Colorado's Move Into Psychedelics Mirroring Marijuana Legalization Boom | Westword

Make Room for Mushrooms: Legal Psychedelics Inspiring a New Boom in Therapy, Businesses, Regulations

A decade after Colorado legalized cannabis and started the green rush, legalized psychedelics are becoming a big business.
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James Eshleman was on the path to success before he hit thirty. An associate vice president of sales at Personal Capital, he had a lucrative and stable job. He was young, bright and on his way.

And miserable.

Citing words like "anxiety," "depression" and "lack of fulfillment," the 26-year-old Eshleman took his New Year's resolutions seriously on January 1, 2017, quitting that promising career in financial services with no idea of where he would go next.

A month later, he attended his first psychedelic ceremony in hopes of learning how to fill that void, joining about 25 other people in Boulder to take ayahuasca. Eshleman had used psychedelics recreationally before, but this was his first time seeking them out for mental health. And it was far from his last.

"Given the time commitment it takes to turn a paycheck in the corporate world, sacrificing a big part of myself didn't sound doable anymore. That's what ultimately led to my depression, was that sacrifice," he says. "In the ceremonies, I just lived off having these really meaningful connections and learning about what the most important things in life were."

A plant-based psychedelic consumed through tea, ayahuasca is native to South America. It's traditionally consumed with a group, before people share and discuss vulnerable points in their lives. The psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca, Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), helps users confront and sometimes eliminate addictive, anxious and depressive symptoms, according to Eshleman, with some people reporting increased self-awareness, emotional and social functioning, empathy and creativity after participating.

Eshleman didn't walk away from his first ayahuasca circle with all of his questions answered, but he did feel something. So he attended another ceremony. And another. And then a few more. Within two years, he estimates, he'd taken part in about twenty of the group rituals.

"They were really for my own healing, as I was looking to discover something more — whatever that was for me — and filling the emptiness I had inside with purpose, meaning and connection. I had no intention of getting into this line of work at all," he recalls.

Yet that's where Eshleman and many new psychedelic-friendly facilitators and therapists find themselves in Colorado, where interest in psychedelic medicine is exploding after voters passed a groundbreaking measure legalizing medical psilocybin in November. Just as the state saw a green rush after the passage of Amendment 64 legalized recreational marijuana in late 2012, they see a similar boom mushrooming out of the legalization of psilocybin.

Before healing centers and swanky mushroom mountain retreats can take off, however, state regulators and elected officials have a lot of work to do.
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James Eshleman was in the finance industry before becoming a psychedelic facilitator. Now that medicinal psilocybin has been legalized, his new line of work is under the microscope.
Evan Semón
Policymakers and organized medicine are just catching up, but people have been using psychedelics for community gatherings, religious ceremonies and healing purposes for centuries. Sects of Judaism have scripture connections and mushroom sacraments dating back thousands of years. Ancient Greeks and Romans took part in religious rites that included the ingestion of a psychoactive drink called kykeon, which contained a psychedelic fungus with properties similar to those of LSD. According to 2021 research published in the medical journal Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, psychedelic use in rituals has been associated with Indigenous tribes and cultures around the world, "from the Americas, to Eurasia, to Australia, and Africa."

After the flower-power movement of the ’60s (which included a major LSD lab in Denver), American interest in psychedelic mushrooms started growing again in the late 2010s, thanks largely to the work of mycologist and mushroom entrepreneur Paul Stamets and science author Michael Pollan. Their documentaries and literary works exposed the public to the mental health benefits of mushrooms, including non-psychoactive varieties such as lion's mane, reishi and turkey tail, which are all now part of a growing and lucrative supplement industry based on fungi.

The United States Food and Drug Administration designated psilocybin as a breakthrough therapy in 2019, clearing the way for federally approved trials of the drug. In 2022, Johns Hopkins University research determined that psilocybin could serve as a "substantial antidepressant" for up to a year for some patients when paired with supportive therapy. Psychedelics such as methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine (MDMA) and psilocybin have shown therapeutic promise for post-traumatic stress disorder as well, with both drugs becoming increasingly popular among military veterans with combat trauma.

Colorado's connection to psychedelic reform is young but powerful. Still riding high off its status as the first major city to decriminalize cannabis, Denver became the first city in the United States to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in 2019, laying the groundwork for statewide action.

In November 2022, Colorado voters followed Oregon in making this the second state in the country to approve a psilocybin legalization initiative. In addition to legalizing medical psilocybin, Proposition 122 decriminalized the personal cultivation, use and sharing of psilocybin as well as DMT, ibogaine and mescaline, with the last three up for review for potential medical legalization in 2026.

Even before Prop 122 passed, Eshleman was working as an unlicensed psychedelic facilitator; in the wake of Denver's vote to decriminalize psilocybin, he established the Center of All Directions, which specializes in "psilocybin guiding, psychedelic harm reduction & transformational coaching," according to its website.

He's seen upwards of 130 people over the past three years, Eshleman estimates, helping to treat mental health symptoms such as anxiety, depression and terminal grief. Clients from college students to eighty-year-old women to entire families have undergone his sessions, taking 3.5 to 6 grams of mushrooms before spending up to eight hours doing therapy work with Eshleman in their homes.

Eshleman currently works with mushrooms because of their recent legalization and the relative ease with which people can acquire or cultivate them on their own. Screening sessions and followups are part of the package; he charges for the sessions but not the psilocybin mushrooms, if his clients need them. After three macrodose and therapy sessions, he encourages his clients to microdose with 0.1 to 0.3 grams every other day.

Research has supported psilocybin's ability to spur neuroplasticity, or new or changing activity in the brain in response to trauma. The majority of psilocybin therapy focuses on relatively large doses of multiple grams — known as a hero's dose, or macrodosing — followed by hours of therapy. Microdosing, the consumption of small amounts of psilocybin (not intended for a psychedelic experience), has become a popular form of self-medication for daily mental wellness as well, though reports of microdosing benefits are more anecdotal than data-driven.

Music is an important element of "holding space," or conducting a psychedelic facilitation, Eshleman notes. Johns Hopkins researchers created a specific playlist for such sessions, and there are musicians who make music geared to psychedelic experiences. Eshleman says he's borrowed from the Johns Hopkins playlist and seeks out similar instrumentals and soft melodies for his sessions.

"The most effective way of utilizing what I would call the macrodose experience is to have the big experience that creates a lot of neuroplasticity."

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"The most effective way of utilizing what I would call the macrodose experience is to have the big experience that creates a lot of neuroplasticity and then support it daily with that neuroplasticity enhancement from microdosing. It really does support these journeys," he explains. "The music is a huge piece of ceremonial containers. It's a mixture of live and recorded music, chanting and being led through the exploration of consciousness and our lives, with the medicine as the backdrop."

As evidenced by the work at Johns Hopkins, psilocybin therapy is becoming increasingly popular in academic and even clinical spaces. While Johns Hopkins is considered a leader in university courses on the topic, a handful of medical schools and higher-learning institutions across the country are now offering psychedelic studies. Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of California, New York University and the University of Wisconsin have all recently launched psychedelic research or therapy training programs.

Although professors at the University of Colorado are currently leading a study in psilocybin treatment for depressed end-of-life patients, none of the major universities in Colorado currently offers certification or training programs for psychedelic therapy. But Naropa University, a private college in Boulder founded on Buddhist beliefs, began planning its Center for Psychedelic Studies and Psychedelic-Assisted Therapies Certificate program about three years ago to address rising interest, according to university president Charles Lief. The 200-hour, nine-month graduate program had 130 students during its inaugural year in 2022, and Lief plans to expand into more psychedelic programs and undergraduate offerings.

The school focuses on contemplative mindfulness and compassion practices, and psychedelics have become a popular part of that.  "We're not going to do the science research," Lief notes. "That's not what Naropa is, but we're strong in training programs. And if this field goes anywhere, it's going to need strong and trained practitioners."

According to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), one of North America's largest nonprofits that advocates for and develops psychedelic therapy practices, the U.S. will see a need for 100,000 trained psychedelic facilitators over the next ten years. While therapists, doctors, social workers, nurse practitioners and chaplains have all enrolled in Naropa's psychedelics course, Lief says that the field "is never going to grow" if only people with clinical degrees are allowed to participate.

"I don't think someone in those spiritual communities should be forced into a lane to become a licensed therapist. They don't hold themselves as therapists, nor should they need to, and what they do is totally legitimate," Lief says. "If you're talking about outside of that community, these underground folks, then what are they saying they're doing? If they're talking therapy, then what does that really look like? What happens in between the sessions is as critical as the sessions themselves."

Eshleman, who doesn't have a degree in mental health and whose program does not have a religious connotation, falls somewhere between clinical and spiritual work. While he learned from his own ayahuasca healer, borrows from various mental health fields and "can talk the talk with psychology," his methods "don't fit one form in particular," he says. This line of work found him — and so do most of his clients.

"It wasn't until about two years of sitting in those ceremonies, when I was invited to co-facilitate one with my teacher," he recalls. "There was a lot of hesitation on my end, because I had impostor syndrome. I kept thinking, 'Who am I to be doing this work and guiding people?' Eventually, I agreed, and it felt purposeful."

Immersing himself in psychedelic healing, Eshleman was soon co-leading ayahuasca ceremonies. Other people interested in attending or even leading ceremonies asked him for advice, and he would spend hours in coffee shops answering their questions. He finally began charging for his time and started his own underground healing business. Early clients came from ayahuasca circles, but now around 90 percent of them come from referrals.

"Do I think you could go into a therapist's office in Aurora for this? I do. Do I also think there is room for something like this in the wilderness? Totally."

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What Eshleman offers now is a "bona fide service," he says, adding that he's not sure whether he will pursue an official state permit even if one becomes available. While being legally protected and part of a publicly accountable system is appealing, he also worries about "stripping away the mystical experience," he explains.

"People are coming to me, and they say they just feel stuck. There's something they don't understand about their lives, their pasts, and they just want to know how to get through it. You can't really pathologize it," he says. "It's a sense of stuff-ness, this opaque lens through which they are viewing life, and not taking in the totality of their experience."

Still, there's a muddy line between trained therapist and spiritual healer that must be better defined, Lief suggests, adding that some form of self-regulation is essential for facilitators working in therapeutic settings if these methods are going to be sustainable.

"Do I think you could go into a therapist's office in Aurora for this? I do. Do I also think there is room for something like this in the wilderness? Totally," he says. "Being conservative isn't my nature, but people have to be careful. If we don't do it in this field ourselves, then the government is going to come in and do it, and that would be an awful situation."
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Naropa University president Charles Lief (right) speaks at a Naropa retreat in 2022.
Naropa University
Prop 122 passed with just under 54 percent approval from Colorado voters, and how it will be implemented is still being determined. The measure didn't create limits on the personal possession and cultivation of psilocybin mushrooms, nor did it give local governments the ability to ban psychedelic therapy centers, which are set to begin opening in 2024. But the new law did not allow for the establishment of retail psychedelic operations, only healing centers, so there won't be mushroom stores popping up like the hundreds of cannabis dispensaries currently in Colorado.

Even if Colorado won't see mushroom dispensaries, however, the parallels between cannabis and psychedelic legalization are unavoidable, from the names involved to the arguments over the future of plant-based medicine.

Prop 122 called for the creation of the state Natural Medicine Advisory Board, with members appointed by Governor Jared Polis to recommend how medical psilocybin should be regulated and overseen by the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA). Of the fifteen names on the board, at least six mentioned their experience working with or researching legal cannabis during their confirmation hearings, including Dr. Sue Sisley, a federally licensed cannabis researcher, and Ricardo Baca, former cannabis editor at the Denver Post and current owner of pot marketing firm Grasslands.

The board is charged with making recommendations by September on everything from public health and safety to equitable access, Indigenous and religious use, harm reduction, product research, ethics, licensing and facilitator training, and will later advise DORA on potential legalization of the other substances decriminalized by Prop 122. The Colorado Department of Revenue, the state agency responsible for regulating legal cannabis, could get involved with the regulation of psilocybin production down the road, too.

Like cannabis legalization, psychedelic reform has both medical and recreational implications, and there's a lot of money to be made off the new industry. Although the retail aspects aren't expected to be as strong for psychedelics as they have been for cannabis in Colorado — where there has been over $14 billion in dispensary sales since January 1, 2014 — clinical treatment involving psilocybin can easily cost more than $1,000 per session, while multi-day retreats can eclipse $5,000.

Concerns about crime, public health and societal impacts, all topics of discussion surrounding legal cannabis, have emerged regarding psilocybin, as well. The cannabis industry has been criticized for being largely white-owned despite people of color bearing the legal brunt of prohibition, and psychedelic activists worry that psilocybin legalization could lead to a similar situation.

According to natural medicine activist Melanie Rose-Rodgers, Native American tribes and religious groups that implement psychedelic use in ceremonies should be protected from clinical regulations.

"In cannabis, there are different lanes. I don't know if the right word here is 'exemption,' but we really need to respect honor and protect religious use. Indigenous cultures have proven they know how to do this safely for thousands of years. But I'm uncertain of what happens, because there's a really big lobby involved now," she says. "Right now this is a big opportunity for citizens of Colorado to reach out to their representatives and voice their opinions. I feel like this a different and more equal playing field than in cannabis."

"Right now this is a big opportunity for citizens of Colorado to reach out to their representatives and voice their opinions."

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Any new form of mental treatment, especially an intoxicating one, comes with a risk that must be addressed, according to Dr. Jana Bolduan Lomax, who supported Prop 122 and is currently enrolled in a ten-month psychedelic therapy training program at Colorado's Integrative Psychiatry Institute, a certified school for mental health professionals based in Boulder.

Lomax has been a clinical psychologist in Colorado since 2006, and became interested in the potential of psychedelic therapy a few years ago after reading various articles and studies. Although she's considering adding psychedelic therapy to her practice, she's not sold yet — despite being a believer in the potential of psychedelics in palliative care for end-of-life patients and its treatment of addiction, depression and other mental illnesses.

"That's been going on for a long time, and some people have had great benefit from that," she says. "I don't want to take that away from anyone. I just want people to walk into these situations as well-informed consumers."

Lomax cautions that psilocybin and other psychedelics don't work for everyone and aren't necessarily "a magic bullet"; seeing benefits "requires a lot of ongoing work" from the healer and the patient, she notes.

"We have very well-worn responses to stimuli in our environment at pre-verbal stages, before we're able to talk, and based on our relationships," she says. "Throughout our lives, we continue to see evidence that supports these belief systems throughout our brain. We want to keep thinking that we're not lovable, that we're not worth it. [Psychedelics] can really heal and rewire the way we think, so that's where I'm very hopeful."

Prop 122 doesn't require a professional license in order to administer psilocybin in a therapeutic setting, which Lomax finds unsettling. While she stops short of suggesting that anyone holding a session should be licensed and says she respects Indigenous and ceremonial use of psychedelics, Lomax worries that new or untrained healers and therapists won't be equipped to handle a patient on mind-altering substances.

"There needs to be really, really strong training, and what I have been taking away from my own training is a focus on ethics, and how do you help someone when they're in an altered state of consciousness? When someone is tripping or hallucinating, they're not rational. They might ask for a hug or express love to the therapist, when it's not about the therapist but the experience, so a therapist needs to be well trained on consent and how to interpret things," she says.

Citing New York magazine's podcast Power Trip, which dives into the ethics of psychedelic healing and sexual and psychological abuse committed by facilitators, Lomax says she hopes that training will be required for anyone conducting psilocybin therapy in a clinical setting. However, she also wants to see a balance struck that allows Indigenous, religious and personal use outside of clinical settings.

"I want psilocybin specifically to not go down the path of being a big-pharma commodity. There's something very different between psychedelic-assisted therapy and these natural plants being used in sacrament and being used personally. For sure, they're therapeutic, but it's handled very differently than the way we regulate mental health," she says. "It's just not the same as paying someone for therapy or having it regulated by the insurance industry. All of those things really muddy it up."

Healing Advocacy Fund director Natasia Poinsatte envisions a licensing procedure that would be "tiered." A multi-state nonprofit that pushed Oregon's psilocybin initiative and Prop 122, the Healing Advocacy Fund is actively engaged with the measure's implementation in Colorado. Poinsatte says that training and licensing protocols will be established for psychedelic therapy, but will not be a requirement.

"The vision is to allow somebody who has extensive experience to be recognized in the training and licensing process," she says, while reiterating that state rulemaking will ultimately decide that process.

Naropa's first four days of psychedelic therapy lessons are about ethical issues such as patient vulnerability and the right use of power, according to Lief, who calls bad experiences "inevitable" with medical psilocybin.

"Some therapist across the country is going to cross the line, because that's what people do. Let's acknowledge that and do everything we can to create a foundation to be as tight as we can be. Most of our participants said they'd never talked about this stuff in medical school, but without this foundation, we're going to pay for it later," he says.

Eshleman isn't opposed to more education, adding that he and others in the psychedelic space "have a lot to learn as a community." He's optimistic about more collaboration and the sharing of best practices now that legalization is on the horizon — even if no one really knows what that will ultimately look like yet.
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Compared to cannabis, magic mushrooms can be affordably and easily grown in one's home.
Evan Semón
The Natural Medicine Advisory Board established by Prop 122 held its first meeting on April 13.

At that gathering, boardmember Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés suggested that DORA allow the group to bring a level of humanity and inclusiveness to the conversations, given the rigid structure of state government and how much the public's input will be limited in board discussions. “We’re talking about medicine that has been given to all of us since the beginning of time,” she said. “You mentioned DEI — diversity, equity [and inclusion]. There’s one other element, and it’s coming up from the young people — and it’s B., belonging. Welcoming. Being not transactional, but relational. That’s what I would hope for, for our board.”

Pinkola Estés, a daughter of Native American and Spanish parents, has been a post-trauma recovery specialist for 53 years and has served on a number of state and university boards for mental health. Comparing subcommittee work to "walking one-legged," she wondered how dividing the board to consider different aspects of the law would result in a cohesive psychedelic therapy framework. "At what point over time do we put the body back together on a regular basis so we can see what actually is happening?" she asked.

Discussions of equitable access and religious and Indigenous use filled much of the advisory board meeting, and both topics are likely to occupy much of that committee's work. According to DORA's Sam Bahrami, who oversees the advisory board meetings, "affordability is a huge part" of the conversation.

But the advisory board, which is largely responsible for the medical and professional aspects of implementation, is just part of the equation.

State Senator Stephen Fenberg plans to introduce a bill in the Colorado Legislature that would further regulate personal psilocybin use and administration. Fenberg "wasn't necessarily the biggest fan" of how Prop 122 was written, he said at a February town hall, and even voted against the measure but he says that his "intentions are pure" regarding the upcoming proposal.

"There's something very different between psychedelic-assisted therapy and these natural plants being used in sacrament and being used personally."

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Prop 122 didn't include limits on personal possession and cultivation of psilocybin, and Fenberg and other state lawmakers want to deal with that before the current legislative session ends in May.

"There need to be some rules just so people have clarity in what's allowed in our society, and law enforcement needs to know if they pull over a truck on the highway full of mushrooms, is that personal use?" Fenberg pointed out during the town hall. "According to the ballot measure, that could be."

Recalling the implementation of cannabis legalization and the long list of regulations that came with it, Fenberg cited Colorado's cannabis regulations as a template for psychedelic laws: "It was a long process, like maybe a thousand-plus pages of statutes that have been edited, revised, changed and confirmed to allow the marijuana industry and also the decriminalization of it to occur in the state of Colorado successfully. That's what we will be doing this legislative session."
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State Senate President Steve Fenberg will lead the legislative effort to regulate psychedelics in Colorado.

Prop 122 contained fewer than 200 words, leaving lots of room for both the advisory board and lawmakers to create numerous rules for what adults can and can't do with psychedelics. Local government control, intentionally left out of Prop 122's language in order to ensure access in rural communities that might otherwise opt out of allowing psilocybin, could also be revisited in the state legislature.

Entrepreneurs and investors aren't waiting around, though. According to a market report from InsightAce Analytic, the psychedelic therapeutics industry could be worth $8.31 billion by 2028. Much of that depends on legalization efforts in states beyond Oregon and Colorado; Hawaii, Missouri and New York are currently considering measures that would decriminalize psilocybin or legalize its medical use.

Denver is already an epicenter for psychedelic industry activity. In June, over 10,000 people are expected at Psychedelic Science, a psychedelic industry conference organized by MAPS at the Colorado Convention Center. Notable speakers include Pollan and Stamets, as well as NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Grammy-winning musician Melissa Etheridge.

A similar industry expo, PsyCon, will be at the convention center three months later. Consumer-facing events such as Expand Lands and parties from the Psychedelic Club of Denver are also on the rise — and so are less defined gatherings. Type in the search term "mushrooms" on Eventbrite, and you'll quickly find magic mushroom-growing classes, psychedelic-friendly yoga and brunches handing out microdoses of psilocybin in Colorado.

As a result, psilocybin facilitators who've long been operating on the fringe are preparing for a short, strange trip over the next few months as both new rules and new opportunities arise.

"We want it to be clear right now, but it's all still very gray. Access to these medicines and healing containers is really important, but I just don't know how this is going to take shape with the future that is coming," Eshleman says. "When anything in society comes along with such a new sense of empowerment, there will always be people grasping for that."

Update: Senator Stephen Fenberg officially introduced Senate Bill 23-290, dubbed the Natural Medicine Regulation and Legalization Act, on Wednesday, April 18; the measure proposes guardrails for unlicensed psychedelic facilitators, restrictions for personal mushroom and natural medicine cultivation, and criminal penalties for the unlicensed sale or distribution of psychedelics.
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