Colorado voters could decide whether to legalize psychedelic mushrooms this fall

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Psilocybin mushroom cultivation, May 29, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Psilocybin mushroom cultivation, May 29, 2019.

A measure to legalize psychedelic mushrooms statewide is a step closer to the ballot after proponents submitted signatures to the Secretary of State’s office.

If the state finds they have enough valid signatures, Coloradans can expect to vote on Initiative 58 — also known as the Natural Medicine Health Act — this November. Co-chief proponent Veronica Lightning Horse Perez said the campaign collected over 220,0000 signatures, giving them a cushion of about 100,000 above the minimum required. 

“That means that there are people out there in Colorado that are aware of this, that care about this, that know that there is value in this medicine,” Perez said.

Denver voters decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms in 2019. This initiative would go further, effectively creating a legal, regulated market across Colorado for psilocybin and psilocin, the hallucinogenic compounds found in certain strains of mushrooms.

If it passes, Colorado would be the second state in the country to legalize mushrooms; Oregon voters approved their own measure in 2020.

What the proposed act would change (and not change)

But residents shouldn’t expect to buy “magic” mushrooms over the counter. Rather than allow retail sales similar to marijuana, the act sets out two paths of use: privately, away from public places, or in supervised settings regulated by the state.

The initiative would decriminalize the growth and possession of shrooms for personal use and does not quantify the amount someone can possess. People would be allowed to share or gift mushrooms without risk of arrest, though they cannot sell them. 

“We believe that no person deserves to face incarceration or heavy fines for simply trying to heal using these medicines,” said Kevin Matthews, coalition director of Natural Medicine Colorado, the issue group behind the initiative.

Under the Natural Medicine Health Act, “healing centers” and other entities licensed by Colorado regulators would be allowed to manufacture, test, transport and provide psilocybin and psilocin. Trained facilitators would administer the substances at these centers, which could apply for licensing by the fall of 2024.

All this comes with a caveat: those using or facilitating these substances must be 21 or over. Younger people caught with mushrooms would only face a petty offense charge and, if convicted, their penalty would be limited to no more than four hours of drug education or counseling, provided free of charge.

Psilocybin remains a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act, meaning the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has designated it as having no currently accepted medical use and a high risk for abuse. DEA Denver public information officer Steve Kotecki said the agency does not comment on state legislation. U.S. Attorney Cole Finegan, the chief federal law enforcement officer in Colorado, also declined to comment on the initiative. 

Courtesy of Evan Semón Photography
Proponents of Initiative 58 dropped off signatures at the Secretary of State's office for verification.

Potential mental health benefits, and ensuring recognition of traditional Indigenous uses

Advocates of decriminalization point to a growing wave of research centered on the potentially beneficial effects of psychoactive mushrooms in recent years. Some studies have found psilocybin can relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD.

Matthews said that these potential benefits are especially important for Colorado, which a mental health advocacy nonprofit ranked as the worst state for overall adult mental health this year. 

“Right now, Colorado is facing a crisis in mental health,” Matthews said. “What this measure will provide is an opportunity for Coloradans from all walks of life to be able to have access to these incredible healing tools.”

If passed, the measure would still leave much to be decided. The Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) would be responsible for creating specific rules, including qualification and education requirements for facilitators at healing centers.

Initiative 58 also sets up a Natural Medicine Advisory Board to advise DORA. This board could later recommend other psychedelics for legalization, including DMT and ibogaine.

At least one of the board’s 15 members would be required to have experience with traditional Indigenous uses of natural medicines, according to the initiative text.

Perez said the act is focused on addressing harm caused by the criminalization of psilocybin, particularly against Indigenous people who have used psychoactive mushrooms medicinally for thousands of years.

“This is something that has been in humanity's history for a very long time,” Perez said. “It's only been a couple generations where this got mislabeled and misrepresented.”

Help from a legalization-focused PAC

As the campaign gears up for its next stages, it’s had the help of about $2.5 million from New Approach PAC, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that contributed to measures to legalize cannabis around the country and has recently turned its efforts to psychedelics.

According to IRS filings, some funders of New Approach PAC include GoDaddy founder and billionaire Bob Parsons and The Good Growth Alliance, an Ohio-based nonprofit supported by ScottsMiracle-Gro (a staffer for New Approach clarified that ScottsMiracle-Gro donations have not been used for Colorado's initiative).

“It’s our mission as an organization to support policy reforms focused on healing and common sense, and that aligns well with the work that the Natural Medicine Colorado coalition has been doing for more than a year now to design this initiative,” New Approach chief of staff Taylor West said in a statement to CPR.

Perez said that New Approach gave input on the initiative drafting, but that they also primarily worked with local communities to decide the final focus of the initiative.

For example, Perez said many Indigenous community members asked for the measure to explicitly exclude peyote from any future legalization efforts under the act. The slow-growing peyote cactus is a sacred medicine for many tribes in the Southwest. Under current law, Native Americans are already permitted to use peyote for religious purposes, so broader legalization could open it up for exploitation from other groups, Perez said. 

In the coming months, Matthews said, the campaign will focus on informing Coloradans of the measure and trying to win them over to the proposal.

“We're looking forward to really educating Colorado residents over the next four months, so they really understand the measure,” he said. “And so they feel educated and excited to vote yes.”