The decriminalization of drugs, especially harder drugs in the FDA’s schedule I territory, has always been an odd issue in California. Growing up in Ohio, California was always the punchline of drug jokes by our very decidedly not funny D.A.R.E. officer circa 2001. California was seen back then as the gateway for drugs, and you can bet any jokes on TV about marijuana would involve California. The Simpsons, Family Guy, even top rated shows like Friends and Home Improvement got in on it. You know you’re an easy joke when the ABC TGIF lineup makes fun of you.
And this was because of Proposition 215 back in 1996. California became the first state to allow for medical marijuana, and by the early 2000’s seven other states, mostly Western states with the exception of Maine, were influenced by California to pass their own. Despite a botched attempt to decriminalize it back in 1972, California was leading drug legalization. But California soon lost that distinction. As the 2000’s rolled along, a few laws further softened marijuana prosecution. But the movement hit by a serious blow in 2010 when Prop 19, which would lave legalized marijuana recreationally, failed. Instead, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize it for recreational use in 2012.
Taxes in both states far exceeded expectations, with Colorado raking in over $140 million in taxes per year. Other states looked at Stickyrado and British Columbia’s noisy neighbor to the South and were suddenly thinking, “We want some of that green stuff. And the tax money would be good too.” Alaska, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada also proceeded to pass recreational laws, with dozens more also passing decriminalization and medical laws.
In 2016, California finally passed its own measure, Proposition 64, leading to the first recreational sales to happen in 2018 – and the first legal laws since weed was first made illegal in California in 1913… which seems odd, since Sears, Roebuck was still selling Cocaine-based medicine for kids until until it was outlawed the next year.
Since then, 10 other states have legalized it recreationally, with California annually collecting around $800 million in taxes through marijuana sales. Currently, marijuana abuse penalties, such as being high while driving, are treated just the same as a DUI while under the influence of alcohol.
Here’s the odd thing though:While the U.S. Government has been sort of tolerant with marijuana legalization, and will likely legalize it nation-wide sometime soon if President Biden actually wants to fulfill that promise, legalizing harder drugs is somewhat unchartered territory.
California’s history of drug legalization, decriminalization
Going back to that D.A.R.E. class in the suburbs of Cleveland right around the time of the Florida recount, they were always vague on other drugs. Everyone knew what pot was and, haha, California jokes. But teaching about other drugs that marijuana was supposedly a gateway too were a mystery. We actually had to replace a D.A.R.E. officer mid year after he told us about what mushrooms and peyote could do to you. A lot of us had apparently written stories about them as part of an assignment saying that nothing was wrong with them. Other things, like heroin, cocaine, crack, ecstasy – it was just written off as “Don’t do it,” without context or explaining why they were bad besides “they are addictive.” I thought it was just my school or a Catholic school thing, but talking to others who went to school in California, as well as other states in D.A.R.E. classes, it was largely the same. Marijuana was that gateway drug, but other things were a mystery. Mostly, we didn’t even know what other drugs looked like.
Fast forward back to the march of legalization. Medicinal properties have now been used for decades to expand drug legalization. Proposition 215 was initially pushed by a marijuana activist who saw how marijuana had helped people who had suffered from AIDS and other diseases and illnesses in years prior. Other states had similar arguments. Now, with many in California wanting to lead the charge on drug decriminalization and legalization again, even for medicinal purposes, new angles needed to be found.
Denver started the new trend of decriminalizing psilocybin “magic” mushrooms in 2019, with Oregon becoming the first state to successfully do so in 2020. In fact, they decriminalized most recreational drugs, from heroin to cocaine. And here’s where that being an odd issue has popped up in California again; Lawmakers don’t want to fall behind like they did with marijuana legalization, but they also know that voters in the Golden State sometimes balk at drug issues. They have failed to vote for drug advancement bills in the past, even in their recent “Deep Blue” phase, and like David Bowie albums of the late 70’s or the Chargers moving to Los Angeles, just because you try and say it’s good, it doesn’t mean that people will buy into it.
Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) knows this all too well. Currently he is trying to pass Senate Bill 519, which would decriminalize possession of psychedelic drugs such as dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ibogaine (psychedelic substance), lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mescaline (psychedelic hallucinogen), psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, ecstasy, molly). Other drugs like ketamine were on there too at some point, but opposition against them forced them off the decriminalization list.
Many of the drugs on the most recent list have been specifically banned by California, including LSD way back in 1966. As they have more intense effects, trying to decriminalize them and set them as the same DUI standards as alcohol and marijuana would not be an idea that even many drug advocates would be for. So it is the safest route – simple decriminalization and medicinal use. Adding an interesting twist is the tying in of how decriminalization can benefit military veterans, with veterans groups helping push for the passage of the bill, because many of the drugs help the symptoms of combat induced medical problems. For many, it’s hard to argue against giving more to those who served, especially medically. That part of the bill alone has made many on the right and many who served think the bill over again.
The possibility of more decriminalizations in 2022
Wiener’s bill has been pushed down many times due to wide-spread opposition against it. But this year he gives the odds of passage at 50/50, which are at least good enough for Atlantic City, if not Vegas. Effects of decriminalization in Oregon and other countries is becoming more clear, and Wiener has been studiously shaping the bill through amendments to make it the most passable form possible. It’s a hot button issue right now, and in 2022 everyone is questioning if California should try and lead again, and if they should wait and see, or if drug decriminalization has gone too far. Again, this is largely unchartered territory with laws less than three years old providing the only U.S. data.
Californians have a habit of knocking down drugs bills when people think it will happen, and then passing them almost as an after thought. They lead to new tax revenue boons with some research suggesting a decrease in some crimes. However, harder drugs also lead to bad side effects, including worse addictions and unpredictable trips and experiences ranging from “medically beneficial” to ‘Dennis Hopper partying with River Phoenix and John Belushi territory.”
Right now there is no clear place where the gray area ends. Depending on how things go, we might find out in 2022.
I still remember our final D.A.R.E. class, right before the graduation where we got to light off rockets as a reward. Great fun. Some of us actually soaked the drag strips for the rockets to land in kerosene so they burst into flames mid flight and became a smoldering mess in our school baseball field. Accidentaly of course.
Anyway, the final class had a mini quiz with one of the questions asking us what the dangers were. Pot was the gateway drug, heroin was the bad addictive one. But then came LSD. I remember this one specifically because one of us asked what it stood for and the D.A.R.E. officer just looked at us with a nervous expression because he obviously didn’t know. And then no one got points for it because we just knew it as the “trip” drug, and didn’t know if it was good or bad. Today, that’s the answer for many people. They see medical benefits, but know about all the negative side effects too. And with a law pushing for decriminalization, lawmakers want a yes/no answer to some very complicated drugs that are beneficial and harmful. There’s no clear answer, and that’s what is worrying many.
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