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Psychedelic journeying tends to bring up…stuff.
“Interpersonal stuff. Deep psychological stuff,” says Kevin Matthews, an army veteran who spearheaded the Decriminalize Denver campaign, which led to the ballot measure that made Denver the first U.S. city to decriminalize psilocybin, otherwise known as psychedelic mushrooms. (Oakland, California followed shortly after.) “There’s a lot of data that can come to the surface. We have these insights and peeks into our experience that we don’t really recognize in our day-to-day sober experience.”
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Matthews credits tripping on mushrooms, plus the community support he received during his experiences, with helping him move through a major depressive episode. “This is about building community,” he says. “And about individuals having access to something that can dramatically shift their lives for the better if they need something like that.”
Although the decriminalization of psilocybin is already in effect in Denver, advocates say their work is far from over. Because of the level of intensity that can accompany a psychedelic trip, many who work in this space are advocating for more psychological, emotional, and spiritual support for those who experiment with the substance.
Matthews says the Decriminalize Denver community believes mushrooms can be a tool used for healing and self-growth—and can be fun, too, when used responsibly. But, reflecting on the intensity of his experiences, he adds, with a burst of laughter: “They’re not really a recreational drug.”
Mitchell Gomez, executive director of DanceSafe, a drug harm-reduction nonprofit, says that when it comes to psychedelics, it’s “very rare” to meet people who have used them over the long-term purely for recreation, as is common with alcohol and cannabis. After an initial period of exploration, Gomez says most people either stop using psychedelics, or their use morphs into “something that doesn’t really look like recreational use. It looks more like a personal development, psycho-spiritual use.”
There are scientific studies in the works to test the effectiveness of ‘shrooming on depression and other mental health issues, and the FDA has recognized psilocybin as a breakthrough therapy for treatment-resistant depression. Along with these advances, experts speculate (and hope) that the substance could be legal in therapeutic and clinical settings within the next several years, creating a new market in which licensed therapists and certified facilitators are able to offer guided hallucinogenic experiences and post-trip integration therapy services. But for now, these services are illegal.
Dr. Danielle Wise, an Arvada-based psychotherapist who served as a psychology and medical adviser on the Decriminalize Denver campaign, already includes integration therapy in her practice. Integration work, she says, helps people process past psychedelic experiences and integrate the resulting insights into their everyday lives. She says this work allows for a deepening of the experience.
“A lot of people who are going into psychedelics recreationally don’t realize there’s an integration component,” she says. “But if we look back to the indigenous cultures where this has been in ceremony for thousands of years, the community comes together in their medicine. It’s about community; it’s about healing; and they have a leader.”
Wise says she has clients who have traveled to other countries to partake in psychedelic ceremonies, but many have struggled upon returning home, lacking access to the leader who facilitated their journey. With decriminalization, she says, there’s an opportunity for therapists to have open, ongoing conversations with their clients, who may have previously been afraid to broach the topic because of stigma.
Some efforts are in the works to train therapists to provide this type of support. Dr. Shannon Hughes and Dr. Robert Colbert, from the Nowak Society, a local psychedelic education nonprofit, are providing programs through the Colorado Counseling Association to educate therapists—including those who have not taken psychedelics themselves—on “psychedelic basics.” Sixty therapists attended the first session in June.
Daniel McQueen is a counselor in Boulder who, along with his wife Alison McQueen, runs Medicinal Mindfulness, a clinic that specializes in facilitating psychedelic cannabis sessions—therapy sessions that use a cannabis sativa blend that mimics the effects of psychedelics. McQueen says they’re already preparing the clinic for the eventual legalization of psilocybin, and are brainstorming how to incorporate the substance into their work. “This is an emerging professional field that’s going to be as big or bigger than psychotherapy in the future,” he says. “It’s that potent.”
Medicinal Mindfulness currently offers a psychedelic sitter school training program for people interested in learning to facilitate psychedelic experiences. For now, the trainings exclusively use cannabis, but if and when it becomes legal, they will expand to include psilocybin or other substances. McQueen says his trainings teach people how to create safe environments; to facilitate an intentional, ceremonial imbibing of the cannabis; and how to “hold space” for the person going through the experience. Some trainings also cover how to handle crises that might come up, blending psychedelic facilitation with clinical, first-aid training.
Medicinal Mindfulness has taught 300 students over the course of several years, and McQueen says most of the students—about two thirds—are not professional therapists. “A very large percentage of the people interested in psychedelic medicines can, with the right education and settings, do this work safely on their own or with a peer,” he says. Indeed, meetup groups for psychedelic enthusiasts and peer-integration circles can be found in many major U.S. cities.
For better or worse, McQueen says that if decriminalization of psilocybin leads to legalization, there will almost certainly be an increase in laypeople facilitating psychedelic experiences with the substance. There are already a number of underground guides who do this work, finding clients through word-of-mouth referrals, but as McQueen puts it: “Some people may be more qualified than others.”
This is one reason why some advocates believe that decriminalization is important—even necessary—to protect those experimenting with psychedelics. “As this rises from the underground, there are going to be charlatans. There always have been,” Wise says. “But decriminalization lets us begin to have that dialogue. When we take it out of the underground there is more chance of people coming forward.”
Both Wise and McQueen point out that certain issues already exist in the underground psychedelic community—from sexual misconduct to people being treated unethically or even being “shamed” by facilitators during sessions. However, because the substance is illegal, these concerns can’t be properly addressed. If a licensed clinician acted inappropriately with a client, he or she would face a review board and possible loss of licensure. “That’s some of the societal cost of prohibition,” McQueen says.
Leaders in the psychedelic community, including Wise and McQueen, are currently considering not only how to ensure accountability for guides, including those who are not licensed psychotherapists, but also how to educate citizens on how to find one.
“It’s important that there will be some sort of oversight, accountability, and expectations of certain types of training and experiences for people to [lead trips] ethically,” says McQueen. “I’m expecting there will be some sort of collaboration and creation of a universal psychedelic code of ethics. The Boulder / Denver psychedelic community has enough professional resources to write a manual on how to use psilocybin mushrooms safely and address all the legal concerns that come up around it.”
Medicinal Mindfulness has already published a “Psychedelic Experience Agreement” that outlines 10 suggestions for appropriate behavior when entering a self-guided journey with others, and covers consensual touch, confidentiality, and designating boundaries for the location of the experience.
The mainstream psychotherapy community is also in a state of transition around psychedelics, especially as more research emerges to prove their effectiveness with certain mental health issues, like depression and PTSD. Wise points out there’s currently ethical ambiguity around whether a therapist can know if a client is planning to take a psychedelic, and talk about it beforehand. Technically, that would mean that a client is admitting that they are about to do something illegal. But from a therapy point of view, Wise says it would be in the best interest of the client to prepare for the experience with therapeutic practices, such as intention-setting, observing dream states in the days leading up to it, and discussing issues and conflicts expected to arise during the trip.
For now, therapists are obligated to tread lightly. “How does all this fall under this authoritarian space of it being illegal, being Schedule 1? That hasn’t been answered because this is all new,” Wise says. “There isn’t a precedent.”