Drug Policy

California Gov. Gavin Newsom Nixes Psychedelic Decriminalization and Cannabis Cafés

Newsom vetoed both reforms, which he deemed excessively permissive.


Last weekend, California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed two important drug policy reform bills: S.B. 58, which would have decriminalized the use of four naturally occurring psychedelics, and A.B. 374, which would have authorized Amsterdam-style cannabis cafés. His main complaint: The bills were excessively permissive and did not involve enough regulation.

S.B. 58, which Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco) introduced in December 2022, passed the California Legislature last month by a 43–15 vote in the Assembly and a 21–14 vote in the Senate. The bill, which was similar to the groundbreaking ballot initiative that Colorado voters approved last November, would have eliminated criminal penalties for adults 21 or older who use psilocybin, psilocyn, mescaline, or dimethyltryptamine. In addition to possession for personal use, the bill covered noncommercial production, distribution, and transportation.

"Both peer-reviewed science and powerful personal anecdotes lead me to support new opportunities to address mental health through psychedelic medicines like those addressed in this bill," Newsom wrote in his veto message on Saturday. "Psychedelics have proven to relieve people suffering from certain conditions such as depression, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and…addictive personality traits. This is an exciting frontier and California will be on the front-end of leading it."

But Newsom was not so excited that he was willing to endorse the proposition that people should not be arrested for using these substances. "California should immediately begin work to set up regulated treatment guidelines—replete with dosing information, therapeutic guidelines, rules to prevent against exploitation during guided treatments, and medical clearance of no underlying psychoses," he said. "Unfortunately, this bill would decriminalize possession prior to these guidelines going into place, and I cannot sign it."

Newsom, in other words, seems open to something like the system that Oregon voters approved in 2020, which involves state-licensed "psilocybin service centers" where adults can legally use that drug (the main psychoactive ingredient in "magic mushrooms") under the supervision of a "facilitator" after completing a "preparation session." That approach appeals to Newsom because it involves lots of regulation.

Oregon's first psilocybin service center opened in Eugene last June. "A client can wind up paying over $2,000, which helps cover service center expenses, a facilitator and lab-tested psilocybin," PBS reports. "Annual licenses for service centers and growers cost $10,000, with a half-price discount for veterans."

Notably, people who do not have $2,000 to spend on a single psilocybin session can still use that drug (or other psychedelics) in Oregon without exposing themselves to criminal penalties, which another ballot initiative that voters approved in 2020 eliminated. That option does not exist in California, and it sounds like it never will if Newsom has his way. As the governor sees it, regulated, taxed, and carefully supervised consumption of psychedelics "to address mental health" is acceptable, while the idea that adults should be free to use these drugs on their own, for whatever reasons they find compelling, is so outré that he thinks anyone who dares to do that should be subject to arrest.

Under current California law, possession of psilocybin is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, although users may qualify for "drug treatment" instead—that is, they can avoid incarceration if they agree to accept professional "help" they probably do not need. People who grow psilocybin mushrooms can be charged with a felony punishable by up to three years in prison, and so can people who sell or transport those funny fungi. As far as Newsom is concerned, it seems, there is no injustice to remedy here—or at least, not anytime soon.

"Today's veto is a setback for the huge numbers of Californians—including combat veterans and first responders—who are safely using and benefiting from these non-addictive substances and who will now continue to be classified as criminals under California law," Wiener complained on Saturday. "This veto is a huge missed opportunity for California to follow the science and lead. This is not the end of our fight, however." Given "the Governor's commitment to work with the Legislature on legislation with a therapeutic focus," he said, "I look forward to introducing therapeutic-focused legislation next year."

A.B. 374, which Assemblymember Matt Haney (D–San Francisco) introduced in February, would have expanded the options for California residents and visitors who want to consume cannabis in a social setting. The bill, which passed the Legislature last month by a 66–9 vote in the Assembly and a 34–3 vote in the Senate, would have allowed dispensaries, with local approval, to serve marijuana along with non-cannabis food and beverages, which is currently illegal. It also would have explicitly allowed live music.

Again, this was a step too far for Newsom. "I appreciate the author's intent to provide cannabis retailers with increased business opportunities and an avenue to attract new customers," the governor wrote in his veto message on Sunday. "However, I am concerned this bill could undermine California's long-standing smoke-free workplace protections."

That was news to Haney. "We were not told about the concerns re the smoke free work environment from the health department over the past 7 months that we worked on this bill," he said on Monday. Haney noted that on-site pot smoking is already allowed under Proposition 64, the 2016 ballot measure that legalized recreational marijuana in California. What's not allowed is doing that in a setting where you can also eat, drink, and maybe listen to music.

"Lots of people want to enjoy legal cannabis in the company of others," Haney said. "There's absolutely no good reason from an economic, health, or safety standpoint that the state should make that illegal."

Haney's bill would have addressed a familiar problem. In California, as in other states where recreational use is legal, cannabis consumers have limited legal options when it comes to using the marijuana they are now allowed to buy. "Smoking cannabis is illegal outdoors, in all public places, in apartment buildings, and in automobiles," Haney noted. "Without onsite smoking being allowed in dispensaries, it would be functionally illegal for anyone other than homeowners and their guests to smoke cannabis in California."

In addition to giving consumers what they want, A.B. 374 would have helped licensed dispensaries compete with unlicensed dealers, who still account for something like two-thirds of marijuana sales in California. Haney described the bill as "an attempt to level the playing field for the highly taxed and regulated legal cannabis industry that is being forced to compete in California with a thriving cannabis black market." It was "really about fairness and supporting businesses that follow the rules," he said. "If we keep allowing unnecessary regulations to strangle California's legal cannabis businesses, we're just encouraging illegal drug sales and all of the problems that come with that."