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Artwork on display is seen at the Psychedelic Science conference in the Colorado Convention Center Wednesday, June 21, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Maya Padilla, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe, kicked off the Psychedelics Sciences conference in Denver last week with a warning: Native Americans have watched white people commodify and commercialize its once-sacred tobacco and turn it into a poison and “we are terrified of this happening with some of our other medicines.”

The opportunities and challenges of psychedelic medicines reached a crescendo last week in the Colorado Convention Center, as more than 12,000 cheerleaders of a surging movement rallied at the largest gathering of its kind.

As powerful drugs are pulled out of decades in a deep freeze, researchers are exploring the possibilities of psychotropic medicines, business folk are scheming a new world of ceremonial healing centers, and underground practitioners are basking in a new light as state and federal lawmakers and regulators warily eye a tidal wave of new ideas flooding the mental health space. In the middle of the maelstrom of medicine, mental health, business and regulations are traditional practitioners — especially Native Americans — who are wary that the end result could ruin the magic of the medicine.

Swirling in the center of this psychedelic storm that has been building for decades is Colorado. A group of policy shapers are building a first-ever system that decriminalizes natural medicines like psilocybin mushrooms and ibogaine.

The state soon will reveal regulations around integrative healing centers that will offer diverse medicinal therapies provided by experts with medical backgrounds as well as long-time practitioners in the psychedelic realm.

“Colorado is going to be an example,” said Rick Doblin, the founder and 37-year president of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, which hosted the largest ever gathering of psychedelic supporters and has raised more than $140 million in the past three decades to support research into the potential of psychedelics.

Colorado is “like the scouts on a raft trip” 

The psychedelic movement is cresting after a half-century of banishment under the drug war.

Oregon stirred the wave in 2020 when voters decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms. Colorado voters added momentum in 2022 when they approved Proposition 122 and decriminalized not just psilocybin mushrooms but other naturally occurring psychedelics including dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, ibogaine and mescaline. The voter initiative also sets up a regulatory framework for centers where people can receive mental health therapies that include the natural psychedelics. 

All eyes are on Colorado as the state navigates uncharted waters. 

“I think Colorado’s role is just to feel it out. Just see what it feels like to have a little bit of psychedelics in the bloodstream. A little bit of therapy. A little bit of decrim. Little bit of churches. Little bit of weirdness,” said Reilly Capps, the Colorado-based editorial director of, a directory of ketamine clinics and psilocybin retreats. “We’re like the scouts on a raft trip. We are up on the banks taking a look at the rapids downstream, ready to tell the rest of the country how rowdy the rapids are and whether they need to have their life jackets on.”

Colorado Senate President Steve Fenberg is shepherding Proposition 122 into law with specific details about how to best regulate a new industry of psychedelic medicine by navigating a tenuous path through business interests and mental health providers. 

“We’re trying to do something great for Colorado, but we want it to work for other states,” Fenberg told the Psychedelic Science 2023 gathering last week in a discussion where he noted his nickname in college was “Mushroom Steve.” “We want to be a model.”

Exhibitor displays goods at the Psychedelic Science conference in the Colorado Convention Center Wednesday, June 21, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Other states are joining the psychedelic bandwagon. 

Kentucky is taking $42 million from its Opioid Settlement Funds to develop ibogaine treatment for opioid addiction and mental health issues. Kentucky’s six-year plan to develop ibogaine clinics would be a first for the country. Central African cultures have been brewing the root bark of the Tabernanthe iboga shrub for centuries, enabling intense and long-lasting psychedelic journeys. A teenage American heroin addict named Howard Lotsof stumbled into an ibogaine experience in the 1960s and he spent the rest of his life as a biochemist, championing ibogaine therapy as a treatment for addiction. 

Texas legislation in 2021 expanded research into using MDMA, psilocybin and ketamine for the treatment of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry received a standing ovation in a packed Bellco Theater at the Colorado Convention Center last week when he spoke about his unlikely role as both a conservative Republican and, for 17 years, an outspoken advocate of MDMA therapy for soldiers. 

“Let’s look at what the results are and not look at what the government tells us,” Perry said. “These therapies are literally saving these individuals’ lives. I know the government can really eff something up if we don’t do it right.”

Lawmakers in Illinois this year proposed legislation to establish psilocybin-based health services

The proposal came from Illinois state Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Democrat from Chicago, who told conference attendees that his largest work has been “debunking the myths from the 1960s.”

“It’s been hard to find people who are against this, but lots of people remember the myths from the 1960s and we have to educate them on the actual truths about this therapy,” Ford said. 

David Bronner, the head of soap-maker Dr. Bronner’s, has directed millions toward psychedelic campaigns, including to the 2019 ballot initiative that decriminalized psilocybin in Denver and the statewide natural medicine effort behind Proposition 122 last year. He said his company is helping to foment citizen initiatives in Massachusetts and Arizona, with proposals for natural medicines. (He said there’s new science showing how MDMA can be made with sassafras oil from a South American grass, which could allow MDMA to be approved as a plant-based medicine.)

David Bronner, the CEO – “Cosmic Engagement Officer” of Dr. Bronner’s soaps, speaks at the Psychedelic Science 2023 conference in Denver on June 21. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Lessons from cannabis legalization

The now decade-old cannabis movement that has seen voters in more than half the country’s states approve the sale and recreational use of marijuana is not a good model for the rollout of psychedelics, said Matt Zorn, a Texas attorney specializing in reforming drug policy at the federal level. 

“The cannabis movement is a failure,” Zorn said. “If we are trying to reproduce cannabis for psychedelics, we are going to get the same problems and we might get even worse. How do we learn the lessons from what went wrong with cannabis so we are not just recreating the model that has some serious and deep, deep flaws?”


The one big hang-up: Weed has remained a Schedule 1 controlled substance — defined as drugs with “no currently accepted medical use” — at the federal level, leaving seemingly intractable challenges for businesses and criminal justice advocates. That’s why the psychedelic movement is deeply involved at the federal level. 

The Federal Drug Administration is expected to issue final approval for MDMA therapy for PTSD this fall after several years of clinical trials based on 20 years of research by MAPS. On June 25 the federal agency issued draft guidance for academic institutions, companies, therapists and chemists developing psychedelic drugs for treatment of medical conditions.

The guardrails for psychedelic drug developers noted the “unique challenges” of clinical applications for drugs that “can cause intense perceptual disturbances and alterations in consciousness that can last for several hours” but can offer long-term benefits after only one or a few doses.

U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, this year introduced the Breakthrough Therapies Act to help remove hurdles facing MDMA and psilocybin, both of which are listed as heavily-restricted Schedule I substances that, according to that federal classification, have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

MAPS has worked on both the drug development end with the FDA and federal reform of drug policy. The two-track approach would enable legal access to psychedelic therapies — paid for by insurance — as well as delivering legal access to users seeking personal growth.

Doblin sees Colorado as a model in the MAPS mission to destigmatize psychedelics with armies of trained professionals offering customized therapies that are covered by insurance.

Many different mushroom growers displayed their growing supplies at the Psychedelic Science conference in Denver’s Colorado Convention Center in June 2023. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

His MAPS team is working with the Denver Police Department to develop a training program for officers who may encounter people under the influence of psychedelics. He would like to see programs that go into schools to help better educate younger residents on psychedelics to counter the dated DARE program.

“I think Colorado could become a state with a kind of comprehensive, honest drug education and peer support,” he said, adding that he hopes the state develops a system where people can quickly test drugs for dangerous additives like fentanyl. 

Denver Police Division Chief Joe Montoya is working with the MAPS team to create the city’s first protocols for officers responding to incidents involving people on psychedelics. Montoya said Denver officers’ work with the rollout of marijuana a decade ago has informed the process. 

The potency of marijuana — partially in edibles — created some interesting interactions with police, Montoya said. 

“We’d show up and be like ‘What the heck is going on here? There is no way this is the result of marijuana. This has to be some other substance,’” Montoya said in an interview. “Then we would find out later it was marijuana and that it was just very potent. We started to adapt and learn and that made for better responses. We want to get in front of it with psilocybin. Really we don’t see it as a threat. It’s more about a person hurting themselves.”

Colorado’s Natural Medicine Advisory Board

Marijuana industry veteran Ean Seeb has advised Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on marijuana policy for the past few years and now is advising on how best to embrace and regulate psychedelic medicines. 

Seeb said the effort will protect “the legacy holders and the wisdomkeepers” who have worked underground with the natural medicines for many decades. The first step is a 15-person Natural Medicine Advisory Board that is building the framework for psychedelic treatment. The board is diverse, with Native Americans, representatives from health care, law enforcement and all political and cultural persuasions.

The board’s subcommittees reflect the direction it is heading. There are members building a licensure and training curriculum that incentivizes practitioners to get licensed.

There is a subcommittee looking at the cultivation, testing and distribution of the medicines. There’s an emergency response, safety and ethics committee working with law enforcement. Members are working in Indigenous and religious groups to “minimize excessive commercialization” of the medicines, Seeb said. Other subcommittees are working at harm reduction, public safety and health equity to make sure licenses are distributed across a broad spectrum of people. 

The board is planning to offer its final plan by the end of 2023. 

Seeb said an early recommendation is to follow the lead of Kentucky and fast-track ibogaine treatment for PTSD. Rules on ibogaine treatment could come soon, Seeb said. 

The mission of the board is to balance mental health, business opportunities and workforce development for “teaching people who can go out and help others have improved outcomes,” Seeb said. 

“There’s an opportunity here to think about the triple bottom line,” he said.

The Psychedelic Club of Denver had about 10 members last year. They are up to about 200 now and growing. The Denver chapter of a national group holds twice-a-month meetings for members with “robust discussions,” said one of the club’s board members, Seth Ream. He said the community is “thriving and diverse.” Some are seeking healing and others are pursuing the liberty to explore. 

“We are in such a unique position in Colorado to build a model as this spreads across the country,” said Ream as he met with hundreds of people at his club’s booth at the Psychedelic Science confab. “It’s also a great sense of responsibility to get this right. I hope we can learn the lessons from cannabis and do this more consciously, responsibly and equitably.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...