RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A push to reduce the punishment for adult possession of psychedelic mushrooms is under review in the Virginia General Assembly.
At least one other state and D.C. have passed similar policies so far. If it survives in Virginia, which is now largely under Republican control, it would put the Commonwealth at the forefront of a growing movement to treat mental health conditions.
The bill presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday would change the possession penalty from a Class 5 felony to a civil fine of up to $100.
Even though lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed support for the bill, the same panel chose to revisit the legislation next week rather than advancing it in the legislative process. In the meantime, the sponsor of the bill is considering amendments to make it more palatable to a GOP-controlled House.
Will Nelson, co-founder of Decriminalize Nature, was among those who spoke in support of the bill. He said he turned to mushrooms to cope with severe depression after losing his mother in 2018.
“It really completely changed the way I saw things and helped me through my grieving process. What I realized is that these are illegal but they have this tremendous benefit,” Nelson said. “Why aren’t we allowed to help people heal?”
The committee also heard from Wyly Gray, the founding director of Veterans of War. He said plant-based medicine helped him cope with PTSD and overcome suicidal thoughts. Gray said this bill could be a vital tool to combat the mental health crisis among veterans, who often have to travel to other countries to access psychedelics.
“This testimony before you today is a direct result of the efficacy of these solutions. My community needs this medicine,” Gray said.
It’s stories like this that are winning over some lawmakers like Senate Republican Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City), who expressed support for the bill during the committee meeting.
Senator Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield), who is sponsoring the bill, said she got involved after being approached by a local counselor who treats people with various mental health conditions.
“I’ll admit to you I was a little cautious myself. I’m someone who is a parent and has seen the consequences of substance abuse disorders in many people so I want to be very careful, but the research out there has convinced me,” Hashmi said.
A representative from Virginia Commonwealth University, where some of this research is being done, said decriminalizing possession of these mushrooms would make it easier to conduct observational studies to learn more about appropriate dosages, for example.
Asked if she views this as the first step towards legalization, Hashmi said she’s in no rush to do that.
Democrats faced backlash last session from some who felt they moved forward with marijuana legalization too quickly after decriminalizing the drug in 2020. Many parts of that legislation, including how the state will move forward with recreational sales, remain unfinished as the 2022 session gets underway.
Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg) didn’t openly oppose the bill but questioned why the state wouldn’t start with legalizing mushrooms for medical use, as the General Assembly did with marijuana. He said he was swayed by the testimony on Wednesday but he thinks the bill, as its currently written, doesn’t have enough safeguards to survive a Republican-controlled House of Delegates.
For others, it’s a non-starter. Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Culpeper) views psychedelics as a different ball game than marijuana and he’s concerned about the message it will send to kids if the penalty is lowered.
“I think it’s ridiculous as a former narcotics detective myself,” Reeves said. “So are we going to do heroin next? Is it OK to do that? I mean where do we draw the line on some of these things?”
Governor Glenn Youngkin hasn’t taken a public stance on the issue but, as a known skeptic of marijuana legalization, it may be a tough sell.
While the Senate version of the bill addresses psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, a similar House bill from Del. Dawn Adams (D-Richmond) would also decriminalize peyote and ibogaine.