Opinion: The Merits of Proposition 122

By Wesley Moncrief, CCC Social Justice Fellow

In the 2022 election cycle, the Colorado Council of Churches (“CCC”) took public stances on a number of statewide ballot initiatives. After some internal debate, the CCC decided to be neutral on Prohibition 122–Decriminalization and Regulated Access Program for Certain Psychedelic Plants and Fungi Initiative. Despite the CCC’s neutrality, I’m grateful for this opportunity to explore with you the research and social justice aspects of Proposition 122.

Let me begin by stating both what Proposition 122 is and isn’t, before moving into the benefits that research suggests would accompany its passing. Proposition 122 intends to reclassify certain psychedelic substances to “natural medicine” for the purpose of exploring their usage as treatments for various chronic health conditions. The specific substances to be included under this proposition are dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ibogaine, mescaline (with the exception of peyote), psilocybin & psilocyn (both present in “magic mushrooms”). Proposition 122 does not decriminalize all, or even most, psychedelics. Instead, only select psychedelics, of which there has been interest in medical research, have been included. 

In addition to the reclassification, these substances will be decriminalized in regards to personal use, possession, growth and transportation for individuals over the age of 21. This does not make it legal for individuals to sell or buy these substances, but simply removes the penalty for possession and usage. Those found selling without proper licensing would still face consequences. Finally, this would create the “Regulated Natural Medicine Access Program” for licensed healing centers in order to administer health services related to natural medicines. This is where the regulated distribution of these natural medicines would occur. 

With this added  clarity as to the proposition’s goals, we can begin to dive into why I believe that passing this piece of legislation is beneficial. For a bit of background, my personal theology hinges on the standard set by Jesus in Matthew 22 when he states: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… and Love your neighbor as yourself”. So when researching and learning about this topic, I tried to separate myself from any prior held conceptions in regards to the stigma attached to drug usage and truly ask myself whether the passing of this legislation would fulfill that commandment. 

First, let’s look at the research surrounding Psilocybin Therapy and its application in regards to treating depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). Having spent more than a third of my life on a military base, this topic is quite close to my heart. In both the US and elsewhere, there have been numerous, rigorously-conducted and peer-reviewed studies, as well as self-report survey data, that show incredible promise in the treatment of these chronic disorders through both clinically- and self-administered use of psilocybin. There are still ongoing studies to determine the exact reason this occurs, but one of the leading theories centers around the observed neurogenesis that occurs not only during psilocybin usage, but in the days after. Neurogenesis is the process by which new neurons are formed, and while that is a naturally occurring process, the neurogenesis that is done following exposure to psilocybin displays three unique qualities. Firstly, neurogenesis occurs more rapidly than is typical. The other 2 pieces are intertwined, with the neurons created during this time displaying both a higher number of dendrites (the “branches” of neurons that allow them to communicate) as well as increased density across those dendritic connections, very literally creating more numerous and durable pathways within your mind.

Depression, anxiety, and PTSD all function by creating negative thinking patterns that are hard to break away from, but this neurogenesis subverts that function, literally providing alternative pathways in your mind. Studies have shown that compared to users of typical mood regulators such as antidepressants, a single instance of usage of psilocybin paired with therapy has shown improved mental health levels for up to 2 months following. Studies have also been conducted regarding the usage of psilocybin in end-of-life care for those suffering with terminal cancers, wherein neither the researchers nor the patients were aware of who was exposed to psilocybin until later, and significant differences were found between the control group and those exposed to psilocybin, stating that the usage “produced large decreases in clinician- and self-rated measures of depressed mood and anxiety, along with increases in quality of life, life meaning, and optimism, and decreased in death anxiety. At 6-month follow-up, these changes were sustained”. 

With mental health rates on the rise since the offset of the pandemic, as well as a reliance being built on mood stabilizers and pharmaceutical companies, this measure presents an opportunity to break the trends that exist, or at least pursue an alternative. This is before even addressing the chronic mismanagement of the mental and physical health care of our veterans upon their departure from the armed forces. At the very least, they are deserving of a legitimate effort to provide care other than to suffer in silence.

Aside from psilocybin, ibogaine has had incredibly promising trials, but rather than treating the epidemic of mental health disorders, ibogaine studies have found remarkable results in the treatment of severe addiction, including that of opioid addiction. In 2020, over 130 people were dying a day from opioid addiction in the United States, nearly identical to the amount lost to suicide each day. The potential for these natural medicines to truly transform Colorado, and perhaps later the U.S. as a whole, cannot be overstated, and in such controlled environments, any potential negative effects will be able to be studied, understood, and minimized or negated. On that note, it is worth mentioning that ibogaine has been theoretically linked to negative side effects ranging from irregular heartbeats, seizures, and in some cases death, which calls for more need for observed study. Psilocybin users, however, display very low rates of negative interactions and it has not been observed to create addictive tendencies, even amongst heavy users. One of the unique strengths of this bill is that individuals who worked for the implementation of legalizing marijuana have been involved in its creation, using the lessons learned from its shortcomings to create a better & more durable system. Additionally, there are plans for psilocybin research to be federally decriminalized by 2024 by the Biden administration, so this bill provides an opportunity to be ahead of the curve in regards to research and federal grant opportunities for Coloradans. 

Finally, and truly just a cherry on top of this legislation is an important social justice component that dovetails with criminal justice reform. Those who have been arrested, charged, or imprisoned because of the possession of any of these substances would have their sentences reduced or ended, as well as having the opportunity to have their criminal records sealed. Christians, if anyone should understand the power of a second chance and the beauty of grace & redemption, it’s us! This is a concrete opportunity to take that and offer it to others freely, as well as offering them freedom from the mental afflictions with which they struggle.

This essay does not represent the views of the Colorado Council of Churches.