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Editor’s Note 8/9/22: This story has been updated to include a news release from the Colorado Secretary of State’s office which confirms that the Decriminalize Colorado campaign failed to qualify for this year’s statewide ballot.
All Colorado voters will have the opportunity to vote on broadening access to psychedelics in our state come November, but up until this week, it was still undecided as to whether that would involve one statewide ballot measure or two. On Monday, August 8 a grassroots campaign called Decriminalize Colorado announced that it didn’t expect its measure—which had aimed to remove criminal penalties around possessing, using, and gifting magic mushrooms and a number of other naturally occurring psychedelic compounds—will go before voters this fall.
“We are officially announcing that it is very unlikely we will make it onto the ballot in 2022,” said campaign representative Nicole Foerster on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol building Monday morning. The press conference was held on the day that all statewide campaigns hoping to qualify for the November ballot were required to turn in at least 124,632 valid signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. The Decriminalize Colorado campaign doubted it had that many, although Forester said the campaign had collected “thousands” of signatures and would still turn them in to elections officials despite not knowing the official count—or expecting to qualify.
On Tuesday, the Elections Division of the Colorado Secretary of State’s office sent out a bulletin which confirmed that the Decriminalize Colorado campaign had not qualified. According to state officials, the campaign turned in 5,001 signatures.
“We didn’t even intend to campaign this year,” Foerster had said at the press conference the day before. “We campaigned in reaction to an act we do not support. We do not support the Natural Medicine Health Act.”
The Natural Medicine Health Act is the other psychedelics ballot measure which has qualified for November’s ballot—and on which all registered Colorado voters can vote this year. The Natural Medicine Health Act, or Initiative 58, officially made the ballot on July 21, after turning in more than 200,000 signatures. The ballot measure aims to accomplish a number of things: It would add protections for people in Colorado to use, gift, or possess four kinds of psychedelics, including psilocybin mushrooms, ibogaine, mescaline, and DMT; it would also set up a state-regulated program through which Coloradans could legally pay to use magic mushrooms at licensed “healing centers” under the guidance of trained personnel. Essentially, this statewide program would attempt to replicate the types of psychedelic-assisted therapies that are being researched at institutions such as Johns Hopkins University, and show early promise for treating conditions like PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
One of the co-chief proponents of Initiative 58, Veronica Lightning Horse Perez, believes the act’s combination of decriminalization measures and legal therapeutic mushroom services is the best approach for all of Colorado. “It is meeting many people across many walks of life where they are, and offering them an opportunity to form their own relationship with the medicine,” Perez says.
But the Decriminalize Colorado campaign, which held the press conference on Monday, formed in January this year to offer a decriminalization-only alternative to that. There’s a worry amongst activists like Foerster that the legal mushrooms model proposed by Initiative 58 could create a restrictive class of licensed businesses that will cut out legacy users, including Indigenous communities, and become corporatized like Colorado’s cannabis industry.
“With cannabis, I remember for years and years the rhetoric was ‘legalize it, legalize it, legalize it,’ but what we’re seeing now is it has empowered a handful of people to get very wealthy, creates barriers of entry that aren’t necessarily present in the legislation, and excludes a lot of people, which is outright harmful,” said Travis Tyler Fluck at Monday’s gathering. Tyler Fluck previously served as the field director for the 2019 initiative that made Denver the first U.S. city to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, and more recently helped collect signatures for the Decriminalize Colorado initiative. “I personally stand for a decrim-first scenario,” Tyler Fluck said. “I believe it’s the most equitable way we can unfold this.”
Perez is aware of the concerns. “We have also been very interested in making sure that this doesn’t go the way of cannabis,” she says, “which exploded with massive chains all over the state.” To try to avoid that type of runaway capitalism with psychedelics, she points out that the Natural Medicine Health Act limits any person or business entity to owning a maximum of five licensed healing centers should Initiative 58 pass.
But other decrim-first advocates are concerned about the out-of-state money pouring into the Natural Medicine Health Act, and what sort of interests all that cash represents. Initiative 58 qualified for the ballot by using paid signature gatherers and a significant amount of money—more than $2 million—mostly supplied through a Washington, D.C.–based political action committee, New Approach PAC. New Approach has previously funded cannabis legalization efforts around the country and is the same PAC that helped pass the so-called medical mushrooms initiative in Oregon in 2020, upon which parts of Colorado’s ballot initiative is modeled.
“We need equitable policies for everyone, not just those that can pay their way to play,” said Melanie Rose Rodgers, one of the Decriminalize Colorado campaign’s co-proponents, on the Capitol steps Monday morning. Along with Tyler Fluck and Foerster, Rodgers had previously volunteered with Denver’s campaign to decriminalize mushrooms in 2019. And like that campaign, Rodgers said, “we support grassroots first, community first, and decriminalization first.”
So now that Decriminalize Colorado hasn’t qualified for the ballot, what’s next for its organizers?
Foerster and Rodgers announced that they are creating a Colorado for Community Healing campaign. Details about what exactly that will look like are scant, but at the very least, they say it will include educational campaigns about how to protect existing communities that use psychedelics, including Indigenous communities, and explore models around community stewardship of plant medicines.
The activists say they will also continue to speak out regarding their concerns with the Natural Medicine Health Act. While they say they won’t be creating a campaign to tell voters to vote “no” on Initiative 58, Foerster did say that their educational campaigns will “look like explanations about what specifically we don’t support and why.”