New research showing the therapeutic potential of psilocybin and other psychedelics for mental health has spurred legalization efforts
It wasn’t just the painful tumors or medication that made Alan Floyd sick.
It was the idea that death could come at any time, a brutal fact of his condition that came to dominate his days and grew into night terrors during his sleep.
“It was this monstrous, impending doom of death hanging over me,” Floyd said.
But Floyd found a way to interrupt the cycle of rumination and fear by experimenting with “magic” mushrooms. He’s one of many patients and spiritual seekers in Colorado who have sought healing and relief from mushrooms and other psychedelic substances, despite a federal prohibition.
Although recent research showing the healing potential of these drugs has spurred renewed interest, mushrooms and naturally derived psychedelics like mescaline, ibogaine and dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, have been used by people for centuries. It’s only in the past 50 years that they were considered illegal.
Now advocates are hoping Colorado will join Denver and a growing number of cities and states that are decriminalizing mushrooms and other psychedelics. They’re working on initiatives that, if approved for the November ballot, would ask voters to eliminate criminal penalties under state law for possession, use and cultivation of certain psychedelic substances.
The statewide effort comes after psychedelic drug advocates successfully passed a 2019 Denver measure that decriminalized adult possession and use of psilocybin, the psychoactive substance in so-called magic mushrooms, and made it the lowest priority for local law enforcement. But disagreements are forming already among advocates backing the effort, who remain divided over what statewide decriminalization should entail.
Kevin Matthews, a proponent of Denver’s 2019 decriminalization measure, is pushing initiatives to create a regulatory system that would allow people 21 and older to seek psychedelic therapy at state-sanctioned centers.
“They’re not a panacea,” Matthews said. “But I think we have an opportunity to powerfully treat a lot of mental health conditions.”
Four initiatives have been approved by the state Title Board, and advocates are debating which one to petition onto the statewide ballot in November. Another camp of activists has put forward their own measure, which is still under review, that would decriminalize mushrooms and three other psychedelics without calling for further state regulations.
The move to decriminalize magic mushrooms in Colorado comes as Denver and jurisdictions across the U.S. have enacted laws to legalize use of psychedelic substances.
In 2020, Oregon voters passed measures legalizing psilocybin-assisted therapy at state-sanctioned centers and personal possession of small amounts of certain drugs. Voters in Washington, D.C., also passed an initiative decriminalizing possession of naturally derived psychedelics.
Advocates in California are gathering signatures for a decriminalization initiative for the November ballot.
Shannon Hughes, an associate professor of social work at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, said that, outside of studies and clinical trials, underground guides have long been helping people access psychedelics to treat health issues, explore their spirituality and experiment recreationally. Hughes serves on the board of a Colorado group that promotes safe exploration of psychedelics.
“There are folks who have been doing this work for a very long time, but because it’s underground, they can’t really talk about their experience without fear of criminal risk,” Hughes said. “All we get access to is how it’s getting medicalized.”
In the 14 years since doctors told Floyd that he was unlikely to survive the large tumors growing on his spine, some which divide his spinal column and are too dangerous to remove, he tried 16 psychiatric drugs and opioid painkillers to treat his pain and distress.
The now 57-year-old Colorado resident credits illicit psychedelics like mushrooms and LSD for showing him how to cope with his illness. The Colorado Sun is using a pseudonym for Floyd because possession and use of psilocybin and other psychedelic substances remain illegal under federal law.
“It helps me to look at those thoughts in the face and realize, that’s serving me no purpose at all,” Floyd said.
Growing research suggests benefits from psychedelics
Recent scientific studies and clinical trials are showing psilocybin and other psychedelics have the potential to treat serious depression, end-of-life anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues.
Psilocybin and other psychedelics were previously studied in the 1950s and 1960s as treatment for alcoholism and other health issues. But as recreational use and stigma surrounding the substances grew, several states banned their use, eventually culminating with the Controlled Substances Act in 1971.
In addition to psilocybin, Colorado advocates are working to decriminalize three other psychedelics derived from plants: ibogaine, mescaline (which is found in peyote) and DMT. All are still considered Schedule I drugs, the strictest federal designation, meaning they are considered by the government to have a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use in treatment.
But that classification has also hampered widespread medical research, meaning researchers and the public have a limited glimpse into the benefits and other effects of these substances.