While some city leaders have turned their attention to cracking down on the open-air drug markets of the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods, a similarly brazen but more affluent drug market glistens in the sun at Dolores Park.
Drug dealers selling “magic” mushroom-infused chocolate out of woven baskets roam the park anytime the weather tops 70 degrees in the Mission District. And the city may soon be changing the rules to make similar activities easier.
A resolution introduced last month by Supervisors Dean Preston and Hillary Ronen would decriminalize psychedelics and other “entheogenic plants” like magic mushrooms (psilocybin), ibogaine and ayahuasca.
If passed when the Board of Supervisors returns from recess in September, San Francisco would be the largest city to make such a move, following similar efforts in Oakland, Santa Cruz and Denver. Around a dozen cities in the U.S. have passed decriminalization resolutions.
But for psychedelic mushroom sellers—sometimes called “myco-preneuers”—who already operate in San Francisco, there are fears that the move is the first step toward new taxes, regulations and corporate competition that would pose a risk to their business.
One SF mushroom merchant, who wished to be referred to as “A Responsible Citizen,” said he experienced the market saturation that occurred within the cannabis industry after it was decriminalized, and he predicts the same happening for mushrooms.
“They’re going to monetize love,” A Responsible Citizen said. “It’s going to be corrupted by corporations. I already see the arc.”
The Board of Supervisors’ proposal would urge city law enforcement to classify adult use, cultivation, possession and purchasing of psychedelics and entheogenic plants to be “amongst the lowest priority for the City.” Preston said the resolution is in some ways meant to catch San Francisco up to a movement that has swept the country.
“The law hasn’t evolved at all since then, and these substances are treated the way they always have been,” Preston said. “At the same time, the scientific community has been expanding their study and research into their therapeutic use.”
Preston, who’s been critical of the recent law enforcement crackdown on drug activity, called the decriminalization measure a different part of the conversation.
“We’re not talking about addictive substances here. Around this particular category, I would hope that even folks who disagree around the best approaches to dealing with opioids and other drugs prevalent in San Francisco would agree with deprioritizing enforcement around entheogenic plants,” Preston said, adding that some promising research has been conducted around the use of psychedelic therapy on substance abuse issues.
While law enforcement in San Francisco currently does not have a high arrest rate for these substances, proponents say the resolution will provide a signal to bodies like the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), the Police Commission and the District Attorney’s Office to codify the practice into official policy.
“We have been a city-by-city movement primarily because you can advocate that way without needing deep pockets,” said Carlos Plazola, co-founder of Decriminalize Nature, a nonprofit that helped write San Francisco’s resolution and has led decriminalization efforts around the country.
Plazola, who discovered the therapeutic effects of psychedelics in his late 40s, said removing legal stigma serves to open up access and knowledge about potential benefits, particularly to Black and Brown communities hurt by the war on drugs.
“We’re trying to literally decriminalize nature and open the floodgates to allow these marginalized groups to heal with these plant medicines,” Plazola said.
San Francisco’s push for decriminalization comes alongside an effort by state Sen. Scott Wiener to revive SB 519, which would decriminalize a number of psychedelic substances statewide up to a certain “allowable amount.” The bill will be heard by the state’s Senate Appropriations Committee on Aug. 11.
While agreeing with some of the overarching philosophy behind the bill, leaders of Decriminalize Nature take issue with the possession limits, arguing that they are creating a framework for potential arrest and prosecution.
Larry Norris, a co-founder of Decriminalize Nature, drew a distinction between decriminalization and legalization. While the former refers to simply removing criminal penalties, he defined the latter as introducing a regulatory framework that includes licensing and taxation.
“Just as we don’t need to legalize air, water and sunlight, these plant medicines just exist. Growing, using and sharing them shouldn’t ever have been a crime in the first place,” Norris said.
A growing array of scientific literature has demonstrated evidence for the use of psychedelics for ailments ranging from depression to PTSD to substance abuse. One recent milestone was the 2018 publication of “How to Change Your Mind” (and a subsequent Netflix documentary series) from UC Berkeley’s Michael Pollan, which helped inspire a new generation of so-called “Pollan-ators” to push psychedelic use into the mainstream.
According to James McConchie, owner of the Haight Street Shroom Shoppe and a co-founder of Decriminalize Nature San Francisco, the local resolution is a long time coming in a city that helped birth the modern psychedelic movement.
McConchie was introduced to entheogens in the typical teenage fashion, but he honed in on the space when his wife was diagnosed with cancer and turned to medicinal fungi as an additional aspect of her treatment.
The scene in his converted artist studio in the Haight is reminiscent of a forest floor crossed with a biology classroom, replete with petri dishes featuring fungal experiments of various levels of success. While most of the attention he gets is about psychedelic mushrooms—including from passersby who peek their heads in the door—McConchie also cultivates mushrooms for culinary and medicinal purposes.
McConchie said he understands the skepticism of decriminalization efforts held by current underground operators, many of whom point to the corporatization of the cannabis industry as a cautionary tale. Still, he said decriminalization will help even the playing field and lead to discussions on how best to move forward on a framework that can support safe use of the substances as well as entrepreneurs like himself.
Under federal law, McConchie is prohibited from selling psilocybin mushrooms, or even handing them out as donations. Rather, he teaches one-on-one workshops on how to cultivate fungi in general with interested parties.
“The suspicion they have is the same suspicion I have, which is basically that they will cut out medium-scale growers or small businesses from the discussion,” McConchie said. “I understand stakeholders, I understand investment models, but I also believe that if you are conscious and cautious, the potential to make money in this space is more than anybody would ever need.”
McConchie said he thinks San Francisco is still at least five years away from psychedelic dispensaries. He’s hopeful that the decriminalization effort can help kick off a shift to a three-tiered model for distribution that spans clinical, ceremonial-based and recreational uses.
“If we can figure out a model where all three of those coexist in a way that allows people growing natural medicine to exist next to UCSF that’s distributing synthetic psilocybin they’re producing next to a group taking a half gram and going out in nature, that’s the best type of access point,” McConchie said.
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