Is LSD Legal in California? History & Current Status of Psychedelic Drug Laws

Is LSD Legal in California

California has been at the leading edge of psychedelic drug policy reform in recent years. Several cities like Oakland, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco have decriminalized plant-based psychedelics. There’s also been growing public support for legalizing substances like psilocybin mushrooms and facilitating their therapeutic use in clinical settings.

So with all this momentum, it begs the question…is LSD legal in California today?

The short answer is no – LSD remains illegal under current California state law. But the history of psychedelic drug prohibition and recent policy changes reveal a complex and evolving legal landscape.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore questions like:

  • What exactly are psychedelic drugs and where does LSD fit in?
  • How did psychedelics like LSD first become criminalized in California?
  • What do current drug laws say about the possession, sale, and use of LSD and other psychedelic substances?
  • What recent legislative and voter efforts have tried to change these policies?
  • Will California eventually legalize and regulate psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms, and what might that future look like?
  • Could there be any medical or religious exemptions under existing laws?
  • How might legal access impact research into psychedelic therapies for mental health?

Let’s dig into these questions and more on the past, present and future of psychedelic drug policy in the Golden State!

What are Psychedelic Drugs and Where Does LSD Fit In?

First, we need to understand exactly what constitutes a “psychedelic” drug. The term itself was coined in 1956 by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond and derives from the Greek words for “mind” and “manifesting.”

What defines a psychedelic is its ability to alter perception, mood, cognition, and a sense of self – often in very profound ways. These effects are primarily mediated by the drug’s interaction with certain serotonin receptors in the brain.

The major categories of classic psychedelic drugs include:

  • LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) – a semi-synthetic compound made from lysergic acid derived from ergot fungus
  • Psilocybin/psilocin – the key psychoactive chemicals occurring naturally in over 200 species of magic mushrooms
  • Mescaline – found in certain cacti like peyote and San Pedro
  • DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine) – an endogenous compound also found in plant preparations like ayahuasca

While the effects can vary, common responses to moderate doses of these classic psychedelics include:

  • Vivid visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Heightened sensory perception
  • Distorted sense of time
  • Profound changes in thought patterns and emotional state, sometimes including feelings of transcendence or unity

Psychedelics are very different from other major drug categories like stimulants, depressants and opioids in that they’re not intrinsically addictive or toxic to the body in reasonable dosages.

However, they do carry psychological risks especially for those with underlying mental health conditions. Experiences can sometimes go awry leading to panic, confusion, and even delusional beliefs known colloquially as “bad trips.”

LSD in particular has become an iconic psychedelic due its potency at extremely small doses (as little as 20 micrograms), much longer duration than other psychedelics (8 to 12 hours), and its fascinating early history. We’ll cover more on that history next.

When used responsibly under professional guidance, an increasing body of research suggests that many psychedelics including LSD have promising therapeutic value – especially for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

We’ll explore the implications for psychedelic therapies later on. But first, let’s look at how substances like LSD went from legal to prohibited within the span of just a few decades.

A Brief History of Psychedelic Drug Policy in California

a brief history of psychedelic drug policy in california

Long before the hippies of 1960s San Francisco, psychedelic plants and fungi were used ritualistically for millennia by indigenous cultures across the Americas and beyond. The native peoples of California were no exception.

The West coast’s exploding counterculture movement brought psychedelics back into the mainstream public consciousness. LSD in particular became strongly associated with anti-war sentiment and the growing New Age spiritual movement.

But it wasn’t long before rising recreational use raised alarm bells for authorities. In 1966, California banned the possession and sale of hallucinogenic substances including mescaline and psilocybin. Two years later, LSD and other psychoactive compounds were federally prohibited under the 1968 Controlled Substances Act signed by President Nixon.

LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics were quickly lumped into the Schedule I drug category indicating “high potential for abuse” and “no recognized medical value” – the same category as heroin and other opioids.

This marked the start of the ongoing “War on Drugs” crackdown on psychedelics and other substances. But views may be shifting today as new research hints at therapeutic benefits for psychedelics while public opinion, at least in California, grows increasingly favorable toward drug policy reform.

What Does California Law Say About LSD and Other Psychedelic Drugs Today?

The California Health and Safety Code still classifies LSD and other psychedelic tryptamines like DMT and psilocin as Schedule I controlled hallucinogenic substances with no exceptions for medical use.

Under Section 11377, unlawful possession for personal use currently carries misdemeanor penalties of up to 1 year in county jail and a maximum $1000 fine. Prior violent of sex offense convictions can elevate this to a felony.

Penalties ramp up significantly for the sale, transportation, manufacture or furnishing of these prohibited substances under Section 11379 of California’s Health and Safety Code.

For offenses involving LSD or other psychedelics, Section 11379 imposes felony-level penalties ranging from 16 months up to 4 years imprisonment in county jail or state prison. Transporting psychedelics between non-contiguous counties steps this up further to a 2, 4 or 9 year sentence.

Unlike drugs such as cannabis, there are currently no allowances in California law that might provide criminal defenses for possession or use of LSD or other prohibited psychedelics – even for medical purposes. Prior court cases have also largely rejected religious freedom arguments seeking protections.

However, simple possession for personal use doesn’t always lead straight to jail time thanks to California ballot measures like Prop 36 passed in 2000. Those with no significant prior convictions often enter diversion programs or end up with probation and rehab instead of imprisonment.

Trafficking or supplying still leads to harsher sentences though, especially for repeat offenders.

So under current state law, activities like growing psilocybin mushrooms at home or handing out doses of LSD at festivals remain strictly prohibited with stiff felony penalties. But momentum for drug policy reform could mean changes ahead.

Recent Failed Attempts to Decriminalize Psychedelic Possession in California

Over the past few years there have been growing efforts at both the state legislature and local levels to roll back criminal penalties on personal psychedelic use and possession.

In 2019, Senator Scott Wiener introduced Senate Bill 519 seeking to decriminalize the possession and sharing of a range of psychedelic substances including LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, DMT and mescaline. It would have reduced penalties to misdemeanors while also funding research into therapeutic applications.

The ambitious bill did gain some traction by passing a key state Senate committee vote in 2021. But facing substantial political opposition, Wiener ended up shelving SB 519 for the year rather than risk it being watered down to just the study component.

In late 2022, Senator Wiener introduced a narrower Senate Bill 58 focused exclusively on decriminalizing personal possession, use and related activities involving plant-based psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms, peyote and ibogaine derived from natural sources. Synthetics like LSD were notably excluded from the revised bill after opposition from law enforcement groups doomed the original SB 519.

The pared back SB 58 successfully passed votes in both the Assembly and Senate chambers in August 2022 on its accelerated way to Governor Newsom’s desk. It marked the furthest any bill decriminalizing psychedelics has advanced so far in California.

However, in a surprise blow to drug policy reform advocates, Governor Newsom officially vetoed the legislation in September 2022. While thoughtfully acknowledging therapeutic potential, Newsom’s veto statement argued that more regulatory guidelines for safe supervised usage would need to be established before providing any legal exemptions under criminal law.

Wiener has vowed to continue pushing revised legislation in upcoming sessions with the governor’s recommendations in mind. So the fight over psychedelics legalization promises to remain an ongoing debate among California lawmakers.

Public Support Growing for Psychedelics Legalization and Therapeutic Use

Despite the governor’s recent veto, public opinion polls consistently show growing favorability toward psychedelic drug policy reform in California and beyond.

A May 2022 survey found nearly 70% of registered California voters now support legalizing the possession and use of certain psychedelics including psilocybin and LSD for personal use by adults 21 and over. National support for medical access is similarly strong.

Rising awareness of psychedelics’ safety profile compared to other recreational substances along with excitement over emerging mental health research is driving this attitudinal shift.

In recent years, scientists have produced remarkable results demonstrating significant benefits from carefully administered psychedelic therapies incorporating drugs like MDMA and psilocybin for anxiety, PTSD and treatment-resistant depression.

Rearing its head again, California SB 58 would have required the state to evaluate these findings and provide recommendations on how to regulate such treatments. The bill also mandated establishing statewide compassionate access programs offering these therapies to dying patients – similar to active programs utilizing psilocybin in Canada and Oregon.

Wiener has emphasized that creating legal frameworks enabling psychedelic therapies will provide the most compelling path toward one day decriminalizing personal possession as well.

“We have an mental health crisis on our hands with millions of people suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD and other conditions,” argues Wiener. “We owe it to them to explore all potential solutions — including therapy based on psychedelics, which have already shown incredible promise.”

While California hasn’t greenlit licensed psychedelic treatment centers yet, several other states and municipalities are proactively moving forward to support research and therapeutic access instead of waiting on federal policy to shift.

Will California Eventually Legalize & Regulate Psychedelics Like Psilocybin Mushrooms?

Psychedelic drug reform is accelerating quickly across other states right now. This momentum will likely reinforce advocacy efforts focused on California in the near future.

Most famously, the state of Oregon has taken the groundbreaking step of legalizing licensed psilocybin services combined with decriminalizing personal possession/use under strict rules via direct voter-driven ballot initiatives.

In November 2022, Colorado passed a similar ballot measure directing state health officials to build out regulations enabling psychedelic-assisted mental health treatment and supporting research. Possession itself remains illegal for now though.

This year, new bills introduced in states like Utah, Missouri, Connecticut, North Carolina and others call on health agencies to study psychedelic therapies or establish limited pilot programs granting medical access.

If signed into law, these policy changes will start producing valuable clinical data and implementation lessons that California can apply to its own future regulated access frameworks. They may also inform revisions to Wiener’s stalled bill addressing criminal penalties.

Nevada lawmakers have even proposed establishing state-sanctioned consumption spaces allowing supervised usage – an approach Wiener has recently signaled interest in incorporating.

Meanwhile several California cities like Santa Cruz and Oakland continue enacting local decriminalization measures for plant-based psychedelics, hoping to influence statewide action. Similar municipal-level movements are spreading quickly across the rest of the country as well.

Two separate campaign groups are also actively working to qualify ballot initiatives for California’s November 2024 election that could accomplish legalization goals through direct voter approval instead of the legislature.

One called the California Psilocybin Decriminalization Initiative would fully legalize personal growing, sharing and usage of magic mushrooms for those 21+.

A second named CART – the California Right to Treat Act – takes a medical-focused approach similar to Oregon. It would legalize psilocybin services under a regulated framework while also appropriating $5 billion for a new state Psychedelics Division charged with enabling research and compassionate access programs. With a proposed tax on licensed psychedelic therapies helping fund those efforts.

Both campaign committees have filed preliminary paperwork and need over 600,000 verified signatures to officially qualify by summer 2023 for next year’s ballot. But given strong public support surveyed already, there’s a realistic possibility California voters may directly move to legalize psychedelics as early as 2024.

What Are Possible Medical and Religious Defenses for Psychedelics Use?

Without statutory allowances under criminal law, medical and religious necessity defenses often face long odds in court currently when applied to prohibited psychedelics activities. But there are still arguments to be made.

On the healthcare front, doctors have a recognized right to recommend treatment they feel appropriate based on a patient’s condition as part of responsible care – even treatments that may require bending the law.

Patients in turn can claim medical necessity forced them to break rules that prevented accessing vital recommended therapy. Establishing no reasonable alternatives existed is key.

Some private underground psychedelic guides and spiritual facilitators likewise argue they serve legitimate purposes providing essential religious sacraments to those called upon by divine inspiration to seek transformative entheogenic experiences regardless of legal constraints.

While seldom successful, religious freedom principles enshrined in the 1st Amendment and Article 1 of California’s constitution do still provide potential protections according to some legal interpretations.

Certain Native American religious ceremonies utilizing peyote or other controlled psychedelics can sometimes qualify for exemptions as well under federal and state laws like AIRFA and RFRA. Indigenous leaders are actually split though on extending religious allowances to non-native practices.

These limited carve-outs aside, without explicit legislation or court precedents enabling medical and spiritual use defenses, most cases of illegal psychedelics possession and supply still face prosecutorial risk and steep sentences if caught.

Hopefully emerging research into promising mental health applications combined with growing public pressure may one day compel policy changes granting careful legal exceptions for therapy and religious exercise alike when appropriate. But more court challenges and legislative campaigns lie ahead before we reach that point in California.

How Could Legalization Impact Research into Psychedelic Therapies?

Psychedelic substances remain tightly restricted making clinical research very difficult. Removing criminal penalties under state law could help expand scientific inquiries in several key ways.

First and foremost, legitimizing personal possession and use enables the collection of valuable observational data tracking outcomes as more people participate in informal and underground-guided activities outside controlled studies.

Providing legal cover for retreat centers and spiritual groups to transparently facilitate sessions without fear of crackdowns will produce similar observational benefits.

From a study recruitment perspective, reduced stigma and secrecy will likely encourage more patients to come forward seeking treatments involving psychedelics. Bolstering participation numbers that help make research findings more robust and convincing.

On the supply end, cleared legal barriers opens doors for in-state cultivation by approved academic institutions and pharmaceutical companies. Ensuring reliable streams of clinical-grade psychedelic compounds like medical-use psilocybin.

With concerns over prosecution eliminated, medical doctors may also grow more comfortable referring appropriate patients to controlled trials and prescribe psychedelics off-label just as they’ve done with cannabis.

From a funding angle, newly taxed and regulated commercialization activities if eventually permitted could help finance government research grants and affordable patient access programs post-approval too.

Removing roadblocks to progress holds promise for unlocking psychedelics curative potential sooner through rigorously validated science. Saving lives from depression, anxiety, PTSD and beyond.

What Are Other States Doing Regarding Decriminalizing or Legalizing Psychedelics?

Beyond Oregon’s pioneering move to legalize licensed psilocybin services, several other states are rapidly enacting policy reforms aiming to support psychedelics research and future therapeutic access.

Here’s a brief overview of major developments across the country:

  • Colorado voters just passed Proposition 122 directing state agencies to regulate the therapeutic administration of natural psychedelics in licensed facilities by 2024. Personal possession remains illegal for now though.
  • The governor of Washington signed HB 1833 establishing a workgroup to explore possible regulations allowing psilocybin services and making recommendations by 2024.
  • In August 2022, the Connecticut governor signed HB 5385 launching a task force to analyze the medical value, risks and ideal accessibility models for MDMA and psilocybin.
  • Maryland now has a Psychedelics Work Group mandated under HB 1333 to examine possible policy changes enabling safe medical administration through approved research studies and therapeutic programs once federal restrictions ease.
  • The Missouri House introduced HB 2220 in 2023 calling for their DHSS to establish a certification program for psilocybin service centers. A Senate bill urges studying designation as Schedule IV.
  • Utah lawmakers recently proposed a bill ordering the creation of a restricted medical psilocybin access program.
  • The North Carolina House just passed HB 596 investing $5 million into new psychedelics research and convening a special advisory board on therapeutic access.

The Bottom Lines

California’s complex relationship with psychedelic drugs has seen evolving tides of permissiveness, prohibition, and now tentative steps toward selective decriminalization.

LSD and other classic psychedelics clearly still remain strictly illegal under the letter of state law today with stiff felony penalties for activities like possession with intent to sell or unlicensed distribution.

However growing public acceptance of their therapeutic potential paired with advancing policy reforms across the country could signal coming changes ahead for California as well.

If legislation like Senator Wiener’s bill eventually passes to facilitate medical access and research, it may open doors to fully legalizing personal use someday soon too.

Psychedelics proponents emphasize these substances offer transformative healing value for many, but also still carry risks requiring precautions. Voters and lawmakers face challenging questions balancing mental health benefits with public safety concerns surrounding irresponsible usage.

Ongoing debates in Sacramento and likely ballot initiative battles on the horizon guarantee California’s psychedelics policies will remain a key issue to watch in coming years with critical implications for science, health, justice and spirituality.

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