Aspen considers the value of psychedelics for mental wellness
The Right to Heal Aspen is seeking to ensure that Aspen residents have safe access to plant medicines for healing purposes.
Since 500 BC, humans have been using psychedelics to explore the connection between nature and the divine, to deepen the connection with their community and as a celebration of the natural world.
In the late 1950s, scientists began conducting research on psychedelics for therapeutic use. By the 1960s, it was a burgeoning area of study with significant university-level research showing that “psilocybin could address a range of mental health issues with minimal risk and complication,” according to the Denver Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel’s 2021 comprehensive report.
And by 1970, research on over 40,000 patients in clinical studies demonstrated that “psilocybin is effective in treating psychosocial distress, anxiety and depression, improving quality of life, changing pain perception, improving plasma markers of stress and immune system functioning, reducing anxiety and fear of death in terminally-ill populations, and more.” There are also studies showing non-clinical benefits such as openness, feeling connected to nature and spirituality, according to the Mushroom Panel report.
Just as psilocybin was gaining recognition as a valuable tool for addressing mental health issues in the late ’60s, President Richard Nixon passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, bringing research to a grinding halt for decades.
In 2006, Roland Griffiths, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, published the first modern psilocybin research, ending a nearly 40-year-long drought of research on the subject. In recent years, the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, New York University Langone Health and other institutions have poured more resources into conducting extensive research on the effects of psychedelics.
Though some people have expressed concerns about the safety of hallucinogenic research with drugs such as psilocybin, hallucinogens are not physically toxic and are virtually non-addictive, according to research from Johns Hopkins University.
Currently, federal laws still prohibit scientific research on the social and therapeutic effects of psilocybin.
Psychedelic revival: Denver
In May 2019, Denver became the first city in the United States to decriminalize psilocybin, passing Initiative 301 with 50.64% of the vote. Since then, several other municipalities and the state of Oregon have followed suit.
The Denver Psilocybin Initiative decriminalized personal use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms by prohibiting the city from “spending resources to impose criminal penalties” for anyone over the age of 21. The initiative also created the Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel to assess and report on the effects of the ordinance.
The 2021 report from the panel reviewed data pertaining to the decriminalization of psilocybin to present to Denver City Council.
According to the report, arrests related to psilocybin decreased by more than half since the passage of the initiative, with most of the arrests involving other illicit substances.
According to observational studies done by Unlimited Science in collaboration with Johns Hopkins, the primary reasons for Coloradans consuming psilocybin were for self exploration or mental health purposes. The observational study also found significant improvements in anxiety and depression among users who responded to the survey.
After reviewing data from the 17-month period between the passing of Initiative 301 and the release of the report, the mushroom panel recommended that the Denver City Council implement harm reduction training for first responders. They also recommended that the city produce educational public service announcements and programs, create a data collection system for public safety monitoring, make sharing and communal use of psilocybin a low priority and look into how psychedelic therapy can be used to address mental health issues.
Right to Heal, Aspen
The Right to Heal, Aspen initiative, headed by Martha Hammel, aims to bring the progress being made in Denver and across the nation to the city of Aspen. The initiative’s goal is to ensure that Aspen residents have safe access to plant medicines for healing purposes.
“There’s so much positive evidence about the efficacy of plant medicines,” Hammel said. “We want to increase accessibility for Aspenites to use them.”
It would do so by preventing any resources from being spent on enforcement for adults over the age of 21 using plant medicines (excluding peyote due to its endangered status and the fact that it is already legal for ceremonial purposes) for therapeutic purposes, effectively decriminalizing plant medicines, and by creating an advisory board to develop educational strategies.
Hammel was inspired to start the initiative by her own experience with psychedelics, which helped her at a time when she was dealing with personal trauma.
The combination of her personal positive experiences with psychedelics and the multitude of research on plant medicines has led Hammel to believe that they can have a positive impact on Aspen residents when used properly.
Safe access includes an emphasis on education, as well as being able to ask for help with the assurance that one will not be arrested. The latter goal would require that the city of Aspen decriminalize plant medicines.
“We’re shining light on it so people can do these things safely,” Hammel said. “Safety includes not getting arrested.”
Since arrests for psychedelics are not a major concern for Aspenites — there has only been one arrest in the past five years, according to City Council member Ward Hauenstein — the initiative will devote the majority of its efforts to the education aspect.
To do so, the initiative proposes creating an advisory board to advise the city on how to facilitate education about the drugs and conduct first responder training. The group does not have the authority to make any direct changes to the city of Aspen’s legislation, since it is a citizen-led ballot initiative.
Hammel likens the education aspect for psychedelics to that of outdoor adventures such as kayaking or backcountry skiing.
“We have that culture here of people respecting the mountains, respecting the rivers, getting the mentorship … before venturing out into the wilderness,” Hammel said. “We’re trying to create that same culture.”
Similar to avalanche and river safety workshops, Hammel envisions a psychedelic citizens’ safety training led by members of the community who have expertise in how to conduct a safe and effective psychedelic experience.
Under city of Aspen law, plant medicines including psilocybin mushrooms have never been illegal, according to city of Aspen attorney Jim True. The prohibition is specified by federal and state laws. The initiative put forth by Right to Heal would address enforcement rather than decriminalization.
Currently, Right to Heal is in the signature-gathering phase of the initiative. In order to land the initiative on the ballot, 925 valid signatures of support from registered city of Aspen voters must be collected.
In reality, that requires collecting around 1,500 signatures, according to Hammel, since many of them will likely be thrown out. Reasons for discarding signatures include a signature from someone who is not a registered voter in the city of Aspen, an invalid address or a signature that does not match voter registration records.
The 180-day window to collect signatures began when the city of Aspen approved the petition for the initiative on April 11, making the deadline for collecting signatures Oct. 8.
Hammel expressed confidence that the initiative would be able to obtain the required number of signatures by the Oct. 8 deadline. Although it is too late to submit the petition for inclusion on the Nov. 8 ballot, the initiative may appear either on the March 7 ballot for the city’s General Election or trigger a special election, depending on when the petition is submitted.
Aspen City Council could decide at any time to pass the ordinance without a ballot initiative, although they have not taken any measures to do so.
“These steps can, and in my view, should still be taken locally to increase the upside of psychedelic healing which is profound, and limit the risks, especially for younger people,” council member Skippy Mesirow wrote in an email. “These guideposts can be adopted by a majority of City Council at anytime, which I would support.”
However, Hauenstein disagreed, saying that a decriminalization effort is not needed if law enforcement is not currently pursuing prosecution. Although he supports the use of plant-based therapy in a clinical setting, he believes protocols should be thoroughly investigated and developed before decriminalization takes place.
“I thought that the protocol should be in place before we decrim it,” Hauenstein said. “What their proposed ordinance was is that it would be decriminalized and then they would establish a working group and protocols and I just thought that those protocols should (already) be in place.”
In October 2021, The Aspen Times reported, “The majority of council members at the time said they were not interested in having the municipal government join the movement to promote psychedelic-assisted therapies.”
A balancing act
Aspen may be neglecting a powerful tool available for battling mental health issues: plant medicines.
As the nation reckons with restrictive legislation left over from the War on Drugs, significant progress is being made on the psychedelics front. The legalization of psychedelics in certain parts of the state and country has enabled research regarding the use of the drugs for therapeutic purposes.
Since modern psychedelic research has resumed, many studies have shown the ability of psychedelics to mitigate mental health issues ranging from substance abuse disorder to depression.
“The crisis is so bad that prohibiting options for people to heal is reprehensible,” Hammel said. “The evidence is pretty clear that plant medicines — when used safely and in ceremony and with respect to the medicine with set, setting and a sitter — can be transformational in really positive ways.”
Psilocybin can promote neurogenesis — the growth and repair of brain cells in the hippocampus, according to a 2013 University of South Florida study. Research on the effects of psilocybin shows that it may be effective at treating patients with PTSD, major depressive disorder and addiction.
“If you take a psychedelic and drop in and meet god, there might be something where it reprograms your nervous system in order to expect to see wonder and beauty and awe in all things, and that is powerful,” Hammel said.
Although mushrooms are certainly not the only solution to mental health issues and plant medicines are “not for everyone,” Hammel said her experience equipped her with the ability to cope with the complexities of life.
“I now look at things like grief as a psychedelic experience, where you have to just be OK with complex emotions and complex situations,” Hammel said. “It allows you to be more OK with complexity, and we live in a culture that doesn’t, in my experience, train us to be present in the face of complexity, complex emotions. Psychedelics have prepared me better to just sit in complex emotions. The best way to get through them is just being and allowing yourself to fully experience the pain and the joy and the discomfort and the pleasure that happens simultaneously.”
Aspen Hope Center Executive Director Michelle Muething believes that although psychedelics do have the potential to help treat mental health issues, there is too much that remains unknown. More research should be done before decriminalization happens on a local or state level, she said.
“We just have to remember if we’re going to treat this as an alternative form of treatment for those with a mental illness, if we want to equate mental illness to physical illness and mental wellness to physical wellness, it should be treated in the same manner and done through a physician’s office, done through a controlled environment, not in a boutique,” Muething said.
In the same way that licensed physicians must go through a rigorous training process and are held to high standards for their practice, administrators of psychedelics should go through a similar process, according to Muething.
She is concerned that decriminalizing psychedelics would open the door to carelessness since there are no Food and Drug Association regulations and no mandates regarding who can administer the drugs.
“We do know it is useful with screening, finding the appropriate people to be part of the treatment, doing therapy, following them after their treatments and making sure that they’re cared for in a controlled environment,” Muething said. “My biggest fear is that all of that will go away instantly.”
With the legalization of marijuana, Muething said children started using at much higher rates. She worries that the same would happen with the decriminalization of psychedelics.
“We’re a town that screams we have addiction issues,” Muething said. “Every time we turn around, people are talking about the substance use issue in Pitkin County. It would behoove us to hold on, in my opinion, to those cries and screams and complaints and let a little bit more research be done.”
Muething suggested that for people with serious, long-term mental health issues who feel strongly that they could be helped by psychedelics, they can enroll in a clinical trial without the need for decriminalization.
On a statewide level, Initiative 58 will be on the ballot in November with a similar goal to the Right to Heal initiative. The measure would create a new licensing pathway for treatment centers where people can consume plant medicines with a licensed practitioner and would prevent municipalities from prohibiting healing centers.
The measure would also create a framework for regulating the growth, distribution and sale of plant medicines and create an advisory board to work with legislators on rules related to the regulated access program.
While Initiative 58 would set up a regulated market for plant medicines, the Right to Heal initiative is only focused on decriminalization and community education.
The Fireside Project provides a psychedelic peer support line staffed by trained volunteers offering active listening, support during psychedelic experiences, integration and support by text message. It can be accessed by calling or texting 62-FIRESIDE.
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