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Should psychedelics be decriminalized in California? The debate over current legislation is intensifying

The state of Oregon has already decriminalized certain psychedelics, along with the cities of Seattle, Denver, Washington DC, Santa Cruz and Oakland.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — Following three deployments to Afghanistan as a U.S. Army Ranger, veteran Jesse Gould returned to civilian life a changed man, dealing with intense bouts of anxiety and depression. 

He was ultimately diagnosed with PTSD.

"There was nothing I could point to that made me happy, so I knew something had to change," Gould said. "Otherwise, I feared the worst at that point."

After some initial hesitation, and doing a lot of research, he decided to try a psycho-active plant-based treatment called ayahuasca.

"I just decided to take that leap of faith," he told News 8.

He traveled to Peru for a week-long retreat where, over the course of multiple indigenous ceremonies, he took ayahuasca in a closely-monitored environment.

"For me, there were very tangible benefits," Gould said.

Some studies show ayahuasca, whose active ingredient is the hallucinogenic drug DMT, can create feelings of euphoria, helping to treat anxiety and depression.

Gould said the treatment has helped him to deal more effectively with the trauma he had suffered.

"By the end of it, it was extremely apparent that it was completely different from what I had been told - the 'evil' that drugs are," Gould added.

Gould has now formed a nonprofit called Heroic Hearts Project, connecting veterans struggling with mental health issues to psychedelic therapy options.

He's also a vocal supporter of California Senate Bill 519 (SB519), statewide legislation that aims to decriminalize the possession and use of psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, DMT, mescaline, and MDMA.

Already, the state of Oregon has decriminalized certain psychedelics, along with the cities of Seattle, Denver, Washington DC, and here in California, Santa Cruz and Oakland.

"These drugs are saving people's lives," said State Senator Scott Wiener, who drafted this bill last year, and plans to re-introduce it in the upcoming legislative session.

"We have failed," Wiener told News 8. "The war on drugs has been an abysmal failure, so let's take a different approach and acknowledge that drug use is a health issue and not a criminal issue."

However, SB519 is facing intense opposition from a growing chorus of critics, from law enforcement to religious groups to anti-drug abuse nonprofits such as CASA, or Community Action Service Advocacy, based in San Diego.

"This isn't about stopping putting people in jail for using psilocybin, which really doesn't occur," said Dana Stevens, CASA's executive director. "It's really about just normalizing another whole layer of drug culture, and that's troubling because we see what happens to kids."

Senator Wiener counters that this legislation is specifically for those 21 and older.

"I don't see any protections," Stevens responded. "Just saying that it's for people 21 and over doesn't do it."

"Teenagers are using psychedelics now," Wiener said. "This isn't going to increase it or decrease it. It just means we are not going to be arresting people and throwing them in prison for possessing and using."

Jason Baker, a public health advocate for CASA, does not agree.

"We do not know the long-term repercussions of what we're doing here," Baker told News 8. 

"My concern is that these drugs get into the hands of people that are already struggling with mental health issues and we just amplify the problem that we already have," he said. 

Dr. Carl Hart, a neuroscientist at Columbia University who specializes in substance abuse and addiction, said that current research shows certain psychedelics, like MDMA, have shown promise in addressing mental health conditions.

"They can be hugely beneficial," Dr. Hart told News 8. "The scientific literature has shown this over and over. Study after study has shown that the drug decreases symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder."

Another recent study indicates that psilocybin, taken for major depressive disorder, showed significant results after four weeks.

However, Stevens believes these drugs should first be approved by the FDA, not the state legislature, before being used as treatment.

"Take it through the proper scientific rigors of how we create medicine in America," Stevens said. "We have a system, and we've seen that system work."

Jesse Gould, though, said he may not be alive had he not found a treatment that worked for him.

"I know that if I kept rolling the dice that it eventually wouldn't go in my favor," he added. "So I am fortunate that I did find this when I did because everybody's luck runs out."

This legislation has already been passed by the State Senate and could be voted on by the Assembly in the spring or summer of next year. 

For a closer look at the actual bill, click here

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