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Proposition 122 legalized some psychedelics in Colorado. Now the state has to come up with regulations

Psychedelic Mushrooms Ballot Measure
Peter Dejong
In this Aug. 3, 2007, file photo, psilocybin mushrooms are seen in a grow room at the Procare farm in Hazerswoude, central Netherlands. Oregon's attorney general has approved language for a ballot measure to make psychedelic mushrooms legal.

When voters approved Proposition 122 last month, Colorado became the second state in the US to legalize the use of psilocybin, the psychedelic substance in so-called magic mushrooms. Oregon decriminalized it in 2020.

Proposition 122 does not allow for the sale of psilocybin. It decriminalizes the personal possession and use of psilocybin in Colorado and allows Coloradans to legally grow the mushrooms it’s extracted from. The ballot measure also creates a framework for psilocybin to be used in mental healthcare and therapeutic settings — although the first clinics offering the substance are likely still a few years away.

First, Governor Jared Polis has until Jan. 31 to appoint a 15-member Natural Medicine Advisory Board to develop regulations, licensing rules and training programs for providers. The board will make its first recommendations by Sep. 30, and state-regulated clinics could start offering psilocybin by late 2024. Then, starting in 2026, officials can consider similar programs for other psychedelic substances like DMT, ibogaine and mescaline, excluding peyote. All of these substances, including psilocybin, remain illegal under federal law.

Kevin Matthews, one of the organizers behind Proposition 122, says the ballot measure gives Coloradans access to more tools for treating mental health issues at a time when mental health resources are already limited in Colorado.

“Psilocybin can be an incredibly effective therapeutic option for people to treat things like depression and anxiety, potentially PTSD, end of life distress,” he says.

Matthews was also a leader behind the successful push to decriminalize psilocybin in Denver in 2019, and it resulted in no public health or safety issues. But people still have safety concerns around these substances, and he says Proposition 122 is an opportunity to further research psychedelics and educate people about them.

“We're working with 50 years of prohibition and a lot of misinformation around psychedelics, especially psilocybin,” says Matthews. “A lot of it comes down to changing hearts and minds.”

Proposition 122 was approved only by a thin margin, with about 51% of the vote, so there are many Coloradans who oppose it. Kevin Sabet leads the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions. He opposed Proposition 122, but he also says there needs to be more research into psilocybin and other substances.

“There is some promising research being done around the country,” says Sabet, “That takes some time, so we need to do a lot more research on it. And I don't think we should be rushing through it with a ballot initiative.”

Sabet is also worried decriminalizing so-called magic mushrooms will drive people to sacrifice safety in order to make money.

“My other concern is that you have another for-profit industry whose business it is to increase intoxication and sale so that they can please shareholders rather than protect the public health,” he says.

But Proposition 122 does not allow for the sale of psilocybin. Unlike cannabis, there are no plans for commercial sales. Instead, people can use it with a professional or cultivate it themselves.

“The reason for all of this is to allow people to have access to these medicines so that they can have a choice and how they're treating their mental health,” says Veronica Lightening Horse Perez, a Denver-based psychedelic therapist and supporter of Proposition 122.

Perez, who is Native American, says it’s about more than that. It’s also essential to acknowledge the relationship between psychedelics and Indigenous people. Proposition 122 requires that the Natural Medicine Advisory Board include Native American representation.

“It's very easy to get lost in a rulemaking process and forget, as has been done throughout history, about indigenous people in their contribution,” she says. “We can create a model in which it is recognized, in which we are asking for indigenous reciprocity, remembering that there is a sacred and cultural use and that this population did keep it sacred.”

Psychedelics have been part of human life around the world for thousands of years. Now, Perez and other proponents hope there's an opportunity to honor sacred Indigenous traditions and expand mental healthcare at the same time.

I’m the Statehouse Reporter at KUNC, which means I help make sense of the latest developments at the Colorado State Capitol. I cover the legislature, the governor, and government agencies.