A trendsetter with recreational marijuana a decade ago, Colorado could again lead the way, this time with psychedelics. But the path has split for proponents, with one well-funded campaign and another very grassroots effort.
"Almost every person, I think, has someone in their family or in their community who is experiencing some level of mental or behavioral health challenges. With this act, natural medicines are going to be a choice for Coloradans," says Kevin Matthews, coalition director for the Natural Medicine Colorado committee, which is pushing an initiative for the November 2022 state ballot that would create a 21+ legal access framework for psychedelic mushrooms while also decriminalizing mushrooms, DMT, ibogaine and mescaline, excluding peyote. The initiative would create the possibility of building a legal-access framework for those other substances, too.
The Natural Medicine Colorado committee has the benefit of financial support from New Approach PAC, a Washington, D.C.-based drug-reform advocacy organization that has pushed cannabis legalization efforts across the country and also helped fund a psychedelic mushroom medical-access initiative in Oregon.
Through April 13, New Approach PAC spent $915,000 on the Natural Medicine Colorado committee.
"It really is decrim first. Logically, it is decrim first," says Veronica Lightning Horse Perez, a Littleton-based specialized therapist and healer who is running the Natural Medicine Colorado campaign with Matthews, the former leader of the historic Decriminalize Denver campaign, which turned Denver into the first American city to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms. "People who are still seeing this as a drug, or maybe being able to move out of the illegal drug box and into the helpful drug category, these are people who need more of that regulated model. They’re not going to be comfortable unless somebody has a license or they’re going to a clinical setting."
Studies have shown that certain psychedelics, such as psilocybin mushrooms, can have profoundly positive impacts on people struggling with mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and PTSD.
The Natural Medicine Colorado committee has already spent $816,265 with Landslide Political, a Utah-based canvassing company, for help gathering the124,632 signatures required by August 8 to land the Natural Medicine Health Act of 2022 on the ballot.
"We’re going to make the ballot," Matthews says. "I’m looking forward to what Coloradans have to say about the issue."
If the Natural Medicine Health Act of 2022 makes it onto the ballot and is approved, the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies would become the authority for creating a legal psychedelics access framework. In particular, DORA would be in charge of licensing "healing centers" where people could go to consume psychedelics for therapeutic purposes in a supervised setting. Facilitators, who would help people in integrating what comes up during a psychedelics session, would also be licensed by DORA, and could visit people at their homes or in approved medical care facilities to facilitate psychedelics treatment.
But the Natural Medicine Colorado campaign has drawn the ire of some grassroots psychedelic reform advocates in the state, who worry that psychedelics legalization could follow the route of the Colorado cannabis industry, becoming what they complain is a racially and socially inequitable industry dominated by the rich.
"There are things written into their initiative that say an individual can own five healing centers. It’s hard enough to run one place. That really enables big business to come in and push out other people in the space, which is something that has historically happened with cannabis," says Travis Tyler Fluck, one of the original canvassers with Decriminalize Denver who disagrees with the approach that Matthews has taken in the statewide action.
Tyler Fluck supports a separate ballot initiative effort that sprang up in response to the Matthews-pushed measure that simply calls for decriminalization of natural psychedelics, without adding a call for any action on legal access.
"It’s very simple. It’s five paragraphs. This was done so that in the conflict of these two initiatives, that dialogue could spring forth," says Tyler Fluck, who notes that he's clear-headed in his approach to psychedelic reform policy because he "works for the mushrooms."
Nicole Foerster of Decriminalize Nature Boulder County and Melanie Rose Rodgers, another former member of the Decriminalize Denver campaign, are leading the efforts on the decriminalization initiative.
"It doesn’t feel right to me," Rodgers says of the Matthews push. "We’re going to start off psychedelics with this whole path-to-billions mentality, and it’s not from the people. I’m really not into creating new industries with controlled substances if it’s not from an anti-racist lens."
Colorado law requires issue committees that receive or spend $5,000 or more to file campaign finance reports. The decriminalize initiative group hasn't hit that $5,000 limit, so it hasn't yet filed a report;
Rodgers and Foerster are currently gathering signatures. But the lack of funds makes their effort look like a long shot.
"I think this month is the most critical for getting visibility and awareness," admits Rodgers, who adds that she's building relationships in case the decriminalization measure doesn't succeed, "to make sure that we do have people involved in the process when it comes to rulemaking, because I want different community leaders and people to be involved with what this looks like."
Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration, will change their approach to natural psychedelics. And then the market will be determined on a national level, rather than at a state level, she suggests.
"I would love to take that time and slow down and build these things out before we get there and before we get to a vote," Perez says. "To me, that would be absolutely ideal. At my gut level, I don’t feel like there is that time to do that."
Adds Matthews: "For me, personally, I think it’s incredibly important that we have a state structure that’s in place, because there are other powers at play that are definitely taking the pharmaceutical route. If we don’t have a state model in place that is both accessible and also allows individuals in many cases to determine their own relationship with these natural medicines, then these other entities will exist or have a lot more leverage in the future and be able to lobby against state efforts — and I think much sooner than people realize."
The initiative that Matthews and Perez are pushing calls for the establishment of a Natural Medicine Advisory Board, whose membership would be appointed by the governor and potentially include people with expertise in natural medicine therapy, harm reduction and religious use of natural medicines, among other categories. The psychedelic mushroom-access framework would go live in late 2024, while DORA, following the recommendations of the Natural Medicine Advisory Board, could legalize access centers for DMT, ibogaine and mescaline, excluding peyote, starting in June 2026.
"It was a very specific request/demand made by quite a few individuals in the Native American community," Perez says regarding why peyote was not included. Under federal law, Native Americans, who were long subject to legal ramifications regarding use of peyote, can now use peyote for religious purposes. "There’s a lot of pain and trauma in the Native American community, and it’s justified," Perez notes.
The decriminalization aspects of the Natural Medicine Health Act would remove criminal penalties for personal use, possession, growth or gifting of the natural psychedelics mentioned in the initiative. Those who sell those specific psychedelics for money could still be subject to prosecution.
The proposal also has a provision allowing people previously convicted of illegal acts that would be made legal under this act to have their criminal records sealed.
While psychedelics can help open someone's third eye, the Natural Medicine Colorado committee isn't offering an especially clear look at who's funding the campaign.
"I can’t tell you outright who is funding New Approach PAC," Matthews says. "For my purposes, New Approach has really committed to ending the War on Drugs. Their lane has been cannabis policy reform. D.C. and Oregon, they’ve been working with psychedelics. And it’s a small group. It’s not this massive operation. It’s four people who are on staff. I think, from my experience working with them, they’re just really committed to ending the War on Drugs." A major funder of New Approach PAC is David Bronner, the head of the Dr. Bronner's natural soap company; Bronner is an outspoken proponent of drug-policy reform.
Perez says that she wondered who's behind New Approach PAC, and determined that it's not bankrolled by people interested in making a fortune off the legal-access framework in Colorado. "They don’t want any strings, because it’s almost like a horse they’re betting on, and they get that excitement from that horse," she explains. "To other people, they’ve had a profound experience with the medicine, and they have the resources to help share that."
In particular, rumors have floated that venture capitalist Peter Thiel or the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company are financially connected to New Approach PAC. "I have asked if we’re taking money from that kind of organization and that kind of thing, and I got a 'No,'" Perez says.
As the campaign season heats up, Matthews plans to travel the state to rally support for the measure.
"This is certainly a bipartisan effort," he says. "We have a lot of good relationships with elected officials in the state leadership, and I'm looking forward to going up to Mesa County and the Eastern Plains and sharing about this. ... As a campaign, it’s our responsibility to demonstrate that this is an issue that impacts everyone, regardless of which side of the aisle you stand on."