Berkeley Community Health Commission Mulls Decriminalizing Psychedelics

Commissioners seemed curious but skeptical about the proposed resolution.

The crowd was abnormally large on Thursday night at the South Berkeley Senior Center.

Packed into a small conference room, nearly 30 people turned out on Nov. 21 to show support for a resolution seeking to decriminalize entheogenic plants in Berkeley. Led by the nonprofit group Decriminalize Nature, the measure’s success would follow in the footsteps of the city of Oakland, which passed a nearly identical resolution on June 4.

The term “entheogenic” speaks to a range of plants known for their psychoactive properties, a group which includes psilocybin mushrooms, Ayahuasca, iboga (a shrub native to West Africa), and cacti like peyote. In 1970, they were all federally classified as Schedule 1 controlled substances under the Nixon Administration’s Controlled Substances Act.

Currently, Decriminalize Nature is working, one city at a time, to restore the rights of individuals to grow and consume entheogenic plants. Following their success in Oakland this summer, the group is now looking to achieve similar results in Berkeley, Chicago, Dallas, Portland, and Santa Cruz. A separate but similar initiative spearheaded by SPORE saw Denver decriminalize psilocybin (the psychoactive compound found in some species of mushrooms) in May.

In September, Berkeley City Council’s Public Safety Committee voted unanimously in favor of sending Decriminalize Nature’s proposed resolution to the Berkeley Community Health Commission (BCHC). It is now up to the commission — comprised of Berkeley citizens — to decide whether to give the measure their recommendation before the City Council holds a final vote.

During the public comment period that preceded Decriminalize Nature’s official presentation, four speakers adamantly implored the BCHC to support the resolution. One man shared how plant-based psychedelics had helped him to cope with a diagnosis of cancer when he was 25. Another talked about the benefits of entheogenic plants in treating his severe form of bipolar disorder. A third man said that he was a former employee of Space X, where apparently the consumption of psychoactive plants was quite popular.

“They were all using psychedelics,” he said.

Following public commentary, three representatives for Decriminalize Nature made a presentation to the BCHC. The first to speak was co-founder Carlos Plazola, who holds a Masters in Environmental Science from Yale. He shared that his first experience with naturally occurring psychedelics came little more than a year ago after reading Michael Pollan’s popular book on the subject, How to Change Your Mind.

“That was my rebirth,” Plazola told the Commission.

He also offered some context for Decriminalize Nature’s goals, emphasizing that the organization is not in favor of commercializing entheogenic plants but instead would like them to be treated similar to how we view tomatoes or oranges — the idea being that each individual would cultivate their own medicine rather than a model in which large pharmaceutical companies stand to make a profit.

Commissioner Ann Rojas-Cheatham later questioned Plazola about the viability of this desire, noting that cannabis is “now all grown by Monsanto.” He agreed with her concerns, conceding that corporate interest in entheogenic plants was inevitable while stressing the importance of not having restrictions on the amount individuals can grow as a way to somewhat counteract that outcome.

Decriminalize Nature’s presentation also featured Julie Megler of Berkeley’s Sage Interactive Health. Board certified as a family and psychiatric nurse practitioner, Megler offers Ketamine-assisted therapy as part of her services. She shared what evidence is available in favor of entheogenic plants as a safe and effective form of medicine.

“Psychedelics inspire people to be more interested in their own health,” Megler said, noting that consumption of naturally occurring psychoactive substances can improve everything from mental health to a steadier diet.

Lastly, Decriminalize Nature co-founder and Phd candidate Larry Norris took the spotlight to address some of the more common concerns shared by those unfamiliar with entheogenic plants. Citing a Dutch study on CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) published in 2000, Norris debunked a number of myths, including the belief that psychoactive substances are addictive (they’re not) or that they lead to crime.

Following their presentation, the trio from Decriminalize Nature fielded a flurry of questions from the BCHC. Commissioner Andy Katz inquired about the “shelf life” of entheogenic plants, while another commissioner wondered about the effects of naturally occurring psychoactive substances on those with Autism.

Eventually, a decision to send the measure to a three-person subcommittee for further review was approved. The subcommittee is currently scheduled to report their findings to the BCHC in January, although the possibility of pushing things to February was discussed. Given this timeline, it appears Santa Cruz will likely be the second city in California to pass a measure decriminalizing psychedelics pending a City Council vote on Dec. 10.

Should the BCHC give its approval in the new year, Berkeley is poised to join them as the third in early 2020.

Related Stories