Zach Topley

With heightened interest in psilocybin’s potential to treat opioid addiction, depression, and end-of-life anxiety in the terminally ill, across the United States there is growing momentum behind movements seeking to decriminalize and legalize psilocybin. As a UCLA political science graduate originating from the UK, here I share my experiences working for Decriminalize California, a Beckley Foundation-backed open-source effort to decriminalize psilocybin in the Golden State.

In the heat of August last year, I ascended the escalator from the depths of the Hollywood & Vine Metro station and walked down the Hollywood Walk of Fame, past numerous strip clubs, the Capitol Records building, and the Church of Scientology headquarters, to a large 1960s-era apartment building in Whitley Heights that housed the nerve center of a new statewide political campaign to decriminalize psilocybin (the active component in “magic mushrooms”) in California, aptly named Decriminalize California. Only a few weeks prior, I had signed up to help with the campaign and, on a whim, I decided to attend a volunteer orientation day.

I was welcomed into a bright, clean, and airy room, the walls of which were neatly adorned with posters, including Pop Chart Lab’s Various Varieties of Fruits and Various Varieties of Vegetables, as well as printouts of slides explaining the biological action and pathways of psychedelic substances in the body, and a large AAA wall map of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, beneath which was a “control center” of sorts, a computer with three large monitors, and, opposite this, another computer attached to a smart TV that was used for video conferencing.

On one table were stacks of books, such as Psilocybin Mushrooms Legal Defenses by William Brodovich, and a binder full of business cards. At another table was a volunteer methodically using a badge press to make pin badges bearing the organization’s logo. As my first task, I was asked to read a chapter on statewide initiatives in the Guide to California Government by the League of Women Voters. Much of this I remembered from a course on California politics that I had taken at UCLA the previous year.

A Bold Approach

Although “decriminalization” typically means removing the legal penalties associated with personal possession of a drug, Decriminalize California’s broad and liberal language would also allow retail sales and commercial cultivation, as well as spiritual, religious, medical, and therapeutic use of psilocybin. It would also enable those convicted of past psilocybin-related crimes to have their sentences reviewed and, when appropriate, have their criminal records expunged.

The state’s constitutionally enshrined “right of initiative” has, since 1911, enabled Californians to put policies directly to the voters. The campaign would need to circulate its proposed legislation as a petition and collect over 620,000 valid signatures from registered voters (five percent of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election) over a six-month period to qualify the measure for the upcoming ballot, where its fate would be decided by California’s twenty million registered voters. It was a Herculean task facing the campaign, one which would cost several million dollars; to make things even more difficult, due to California’s antiquated laws on citizens’ initiatives, the campaign would need to collect signatures in inkelectronic signatures were not allowed.

The choice to operate such a campaign out of a private residence was one of many unorthodox tactics designed to cut costs. The campaign’s director Ryan Munevar had had great success in legalizing cannabis sales and production in local jurisdictions, most recently in Northern California. Through a combination of embedding signature clipboards in popular businesses and focusing on areas with high foot-traffic, Munevar was able to bring the cost-per-signature down to just pennies, with the entire effort costing only a few thousand dollars.

A similar approach to Munevar’s strategy in Monterey would be employed with our campaign. Patrons of health food stores, yoga studios, metaphysical stores, and cannabis dispensaries were the ideal demographic to sign an initiative such as ours.

A similar approach to Munevar’s strategy in Monterey would be employed with our campaign. Patrons of health food stores, yoga studios, metaphysical stores, and cannabis dispensaries were the ideal demographic to sign an initiative such as ours. Cannabis dispensaries in particular are so frequently patronized and so supportive of drug policy reform efforts that they could potentially serve as a very effective vehicle for passing future drug policy reform.

Embedding signature clipboards in brick-and-mortar businesses was mutually beneficial for the campaign and the business. The campaign would receive a steady and reliable stream of signatures. The business would be listed in a map of signing locations on the campaign website, which would serve as free advertising for them, driving new customers to their location.

Location was also key to the campaign’s approach. Los Angeles County alone is home to over five million registered voters, thousands of social media influencers, and, of course, much of the national media, such that the campaign could have been focused entirely within the County if it chose to do so. The campaign brought together an eclectic mix of people from all walks of life: attorneys, mycologists, musicians, artists, doctors, and even realtors and former law enforcement.

The campaign made heavy use of technology, such as using Zoom to conduct meetings (long before the coronavirus pandemic made this fashionable) and Slack to provide a forum for communication. These practices made the campaign more efficient in its efforts and gave us an edge. The initiative itself was drafted entirely within Google Docs and was fully open to public comment, with the aim being to make the process as transparent and collaborative as possible, in stark contrast to most other initiatives which are drafted in private. This increased brain power and scrutiny during the drafting process resulted in an altogether better law.

Forming Alliances

Shortly after my volunteer orientation day, I decided to reach out to academics and policymakers to ask for their support. A few weeks later on a vacation back home in London, I met with Robin Carhart-Harris, Director of Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research, as well as Amanda Feilding, Executive Director of the Beckley Foundation. Although Carhart-Harris was not at liberty to support anything openly political, Feilding was very supportive of our cause and wished to partner with our campaign. Soon thereafter, I met with her again, on this occasion at the Beckley Foundation’s offices in Oxfordshire, England, to discuss specifics and record an interview with her.

With the Beckley Foundation being responsible for so much research on the medical and therapeutic potential of psychedelics, as well as numerous policy papers on drug-policy reform, their willingness to lend their name to a campaign as nascent as ours was truly an honor, and gave us the confidence that we were approaching the issue in the right way. The partnership served to heighten the profile of the campaign and the Foundation provided valuable input during the initiative drafting process. Pleased with my work in brokering the partnership, Munevar made me the Outreach Director for the campaign, a public-relations role that involved serving as the liaison between the campaign and its partners, the press, and the public, but which also involved working on the drafting of legislation.

A British Perspective

Being from the United Kingdom myself, I find the federalism of the United States to be quite refreshing.

Being from the United Kingdom myself, I find the federalism of the United States to be quite refreshing. Drug policy in the United States, although largely stagnant at the federal level, comes in fifty different flavors at the state level, with thousands of variations at the county and city level; citizens’ initiatives are often responsible for this dynamic tapestry of policies. Although Californians may find citizens’ initiatives to be a nuisance, with their bombarding of the airwaves with commercials from “Yes” and “No” campaigns, and their prolonging the time spent in the voting booth, they are the envy of many less democratically-accessible countries.

The UK is of course no stranger to referenda, namely those concerning membership of the European Union or Scottish independencethe problem is that such political experiments are initiated by the government, not the citizenry, and have the tendency to create and exacerbate massive social divisions.

Comparatively, in the UK, drug policy reform has been virtually non-existent, held in place by conservative attitudes towards drugs, as well as a powerful alcoholic beverage lobby.

Comparatively, in the UK, drug policy reform has been virtually non-existent, held in place by conservative attitudes towards drugs, as well as a powerful alcoholic beverage lobby. All legislative changes come through the UK Parliament; the devolved nations (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), counties, and local councils lack the power to diverge from UK-wide drug policy. Citizens do not have the right of initiative, a right enjoyed by many in the United States.

The only changes in recent years have been to further strengthen existing prohibitionist policies. The Psychoactive Substances Act of 2016, a blanket ban on any substances capable of causing a psychoactive effect, put an end to a decades-long cyclical cat-and-mouse game in which new designer drugs, legally classified as “research chemicals”, would periodically hit the market and be subsequently banned a few years later, only to be replaced by new substances with minor adjustments made to the molecule. The only step taken in reforming drug policy has been a minor and largely superficial change to the medical status of cannabis. Any meaningful changes to drug policy are highly unlikely for the foreseeable future. The UK is a de facto Conservative one-party state held in-place by a first-past-the-post electoral system and powerful tabloid media.

A Sense of Purpose

Given psilocybin’s potential for treating mental illness, as well as its ability to cause increases in conscientiousness and openness, I could not help but feel that I was, at least indirectly, working to make California a more compassionate and equitable society.

Along my commutes on the Metro Red Line and my walks down Hollywood Boulevard, past towering office blocks, with the glittering mansions of the Hills in my periphery, and the scent of urine and cannabis smoke wafting through the air, I would pass by the homeless and navigate sidewalks littered with human excrement and discarded electric scooters. I realized that I lived in a society that led the world in technological progress yet willfully let the homeless die on its streets. Given psilocybin’s potential for treating mental illness, as well as its ability to cause increases in conscientiousness and openness, I could not help but feel that I was, at least indirectly, working to make California a more compassionate and equitable society.

Munevar frequently stressed that, as an organization, our objective should be to “put ourselves out of business”; in other words, decriminalize psilocybin and do it so successfully that we had no reason to continue existing. This was in direct opposition to other drug policy reform organizations that have been making a lifelong living out of ending the War on Drugs by employing a “baby steps” approach.

Art by Marialba Quesada.



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