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How Psychedelic Drug Therapy Became a Rare Bipartisan Issue in California
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By CalMatters
Published 2 months ago on
February 20, 2024

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Assemblymember Marie Waldron is a Republican from San Diego who was the GOP caucus leader for three years at a time when California’s Democrats were waging a legislative war with Donald Trump.


Ryan Sabalow
CalMatters

San Francisco Sen. Scott Wiener is a Democratic rising star who’s considered a leading candidate to replace one of the right’s biggest villains, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, should the former House speaker retire from Congress.

The pair may not seem to have much in common, but they have formed an unlikely bipartisan partnership on an unusual issue: legalizing psychedelic drugs to treat mental illness.

Waldron has appeared twice beside Wiener in recent weeks. Most recently, they addressed reporters at a press conference to announce a new bill they coauthored that would allow adults 21 and older to use psilocybin mushrooms, MDMA, DMT and mescaline under the supervision of a licensed and trained facilitator.

And, in January, they sat side-by-side before the Assembly Health Committee to advocate for Waldron’s bill which would convene a workgroup to study psychedelic-assisted therapy with the goal of making recommendations for regulating treatment by Jan. 1, 2026. Waldron’s Assembly Bill 941 advanced without opposition through the Assembly and will be taken up by the Senate this year.

Both pieces of legislation are in response to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s October veto of Wiener’s bill that would have decriminalized the use of plant-based hallucinogenic drugs. Waldron along with fellow Republicans Heath Flora of Ripon and Bill Essayli of Corona last year cast “yes” votes to advance the measure out of the Assembly prior to Newsom’s veto.

In his veto message, Newsom said, “This is an exciting frontier and California will be on the front-end of leading it.” First, however, he asked legislators to draft another bill with “regulated treatment guidelines” that included dosing information and rules to prevent patients from being exploited and ensure patients with psychoses wouldn’t be harmed.

“We’re grateful that the governor didn’t simply say ‘no,’ but indicated what he would say yes to, which was a therapeutic-focused bill.” Wiener told the health committee.

Wiener, Waldron Are Unlikely Partners

It may not come as a surprise that Wiener would advocate for legalizing psychedelics. After all, he represents San Francisco, a city known for its liberal politics, with a reputation for embracing hallucinogenic drugs dates to the 1960s. Their most famous champion, Timothy Leary, in 1967 told 30,000 hippies in the city’s Golden Gate Park to “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.” The gathering called the “Human Be-In” was held in response to California banning LSD the year prior. Leary’s remarks became an instant counterculture slogan. The federal government banned possessing psychedelics the following year.

Wiener told the health committee that the state and federal decisions 50 years ago to shut down research into psychedelic drugs were a mistake. Therapists “working in the shadows” have amassed evidence that the drugs can save the lives of those suffering from trauma, he said.

“We want to make sure that our folks, including our first responders who are suffering, have access – not in the shadows but in the sunlight – to therapies that … (are) literally saving people’s lives and stopping them from killing themselves,” Wiener told the health committee.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, addresses lawmakers on the first day of session in the California Senate, on Jan. 3, 2024. (CalMatters/Fred Greaves)

It’s perhaps more surprising that Waldron has taken on the issue. She represents a safe Republican district in San Diego, in a region known for its straight-laced, military presence. San Diego County is the home to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, tens of thousands of Marines and seven military bases.

In an interview with CalMatters, Waldron said it was actually military veterans who brought psychedelics to her attention.

On Veteran’s Day 2021, Waldron attended a fundraiser for a veteran’s group at the Hotel Del Coronado resort on the edge of the San Diego Bay. There, she heard from a group of Navy SEALs who described crippling PTSD and depression when they came back from combat. Psychedelics, Waldron said, helped them cope with their trauma.

“They were saying … how it changed their life and actually ended their desire to commit suicide, restored their family,” Waldron said. “They had a normal life; they didn’t have the triggers that brought on PTSD.”

Psychedelics in therapeutic settings, Waldron said, take a person’s mind “back to the scene of the trauma” and “actually break the trauma in a way.”

“When you come out the other end,” Waldron said, “you’re able to deal with it.”

She notes that she’s hardly the first Republican to embrace the therapies. Republican U.S. Reps. Dan Crenshaw, the eye-patch-wearing Navy SEAL veteran from Texas, and Matt Gaetz, the conservative firebrand from Florida, have supported the use of psychedelics. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed a bill in 2021 to study the drugs’ therapeutic benefits.

Waldron a Republican ‘Outlier’

Waldron’s bill may have advanced to the Senate without a single vote against it, thanks in part to Wiener’s support. But at least one Democrat had reservations. Assemblymember Akilah Weber, a physician from La Mesa, abstained from voting.

At the health committee hearing last month, she peppered Waldron and Wiener with questions and appeared skeptical there was enough legitimate medical research for California to craft a set of therapeutic guidelines by 2026. She noted the federal government only recently approved clinical research.

“What kind of studies are they going to be evaluating, especially given the fact that the regulations or the guidelines of how these clinical trials should be done just came out in June of 2023?” Weber asked.

Wiener countered that research is underway and available.

“There are already a number of peer-reviewed studies in places like the New England Journal of Medicine,” Wiener said. “So I don’t want anyone to walk away thinking there are no scientific peer-reviewed studies. There are.”

None of Waldron’s 17 Republican colleagues voted against Waldron’s bill when it was on the Assembly floor, though 12 abstained or were absent. The Republicans might not have wanted to go on record opposing a bill championed by their former leader. Some Republicans may also fear the vote could be used against them in a campaign.

Waldron doesn’t have to worry about what a challenger might say, since she’s serving her final term in the Legislature due to term limits.

Nonetheless, she said she would have worked with Wiener on the issue of psychedelics even if she was up for reelection. She notes she was a coauthor with Wiener on mental-health legislation that passed in 2020, and she fought for legislation that provides prison inmates with state Medi-Cal services in the months before their release in the hopes they transition easier into drug treatment when they re-enter society.

“It makes me kind of an outlier in many ways on the Republican side of things,” Waldron said of wanting to help inmates. “But I’ve always tried to figure out how to help people when they come home to be able to stay home and not … go back to prison.”

About the Author

Ryan Sabalow is a Digital Democracy reporter for CalMatters. A graduate of Chico State University, he began his career covering local news for the Auburn Journal in Placer County and The Record Searchlight in Redding. He spent three years in the Midwest at The Indianapolis Star where he was an investigative reporter. Before joining CalMatters, he primarily covered California water and environmental policy at The Sacramento Bee. A lifelong hunter and outdoorsman, Sabalow spends as much time as possible in Siskiyou County, where he grew up. He’s married and has two daughters, two lunatic cats, and a duck-retrieving chocolate lab named Spooner.

About CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

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