Vermont lawmakers plan to introduce at least two bills this legislative session to decriminalize the possession of drugs, with one of those proposals expected early next week. State Rep. Brian Cina (P/D) told a news publisher in an interview that his legislation, which he is planning to introduce on Tuesday, would remove penalties around an array of plant- and fungi-based psychedelics, including psilocybin, mescaline, ibogaine and DMT.
“Humans have had a close relationship with plants and fungi that goes back to the very beginning of humanity,” Cina said in an interview. “But the legacy of colonization has left us with the criminalization of these medicinal, spiritual, religious, entheogenic medicines.” Another forthcoming Vermont bill would decriminalize small amounts of all drugs, although details of that legislation aren’t yet public. Rep. Selene Colburn (P/D) said at a press conference that an all-drug decriminalization bill is currently being drafted and will be introduced later this session.
“We’re still figuring out the model, but it does look to the work that’s happened in Oregon as a potential template,” she said, referring to the drug decriminalization ballot measure that voters in that state approved in November. Colburn didn’t immediately respond on Thursday to an emailed request for more details. Sarah George, state’s attorney for Chittenden County, said at Wednesday’s event that drugs “are not illegal because they are dangerous, but they certainly are more dangerous because they’re illegal.”
Safety through Legalization and Regulation
“Everything is safer when it’s legalized and regulated,” George said, “and legal drugs are safer than illegal drugs.” Other legislation still in the works for this session could decriminalize buprenorphine, commonly used to treat opioid use disorder, and regulate the sale of kratom, a popular but controversial herbal medicine and painkiller alternative.
“In general there’s many of us trying to decriminalize human behavior that’s become sort of stigmatized and judged by others but the main impact is on the person,” Cina stated. In the case of substance use, he said, “the greatest impact is the health impact on the person and the social impact.” Cina previewed the proposal to deregulate plant-based entheogens in a video call this week with the group Decriminalize Nature, which has helped lead successful efforts to decriminalize certain drugs in other jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C.
During the event, the lawmaker showed a draft of his bill and walked attendees through how it would amend current law. “What we do is, right now in the section that defines a hallucinogenic drug, it includes peyote and psilocybin and all these other drugs that you see,” Cina explained. “What we do is we strike those out, we basically say they’re not counted.”
Which Drugs Would Be Decriminalized?
The entire list of drugs that would be removed from “regulated” status, effectively deleting them from the state’s list of controlled substances, includes peyote, ayahuasca, cacti containing mescaline, psilocybin, psilocin, ibogaine, DMT and any plant containing those substances. “I know other people have other conceptions about how we should do this,” Cina said on the call. “This is one way we’re trying to do it. It’s part of a multi-pronged strategy to defelonize all drugs and decriminalize many.”
Cina continued to say on Thursday that he expects to have seven co-sponsors for the bill when it’s first introduced, which would be a sign of growing support for the policy change. A similar bill introduced by Cina last session, H.878, earned three other cosponsors and was never heard in committee.
There have been some small changes from last year’s proposal, most notably regarding what drugs it would deregulate. Last year’s bill applied to psilocybin, ayahuasca, peyote and kratom. This year’s bill removes kratom and expands the list of deregulated plants and substances to include ibogaine, DMT and certain plants and fungi containing those compounds.
“To maximize the decriminalization, we include the substance and the plant,” Cina said. He said the new bill would likely begin its path in the House Judiciary Committee, although that won’t be known for sure until it’s introduced and referred. As for kratom, Cina said lawmakers will deal with the drug, already widely sold across the country, under separate legislation, the Kratom Consumer Protection Act, that would legalize and regulate sales. That bill would set a minimum purchasing age for kratom and include rules meant to ensure product purity and dosage.
The bill to decriminalize natural psychedelics takes a different route, simply removing the substances and the plants that produce them from the state’s drug laws. As Cina describes it, the bill would instead treat hallucinogenic plants like non-psychoactive mushrooms and cactuses. “The best way I can explain it,” he told the Decriminalize Nature audience, “is we’re just treating them like other plants and fungi.” Some state officials have already expressed opposition to decriminalization of additional drugs beyond marijuana, calling it a step too far.
Harm Reduction Based on Science
“Philosophically I would struggle with trying to understand how the public safety or the public health would be improved by the decriminalization of heroin,” Attorney General TJ Donovan said on a podcast hosted by VTDigger this week. Asked if he would support the decriminalization of any drugs, Donovan replied, “I think we have it: We have marijuana, we have alcohol.”
Donovan acknowledged, however, that he and others are evolving on the idea as they’re presented with evidence that drug reform policies can reduce harm. “Some people use drugs, we know that,” he said. “How do we reduce the harm of that and to the community?” Donovan said he supports some drug reform policies, such as needle exchange programs, and is “open to the idea” of safe injection sites.
“We should be guided by science, we should be guided by data and we shouldn’t be afraid to have these tough conversations as we continue to evolve,” he said. The attorney general has already revised his stance on marijuana, initially favoring simple decriminalization of the drug but eventually embracing legalization as a way to regulate safety and eliminate the illegal market.
“You can’t tell Vermonters that you can legally possess something and be absolutely silent on how they obtain it,” he said. The state legalized possession and home cultivation of cannabis sales in 2018 and last year moved to add a legal and regulated sales component.
The Vermont Democratic Party, for its part, signaled late last year that it’s on board with the broader policy change. At a virtual meeting in September, the party adopted a platform that includes a call to “adopt an approach to the possession and misuse of drugs that is motivated solely by the principles of public health and harm reduction, rather than punishing undesirable private behavior, while avoiding the criminal justice system altogether.”
Drug Legalization in Other States
Dave Silberman, a pro bono attorney and reform advocate who led the drafting of the platform’s criminal justice provisions, said at the time that “as a party, we’ve fully recognized that the War on Drugs has completely failed to reduce problematic drug use, and in fact fuels the racial biases we see in policing today, all without contributing to public safety.”
Elsewhere across the country, lawmakers are considering similar reforms to roll back or eliminate penalties for the possession of many drugs. A Republican lawmaker in Iowa introduced a bill earlier this month that would remove psilocybin from the list of controlled substances and another to let seriously ill patients use psychedelic mushrooms, LSD, DMT and other drugs.
In Texas, a state legislator introduced a bill last week to require the state to study the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, MDMA and ketamine in the treatment of certain mental health conditions. Legislators in Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Washington State and Virginia are also considering psychedelics and drug policy reform bills for the 2021 session.
On Thursday, a California lawmaker, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D) introduced legislation that would legalize the possession and social sharing of a number of drugs, including psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, ketamine, mescaline, ibogaine, DMT and MDMA. It would also provide for the expungement of past criminal records for possession or use. The state would establish a task force under the proposal to study potential future regulatory systems around psychedelics, with a report due in 2024.
“This bill is part of a larger push to end the failed War on Drugs, which has disproportionately harmed underserved communities of color,” said Assemblymember Evan Low (D), a cosponsor of that bill. “Our bill helps to lead us on a path to decriminalizing substance abuse so we can focus on providing addiction treatment instead of paying for jail cells and ignoring the larger problem.” As Cina in Vermont told a publisher this week, “We don’t need to police each other more. We need to take care of each other better.”
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