BY CONNOR SHEETS MAY 16, 2023 5 AM PT
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The cannabis dispensary in a run-down shopping center in coastal Los Angeles County offers the standard fare: pre-rolled joints, vape pens, a wide range of edibles and a selection of smoking accessories.
But there’s one extra class of items that distinguishes this storefront on the county’s suburban fringe. A glass case displays “magic mushrooms” and a variety of items containing psilocybin, the compound that provides said magic to those who consume it.
A compound that is still illegal statewide.
As the state Legislature considers a bill to decriminalize several psychedelics including psilocybin, some L.A.-area businesses are openly selling the potent hallucinogen. Although cannabis is legal statewide, no Southern California municipality or county has followed the lead of Oakland, San Francisco and Santa Cruz by decriminalizing magic mushrooms.
Yet there’s a thriving market for the fungi and other psychedelics in L.A. Entrepreneurs have long taken advantage of the relative scarcity and high demand by selling them illegally, in gleaming storefronts and in parking lots.
The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department served about 50 search warrants at dispensaries selling magic mushrooms in the last six months alone. Meanwhile, there’s growing support for legalizing or decriminalizing psilocybin and other hallucinogens among psychologists, researchers, veterans’ advocates and others who’ve witnessed mental health turnarounds after psychedelic treatment.
As evidence of their therapeutic benefits grows and states including Oregon and Colorado legalize or decriminalize magic mushrooms, some Democrats in Sacramento are pushing to make a similar change in California.
A cannabis dispensary in Los Angeles County openly sells psychedelic mushrooms earlier this month. (Connor Sheets / Los Angeles Times)
Senate Bill 58, currently wending its way through the Legislature, aims to eliminate criminal penalties for possessing, growing and sharing small amounts of several psychedelic substances including psilocybin, ibogaine and DMT.
Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced a previous version of the bill last year; it was approved by the state Senate, but he said it was “gutted” by the state Assembly’s Public Safety Committee and never made it to the Assembly floor.
So Wiener and other backers of the bill worked with law enforcement stakeholders and others to address concerns about it, including by removing some synthetic substances including LSD and MDMA from the list of drugs to be decriminalized.
Wiener introduced the updated version of the legislation in December. It would not legalize psychedelics; there would still be penalties for their sale. The bill is now headed to the Senate floor. If approved there, it will go to the Assembly, where Wiener said “it’s not guaranteed to pass, but we have a path to pass” the new version of the legislation.
“The bill is very simple: it decriminalizes possession or use of certain psychedelics. It doesn’t make any sense to arrest people for possessing psychedelics,” Wiener said. “These substances are not addictive and they really help a lot of people with mental health and addiction challenges.”
At another coastal Los Angeles County cannabis dispensary a few miles from the first, customers hand their driver’s licenses over to a receptionist who asks them to turn their hats around and put their cellphones away before they take a seat in a small waiting room.
When it’s their turn to shop, they’re buzzed past a locked door into another high-ceilinged room to survey the psychoactive wares.
Most are there for the wide array of cannabis products and accessories, but in one corner of the shop, near the jars of pungent green marijuana buds, a larger glass jar is filled to the brim with stubby mushrooms, which have brown caps and psilocybin’s characteristic bluish tint. Clear plastic bottles of liquid described by their labels as “mushroom-infused” glow in the shelves’ neon strip lighting.
Gummies containing a psychedelic “mushroom blend” come in colorful toadstool-shaped pouches in flavors including Passion Tango Lemonade. Chocolate bars from two manufacturers — one of which is based in Oakland — contain a pre-measured dose of mushrooms in each square.
Over multiple visits to the two suburban dispensaries during the past month, The Times did not witness the sale of any mushrooms or psilobcybin-based products.
“I didn’t realize they sell ‘shrooms,” one customer said in the parking lot after purchasing a packet of cannabis edibles earlier this month. “That’s crazy. I might have to come back sometime.”
Still, an employee said they “sell quickly after we get them in. People really love them.” Both declined to give their name.
A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis marketplace in Los Angeles in 2019. (Richard Vogel / Associated Press)
Yet local dispensary owners and employees are frequently busted for selling mushrooms, psilocybin products and other illicit substances.
In April 2022, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department tweeted that during the previous half-year, it had made 277 arrests and seized “approximately 4,000 pounds of marijuana, 3,300 pounds of marihuana edibles, 29 pounds of mushrooms and 1,000 pounds of fentanyl” from “illegal marijuana dispensaries” in the county’s unincorporated areas.
It’s unclear whether the two dispensaries sell illegal drugs other than psilocybin mushrooms and their byproducts. None were on clear display at either location, and employees did not mention them during conversations about their offerings.
Still, Lt. Jay Moss of the Sheriff’s Department’s narcotics bureau said psychedelic mushrooms are commonly sold at dispensaries in L.A. County’s unincorporated areas, where even cannabis-only outlets are illegal.
“They won’t typically openly sell them,” he said. “They’ll usually have a small amount — two to 10 pounds, I’d say — of mushrooms, and you have to ask for it because they don’t have it on display. They might be somewhere out of view, like in the back.”
Describing illegal dispensaries as “a really big problem,” Moss said that despite the Sheriff’s Department’s efforts, the illicit industry persists because it’s so lucrative.
“We investigate and serve search warrants at these illegal dispensaries in attempts to shut them down,” he said. “The analogy is kind of like whack-a-mole: you shut them down and they reopen in another location.”
In February 2017, Jesse Gould found himself in a situation he never would have anticipated: deep in the remote wilds of Peru’s Amazon rain forest, drinking ayahuasca tea for the fourth time in a week.
He was there not to get high or to see the serpent that is said to appear in the hallucinations of many who consume the psychedelic plant, which some Indigenous people in South America revere as a powerful shamanic medicine.
He instead was participating in the ayahuasca retreat in hopes of finding relief from the anxiety, PTSD and depression he experienced after three tours in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger.
The experience in Peru was challenging but transformative, Gould said, and he “came out the other end sort of reset in a lot of ways and with new understandings and perspectives on what I was struggling through.”
A growing body of research has shown that therapy incorporating psychedelics can be a highly effective treatment option for an array of mental health diagnoses. Yet some worry that making them more easily available could expose users to rare but sometimes serious potential harms of psychedelics — including side effects such as confusion and anxiety and negative experiences such as “bad trips” and panic attacks.
Gould, who lives in New York City, emphasized that psychedelics are “definitely not a panacea.” But ever since his ayahuasca experience, he said, “things that would trigger anxiety severely no longer have that same sort of impact.”
Ayahuasca had such a positive influence on his life that later that year he founded the Heroic Hearts Project, a national nonprofit that helps connect veterans who suffer from PTSD with safe, psychedelic-based treatment and scholarships to help pay for retreats.
Today, Heroic Hearts is part of a coalition of groups and advocates pushing for the regulated legalization of various naturally occurring hallucinogens including ayahuasca, psilocybin and mescaline — as well as other psychoactive drugs with promising therapeutic potential such as ketamine and MDMA.
In California, the organization has worked to build coalitions of veterans who support expanding access to such treatments, and it has spoken with state legislators about SB 58. Gould’s sense is that the entreaties have been well-received and that the bill has a good shot at clearing the Legislature this year.
“We just tell them, ‘Hey, this is my story. This is why I’m in favor of changing policy around psychedelics. And this is why we think it’s important for the future,’ ” he said. “We can kind of illuminate the fact that, hey, people are actually healing from this.”