Meet the California State Senator Who Wants to Decriminalize Psychedelics

Meet the California State Senator Who Wants to Decriminalize Psychedelics

Meet the California State Senator Who Wants to Decriminalize Psychedelics

Can Scott Wiener convince the state that his bill will reduce the “sheer misery” drug use is causing now?


In an unassuming, off-white, two-story house in San Francisco’s Mission District, built in the Italianate style that predominates in the neighborhood, you’ll find the Institute of Illegal Images, aka the Blotter Barn. It houses an extensive personal collection of LSD art, called “blotter paper,” lovingly curated by Mark McCloud, a wizened, affable remnant of the city’s counterculture. McCloud came to California from Argentina as an adolescent, attended one of Ken Kesey’s early Acid Test “happenings” in the 1960s, puttered around the globe, and eventually put down stakes in the Mission in the mid-’70s, opening a home gallery that serves as an unbound history of the War on Drugs.

Each perforated, dyed tab of paper tells a story. One pulpy print pays tribute to the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, the “Father of LSD,” who chanced upon the drug in 1938. Another, covered in blue cartoon unicorns, memorializes the Blue Unicorn, a Beat (and later hippie) hangout that claimed Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti among its clientele, alongside local characters with colorful names like Tarot Tom, Larry the Flute, and Joe Narc. On a recent visit, McCloud pulls down a “Gorby”: a framed tab depicting the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, whose appearance on late-’80s LSD tabs spoke to his image as a peacemaker. But the pride of the Blotter Barn’s collection—which numbers in the tens of thousands of sheets of LSD—is a cherry red sheet featuring an intricate mandala that, upon closer inspection, reveals the seal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on each tab. Like a lot of early blotter art, these FBI tabs are ironic and even a little needling: chemically saturated stamps paying trippy tribute to the counterculture’s archenemy.

McCloud sees drug users and the Feds as ancient adversaries. He’s watched generations of dealers get entrapped, busted, and shipped off to prison for 20-year stints. On the federal level, America’s long War on Drugs remains an active battlefield. In early October, President Biden pardoned thousands of people federally convicted for marijuana offenses, acknowledging decades of injustice and, as he put it, “clear racial disparities around prosecution and conviction.” The move sent a strong signal to governors (the number of state drug convictions far exceeds the number of federal ones).

It was a refreshing, and overdue, step. It was also an about-face for Biden, who as a senator in the late 1980s asserted that then-President George H.W. Bush’s policies on policing and imprisoning drug users were “not tough enough.” But the War on Drugs still rages. Drug offenses remain the leading cause of arrest in the United States. As some legislators (along with the president) call for a rethinking of marijuana laws, others are doubling down on the punitive approach, like Arizona Republican Paul Gosar, who is demanding the death penalty for anyone convicted of selling synthetic opioids. Florida’s attorney general recently implored the White House to reclassify fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction. A poll last year by the ACLU showed that 65 percent of voters favored ending the Drug War, with an even greater share (83 percent) declaring it an abject failure; these views were more or less consistent among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Meanwhile, more than $3 billion was funneled to the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2021, while overdose deaths continued to skyrocket. For a record number of Americans of all political affiliations, the country’s domestic crusade against drugs is a boondoggle of epic proportions. And yet it’s not over. “What you need is somebody to point that out in a normal society,” says McCloud, who’s wearing a tie-dyed Grateful Dead shirt under a plaid blazer and nimbly spinning up a double-wide joint. “But who points it out?”

San Francisco state Senator Scott Wiener is trying to point it out. Wiener, a Democrat, has been pushing—and amending, and pushing again—a bill that would decriminalize “certain hallucinogenic substances” in California. As originally conceived, Senate Bill 519 would remove criminal penalties for the possession, consumption, and “social sharing” of a range of mind-expanding compounds. This includes classic psychedelics like mescaline, LSD, DMT, and psilocybin (the hallucinogenic catalyst in magic mushrooms), along with a smattering of other drugs, such as MDMA, ibogaine, and ketamine. The bill also authorizes a state-funded study on the potential benefits of these drugs, as a way of easing potential misgivings about their use. Despite initial enthusiasm in California’s Senate, the bill was recently amended by the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which reviews all bills with a potential fiscal impact, to remove the whole decriminalization aspect, while retaining funding for a study of these compounds.

“No good deed goes unpunished,” Wiener says, sitting in a coffee shop near San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. He had proposed the government study as a way to shore up confidence in the relative harmlessness, as well as the benefits, of psychedelic drugs. But as he points out, many studies have already been done. In the past decades, research pouring out of institutions ranging from Johns Hopkins and New York University to UC Berkeley (which recently opened its Center for the Science of Psychedelics) has shown that psychedelic compounds may prove useful in treating a range of disorders that were previously deemed intractable, from treatment-resistant depression to end-of-life anxiety. Now the proposed study is the only part of the bill that remains. For Wiener, it feels like pointless busywork.

In a press release in August, Wiener said he was “extremely disappointed” by the Assembly committee’s decision. In person, his frustration is palpable. “We know that drug criminalization is a disaster,” Wiener insists. “We don’t need any further studies to show that criminalizing drug use is a mistake.”

Scott Wiener has served California’s 11th Senate District—covering San Francisco and a chunk of San Mateo County—since 2016. Before that, he served on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. His CV reads like a greatest hits album of progressive policies: affordable housing quotas, tying public transit funding to population growth, expanding access to HIV/AIDS treatments, renewable energy rebates, and bike lane infrastructure.

But SB 519, with its proposal to decriminalize a range of Schedule I chemicals, has proved to be a harder sell than his other initiatives. Local jurisdictions—Oakland, Santa Cruz, and, most recently, San Francisco—have voted to effectively decriminalize psychedelics. And, at the state level, voters in Oregon removed criminal penalties on the personal possession of psilocybin in 2020 via a ballot measure, while voters in Colorado will soon consider a similar measure in their state. But Wiener’s proposal is more aggressive, both because of the breadth of the drugs it covers and because it applies to the most populous state in the union. What’s more, the existing patchwork of laws on the local level feels like a stopgap. As Wiener notes, municipalities do not actually have the power to properly decriminalize these drugs; they can only strike deals with local police, who can promise not to enforce existing state and federal laws. A broader bill would change that. But historically, such progressive drug policies have fizzled out at the state level. “I get it,” the senator adds. “There are a lot of people who are really frustrated with open-air drug use, and with the sheer misery.”

Wiener’s own district has become an epicenter of this misery. Sidewalks in San Francisco’s Tenderloin are lined with tents, housing a generation of displaced people whose lives have been ravaged by the opioid epidemic. Such scenes are by no means unique to the Tenderloin, the Bay Area, or America’s left coast. Between 2019 and 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced a harrowing 31 percent increase in drug overdose deaths, largely driven by cheaply manufactured synthetic drugs like fentanyl.

Amid a nationwide epidemic, it’s perhaps understandable why Wiener is having difficulty pushing a bill that would make some drugs more accessible. For many legislators and voters, issues of drug use and abuse are still understood through the good-versus-evil thinking that has long characterized the Drug War. There are the permitted drugs, like alcohol, caffeine, acetaminophen, and (in some jurisdictions) cannabis. And they’re fine. And then there are the illegal drugs, which are a scourge.

California Governor Gavin Newsom recently vetoed a bill that would have authorized medically supervised safe-injection sites in Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco. Wiener, who drafted that legislation as well, calls the decision “absurd.” Newsom’s decision flies in the face of evidence supporting the efficacy of safe-injection sites in reducing overdose deaths; he made the choice amid speculation that he’s plotting a presidential run. Facing increasing scrutiny, the governor may well be worried about seeming “soft” on drugs. While San Francisco may not be unique among opioid-ravaged American cities and towns, its progressive history makes it an easy target.

In the right-wing media, San Francisco has become something of a meme: a lawless Thunderdome thronged with the drug-sick, where Rite Aids are ransacked by marauding gangs. Fox News agitator Tucker Carlson, himself a native son, has labeled San Francisco an “American dystopia.” Such competing images speak to a deeper ideological contest that has played out across the city and state. For all its bona fides as a progressive, permissive paradise, California is also the place that launched the political careers of some of the nation’s most fervent drug warriors, from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan. San Francisco is the historic home of both Harvey Milk and Dan White, Jerry Garcia and, well, Tucker Carlson. “‘If you put the Democrats in power, they’re going to turn you into San Francisco,’ right?” says Wiener, mockingly imitating the right-wing pundits. “They’re rooting for San Francisco to fail.”

The street life of San Francisco has long blurred the distinction between the kooky and the straight-up dispossessed. Time was, you’d spot a lady in a nun’s habit pushing a kitty cat in a dinged-up stroller, and you’d be forgiven for thinking her some workaday weirdo. Now, the needle slants more definitively away from eccentricity and toward immiseration. As Wiener and I chat, a stooped, shoeless, middle-aged woman enters and makes a loopy circuit of the cafe, asking over and over if anyone can help her. Wiener greets the woman with a friendly if noncommittal smile. She’s shadowed by a young man in a lime green safety vest. “Ma’am, you can’t be in here…. Ma’am, you can’t be in here…. Ma’am, you can’t be in here,” he repeats in a steady monotone.

The neon vest is the uniform of Urban Alchemy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming districts like the Tenderloin, which have become open-air microcosms of the opioid epidemic. Urban Alchemy’s employees, many of whom have histories of drug addiction and incarceration, pick up litter, offer medical services, reverse overdoses, and shepherd panhandlers away from tourists or out of coffeehouses. “The contracts that we get,” says Kirkpatrick Tyler, Urban Alchemy’s chief of governmental and community affairs, “are things that nobody else wanted to do.”

Urban Alchemy says it has helped reduce the number of tents and the incidence of violent crime in the Tenderloin. But Tyler’s view of drug decriminalization bills like Wiener’s is nuanced. His focus is the on-the-ground, day-to-day work of cleaning up neighborhoods, saving lives, and keeping people safe regardless of their drug consumption. He keeps an eye on policy, “but,” he notes, “decriminalization can become a skewed conversation.”

Though Wiener hopes to change attitudes around certain drugs—psychedelic hallucinogens specifically—a bill like SB 519 risks further stigmatizing other drugs. If the bill were passed, a new generation of psychonauts excited by the latest research papers and the latest Netflix psychedelic travelogue could turn on, tune in, and drop out, safely ensconced in their shaded Berkeley bungalows, while less privileged drug users languished in sagging Coleman tents. Such discrepancies in stigma tend to play out across the familiar lines of race and class. Tyler compares it to the crack epidemic of the 1980s, when police resources and public awareness shifted from powdered cocaine to rock cocaine—a move that served as the pretext for increased policing in lower-income, largely Black communities. “We see the same thing with marijuana,” Tyler says. “There are people from the ’90s and 2000s who are incarcerated right now because they were marijuana dealers. But now, here, marijuana is legalized, and you can buy a CBD biscuit for your dog.”

For his part, Wiener is keenly aware that perception shapes policy. To wit: He’s considering redrafting SB 519 to focus squarely on “plant-based” psychedelics and will reintroduce the bill in December. The decision can seem like the sort of compromise common in political horse-trading. At the chemical level, a “plant-based” or “natural” drug is identical to its synthetic equivalent. But for some, the notion of nibbling the cap of a gnarled, dark-spored mushroom plucked from the soil of a subtropical forest is preferable to popping a capsule marked “C12H17N2O4P.” The epidemic of fentanyl and other cheaply made opioid substitutes has no doubt given “synthetics” a bad name. For Wiener, the change would be an attempt to progress incrementally, taking one step back in order (he hopes) to take two steps forward. “It just seems more benign,” he says. “People don’t view mushrooms as being some crazy party drug.”

The more ambitious, even starry-eyed goal of legislation like this is to expand people’s minds on the subject of drugs more generally, and to help them see that stigma and punishment only make the problem worse. From psychedelic amnesty to safe-injection sites, Wiener is attempting to add shades of gray to the stubbornly black-and-white thinking that still defines drug policy in America and elsewhere. If synthetic opioids are the current face of the Drug War and all its multifarious miseries, then maybe psychedelics can be a sunnier front on which a disarmament effort begins—the shroom-shaped tip of the spear. “There are still legislators who think we should still be criminalizing drug use and arresting people for it,” Wiener says. “If criminalization were an antidote for drug use and addiction, we would have no drug use and addiction.”

If Wiener can successfully change the minds of legislators (and voters) about a class of drugs long dogged by the stigma of hedonism and hippie freak-outs, then an even more extensive, more compassionate approach to all drugs and all drug-related disorders seems, at the very least, conceivable. Further, Wiener points to research suggesting that certain psychedelics, like the psychoactive root bark ibogaine, can actually help counter opioid addiction and other substance use disorders. “People have been using drugs since the beginning of time,” Wiener notes. “The idea of criminalizing drugs that can actually help people get healthy? It just blows my mind.”

Tour San Francisco in 2022, and the lesson is obvious. There are the tent communities of the Tenderloin, Mid-Market, and Little Saigon. Elsewhere, whole streets are painted in rainbow, proud shrines to the city’s history of psychedelia. But stroll past a (now perfectly legal) cannabis dispensary in Haight-Ashbury, selling weed-infused sodas at $10 a pop, patrolled by an armed guard in a balaclava, and you can’t help but feel that the “spirit of the ’60s” has receded into history like one of the city’s perennial fogs.

But if others—including the state’s own Democratic governor—seem to be rooting against San Francisco, Scott Wiener is betting on its future. It’s a future that evokes something of the city’s heyday as a free, permissive place—and also a place that can help shape progressive policy-making at the state and national levels. “We should always be on the cutting edge of empowering human beings to be who we are and to be able to make decisions about our lives,” Wiener says. “And that includes drug use.”

If Wiener succeeds, LSD historian Mark McCloud plans to celebrate the occasion with a commemorative run of customized blotter paper bearing the senator’s image. “If he pulls it off, I’ll do a sheet for him,” says McCloud, a living link to the counterculture before it was commodified and a survivor of the earliest salvos of the War on Drugs, who seems to speak for generations of hippies and heads and free spirits. “He’s the only senator we got!”

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy