DENVER — It’s been a decade since Colorado voters passed a ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana in the state. That move was the first major change to the state’s drug laws in years.
In just a few short years after that, dispensaries bloomed all over the state, and something that people used to spend years behind bars for became big business.
In November, voters will be asked once again whether it’s time for another major update to Colorado laws — this time regarding psychedelics.
What Proposition 122 Does
Proposition 122 asks voters if they want to allow for healing centers to be set up across the state where people will be able to go to use these substances in a supervised environment. It also calls for the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies to set up a structure for the operation and licensing of these facilities.
No later than 2024, DORA would be required under the initiative to adopt rules to establish qualifications, education and training for these facilities and people working there.
Under the measure, local governments would not be allowed to prohibit or ban these centers from starting a business in their community. They would be allowed to regulate the time , place and manner of the operations, however.
Five substances would be allowed in some capacity: dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ibogaine, mescaline (excluding peyote), psilocin and psilocybin. However, until 2026, only psilocin and psilocybin will be allowed. After that, it will be up to DORA to determine whether the other three substances would be allowed in the healing programs.
The measure also calls for the decriminalization of personal possession, growing and use of these substances for people 21 years old or older. However, the measure does not allow for the sale of the substances.
People under the influence of these substances would not be allowed to drive or operate a motor vehicle while or possess them while in a public building or space.
Finally, the measure would allow for anyone who has completed a sentence for a drug conviction involving these substances to apply to have their court record on those convictions sealed.
Oregon voters enacted a similar law in 2020, ballot measure 109, establishing a regulated system for people to access these substances for therapeutic purposes through healing centers. In 2019, meanwhile, the city and county of Denver moved to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in the community.
Excited for Psychedelics
For supporters of Proposition 122, this is an opportunity for users to be able to access a new type of medicinal healing.
“The Natural Medicine Health Act creates a tremendous opportunity for new modalities and healings. We aren't understanding now that we are the worst state in the country when it comes to mental health and access to mental health,” said Veronica Lightning Horse Perez, a supporter of the initiative.
They say these natural medicines have been around for thousands of years and are safer than opioids.
“No person deserves to go to jail or face heavy fines for trying to heal,” said Kevin Matthews, a supporter of the ballot measure.
Both Matthews and Lightning Horse Perez say they worked hard on this ballot measure to make sure it would be equitable. That’s why they are excited about DORA’s involvement in the program if the ballot measure passes.
There is also a provision in the ballot language calling for systems and processes to be put in place to help with accessibility, like reducing licensure fees, ensuring geographic diversity and the eventual inclusion of certain insurance coverage.
They point to Denver’s decriminalization as a success story.
“Decriminalizing psilocybin mushrooms in Denver has not since created any significant public health or safety risk for Denver residents, and so we know that the sky hasn't fallen,” Matthews said.
The measure does call for licensed healing centers to feature a screening and intake process for patients and say they are serious about safety, which is why the measure calls for DORA to be involved.
Despite their excitement over the ballot measure, both Matthews and Lightning Horse Perez want to make clear that they don’t support a commercialized model for these sorts of natural medicines and they don’t want to see them sold recreationally in dispensaries like marijuana.
That’s why they say this ballot measure is a careful, balanced approach to legalization.
They are asking people to vote yes for the sake of healing.
“It has done a great good for many different people to be able to expand themselves to learn, to grow, to self-heal. And that's a powerful thing,” Lightning Horse Perez said.
A Patient’s Story
For years, Alan Floyd has lived with an unbearable truth that his time here on Earth is more limited than most people's.
“I have a terminal illness that was basically discovered back in 2006, I believe it was, and I was told I had two years to live. Needless to say, I outlived those two years,” Floyd said.
Outliving those two years, however, has come with a lot of pain and severe depression. Doctors have prescribed him a lot of medication for the pain, including high doses of opioids, fentanyl, oxycodone and more.
However, Floyd says the opioids made him feel bad and the withdrawal was terrible each time. In 2016, though, a federal bill passed that gave patients with a terminal diagnosis the right to try alternative forms of healing.
That’s when Floyd turned to psychedelics along with his doctors. Within two weeks, he says he started to notice a significant difference. With microdosing, his night terrors completely vanished and his overall attitude began to change, he says.
“The depression has lifted to the point where my psychiatrist says I no longer have treatment-resistant depression,” he said. “My attitude is a lot better. I understand that I'm dying and I'm okay with that.”
To be clear, Floyd says the microdosing doesn’t stop the pain, but it does change his attitude toward it. For him, psychedelics have been a good experience and he doesn’t agree with legislating a substance that comes from the Earth.
On the other hand, he thinks the state should be careful with legislation and he’s concerned about big companies getting in the way.
“The last thing I would want to see on Earth is for the pharmaceutical companies to have a stranglehold on this medicine. I feel that that is wrong because the pharmaceutical companies had complete and total control over my care,” Floyd said.
Studies on Psychedelics
Shannon Hughes has been studying psychedelics since her husband was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer eight years ago. She is an associate professor in the school of social work at Colorado State University.
The couple had decided to stop chemotherapy, so there was no more treatments for him to undergo. He wanted to try psilocybin but couldn’t find access to it through a doctor or hospice center, so he died without ever having tried it.
Hughes has been studying how people use drugs and medicines for mental health.
“I started looking into it like, 'What's going on? Why don't we have access to that? And let me look at that research and what is this.' That just took me down a lot of rabbit holes and into psychedelic advocacy and education,” Hughes said.
Multiple studies have been conducted on these medications, including at Johns Hopkins University and the University of California San Francisco, and some benefits were discovered for patients.
“The clinical trials completed on psilocybin mushrooms have mostly focused on the benefits for depression and end-of-life distress,” Hughes said. “They're finding that 60% to 80% of participants are reporting an immediate and substantial decrease in depression for end-of-life distress.”
Hughes says her research into these natural medicines has found that they are one of the safest psychoactive substances and there’s no signs that they are addictive.
“Psilocybin is actually very physically safe. There's no way to really overdose on it in a way that would be life-threatening,” Hughes said.
Researchers have also found they can lead to more connectivity between different areas of the brain that don’t normally communicate, according to Hughes.
The Case Against Psychedelics
Some opponents of Proposition 122 don’t want to see these substances decriminalized or legalized, and they don’t believe that the ballot measure is truly about healing.
“It's a con. The idea that this is really about health is not true at all. This is where they started with marijuana. This is where they started with opioids as well,” said Jeff Hunt, the director of the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University.
He says the U.S. and Colorado in particular have been experimenting with decriminalization and drug commercialization for about a decade and doesn’t believe it’s working out well.
Unlike the supporters of Proposition 122, Hunt sees Denver’s psychedelic decriminalization as a warning rather than an example for others to follow.
“Denver has already decriminalized psilocybin for really the past two years and no one would be saying that we're doing very well in the city of Denver with our drug issues,” Hunt said.
By allowing for these substances to legally exist in Colorado communities, he worries the state will be causing some of the same problems he believes it experienced with marijuana in terms of a black market and other drug use.
“We need to be looking at ways to get people off drugs, not finding ways for people to take further drugs. They are going to harm their lives in countless numbers of ways,” he said.
In the end, Hunt says if there really are medical benefits to these substances, the Food and Drug Administration already has a pathway to legalize them where the substances are reviewed, tested and compared to other medications to understand their full impact.
He is not opposed to supporters of psychedelics going through that pathway to prove the health benefits of these natural medicines. But he insists that this ballot measure is not about health, but rather commercialization.
An Unexpected Opponent
Of all of the people one might expect to support Proposition 122, community activist Melanie Rose Rodgers is likely one of them.
Rose Rodgers was one of the main petitioners behind the 2019 Denver measure to decriminalize psychedelics and is heavily involved in the natural medicines community.
“We just believe in the overall benefits of psilocybin mushrooms, you know, not just mental health but creativity,” Rose Rodgers said.
However, she and a few others who helped pass that Denver ordinance are opposed to Proposition 122.
They had also tried to get a question on the November ballot this year asking voters to decriminalize these substances but were not able to gather enough signatures in time.
Now, she’s become one of the loudest voices against Proposition 122. She worries that this measure is moving too fast.
“It's important that we do this, you know, in a right way, and we don't rush to do it. And a lot of us were like, why are we rushing,” Rose Rodgers said.
She believes the first step should be decriminalization, not full legalization, and she doesn’t like the fact that DORA would have control over these substances. Nor does she support the concept of healing centers taking over the administration of these substances.
“We're not opposed to legalization. We're opposed to, you know, this kind of top-down policy legalization that we saw with the Natural Medicine Health Act that really didn't provide any rules like social justice, equitable, environmental, societal,” Rose Rodgers said.
Rose Rodgers and others did attend some of the community meetings held by proponents of the ballot measure but says she didn’t feel that they were being listened to. She worried that not enough minority voices were involved in the discussion to begin with.
A Washington D.C.-based political action committee, known as New Approach, has been the single largest contributor to the yes on Proposition 122 campaign, contributing nearly $2.8 million to support the issue.
Rose Rodgers worries that the big political contributions are proof of larger corporations wanting to monetize these substances, saying this could price some people out of treatment.
“I actually think that the cost of sitting in these licensed healing centers are not going to be able to be affordable for everybody,” Rose Rodgers said.
Finally, Rose Rodgers says she doesn’t agree with the part of the ballot measure that bars communities from banning these centers. She believes cities and counties know what’s best for themselves and should be able to say whether they want to allow these centers.
She’s asking people to think twice before voting yes on this ballot measure.
It was a decade ago that Colorado voters decided to significantly change the state’s drug laws by legalizing marijuana.
In November, they will be asked whether it’s time to significantly rewrite drug laws in the state once again.
If Proposition 122 passes, Colorado would be one of the first states to allow psychedelics.
For supporters, this measure is about healing. Opponents, however, say the issue is more complicated than that. Now, the ballot box will be the final battleground for this proposed policy change.
Full ballot guide
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