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Why some of Colorado’s foremost shrooms advocates won’t be voting to legalize psilocybin

Come November, Colorado voters will be asked to decide whether to legalize psilocybin and psilocin, psychoactive compounds in magic mushrooms, as well as whether to establish healing centers where the public can access them in a therapeutic context.

But some of the state’s foremost psychedelics advocates are not on board with the measure, known as the Natural Medicine Health Act, and are actively campaigning against it.

That includes Melanie Rose Rodgers, who in 2019 was part of the team that convinced Denver voters to decriminalize the use and possession of shrooms here. Rodgers and others with Decriminalize Colorado, a local chapter of a national organization dedicated to drug reform education, are instead trying to raise support for a competing measure. Initiative 61 would remove criminal penalties for using, growing or possessing psilocybin and other entheogenic plants throughout the state without establishing a legal, regulated market.

Rodgers’ campaign is still collecting signatures in hopes of being included on the November ballot, but whether or not that happens, she will be voting against the Natural Medicine Health Act, which qualified for general election last Thursday.

“I will be a fat ‘no,’” Rodgers said, “and I’m telling my friends about it too.”

The Natural Medicine Health Act, formally known as Initiative 58, would effectively set the stage for a legal mushroom market by tasking state regulators with creating rules around the cultivation, manufacturing, testing, transport, sales and purchase of psilocybin and psilocin. The crux of the proposal focuses on making psychedelics available to Coloradans seeking treatment for mental or emotional ailments and lays the groundwork for a new industry around psychedelics in the state.

Shrooms would not be sold over-the-counter, for example at dispensaries for recreational use, but rather administered in state-licensed facilities staffed by licensed facilitators. If it passes, the measure would also expand decriminalization for possession, use, and gifting these substances statewide.

RELATED: Colorado voters will be asked to legalize magic mushrooms in November

Given that psilocybin and other psychedelics have yielded promising results in treating depression, PTSD, anxiety among the terminally ill and nicotine addiction in university studies, Initiative 58’s proponents tout it as a new avenue to address the state’s mental health crisis.

But Rodgers and other advocates remain leery of corporate interests behind the measure that they believe are preparing to enter the market to “tax, commodify, make profit” on psilocybin, she said. That concern was the impetus for Initiative 61, which would codify decriminalization statewide so that folks who possess, cultivate or use psychedelics including psilocybin, mescaline, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and ibogaine are not violating the law.

Rodgers, Initiative 61’s co-proponent, said it’s a simple change to Colorado law that protects those who have already been using and administering natural medicines safely. It’s not that she is opposed to legalization, but rather Rodgers and her fellow advocates are wary of its effects.

“We decriminalized in Denver only, but now all the sudden two years later after the pandemic there’s this whole chance to legalize, and I have huge concerns over that. One is the amount of out-of-state-funding and influence that is driving Initiative 58,” Rodgers said. “It’s opening the floodgates for corporations to come to Colorado to open their bougie life and healing centers.”

On June 27, Natural Medicine Colorado ...

Provided by Evan Semon

On June 27, Natural Medicine Colorado submitted a petition with 222,648 signatures supporting Initiative 58, also known as the Natural Medicine Health Act, to the Secretary of State’s office. The measure, which is likely to show up on the Nov. ballot, asks voters to legalize psilocybin and psilocin, the psychoactive compounds in magic mushrooms, for use in therapeutic settings.

The funding she’s referring to is from New Approach, a political action committee that’s recently supported several drug reform campaigns. From March through June of this year, Natural Medicine Colorado, the campaign behind Initiative 58, received more than $2.5 million in monetary and in-kind donations from Washington D.C.-based New Approach, according to campaign finance disclosures.

New Approach also backed the measure to legalize psilocybin in Oregon, which passed in 2020. Its top contributors at that time, according to Cannabis Wire, included Dr. Bronner’s soap company, whose leaders have been outspoken proponents of drug reform; philanthropist Henry van Ameringen; and philanthropist Cari Tuna, also wife to Facebook’s co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.

That worries the folks with Decriminalize Colorado, who believe a “corporate takeover” will make psychedelics more expensive and less accessible, and ultimately render treatment less equitable. Nicole Foerster, another co-proponent of Initiative 61, said that because

“I’m not here to create a new industry that’s only going to serve the rich and powerful,” Rodgers said. “We’ve already seen it with cannabis — who owns the licensing and who’s in jail?”

Because the Natural Medicine Health Act establishes an advisory panel to work with regulators to build the new framework, Initiative 61 co-proponent Nicole Foerster said it “places something that is currently held in community, by many, into the hands of very few people.”

In an email statement, Taylor West, spokesperson for Natural Medicine Colorado, said the measure is designed to prioritize mental health and healing, while balancing safety and access.

“We believe that many more people will seek out and access this healing if they can trust that there is training, transparency, and oversight in the program. And we believe that these medicines can do the most good for the most people when they’re provided in a safe, accountable, and therapeutic setting,” West said. “Those are the sole motivations for the design of the initiative. No corporation is financially supporting this campaign, and no corporation was involved in the design of it.”

Initiative 61’s campaign has until Aug. 8 to submit its petition with at least 124,632 valid signatures to be considered for the Nov. 8 ballot. It’s been a challenging process – with two psilocybin-focused measures simultaneously canvassing, many voters are confused about the differences, Rodgers said.

“We’re grassroot advocates that want decriminalization that aren’t aligned with [Initiative] 58,” she said.

Whether Colorado is ready for further relaxation of drug laws remains to be seen.

Denver was the first city in the United States to decriminalize psilocybin in 2019, and panel that was established to review the effects of the policy recently found it “has not since presented any significant public health or safety risk in the city.” The panel, which included Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, law enforcement officers and Natural Medicine Health Act co-proponent Kevin Matthews, suggested further loosening local laws around psilocybin.

Rodgers pointed out another potential sticking point with the Natural Medicine Health Act: Cities and counties would be prohibited from banning the establishment of healing centers. (In Oregon, several jurisdictions are trying to do just that.)

“When we legalized cannabis, municipalities [could] decide whether or not to have these licensed retail stores or medical centers in their jurisdiction. With 58 there’s none of that, no one can say no,” she said. “I don’t know how much Colorado is going to go for that.”

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