For years, Donovan Smith internalized shame as a queer person who felt uncelebrated and unaccepted at home.
What followed was a young adulthood clouded by depression, anxiety, self-harm, substance abuse and ultimately, a methamphetamine addiction.
“Since then, it has taken years of painful lessons, therapy and the best support system a human could ask for in order to heal,” Smith told the Boulder City Council in open comment on June 7. “But integral to that healing has been microdosing psilocybin mushrooms. They have helped me to recover from addiction and stay clean from something that wants to kill me.”
Smith is among dozens who have spoken in City Council meetings throughout 2022, urging the Council to bring forth an ordinance decriminalizing psilocybin and a few other psychedelic plants, effectively making enforcement the lowest level priority for law enforcement.
In doing so, Boulder would join a number of other cities across the country, including Denver, which in 2019 became the first city to decriminalize mushrooms through a voter-approved measure.
Since decriminalization was approved by Denver voters, there have not been significant public health or safety risks posed in the city, according to the Denver Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel, made up of city officials, proponents of the measure, law enforcement, harm reduction professionals and attorneys.
Additionally, the panel notes there was not a major increase in arrests related to the distribution of psilocybin mushrooms and no major cartel elements or organized crime.
“According to limited and preliminary university-level observational research for Colorado, most individuals set a positive intention prior to use and reported using psilocybin mushrooms for self-exploration and mental health,” the panel’s report states.
Though decriminalization happened through a ballot measure in Denver, activists in Boulder are instead pushing for a City Council resolution.
However, there has thus far been no indication that any City Council member intends to bring forth such a measure. Mayor Aaron Brockett confirmed he has not heard any of his colleagues suggest adding this to the city’s work plan.
Organizers remain hopeful, though. Collecting signatures for a ballot measure remains a possibility in the future, but it’s currently seen as a last resort.
“If leading members of City Council opt to be gatekeepers and remain obstinate about bringing a resolution to the floor, we will continue to organize the community to speak up at open comment and inundate council with testimonials and activism until they get the message that this is a cause that community is activated about,” Decriminalize Nature Boulder County member Ramzy Abueita wrote in an email.
Advocates referenced the city’s legacy as a vanguard of progressive culture and countercultural movements.
“It’s very much time for (Boulder) to come to (its) senses,” Del Jolly, co-founder and director of Unlimited Sciences, said. “So many other cities have done this. A lot of people in Boulder pride themselves in being progressive.”
“It’s definitely in Boulder’s DNA,” Abueita agreed.
Boulder is home to Naropa University’s Center for Psychedelic Studies, which offers a training program for psychedelic-assisted therapies.
The university places its focus on ethics, including proper training and preparation for guides and therapists, Co-Director Jamie Beachy noted, adding this will be important to consider given that psilocybin is likely to be decriminalized in Colorado and elsewhere before it receives Food and Drug Administration approval.
“We are cautious, while also wanting to support what’s happening in the community so that people are offered safe and effective opportunities with all of these different medicines,” she said.
Criminalizing psychedelic use is an ineffective way of managing harm in the community, Beachy noted.
“Decriminalizing makes good sense, although community strategies to address harm would also be important — that are not designed around incarceration but are more about supporting people who turn to substances in an unhealthy way,” she said.
As with any substance, there is risk involved. Psilocybin carries the risk of a “bad trip,” in which a person may experience mental confusion, agitation, extreme anxiety, fear and psychotic episodes, according to a study published in the National Library of Medicine.
However, clinical studies also have shown that psilocybin, when given in a therapeutic setting, can make dramatic changes for those suffering from treatment-resistant major depressive disorder.
For Beachy, this speaks to the importance of psychedelic-assisted therapy, in which people are screened ahead of time and have supervision from professionals.
Jolly, a Boulder County resident, has partnered with Johns Hopkins in a real-world psilocybin mushroom study through Unlimited Sciences, the psychedelic research organization he co-founded.
Should Boulder choose to decriminalize psychedelic substances, it would not impact research.
“The decriminalization efforts are not going to, unfortunately, change any laws around research,” Jolly said. “It’s just going to stop tax dollars going to punish people for these silly, quote-unquote offenses.”
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