What’s next for legalized psilocybin? An Aspen panel discusses long, messy road ahead
The passage of Proposition 122 in November marked a long, strange trip for Colorado. But it appears that trip has just begun, stumbling out of the gate.
The regulators responsible for setting the rules governing psilocybin use have told the Legislature they have little to no clue how to do that. There is no timeline for the state Senate to approve Gov. Jared Polis’ 15-member Natural Medicine Advisory Board, which includes Aspen City Councilman Skippy Mesirow.
That’s just the start of the hurdles to Colorado’s work to build a legal industry in the coming years around psychedelics as medicine.
The process will be messy, acknowledged Courtney Barnes, a social justice attorney and leader in drug policy reform, speaking last week at a panel discussion at the Here House in downtown Aspen.
She joined Kevin Matthews, one of the leading psychedelic policy reform professionals in the country who helped lead efforts to decriminalize psilocybin in Colorado; Melissa Stangl, CEO and founder of Soltara Healing Center in Costa Rica and Peru; and Mesirow, who helped organize a citizen-led initiative in Aspen to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms before Proposition 122 was passed.
Martha Hammel, founder of the Aspen Psychedelic Resource Center — formerly known as Right to Heal Aspen — hosted the discussion last Thursday.
In November 2022, Colorado voters supported Proposition 122, or Access to Natural Medicines, becoming the second state to do so, following Oregon. The proposition effectively decriminalizes plant medicines, with the exception of peyote, meaning Colorado residents 21 years or older can grow, share and consume some forms of hallucinogenic/entheogenic plants and fungi as long as they’re doing so in accordance with local zoning laws. The drugs remain illegal federally.
In addition, this measure will allow state-mandated healing centers to administer psychedelics to patients in supervised settings. Officials estimate healing centers will roll out in Colorado late in 2024.
Last month, Gov. Jared Polis appointed Mesirow and 14 others statewide to the Natural Medicine Advisory Board.
“I got to know the world of plant medicines at a cursory level initially and got to meet professionals, the therapists, the underground workers, the clinicians, the scientists. I was really blown away by what was possible,” Mesirow said. “So about three years ago, give or take, at a City Council meeting, I simply made a statement which is Aspen has among the worst mental health problems anywhere in our country.”
The suicide rate in Aspen is three times the median in the country, according to National Geographic. However, Aspen is not an anomaly in the state with regard to higher rates of mental health issues.
A 2022 study from the Mental Health in America organization found that Colorado ranked 51st in the country for high rates of mental and behavioral issues among adults and low access to care.
According to Matthews, the language from that study was instrumental in gaining Colorado voters’ support for Proposition 122.
“In terms of our campaign, really focusing on the therapeutic model and why this is good for Colorado right now, for the folks who want to utilize alternatives to treat their mental and behavioral health challenges,” said Matthews.
Some scholars believe that the use of psychedelics could be revolutionary in treating patients with illnesses like depression, anxiety and PTSD.
In a state like Colorado, access to quality natural medicines may help curb the mental health crisis, advocates for natural medicines believe. However, it will be years before the benefits or negative effects of this legislation are better understood.
For now, there is evidence that the decriminalization of psychedelic mushrooms in Denver in 2019 has “not since presented any significant public health or safety risk in the city,” according to the Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel’s Comprehensive Report in 2021.
Among the early hurdles has been setting up the Natural Medicine Advisory Board. Following the appointments, the state Senate has to confirm the governor’s appointees. Matthews said there’s no clear timeline when these appointees will be finalized, presenting a potential setback for healing centers to roll out.
“I’ve been told that we should expect that to move at the speed of the Senate,” Mesirow said. “But they’re trying to move forward as quickly as possible.”
A bigger drawback is the agency charged with drafting the regulations governing the use of psychedelic mushrooms. The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies told the Legislature the mission falls well outside its normal roles with banking and insurance and the like. Cannabis regulation is handled by The Colorado Department of Revenue, and hemp is handled by the Department of Agriculture.
According to The Colorado Sun, “DORA says it has no idea what it’s doing when it comes to psilocybin, the hallucination-inducing compound derived from psychedelic mushrooms.”
The agency’s lack of experience could lead to challenges later with regard to corporate control of psychedelics and healing centers, according to Barnes.
“There’s a lot of ambiguity in Proposition 122 — to its credit and detriment — on rule-making,” said Barnes. “The fact that DORA is going to have to decide all of this from an ultimate standpoint, and they are an agency that has no experience at all in the space. It’s going to be messy.”
Stangl, whose Soltara Healing Center offers therapeutic ayahuasca ceremonies in Costa Rica, said she has observed the pros and cons of regulated access and the decriminalization of psychedelics.
“I think we’ve really understood the level of depth and care that needs to go into this journey because there’s physical safety involved,” said Stangl. “There’s emotional and psychological safety involved. There’s spiritual and energetic safety involved. I mean, this is a really holistic framework.”
The Soltara Healing Center is led by Shipibo people, an indigenous group from Peru who carry the medicine of ayahuasca in a lineage-based tradition, Stangl said.
With the rollout of Proposition 122, it’s important for legislators to recognize how natural medicines are rooted in indigenous traditions, according to Matthews.
“In terms of considerations for indigenous reciprocity in Prop 122, that’s a big part of the reason why we have the removal of criminal penalties and the decriminalization component because with that it allows people have people who carry lineage and who are doing this work, if they lived here in Colorado, to do so without fear of any criminal repercussions or law enforcement activity,” said Matthews.
With this, three indigenous people have been appointed to Gov. Polis’ Natural Medicine Advisory Board.
“To me, with a state level advisory panel that’s helping to create a first of its kind of framework here in the state — where we have those voices at the table being represented — it makes me feel better that at the very least we’re taking a step in the right direction with this and doing the best we can to make sure that members of the indigenous community and other folks across the state have an opportunity to participate in the process,” said Matthews.
As Proposition 122 unfolds, there’s still plenty of room for community involvement, Mesirow said. He suggested that people who want a voice in this process email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To reach Kristen Mohammadi, call 304-650-2404 or email email@example.com.