Colorado voters will see a bit of magic on their ballot this year. 

Proposition 122 would permit the legalization of psychedelic mushrooms for use in supervised centers for mental health treatment. It would also decriminalize personal use and allow adults over the age of 21 to grow and give — but not sell — psilocybin. 

Colorado would not be the first to pass such a law. A similar proposal was passed in Oregon, and several cities, including Denver, have already decriminalized the drug. Still, there’s much debate over if it’s too soon to approve therapeutic centers.

After much consideration with scientific and policy colleagues, I will be voting yes — although admittedly I don’t agree in full. For example, as a general principle, I don’t agree with preemptively applying the term medicine, natural or otherwise, to substances that have not fully passed scientific evaluation at the federal level. 

However, I don’t believe the substance should have been criminalized to begin with, and one cannot discount the stage of current research in combination with the centuries-long indigenous history of use as evidence in and of itself.

Between population use and clinical research data, the risks of psilocybin appear to be no worse than most approved pharmaceuticals many patients would otherwise seek.

Despite designation as Schedule 1 — a status that should have never been applied given promising early research in the 1960s — there are no known data suggesting addictive components or withdrawal symptoms.

Additionally, the understood mechanisms of action for this class of drug, serotonin receptors, correspond with current drug targets on the market lending additional credence and lengthy understanding. 

Notably, the Food and Drug Administration has already approved multiple “breakthrough” designations for the expedited study and application of psilocybin, including for the treatment of treatment-resistent and major depression disorders.

There are also more than 50 recruiting or active studies with participants according to ClinicalTrial.gov, with another 40 trials set to recruit participants and millions of dollars in research funding at prominent institutions including Johns Hopkins and the University of California Los Angeles. 

Given the federally acknowledged need to expedite our understanding, supporting Prop. 122 could have an unexpected benefit that sways even those of us who are mildly skeptical: the opportunity to assist in fast-tracked research into psilocybin without added taxpayer cost. 

☀ MORE IN OPINION

In addition to local researchers who may find interest in studying a more accessible patient population, Prop. 122 also requires data to be collected and submitted annually. While efforts are initially funded by the state’s general fund, as stated in the text it would be repaid overtime from taxes, fees and donations collected by the healing center fund.

In other words, taxpayers are ultimately off the hook — something that can rarely be said about public research. As these patients actively want to try the substance, it could be an easy win-win.

This is not to say there aren’t risks with psilocybin — there are risks with ingesting any drug. In a summary of research by the American Psychological Association, known risks include physical symptoms such as vomiting or nausea, and mental symptoms including disorientation or fright — states that can be dangerous if the setting of consumption is not properly equipped.

There are also anecdotal concerns of increased risk of psychosis in patients predisposed to serious mental illness, leading to the exclusion of these patients in clinical trials. Each of these concerns could be reasonably mitigated with state oversight.

Critically, psilocybin is not akin to fentanyl despite being falsely associated by prominent outlets, and concerns of the drug “flooding” Colorado’s streets by opponents is a position far more rooted in fear than fact. Concerns over out-of-state money are also overblown as Coloradans have already demonstrated support for the groups funding the measure by legalizing cannabis. 

This does not, however, discount valid regulatory concerns regarding licensing, purity standards, dosing and more. Expecting Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Affairs to create a regulatory framework for psilocybin is no small feat, and it is reasonable to expect that upholding regulations at a state level will be more difficult without additional federal oversight.

It will therefore be all the more critical for a newly appointed board to see to it that center standards are of the utmost importance given the onus will be exclusively on us.

Overall, despite some regulatory challenges and admittedly poor ballot language, Prop. 122’s proposal to decriminalize personal use and legalize monitored therapeutic use is reasonable within historical and scientific context.

It would allow scientists to further hone our understanding of exactly which therapies are most effective for which patients, and the overall value of early therapeutic use is likely to outweigh the risks.


Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.

Trish Zornio

The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com.

Trish Zornio

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation's top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate...