Endorsement: Colorado is not ready for another drug experiment like psilocybin

Editor’s note: This represents the opinion of The Denver Post editorial board, which is separate from the paper’s news operation. Read more endorsements here.

The psilocybin mushroom ballot question — Proposition 122 — goes too far, too fast for Colorado. We urge voters to say “no.”

We are inspired by reports — both anecdotal and in peer-reviewed medical studies — that psychedelic drugs — like psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA — can help treat debilitating post-traumatic stress disorders, treatment-resistant depression, severe anxiety, and other mental illness. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration labeled psilocybin a “breakthrough therapy,” but it still may take years to get the stamp of approval from federal agencies.

It is quite tempting to support the proposal to set up licensed treatment centers where those suffering from mental health disorders could seek treatment with psilocybin on the premises of the center from a licensed person. Such a system could also provide a legal environment for more medical studies and research.

But Proposition 122 goes much further than legalizing regulated treatment facilities.

The measure also decriminalizes the possession, cultivation, and gifting of psilocybin across the state.

Legalizing home grows in Colorado could have unintended consequences, and while it is not a perfect analogy, we saw many problems with the rollout of marijuana home grows after Amendment 64 was approved by voters legalizing recreational marijuana.

The most marked problem was the proliferation of a black market for marijuana built upon networks of houses serving as home grows for mass production and sale outside of the legal recreational marijuana market. Police and prosecutors were at first reluctant to shut down these grows because a loophole in the law allowed collective marijuana grows for patients, but eventually, lawmakers narrowed that loophole, and law enforcement stepped in.

To our knowledge, there is no such loophole in Proposition 122 — meaning large-scale grows could be shut down by police immediately, and sales would always be illegal.

However, we are not naïve, and while the intent of legalizing possession and cultivation is for medical treatment, we fear a robust market for recreational use would thrive. Increased legal tolerance will increase demand which will increase the temptation for profiteering.

And if there is one thing we know about drug use, it’s that our teens and young adults will be most tempted to use it and they will be targeted by sellers. Psilocybin is not addictive, but it is known to rarely cause psychosis (a break with reality that is usually temporary but sometimes permanent) and hallucinogen persisting perception disorder, where people re-experience hallucinations they had while taking the drug even while not intoxicated. The effect of the disorder can range from lasting only a short time and having little negative impact on the user to lasting for prolonged periods of time and being debilitating. We wish there were more data about both disorders in teens.

Of course, the most compelling argument against our fear is that Denver effectively decriminalized possession and cultivation of psilocybin in 2019, declaring the drug the “lowest law-enforcement priority.”

A report issued a year ago by the Denver Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel found that over two years, there were 47 cases related to psilocybin in Denver, according to the district attorney, and only a handful of those cases involved instances where people possessed more than for personal use (i.e. an intent to distribute case).

Oregon’s 2020 measure legalizing medical psilocybin treatment centers will take full effect next year, and we simply think it is wise for Colorado to take a back seat on this issue until we see how those centers report their treatment outcomes. But Oregon’s measure did not legalize home grows, so we will have to wait even longer before we see what effects statewide legalization could have.

And in Oregon, cities, and counties were empowered to opt out or delay the opening of treatment centers in their communities. In just a few days, 57 cities and 26 of the state’s 36 counties will vote on whether to impose local bans. Colorado cities and counties would have no such right under Proposition 122.

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