- Colorado recently voted to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms for people at least 21 years old and permit state-regulated “healing centers” where people can experience the drug with supervision.
- Research on the potential use of psychedelics in mental health treatment is emerging.
- Experts shared thoughts on the legislation and separated fact from fiction.
Marcus Capone was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times during his 13 years of service as a U.S. Navy SEAL. Some of his roles included interrogator and a lead breacher in charge of explosives.
When Marcus medically retired in 2013, new battles began: Excessive alcohol use, sleepless nights, depression, and trouble focusing — to name a few.
He was diagnosed with PTSD and later traumatic brain injury (TBI) due to his time in combat and injuries sustained playing contact sports.
He tried 10 medications, many in the Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) and Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI) families. Neither worked.
His wife, Amber, began researching psychedelics. Then in 2017, a trip to — and in — Mexico changed everything.
At, what Marcus terms a “reputable and longstanding retreat in Mexico,” staff administered 5-MeO-DMT, a psychedelic product from in the gland secretions of a toad that is also found in some plants. It has the potential to produce similar mystical experiences as commonly reported with another psychedelic that’s gaining buzz for the treatment of PTSD: psilocybin.
Marcus says his 10-hour journey marked a turning point for him.
“This journey showed me the difficult times that I had experienced in my life, and it forced me to face the consequences of my actions and be able to make amends with the situations that I experienced,” he recalled. “When it was over, and I was able to rest, I woke up with a feeling of overwhelming gratitude and joy that I hadn’t been able to experience in over 15 years. I had feelings again. I was excited to live again…I wanted others to experience this.”
Marcus and Amber went on to found Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS) to provide resources, research, and advocacy for psychedelic therapies in 2019.
Now, in Colorado, people under the age of 21 can have a similar experience without leaving the U.S.
Earlier this month, voters passed a ballot initiative called Proposition 122 that decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms for people ages 21 and older. It allows for the creation of state-regulated “healing centers” where individuals have supervised experiences with the drug.
The initiative will go into effect in 2024, and in 2026, an advisory board can amend the program to add other plant-based psychedelic drugs.
Colorado is the second state to develop a regulated system for psilocybin and psilocin, hallucinogenics that some mushrooms contain. Oregon voted to pass a similar measure in 2020.
The new initiatives may raise eyebrows, but research on the drug and its potential to aid in mental health treatment, including for PTSD, is emerging.
In 2018, the FDA tabbed psilocybin a “breakthrough therapy,” a designation for drugs that show significant improvements over other treatments in early trials. But they are not FDA-approved.
What Proposition 122 does
The legislation contains two general parts, says Adam Levin, MD, a PGY-3 resident in the department of psychiatry for The Ohio State University College of Medicine.
“Firstly, it decriminalizes the personal use, possession, and growth of psilocybin-containing mushrooms and other plant-based psychedelic substances [DMT, ibogaine, and mescaline],” Levin says. “Secondly, it creates a system of services meant to implement and regulate the supervised administration of these substances.”
Both are important. The harms of the “War on Drugs,” a term coined by Pres. Richard Nixon, have been well-documented, Levin says.
In 2021, the Associated Press released a 50-year review of federal and state incarceration data that showed that the United States prison population went from 240,593 in 1975 to 1.43 million people in 2019. Of those, 1 in 5 incarcerated individuals’ most serious crime was a drug offense.
Racial disparities were stark. Black incarceration rates went from 600 per 100,000 people in 1970 to 1,808 per 100,000 people in 2000.
The Latinx prison population jumped from 208 per 100,000 people to 615 per 100,000 people, while whites were — unsurprisingly — the least impacted, going from 103 per 100,000 people to 242.
Research from 2022 indicated people with a history of incarceration make more than 50% less than those without one.
The authors also note that it negatively impacted housing and education — two social detriments of health.
Decriminalizing psychedelic mushroom possession, use, and growth protects individuals from these outcomes while still providing safe ways to experience the drugs under supervision.
What the legislation doesn’t do
Levin notes that the new initiative is not a free-for-all legalization of mushrooms, nor will they be sold for recreational use in Colorado like cannabis is. But Levin says there’s still a gray area.
“It also does not precisely define what is meant by supervised administration, which leaves many important questions unanswered,” he says. “For example, what might qualify as a ‘healing center’ under this legislation? Who might qualify as a facilitator or healer, and what will be the process for certification?”
Levin says these unanswered questions may lead to challenges in practically implementing the legislation as they try to hammer out the details outside of true medical models, where processes, such as certification and qualifications, are more regulated.
Mushrooms and mental health: What the research and experts say
Decriminalizing mushrooms may do more than keep people mentally healthy.
“Legislation opens up doors for the future of research and moving forward to give people more mental health options outside of pharmaceutical drugs,” says Megan Michelena, the co-founder of Zenchronicity, a microdose mentorship program that supports healing with psilocybin.
“It allows for individuals to step outside of fear and seek options for living a fuller life. It reduces the stigma around the use of psychedelics to treat mental health,” Michelena added.
Though the new legislation may prompt new research, some data have already emerged, creating a crux for Proposition 122 to pass.
A small 2022 study of 43 people indicated that psilocybin could reduce depression symptoms and increase “the global integration of the brain’s functional networks.”
A small randomized clinical trial of 24 participants with previously treatment-resistant depression published in 2020 suggested that psilocybin-assisted therapy had sustained results in decreasing their symptoms. They noted the drug had a “low potential” for addiction, and more than half were considered in remission of depression by the four-week mark.
A 2016 study indicated that psilocybin could reduce depression and anxiety symptoms in cancer patients for a sustained period of at least six months.
The low risks for adverse effects and addiction don’t surprise Levin.
It’s one of the pros of decriminalizing psilocybin, which doesn’t carry the same addiction risks as alcohol but does have harsher penalties for use and possession, despite emerging research pointing to its place in medicine.
“This should tell us that the drug laws are not actually geared toward reducing societal or individual harms in any meaningful way,” he says. “To take the viewpoint of a clinician and someone who studies psychoactive drugs, we should strive for a coherent, evidence-based drug policy, and the drug laws as they stand are largely politically and culturally, rather than scientifically, motivated.”
But that approach should come down to science, and Levin believes there are drawbacks to the unregulated, unsupervised use of psychedelic mushrooms.
“[They] can be considerable, especially without the proper therapeutic container,” Levin says. “In the short term, ingestion of psilocybin causes significant alterations in consciousness, and these can be profoundly disorienting and anxiety-provoking. In the longer term, these experiences can be incredibly powerful, challenging, and potentially destabilizing, especially without the proper therapeutic support and integration.”
The future of mushrooms as medicine
Michelena hopes other states follow Colorado and Oregon and pass similar initiatives.
“This will de-stigmatize the use of plant medicine for mental health and overall well-being, opening up opportunities for other states to see the benefits,” she says.
New Jersey proposed a similar bill. California activists were hoping to get a similar initiative on the ballot but announced earlier this year they failed to get the necessary signatures.
Levin has a more nuanced hope.
“This will de-stigmatize the use of plant medicine for mental health and overall well-being, opening up opportunities for other states to see the benefits,” Levin says.
What that means is up for debate — and it’s one worth having, though he’d like to see some regulation.
“My hope would be that these initiatives are implemented responsibly and with the scientific evidence in mind,” Levin says. “I also hope that there is some system of collecting data in these states for the purposes of greater scientific understanding and treatment optimization.”
Marcus has a similar outlook.
“The safe, legal, therapeutic administration of these therapies is my hope for the future of the psychedelic movement,” he says. “Much more research needs to be completed to better understand the safest and most effective ways to utilize them. Being adequately supported with proper sourcing, dosing, set, setting, preparation, and integration tools are paramount in the successful outcomes of psychedelic therapies.”