalization of a substance means it’s still illegal, but the legal system won’t prosecute people for possession under a specific amount. Legalization, on the other hand, means that all legal prohibitions against it are removed, making it available for purchase and use by the general population. Deliberately using the word “decriminalization” rather than “legalization” reflects a backlash that ensued from California’s state legalization of cannabis. The pursuit of a state decriminalization strategy highlights advocates’ intentions to approach the use of these plants and fungi differently, positioning local communities to reap benefits instead of big businesses of the kind that moved into the cannabis market.
“The word ‘legalize’ could open these plants up to every huge business,” notes Gallo, comparing the effort to legalize cannabis that paved the way for state and national operators who started large cannabis operations in 2016. “When we legalized marijuana in Oakland, I had people from Colorado, Washington and all over the world come in and buy warehouses. Big business bought these properties to manufacture, grow and dispense cannabis through the neighborhoods.”
Carlos Plazola, co-founder of Decriminalize Nature, speaking in the public comment period of the City Council meeting, further illustrated the argument for decriminalization over legalization, saying: “We got it wrong with cannabis in that we legalized before decriminalizing. In order to solve the underlying problems of the community we have to figure out how to keep this in community.”
In a follow-up email to Lucid News, Plazola noted that “the final motion included an amendment to remove ‘or legalize’ from both the title and the text of the resolution in recognition by council that they wanted to make sure decriminalization occurred prior to, or simultaneously with, any legalization framework for psychedelics/entheogens.”
Cannabis legalization under state law forced Oakland to establish an equity process as city officials reckoned with the persecution of people of color imprisoned on marijuana charges in the racist application of drug laws. But state cannabis legalization also took money and agency out of the local side of the equation. “Those cannabis operators have already approached me about being able to sell and grow these plants,” says Gallo, further illustrating Plazola’s point. “They already have the facilities and monetary support to do it. [With legalization] it will become a business.”
With this resolution, Oakland, which has already set an example for other cities in the U.S., as well as for California’s state legislature, has further clarified support for statewide decriminalization initiatives, such as the one Senator Wiener plans to introduce in 2021. Like Gallo, Wiener wants “to pass good policy around psychedelics,” and is working with various groups, including DN, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Native American stakeholders, and the Drug Policy Alliance, to find common ground. As with other recent initiatives around psychedelics, peyote will not be included in the bill.
“We haven’t ironed out the details,” says Wiener, “but our goal is decriminalization. We’re interested in allowing cities to have the ability to set up their own programs and structures.” He echoes Gallo and Plazola on the issues that come with legalization, saying, “We want to avoid some of the challenges we had with cannabis legalization, where big corporations came in and people who had been involved for many years were pushed out.”
Structures for Local Regulation
Like Oakland’s leadership, Wiener and other supporters of statewide decriminalization legislation share a goal of allowing local jurisdictions to develop regulations for who can provide psychedelic plants and fungi in their local community. But what these regulator frameworks look like isn’t clear just yet. “This is all a work in progress,” Wiener explains. “We want to create some sort of process over the next several years to bring experts and stakeholders together to determine how to best guide therapists. We want to have knowledgeable and expert people helping guide these experiences, so we’re looking at that as an element of the bill.”
According to Wiener, the end result will be “broad-based and inclusive,” and will take some cues from the precedent set by state cannabis legalization. “In some of our cannabis work, we’ve done a lot with veterans and opioid addiction, for example,” he says. “With psychedelics, we have a real opportunity to help a lot of people who are really struggling and could benefit from this form of medicine.”
Ultimately, Wiener sees psychedelic decriminalization as a necessary move to reach eventual decriminalization of other substances that are currently illegal under state law. “I support the broad decriminalization of drug possession and use,” he says. “Psychedelic decriminalization isn’t a substitute for that. It’s a step in that direction, and I hope we get to it sooner rather than later.”
“A Mental Health Emergency”
Gallo has long been familiar with traditional medicines. “I grew up with my grandmother, who was from Mexico,” says Gallo. “We never went to Walgreens or to the doctor. She used yerbas buenas – good herbs – in the backyard and made teas from them. When Carlos [Plazola] came to me with the issue of decriminalizing entheogens, I was already familiar with what was at stake. The other half of my family is Native American – Pueblo Indian – as well.”
Gallo’s heritage makes him a natural fit to bring the latest resolution to the City Council. Gallo and DN leadership have aligned to recognize what they see as an unprecedented need for broader community access to psychedelic medicines due to trauma in Oakland’s communities.
“The reality is that within the homeless population in Oakland, as well as in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities, we have some really serious mental situations,” says Gallo. “And people aren’t going to be lined up at Walgreens to get the drugs they need, but they could look for other ways to serve our conditions. For me, that access is important. What I see today with people’s mental challenges is unbelievable. People don’t have a place to live or work and wind up on the street.”
For Gallo, the most important aspects of the resolution are linked to community healing. “We’ve already been doing community ceremonies,” he explains, pointing to the Indigenous Red Market, which was held every Sunday in Oakland before the pandemic. The market elevated native artists, designers and entrepreneurs and raised awareness of their wares and services. Indigenous healers also offered traditional medicines, including plants and fungi at the market.
“We had Native American entertainers and vendors from across the nation who would come sing, dance and sell their goods,” says Gallo. “At a couple of tents they were selling these plants and mushrooms. For many of us, this is part of a healing process, especially for those of us who have dealt with depression and other mental issues.”
According to Gallo, the Oakland City Council resolution seeks to officially protect what has been happening already in the city with the availability of psychedelic substances. “It’s been clear to our police department that this isn’t a priority,” says Gallo, noting that fire marshals and police chiefs attend the markets. “This is a continuation of that, to make it known in our record books that we can use these plants for ceremonies.”
The Oakland Community Healing Initiative established by the City Council will create community guidelines for those ceremonies. Gallo believes that “the users will come together and formulate a direction, not only how and why you use it but in terms of its sale. I’d rather have people in that business already making those decisions.”
Gallo envisions a cooperative dialogue between many voices in the development of these guidelines, including community health centers like the Native American Health Center (NAHC) and La Clínica de la Raza. “There always will be some disagreement with a group or with individuals,” he adds. “But this is really about how you educate and inform people on the benefits of these medicines.”
Noah Gallo, the NAHC’s Social and Human Services Coordinator, who is also Noel Gallo’s son, is optimistic about the effects the resolution could have, particularly its ripples at the state level. He also notes that much of the attention right now is going to Covid-19. “The general consensus is that everyone is for it,” he says. “But we’re funded through the county, so we’re waiting to see what gets approved at the state level.”
The NAHC clinic serves about 15,000 clients total, many of whom are Indigenous, and offers classes on the topic of traditional plants and medicines. Currently, though, “a lot of clients go back to reservation to learn more about that,” Noah Gallo explains.
Few Opposing Voices But Optimism For Next Steps
Some of Plazola’s past actions, including publication of confidential correspondence between himself and other activists, have complicated conversations surrounding decriminalization of psychedelics.
Privately, psychedelic activists question DN’s role drafting future regulations for local use. Plazola’s public disagreement with prominent philanthropist David Bronner and opposition by local DN groups to Oregon Measures 109 and 101 was reported by Lucid News.
No public comments about Plazola’s tactics were aired during Oakland’s City Council meeting. Public commenters during the meeting, who included Plazola, DN co-founder Larry Norris, DN ally Susana Valadez, and several voices from the activist, research and scientific communities, expressed complete support for the resolution, as well as the removal of “legalization” from the language.
Lucid News reached out to members of the San Francisco Psychedelic Society and the Sacred Garden Community, as well as local activists for comment on the resolution and DN’s role in the community, but they did not respond or declined to comment on record. Plazola and DN co-founder Larry Norris also did not address questions about whether DN has alienated some members of the area’s psychedelic community.
Plazola presents himself as outside of the established psychedelic activist community. But his familiarity with the workings of Oakland city politics is informed by his background as a real estate developer and former Chief of Staff and advisor on economic development to the Oakland City Council President under Jerry Brown’s mayoral term, positioning him advantageously, according to Oakland attorney, activist, and former City Attorney James Anthony.
“He does have both working class roots and business and political experience,” says Anthony, who worked with Plazola at City Hall. “He gets shit done. That’s what it means to be a property developer, especially in a place like Oakland. There are a lot of layers and regulations to go through, and if you’re careful and methodical, things get built.”
“There tend to be just a few angles people are coming from in the psychedelic world,” observes Anthony. “Traditional lineages, policy think tank people and activists. And then, wham – out of nowhere comes a businessman who’s savvy about local politics. DN certainly brings a different voice to drug policy reform, so that’s useful and interesting.”
“The drug policy movement gets to be an echo chamber after a while,” says Anthony. “Because DN isn’t part of the longstanding drug policy reform community of the last 20 years or longer, it brings a fresh perspective. And by having to learn the vocabulary, it challenges concepts and assumptions that underlie the movement’s thinking that aren’t usually questioned,” including, for example, the distinctions between decriminalization and legalization.
Anthony stresses that separating these two legislative strategies could be key to the future of psychedelic medicine in Oakland and the state. “There’s something to be said for not rushing into a massively overregulated, overtaxed top-down structure as we’ve seen in the world of cannabis,” says Anthony. “And since we’re talking about facilitated experience, there are many existing communities of facilitators that have been around for decades, and there is now more and more demand for their services, especially among the most vulnerable populations, which are not going to be served by a massive top-down, profit-making enterprise.”
Anthony points out that Oakland’s initial decriminalization legislation, passed in 2019, was largely symbolic. “Two years ago there was a resolution that was a solution to a non-existent problem,” he says. “And it sparked thousands of grassroots activists all over the country. It’s interesting to try to figure that out. Symbols are important and that resolution was a very resonant symbol. Now Oakland is trying to figure out how to do the next thing.”
In Anthony’s view, the most recent resolution “is a well meaning attempt to figure out something Oakland can do at the city level, from the ground up.” He argues that “this resolution actually does something. It directs the city to lobby the state legislature. And because they amended it to remove legalization and emphasize decriminalization in the way they did, that is a very specific position to take, and that’ll be one voice in the mix.”
Anthony and others are now looking ahead, waiting to see how the future will be shaped by resolutions such as the one passed by the Oakland City Council. “What’s next in Sacramento?” he asks. “What’s next in Oakland? In some ways nobody knows how culture change happens. That’s really what we’re talking about.”