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Denver was the first U.S. city to decriminalize possession and use of psilocybin in May 2019. Proposition 122 would decriminalize “magic mushrooms” and other psychedelic compounds statewide. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Ingesting “magic mushrooms” in Colorado requires a hookup — a friend who grows them and is willing to share, or a paid, underground guide who will not only supply the illegal shrooms but help process whatever enlightenment they might elicit.

For decades, eating psychedelic mushrooms has been a clandestine activity, like using marijuana before it was legalized. 

Proposition 122, on the November ballot, would make psychedelic mushrooms legal in Colorado and allow licensed “healing centers” to give clients mushrooms in a supervised setting, broadening access to what is considered a breakthrough treatment for anxiety and depression. The measure provides the potential for facilities to expand to three plant-based psychedelics in 2026. Those are ibogaine, from the root bark of an iboga tree; mescaline, which is from cacti; and dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a natural compound found in plants and animals.

The measure has two main camps of opponents, one expected and the other, not so much. The first are those concerned about increased drug activity among teens and young adults. The second are a faction of psychedelic trip guides now working underground. 

What would it do

Denver said yes to psychedelic mushrooms three years ago, not exactly legalizing them, but making possession low priority for law enforcement. The statewide ballot measure would allow people to grow and share psychedelic mushrooms, as well as create state-regulated centers where people could make appointments to consume psilocybin, the hallucination-inducing compound derived from psychedelic mushrooms. No hookup required. 

The idea is to create natural medicine centers where people would consume mushrooms and plant-based psychedelics on site. The measure does not allow for retail mushroom sales, so it’s not modeled after Colorado’s marijuana industry. 

A client would go through a screening to see whether they are healthy enough and suited to try the treatment, then they would book a series of appointments — a preparation session to discuss the intention of the psychedelic trip, a session to ingest the mushrooms with a facilitator, and then a post-trip session to unpack and process the experience. 

The centers likely would include other healing services, such as yoga, acupuncture, meditation and physical therapy, said Kevin Matthews, coalition director of Natural Medicine Colorado, which got Proposition 122 on the ballot. 

Mental health centers and substance abuse treatment clinics could seek licenses to offer psychedelic treatment, if the measure passes.

Proposition 122 also would allow people 21 and older to grow and sell psilocybin, meaning that today’s underground guides can continue what they’re doing but without the threat of criminal charges. But, Matthews emphasizes, the ballot measure is focused on mental health treatment — not creating an industry in which people could buy mushrooms the same way they pick up alcohol or marijuana.

“In no way is this a retail or a recreational model,” he said. “It’s not even really a for-profit model.”

If voters approve it, the measure initially would create regulated therapeutic access to psilocybin. The state would begin accepting applications from natural medicine facilitators by September 2024. Then by June 2026, the state Department of Regulatory Agencies could expand access to the three plant-based psychedelics.

Psychedelic mushrooms became illegal in the U.S. in 1970 under the Controlled Substances Act. Even if Prop 122 passes, the substance would remain federally classified as a schedule 1 controlled substance, like heroin, for which there is no current medical use. 

The arguments for

Matthews, who retired from the Army because of depression, first tried psilocybin about a decade ago after failing to find relief from prescribed antidepressants and talk therapy. 

“They changed my life,” he said. “The clouds parted. I realized that I no longer had to be a victim to my diagnosis of major depression.” 

Now he uses psychedelics about once a year. Others in treatment for depression or anxiety take psychedelics four times per year, and some microdose on an almost daily basis

“Colorado is in a mental health crisis right now,” Matthews said. “We want to make sure that all Coloradans have access to this at some level, especially our veterans and those with extreme trauma.” 

Prop 122 would allow for “healing centers” where people could consume psychedelics. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

When federal officials outlawed psychedelic mushrooms, they quashed what at the time was an emerging field of research into the effects of the psychedelics on the brain and treatment of mental health issues. The research has picked back up in the past decade, including an oft-cited 2020 study from Johns Hopkins University that found two doses of psilocybin, along with psychotherapy, resulted in “rapid and large” reductions in depression. 

The arguments against

Blue Rising, started by a group of moms concerned about high-potency THC used for vaping, is against legalizing psychedelics because of concerns that it would lead to increased use by teens and young adults. While the backers of Proposition 122 are focused on promoting mushrooms as a treatment for depression, anxiety and PTSD, these moms point out that many people who eat mushrooms simply do it to get high.

Other critics of the ballot measure represent a segment of the psychedelic community, those working underground as trip guides and ingesting mushrooms in backyards with friends. Some so-called “legacy guides” don’t want to see such a spiritual, intimate practice taken over by the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies. The state department would have the responsibility of creating the rules and licensing for mental health clinics and new “healing centers” that would dispense mushrooms. 

Groups opposing the measure, mainly led by parents with concerns about increased recreational drug use, say the proponents’ focus on mental health is a ruse. 

“Prop 122 is brought to us by out-of-state corporate interests that are not truly looking to help with the mental health issues in Colorado,” said Dawn Reinfeld, executive director of Blue Rising. “We need to wait on the science. If this is medicine, then it needs to go through the scientific rigors to establish that.”

She called the measure’s provisions allowing home grows and mushroom gifting “mile-wide loopholes” that will “almost ensure this will find its way to our teens.” 

“Colorado doesn’t need to use our teens as guinea pigs for a real-life scientific experiment,” she said. 

Protect Colorado’s Kids, which has raised $750 to develop a website opposing the measure, says the initiative is an attempt “put Colorado on the map as the top destination for drug dealers hopeful to become ‘entrepreneurs’ in the eye of state law.”

“We’ve seen this playbook when it was used to commercialize and normalize opioids and marijuana,” opponent Luke Niforatos wrote in an op-ed for the Colorado Springs Gazette. 

One big thing you should know 

Proposition 122 is among the most progressive drug proposals in the nation. So it’s interesting that some members of Colorado’s covert psychedelic community are wary. 

“For people to be against it who love drugs is very strange,” said Reilly Capps, a Denver writer who has covered the underground psychedelic scene for the past 10 years.

Over decades, the psychedelic community has become its own culture, almost like a secret society held together by its unique values. The way it works now is that people grow mushrooms for themselves or in warehouses, illegally, then sell them for anywhere from $10 to $50 per dose. They typically come as a bag of dried mushrooms, though some people crush them into capsules, Capps said. 

Some people will pay a guide, from $600 to $1,200, to sit with them while they trip, a deeply personal experience that often involves musical instruments, burning sage and, sometimes, the guide holding the client. 

“Here is this sacred thing that literally, for some of them, showed them God,” Capps said. “Now the Department of Regulatory Agencies is going to be in charge of it? The same agency that regulates barbers and fishing guides?”

The treatment is so different from other traditional therapies that guides worry that state regulators who don’t understand it will wreck it. They’re concerned about rules stating what guides can say or prohibiting them from physical touch or rules prohibiting guides from befriending their tripping clients. 

“That’s the worry, that they will put so many rules around it that it will be hard for it to still be cool or sacred,” Capps said. “Can you still be friends with your trip sitter? Is that going to put up a wall about how communities can form?”

An underground psychedelic guide in Colorado, who fears criminal prosecution and agreed to an interview with The Sun without using his name, said he supports greater access statewide, particularly when demand for mental health care has skyrocketed. He also is all for a world in which his job isn’t illegal.

But the guide worries state regulation will make the experience less “eclectic” and “new agey” and more clinical, with strict rules like requiring all clients to have headphones and eye masks, and no touching. A psychedelic trip is nothing like talk therapy where a patient lies on a couch, he said.

“There is a wealth of creativity,” he said. “That’s one of the gifts of the psychedelic space.” 

The players and the money

Natural Medicine Colorado, the issue committee supporting Proposition 122, raised nearly $2.9 million from July 2021 through August, with most of it coming from New Approach, a national nonprofit that has funded state-level marijuana legalization initiatives, according to campaign finance reports.

The measure is opposed by Blue Rising and Protect Colorado’s Kids, which has reported raising just $750.

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her...