Four mothers gather around a Saturday morning breakfast table exchanging the obsessive anxieties that come from raising teenagers in today’s society.
They share the usual concerns: Does their daughter have enough friends? Is their son being bullied at school? Are their child’s frequent dark moods typical teenage emotions, or does their angst cross over into depression?
As they talk, it becomes clear that the constant stress of worry for their teens is spiraling them down into anxiety and depressive disorders of their own.
Right down to steaming mugs of coffee and plates of avocado toast, the scene is quintessential suburban life in the early 2020s. But this meeting of the mothers will likely produce more answers, more insight and more empathy than most. Because the night before, these mothers consumed some natural medicine known for helping to see things in a new light, bringing clarity to stubborn, problematic patterns.
These women, along with thousands of others across Colorado, have found psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) useful in bringing relief from the anxiety and depression so prevalent in today’s society.
Now, after Colorado voters approved Proposition 122 in November, they no longer have to risk state criminal penalties for their use of this indigenous medicine.
The dramatic efficiency of mushrooms to ease mental health disorders that haven’t been helped by traditional medicines and therapies isn’t just anecdotal. Recent studies from respected institutions such as Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have shown psilocybin is helpful in treating everything from alcohol dependence to major depressive disorder.
However, those experienced with this medicine suggest that it be approached with intention, reverence and, most importantly, understanding.
Under Proposition 122, The Natural Medicine Health Act, Coloradans 21 and older are allowed to possess and use psilocybin, the psychedelic fungi commonly known as “magic mushrooms.” In addition, it proposes the eventual decriminalization of the substances dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ibogaine and mescaline (excluding peyote). The law allows the state to immediately begin the process of the “medicalization” of psilocybin mushrooms by creating a framework for state-regulated “healing centers,” where people can receive medically guided psilocybin treatments. Although decriminalized in Colorado, psilocybin and the other medicines named in the Health Act remain illegal under federal law.
“The measure is therapeutically oriented, so recreational and retail sales are not allowed,” said Kevin Matthews, one of the authors of Proposition 122. “You can share these medicines with family and friends or in religious uses, but we didn’t want this to become a for-profit industry.”
A veteran, Matthews found relief from depression during a single psilocybin journey in 2011 and has since worked for increased access to psychedelics for the treatment of trauma. While at a legalization rally, he saw a T-shirt slogan that summed up the idea behind The Natural Medicine Health Act in three words: “Healers, Not Dealers.”
“We were very careful in the writing of the proposition to put forth a healing model,” he said. “We know that people will still use these medicines recreationally, as they were before this passed. It’s not always a clear distinction: For some people, taking mushrooms with friends and going to see a show at Red Rocks is therapeutic.”
The proposition laid out the problem it was hoping to alleviate, reading in part: “Coloradans are experiencing problematic mental health issues, including but not limited to suicidality, addiction, depression, and anxiety. Colorado’s current approach to mental health has failed to fulfill its promise. Coloradans deserve more tools to address mental health issues, including approaches such as natural medicines that are grounded in treatment, recovery, health, and wellness rather than criminalization, stigma, suffering and punishment.”
In November, 53% of Colorado voters agreed with that wording.
Denver attorney Sean McCallister’s phone started ringing as soon as the votes were counted and hasn’t really stopped since. Primarily working with those in the cannabis industry since the sale and recreational use of weed was legalized in 2012 in Colorado, McAllister is now a pioneer in the emerging field of psychedelics law.
One of the most frequent questions he is asked by those outside the psychedelic community is, “When will mushrooms become legal?” His answer: They already have.
“No, you don’t have to wait for decriminalization provisions,” he said. “People can cultivate, possess and give away mushrooms, as well as share them and be paid for bona fide harm-reduction therapy and support services.”
In an interesting twist, those without licensure will be the first to be able to legally offer natural medicine to clients.
“Right now, those who don’t have a therapy license are able to work with these medicines because they are not bound by the rules of a regulatory agency,” McCallister said. “We are about two years away from the regulations being in place for doctors and therapists to be able to offer this medicine to their patients.”
In the meantime, a movement of mushroom guides who have worked underground for years or even decades is starting to push into the daylight.
In the first three months after the passage of Proposition 122, McCallister wrote up more than a hundred disclaimers for guides to use with their clients.
Alexandra Jenkins believes so deeply in the medicine’s powers to process and release trauma that she was willing to put herself at risk of prosecution to guide medicine ceremonies underground for the past eight years. Now, before the ceremonies she holds with one or two other facilitators, she passes out a waiver that spells out what can happen when “sitting with the medicine.”
The waiver explains that the effects of psilocybin mushrooms include altered perception of time and space and intense changes in mood and feeling. Other possible effects of psilocybin include everything from euphoria and peacefulness to confusion and frightening hallucinations. The effects of psilocybin vary from person to person, based on the user’s mental state, personality and immediate environment.
Those who have spent time with the medicine will tell you it’s all these emotions and so many more, a roller coaster of a voyage through time and space that can fit what feels like a lifetime into four to six hours.
“When this (Prop 122) passed, I felt a release of stress I wasn’t even aware I had been holding,” Jenkins said. “It feels like an open door to give more people access to this medicine.”
She has seen the medicine ground previously malfunctioning nervous systems, help people connect to their higher selves, and in doing so, feel more compassion toward themselves and others and tap into creativity and the interconnectedness of life.
“There is this plant that grows in the ground, is free and helps us see ourselves and others differently,” she said. “It’s cool to be able to believe in miracles.”
In addition to decriminalizing the four natural medicines, for mushrooms, the new law is retroactive.
McCallister had several pending cases that were dismissed as soon as Proposition 122 passed. Among them was the case of Ben Gorelick, a Denver rabbi who was facing prosecution after integrating psychedelic use as part of spiritual practice.
“The dismissal of that case was especially meaningful because it highlighted the ways this medicine is used,” McCallister said.
A representative of traditional and indigenous use and religious use of natural medicine was one of 15 appointees to the Natural Medicine Advisory Board announced earlier this year. The board, which will advise the Department of Regulatory Agencies on the implementation of the regulated natural medicine access program, also includes representatives from law enforcement, veterans, criminal justice reform, mycology, emergency medical services, health care policy, natural medicine and mental health providers.
Colorado Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, is drafting a bill that would clarify who would be implementing Proposition 122. He is considering adding the Department of Revenue or Department of Public Health and Environment involvement in the rollout of the program.
Proposition 122 says the state must issue rules for things like drug testing standards, license requirements, and health and safety warnings by Jan. 1, 2024, and the state must begin accepting applications for licensed facilities to administer psilocybin by Sept. 30, 2024.
The law stipulates that decisions be made on all licensing applications within 60 days of receiving them.
After June 1, 2026, the TNMHA board can decide on the medicalization of the additional substances, DMT, ibogaine and mescaline. This may include “healing centers,” like the ones being established for psilocybin, or some similar system with medical oversight for the use of these three substances.
For years, psychiatrist Craig Heacock has had patients come through his office he knew could benefit from psilocybin, but he was unable to recommend it because it was illegal.
Heacock has been able to provide therapy using ketamine, which works in the brain in ways similar to psilocybin. That said, different psychedelics seem to work better for different conditions.
“Ketamine is best for endogenous conditions, such as bipolar depression that has been present throughout the family history,” he said. These are conditions that are caused by factors inside the person’s system.
“I’m most excited about the use of psilocybin in the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder,” he said. “There’s been cases of people having remission from OCD for weeks or even months following a single dose of psilocybin.”
OCD is one of many anxiety disorders that can develop in response to trauma. It is a coping mechanism your mind develops to try to control the possibility of something traumatic happening to you again.
The amount of research on psilocybin has been limited by its legal status, leaving practitioners like Heacock eager to explore its possibilities.
“Psilocybin has a rich and broad palette,” he said. “It connects us with self in a way that can alleviate anxiety, depression and a lack of love.”
His podcast, “Back from the Abyss: Psychiatry in Stories,” has been a pioneering voice in the field of psychedelic-assisted therapy. He and his guests often share their hopes that the healing power of psilocybin can help with society’s big issues, such as the communal depression lingering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With the pandemic we have a whole group of people who are left demoralized and spiritually wounded,” he said. “Psilocybin can help with the big things, like alleviating existential despair.”
Although there isn’t a strict definition, those in the natural medicine community consider a transformative dose – one in which emotional breakthroughs are likely to occur – of mushrooms to be 3 grams or more.
By disconnecting parts of the brain that form what we call our ego, psilocybin allows you to step back and look at your patterns from a different perspective. It puts you in the audience to watch your life play out on the stage and then whispers in your ear that you could do things a different way.
It allows you to not only rethink who you are, but also who you want to be.
Jenkins has seen people shed deep-seated trauma through use of the medicine.
“People might have something they’ve been holding for so long they may not even know it’s there,” she said. “The medicine shows them that pain and then helps them process it so they can begin to let it go. There is a lot of strength, strength to change, that comes with the love and self-acceptance of this medicine.”
Hearing of possible relief from anxiety, depression and even existential despair has Coloradans (and people from around the world) wondering how to get their hands on some mushrooms – and they don’t want to wait.
“We were prepared for an increase in interest in psilocybin if the proposition passed,” said Daniel McQueen of Boulder’s Center for Medicinal Mindfulness. “But the sheer size of the wave of interest actually took me by surprise.”
Although he doesn’t want to be specific, given the amount of competition cropping up, McQueen said calls to the center from people interested in trying psilocybin-therapy have “at least doubled” since passage of the law.
The center, one of the first legal psychedelic therapy clinics in North America, has led thousands of people through cannabis-assisted and ketamine-assisted psychedelic therapy sessions since its founding in 2014, as well as providing training for psychedelic “sitters” (guides and psychedelic therapists). The training is done by a team of 15, including a medical doctor, nurse, nurse practitioner, four licensed psychotherapists, four pre-licensed psychotherapists, two ministers and two traditional psychedelic guides.
“Because people are in a very vulnerable state while on a psychedelic journey, it is very important that they work with a guide who is well trained,” McQueen said. “A guide should have professional boundaries, the ability to handle a mental health or medical crisis, and work in an environment with oversight and accountability.”
Accountability is one of the reasons Heacock is looking forward to having mushroom guiding moving out of the dark and into the light.
“On the black market, it has been ‘buyer beware,’” he said. “There were no checks and balances; it’s not like if someone had a bad experience with a guide, they could post a bad review on Yelp.”
In Heacock’s view, another advantage of legalization will be testing of the potency of the medicine.
“Even if you take the same amount as you had previously, the strength of the medicine could be substantially different,” he said. “With legalization, you will know what you are getting every time.”
Jenkins, who classifies her work with psilocybin as “harm-reduction services,” stresses the importance of finding a guide who is experienced with the medicine.
“I’ve always had the energy to be a holder of liminal space,” she said. “Being able to create a safe container for someone to have a psychedelic journey is crucial.”
Jenkins has spent extensive time in that psychedelic space, including journeys with ayahuasca, referred to as the “grandmother” of all psychedelics.
“You have to know what they will be experiencing by having experienced it yourself; it’s not something you can learn from a book,” she said.
Jenkins is also trained in a spectrum of holistic healing, from yoga to breathwork to somatic experiencing.
“All the things I trained in up to the point in my life led naturally to holding medicine space,” she said.
Despite helping outline the suggested credentials for mushroom guides, Matthews, the Proposition 122 co-author, still puts the most weight in personal recommendations.
“Ask people you know, love and respect if they know someone who would be a good match to guide you,” he said. “It’s also important to get a facilitator who can relate to your personal experiences.
“If you struggle with depression, find a facilitator who has also experienced depression and can have compassion for what you are going through.”
The “come up” of a psilocybin trip takes about 15 minutes, slowly clicking you up that first big hill of a roller coaster.
When the cable lets you go, the plunge down is a little different for everybody. Some people hold on for dear life, regretting their choice to get on the ride in the first place. Others put their hands up in the air and enjoy the ride. Some people alternate between the two.
Either way, there is usually a lot of noise when the medicine “kicks in.” In order to “hold the container,” and keep people in their own experience, guides will often request quiet in a group setting.
Sometimes people find it impossible to not let out a squeal, a moan, a cry, a retching, a giggle or a choice expletive.
“This is an intense experience; sometimes someone gets too loud, and there’s the risk that they will compromise everyone in the group’s experience,” Jenkins said. “An experienced guide can maintain the container through this by going to that person and helping them through.”
While one facilitator tends to the person who is struggling by taking them to another room, the other facilitator sings to the remainder of the group, her voice soaring above the chaos. Trippers have a choice to go on the wings of the medicine to a peaceful supportive place and have their own experience.
“Rather than saying it was a bad trip, I would say there are moments in every journey that are challenging,” said Matthews, who has found psychedelics helpful in processing trauma from earlier in his life. “Unresolved trauma comes to the surface, and you can witness with clarity how something that has been buried deeply is influencing the way you are in the world.”
Psychiatrist Heacock agrees.
“We don’t learn when things are going well,” Heacock said of difficult ketamine sessions. “It’s the hard sessions, when you feel like you can’t stand another second, that can be the real game changers.”
Licensed clinical social worker Michelle Landon, like many in healing professions, has faced her own struggles with mental health.
She often tries healing modalities out herself before prescribing them to her clients.
“A couple years ago, I began hearing a lot about the science of psychedelics and how they can help people heal,” she said. “I wanted to help others with their trauma and disordered thinking patterns, but first I knew I needed to help myself.”
Landon, who has been a therapist in northern Colorado since 2004, found psychedelics helpful in coming to terms with the death of her father in 2021.
“The last two weeks of my dad’s life, he started telling my sister he was going on a trip and wanted to say goodbye to everyone,” she said. “I was with him, watching him go in and out of this world.”
Psychedelics lightened the impact and pain of the moment.
“I mean, sure it sucked, but it wasn’t traumatic,” she said of her father’s final days and the grief that came after his death. “There were moments of beauty and connection. I saw him through the lens of the medicine, and he didn’t look like he was suffering. He was ready to go.”
Through ketamine-assisted therapy, Landon has brought similar relief to clients dealing with a range of mental health challenges, from persistent depression to acute post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Some people processing trauma find it so hard to shift things and let go with traditional therapy and prescriptions,” she said. “With psychedelics, some people have direct access to knowing they are loved and are able to finally let go of their past trauma.”
While a single-dose psilocybin journey can have profound, lasting effects, many people are beginning to take mushrooms as a daily medication – and a lot of those people, at least anecdotally, are mothers.
“People are discovering microdosing to be a good alternative to the pharmaceutical approach that is so prevalent in our culture,” Jenkins said. “It gives your serotonin a bit of a boost and puts you more in tune with yourself. It can really help people with anxiety without a lot of side effects.”
Microdosing mushrooms involves taking such small amounts of the medicine (about 0.05 grams to 0.25 grams) that a person doesn’t feel the effects outright. People can take a microdose every day or work in days off to integrate the insights gained on days they do take the medicine.
“When I’ve had a microdose, I feel so much more confident in the choices I’m making for my family,” said one mother. “It’s like the mushrooms are a little cheerleader in my head telling me I’m doing a great job.”
Another mother had been on prescription antidepressants for a little more than a decade before recently switching to microdosing psilocybin to rein in the ruminating, spiraling, obsessive thoughts she has contended without throughout her life.
She wanted to find a more natural way to access what her brain needs.
“It was rough going off them (antidepressants),” she said. “I was dizzy, nauseous, felt trapped and was really, really, really depressed. Then I started microdosing, and it was like my whole brain lit up again.”
Those who work with psychedelics caution that they aren’t an instant cure, but rather one resource that has been helpful to many in their healing.
“It (psilocybin) is a reminder that we hold the answers inside of ourselves,” Landon said. “It gets the BS out of the way so you can see your true self and your true potential for happiness.”