Decriminalize Nature Colorado Initiative Fails to Make Ballot

Advocates are jockeying over psychedelics in Colorado.
Advocates are jockeying over psychedelics in Colorado. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Update, 2 p.m. August 9: Several hours after we published the story below, the Elections Division of the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office announced that Initiative #61 (“Legal Possession and Use of Entheogenic Plants and Fungi”) failed to submit a sufficient number of signatures to qualify for inclusion on the November 8, 2022 General Election ballot. Keep reading for our original story:

Early yesterday afternoon, the Decriminalize Nature Colorado campaign submitted the signatures it had collected to land a statewide initiative on the November ballot to the Colorado Secretary of State's Office. However, those leading the campaign, which aims to decriminalize a handful of natural psychedelics, had already accepted the probable fate of the initiative before the official signature count even began.

"It is very unlikely that we will make it onto the ballot in 2022," Nicole Foerster, one of the co-leaders of the all-volunteer Decriminalize Nature Colorado, said during an August 8 press conference on the steps of the Colorado Capitol.

Admitting that voters won't get a chance to consider the Decriminalize Nature Colorado measure in November, Foerster and other campaigners said they now have a new focus: launching an "information campaign" regarding Initiative 58, a different psychedelics medical legalization and decriminalization measure that has already been approved for Colorado's ballot. Although Foerster and co-leader Melanie Rose Rodgers say that they don't want their new effort to be categorized as such, they're essentially running a "No on Initiative 58" campaign.

"You need millions of dollars to make statewide change," said Rodgers, a primary proponent of the successful Decriminalize Denver psychedelics mushroom campaign in 2019. "We have small groups of people making decisions for everyone else."

Foerster and Rodgers came together to form the Decriminalize Nature Colorado campaign as a reaction to Initiative 58, which is being pushed by New Approach PAC, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that works on drug-policy reform issues. The PAC has pushed cannabis legalization efforts across the country, and also helped fund a psychedelic mushroom medical-access initiative in Oregon.

The New Approach PAC measure, known as the Natural Medicine Health Act, 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 these other substances, too.

"The Natural Medicine Health Act would provide critical medicine to Coloradans suffering from PTSD, depression, anxiety and other challenging mental health conditions in a way that successfully balances their access and safety in a regulated, therapeutic setting," says Kevin Matthews, who has been co-running the New Approach PAC-funded campaign. "Research from both Johns Hopkins and the FDA show this natural medicine has profound mental health benefits for our veterans, survivors of trauma, people facing terminal illnesses and many others who have tried traditional treatment with little or no success. This initiative gives them another opportunity for healing.”

Matthews served as the leader of the Decriminalize Denver campaign back in 2018 and 2019, when he worked closely with Rodgers and Foerster. The decision by Matthews to work with the New Approach PAC and move forward with the Natural Medicine Health Act with a goal of getting on the November 2022 ballot created a fissure among Colorado psychedelics advocates, however.

"A lot of people in our community were really shocked to see something come that fast," Foerster says.

Foerster and Rodgers believe that the state should decriminalize natural psychedelics before even considering a legal-access model. That would be the best way to ensure that equity concerns remain top of mind and that the Colorado psychedelics field doesn't become a capitalist's playground, as recreational marijuana has, they suggest.

The Decriminalize Nature Colorado campaign is also leery of New Approach PAC, questioning the organization's motives. The PAC contributed $2.74 million to the Natural Medicine Colorado committee, which mostly funded a signature-gathering company but also compensated Matthews, lawyers and lobbyists for their work on the campaign.

"Their policy was crafted to appeal to people who know nothing about this topic, without the full inclusion of people who are going to be affected by the act if it passes," Foerster said.

At their press conference, Foerster and Rodgers announced the formation of a new "education campaign," Colorado for Community Healing. "We are starting a campaign. We want to make sure that our values of keeping community first for an equitable, democratic process, a localized effort, will remain, no matter what happens this November election," Rodgers said.

In the run-up to that election, this "education campaign" will employ some of the same commentary that Decriminalize Nature Colorado used to oppose Initiative 58 over the last year.

"The research is still being done, and they will tell you point blank, it's not conclusive," said Travis Tyler Fluck, a campaigner with Decriminalize Nature Colorado who also worked on the Decriminalize Denver campaign.

While psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms have shown that they can have positive effects on people dealing with anxiety, depression and PTSD, in a July statement the American Psychiatric Association urged patience with making them more accessible.

"There is currently inadequate scientific evidence for endorsing the use of psychedelics to treat any psychiatric disorder except within the context of approved investigational studies. APA supports continued research and therapeutic discovery into psychedelic agents with the same scientific integrity and regulatory standards applied to other promising therapies in medicine. Clinical treatments should be determined by scientific evidence in accordance with applicable regulatory standards, and not by ballot initiatives or popular opinion," the APA stated.

One reason for the inadequate scientific evidence involves the federally criminal status of these substances, which has prevented much research from taking place.

According to Foerster, she and the other decriminalization advocates aren't opposed to more access to psychedelics in the future. But they'd like that access to happen slower than it would happen if I-58 passes, and be based on a "community healing model."

"We are saying, as individuals, we're voting no," Foerster said. "We will organize an education campaign. It's going to look like explanations about what we do not particularly support, and why."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.