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Colorado Voted to Decriminalize Psilocybin and Other Psychedelics

6 minute read

Colorado voters have approved the broadest psychedelic legalization in the U.S., which would decriminalize five psychedelic substances and enable adults to receive psychedelics at licensed centers. The Associated Press called the vote for the measure, Proposition 122, on Friday morning; 92% of the votes were in as of 11 a.m., with 52.3% of voters in favor.

Kevin Matthews, coalition director for Natural Medicine Colorado, which advocated for the measure, called the victory a “tremendously historic moment.” In Colorado, which he noted is often ranked as one of the states with the poorest mental health, he said there is a need for more mental health treatment options.

“The intent was to make these medicines accessible to as many people in Colorado who could possibly benefit, and especially for those who are suffering from things like major depression, extreme anxiety, PTSD, end-of-life distress, and other ailments,” he said. “People at the very least deserve the choice and the freedom to work with these medicines.”

Statewide legalization was also a big step forward for Colorado activists like Matthews, who successfully campaigned to make Denver the first U.S. city to decriminalize psilocybin in 2019. The ballot measure decriminalizes the possession of certain psychedelic drugs for personal use in the state and specifically legalize psilocybin, the psychedelic component of magic mushrooms, for use at licensed facilities starting in 2024. (In those ways, it’s similar to 2020 measures approved in Oregon, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs in 2021 and is launching a psilocybin access program in 2023.)

However, Colorado’s Proposition 122 goes further in several ways. In addition to decriminalizing possession, it decriminalizes the growing and sharing of five psychedelics for personal use: psilocybin, psilocyn (a psychedelic also found in magic mushrooms), dimethyltryptamine (commonly known as DMT, which is found in plants and animals, including certain tree frogs), ibogaine (derived from the bark of an African shrub), and mescaline (which is primarily found in cacti; however, Prop 122 excludes peyote). It also clears a pathway for the use of all these psychedelics at “healing centers”—facilities licensed by the state’s Department of Regulatory Agencies where the public can buy, consume, and take psychedelics under supervision. The regulated access program would initially be limited to psilocybin, which would launch in late 2024, but if recommended by a Natural Medicine Advisory Board appointed by the governor, it could be expanded to include DMT, ibogaine, and mescaline in 2026.

The vote is a major step forward for the so-called “psychedelic renaissance”—the re-emergence of interest in psychedelics among scientific researchers, investors, and the general population. While psychedelics are still Schedule I substances and therefore illegal federally, scientific research into the mental-health benefits of psychedelics has generated hope that psychedelics can help treat conditions including depression, substance-use disorder, and anxiety. In the next few years, experts expect the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to consider, for the first time, the potential mental-health benefits of MDMA and psilocybin; the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has said that it expects to apply for the approval of MDMA as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder next year.

Proposition 122 did not have an easy path to victory. Even some advocates for broader access to psychedelic research opposed it, expressing concern that psychedelic drugs haven’t yet been researched for long enough and in enough people to warrant legalization. Psychedelics also can present serious health risks, which may become more common as a wider group of people start to use them; for instance, ibogaine is known to sometimes trigger heart issues. Modern psychedelic research is designed to minimize risk, participants who may be more vulnerable to adverse effects like psychosis are usually excluded from research; in a broad population, more serious side effects could be observed, experts say.

Opponents to the measure have expressed concern that the use of psychedelics, even by adults, would increase children’s exposure to the drugs (although the measure states that access would be limited to people over 21.) Some have also expressed concern about the requirement that the drugs be delivered at licensed healing centers. Matthew Duffy, the founder of SPORE (the Society for Psychedelic Outreach Reform and Education) and a leader of the campaign that decriminalized psychedelics in Denver, argues that the statute would put psychedelics under corporate control. He urged Coloradans to vote against the measure in a September opinion piece in the Denver Post, calling it a “corporate power grab” because it would limit access only to centers owned by corporations, and warned that because the rule doesn’t specify the amount people can possess, it would be up to law enforcement’s discretion. Matthews, meanwhile, countered that there are provisions in the measure to protect small business, including a limitation on an individual having a stake in more than five locations.

This concern was echoed by a bipartisan group of Colorado elected officials, who expressed their opposition to the measure in an October letter, as Colorado Public Radio reported. While saying that psychedelic research “holds early promise,” they wrote, “this ballot measure is not based on science and will prematurely unleash a new commercial industry, driven by out-of-state funders that are seeking to capitalize on increasing recreational drug use in Colorado.” They also expressed concern that unlike in Oregon—where, during the 2022 midterms, voters decided whether psilocybin-related businesses would be permitted in their counties—Colorado’s program would be implemented across the state.

Nicole Foerster, an activist for Decriminalize Boulder, wrote that they welcome the portion of the measure that decriminalized psychedelics, but warned that a regulated use approach could result with some people being incarcerated while others profit from psychedelic substances. They noted that the measure had passed without the support of many grassroots activists for psychedelics.

“Prop 122 favors commercial interest at the expense of legacy and Indigenous stewards of the medicines. But it also contains the most progressive decriminalization language in history,” they said. “It is imperative that we continue to fight for policy that is anti-carceral and places no limits upon our ability to relate to nature.”

Nevertheless, the Colorado vote shows how much psychedelics’ reputation has improved over the last few years. Experts credit not only the wealth of new science about psychedelics, but also stories of individual experiences of psychedelics—including those of veterans who struggled with their mental health featured in places like Netflix’s 2022 documentary How to Change Your Mind, which was based on Michael Pollan’s book of the same name.

According to Matthews, the victory in Colorado is a sign that the movement has staying power. “Our success with this campaign is the next step in a much larger conversation,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do, and it really starts with education: to make sure that people really understand the power of these medicines and how to use them responsibly.”

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