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Colorado legalized certain psychedelics last year. Now lawmakers have to regulate them

Douglas holds a handful of recently harvested psilocybin mushrooms, which sell for about $200 an ounce.
Esther Honig
Harvest Public Media
In November, Colorado voters decided to legalize psilocybin, the psychoactive chemical in magic mushrooms, pictured here, for personal and therapeutic use, along with several other natural psychedelic substances. State lawmakers are introducing a bill this week to roll out their oversight plan.

Five months after Colorado voters approved Proposition 122, also called the Natural Medicine Health Act of 2022, lawmakers are unveiling their plan to implement the ballot measure, which decriminalized the use of the several plant-based psychedelic substances. The measure is perhaps best known for its decriminalization of so-called magic mushrooms.

A new bill that will be formally introduced this week would create regulations and an oversight structure for the substances, which it refers to as natural medicine, and for businesses that provide them.

Colorado State Sen. Steve Fenberg,
David Zalubowski
Colorado State Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, prepares to address fellow lawmakers as the legislative session opens in the Senate chambers Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Denver. Colorado is the second state in the union to legalize the use of natural medicines.

“The proposition did two things. In some ways, they're sort of in conflict with each other, but it’s a natural conflict that we just need to manage,” bill sponsor Senate President Steve Fenberg told KUNC. “It created a regulated process, and a regulated industry essentially, but then also decriminalized personal use.”

Personal use

Specifically, Proposition 122 decriminalized possession and personal use of psilocybin and psilocin, the psychoactive chemicals in psychedelic mushrooms, for Coloradans 21 and over. The proposition also includes provisions for ibogaine, mescaline, and dimethyltryptamine, also known as DMT. Coloradans will also be allowed to grow and share those substances, including through the cultivation of psychedelic mushrooms. The ballot measure did not, however, allow for the sale of any of the substances.

The new implementation bill clarifies the decriminalization and establishes legal punishments for violations. It states that “a person who is 21 years of age or older who possesses, consumes, shares without remuneration, or cultivates natural medicine or natural medicine product does not violate state law.”

For people under the age of 21 who possess or consume the natural psychedelics included in the bill, the first offense would include a fine of up to $100 and up to four hours of substance use education and counseling. For a second offense, the same penalties would apply, plus up to 24 hours of “useful public service.” It also would make it a crime for anyone to use the substances in public, punishable as a drug petty offense, which also has a maximum penalty of $100 in fines.

The bill only allows for personal cultivation of natural medicine on private property. Cultivation outside of private property would draw fines of up to $1,000. However, someone who grows the substances using compressed gas or other flammable materials without a license could be charged with a level 2 drug felony.

It also clarifies protections for those who legally use or possess natural psychedelic substances. For example, use or possession of the substances by itself would not constitute child abuse and would not be a valid reason for denial of health insurance or organ donation. Law enforcement would also not be able to use it as a basis for additional searches or investigation.

Additionally, the bill would prevent local governments from adopting or enforcing laws that conflict with state-level decriminalization, although they would be able to implement some regulations.

Natural medicine businesses

Proposition 122 also paved the way for psychedelic mushrooms to be used in mental healthcare and therapeutic settings. It requires that the state establish a system for licensed facilities, or healing centers, that can provide the substance to people under supervision. The bill also allows for qualified individuals to provide psychedelic therapy sessions using psilocybin.

“Psilocybin can be an incredibly effective, you know, therapeutic option for people to treat things like depression and anxiety, potentially PTSD, end of life distress,” Kevin Matthews, one of the organizers of Proposition 122 said after voters approved it in November. “Coloradans simply deserve another option in their toolkit of being able to responsibly use these medicines in a way that can really maximize the therapeutic benefits.”

Other than healing centers, natural medicine businesses include cultivation, testing, and manufacturing facilities. The bill would prohibit those businesses from operating within 1,000 feet of a school or another natural medicine business.

Neither Proposition 122 nor the implementation bill permits businesses to sell natural psychadelic substances like magic mushrooms. They will only be able to provide them to patients, free of charge, for therapeutic use under supervision in licensed facilities.

Licensing authority would be split between two government agencies. The Department of Revenue, through a new Division of Natural Medicine, would be in charge of issuing licenses to natural medicine businesses. It would also develop and enforce regulations around those businesses. The already-existing Department of Regulatory Agencies would license and regulate natural medicine facilitators, which are individuals qualified to provide psychedelic therapy to others using natural substances.

The two departments will start accepting license applications on December 31, which is three months later than what was listed in the proposition.

The bill also would create the Natural Medicine Advisory Board to study issues around natural medicine substances and make recommendations to regulatory authorities.

Indigenous use of natural psychedelics

Many of the substances that fall under natural medicine have been used for thousands of years by Indigenous people, and the bill includes protections for Indigenous spiritual and religious practices that incorporate them.

The bill states that “considerable harm may occur to Indigenous people, communities, cultures and religions if natural medicine is overly commodified, commercialized, and exploited in a matter that results in the erasure of important cultural and religious context.”

It allows for the use of psychedelic natural medicine in religious ceremonies, as long as it’s not used to make money. It would also require authorities to create and work with an Indigenous advisory group to work with authorities to prevent exploitation of Indigenous culture and the over-commercialization of natural medicine. The advisory group would also advise on natural medicine services for Indigenous communities.

“It's very, very easy to forget the history of the land, especially when a lot of people would prefer the history of this land be forgotten,” Veronica Lightning Horse Perez, a Native American organizer behind Proposition 122, said. “My personal belief is that it would be ignorant not to tap into that generational knowledge and wisdom, where the practices and the use of these medicines were never lost, where it's already integrated into community, so they know how community can respond and work with these medicines.”

The advisory group would also be involved in any conversations around decriminalizing peyote, a plant that can be used to create the psychedelic mescaline. Proposition 122 did not legalize peyote because it’s considered sacred to many Indigenous cultures.

Colorado is only the second state in the US to legalize the use of psychedelic substances after Oregon, which decriminalized psilocybin in 2020. However, Proposition 122 was ultimately approved only by a thin margin, with about 54% of the vote, and there were many Coloradans who opposed it, including the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions.

“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,” Kevin Sabet, the group’s president, said in December. “My biggest concern is that the vulnerable are going to be taken advantage of, and they're going to be grasping at psychedelics as a cure for things instead of proper medications.”

He also had concerns that commercializing psychedelic substance use will drive businesses to sacrifice safety in order to make money.

Once officially introduced, the bill will be assigned to a legislative committee, which will hold a hearing in the coming weeks. If the approves it, the bill will move on to the Senate floor. It will need to pass votes in the Senate and the House of Representatives before the legislative session ends on May 8.

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.