As states across the country consider decriminalizing psychedelics for personal and therapeutic use, advocates are pushing lawmakers to also nullify criminal charges levied against people arrested for possessing or concealing natural medicines.
In Colorado, the number of people arrested for crimes involving psychedelics makes up a shrinking minority of the overall arrests for drug crimes. Data from the Colorado Bureau of Investigations shows that arrests involving psychedelics totaled just 387 in 2022, which is about 1.9% of all drug arrests. Arrests involving psychedelics have also decreased by about 6% since 2020 while the total number of drug arrests in Colorado increased by nearly 11% over the same time.
But the presence of fentanyl concerns experts like retired police lieutenant Diane Goldstein, who now advocates for psychedelic medicines. Goldstein said fentanyl poses an existential threat to the psychedelic medicine movement because politicians are facing extreme public pressure to rid the streets of fentanyl altogether.
In these situations, Goldstein said politicians often lean on the over-policing tactics utilized during the more than 50-year War on Drugs. This system is something that psychedelic therapies can interrupt, but doing so requires political support that doesn’t seem to be there yet, Goldstein said.
“Drug policies should be about saving lives, not just pushing people through the system,” Goldstein said.
Fentanyl has been a growing problem in Colorado over the last several years. In 2021, fentanyl was present in nearly 70% of drug overdoses in Colorado, according to CBI. The agency said during a press conference on June 22 that it also found that fentanyl pills that are manufactured in a similar manner to popular psychedelics like ecstasy and MDMA.
Meanwhile, Colorado lawmakers have steadily funneled money to police departments to address the state’s growing fentanyl crisis. For instance, they created a $7 million grant program in 2022 to help local law enforcement agencies increase their fentanyl prevention programs. House Bill 22-1326 also set aside more than $20 million to increase naloxone distribution and expand medication-assisted therapies in Colorado’s jails.
“We have tools to go after the people responsible, and we will continue to do all we can to raise awareness and put a stop to fentanyl-related deaths and the associated suffering it brings to communities,” FBI special agent Mark Michalek said during the press conference.
Incongruencies in state law make can take away from real solutions
To Rachel Knox, a cannabinoid medicine specialist who serves on Oregon’s Psilocybin Advisory Board, law enforcement’s job can also be complicated by incongruencies in state laws governing psychedelics.
For example, Colorado voters removed most criminal penalties for psilocybin when they approved Proposition 122 in November 2022. During the 2023 legislative session, state lawmakers clarified the law to remove criminal penalties for growing, using, and gifting magic mushrooms and a handful of other psychedelic substances like DMT and mescaline. These changes go into effect on July 1, 2023.
The patchwork implementation of Prop. 122 has also become a headache for some in the natural medicine community. For example, the Steamboat Pilot and Today reported in May that a man was arrested for allegedly giving away magic mushrooms at the Dillon Ridge Shopping Center in Dillon even though “gifting” substances containing psilocybin is legal under Prop. 122.
“Thousands of people are spending their nights in jail for simple drug possession at a time when psychedelic medicines could be used to move the criminal justice system to a more transformative, and not punitive, place overall,” Knox said.
Studies from the University of Alabama Birmingham and Harvard University have shown that psychedelic therapies can reduce recidivism and lower the overall odds of crime arrests. For instance, researchers at UAB found that the use of hallucinogens predicted a reduced likelihood of failure during a supervised release. Harvard University researchers found that peyote use was associated with lower odds of drug possession or distribution arrests.
These are just some of the studies that give people like Rudy Maldonado, the volunteer engagement associate with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, hope that natural medicines will one day find their way into anti-recidivism programs. Maldonado said he never thought he would spend any time in jail until he and his brother were arrested for allegedly assaulting a well-connected individual.
The two faced up to four years in jail but pled down to 10 months out of fear, Maldonado said. While still on the outside, Maldonado said he and his brother used psychedelics to prepare for their time in jail. Maldonado said he also used natural medicines to overcome the trauma of being incarcerated once he was released in 2017.
A way forward
Some experts like Kellen Russoniello, a senior staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance, still see a way forward despite the mountain of odds that are stacked against the budding psychedelic medicine movement.
Russoniello said one way to bring psychedelic medicines into the mainstream is to highlight the successes of the medicines at addressing trauma. He said this could give local officials “powerful ammunition” for situations when they’re confronted by individuals who don’t see the benefits of such medicines.
Another approach Russoniello hopes that local lawmakers take is to rethink the way they distribute tax dollars collected by decriminalization measures. Ideally, Russoniello said the psychedelic medicine movement won’t repeat the mistakes from cannabis legalization where tax money went to support additional law enforcement programs. Instead, Russionello said he would prefer to see tax money reinvested in Black and Hispanic communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs.
“We’re dealing with a systemic issue,” Russionello said. “If we’re going to divest from law enforcement initiatives, then we need to identify mechanisms that create equity and economic stability for all.”