Colorado Voters Delivered a Win for Pharmacological Freedom

A ballot initiative approved in November decriminalizes consumption of natural psychedelics.


A decade ago, Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use, something 20 other states have done since then. Colorado set a new precedent for drug policy reform in November, when its voters approved a ballot initiative that decriminalizes a wide range of conduct related to consuming five natural psychedelics.

Proposition 122 also authorizes state-licensed "healing centers" where adults 21 or older can obtain and use psychedelics. It represents the broadest loosening of legal restrictions on psychedelics the United States has ever seen.

The 2022 elections contributed to the ongoing collapse of marijuana prohibition. Voters in Maryland and Missouri approved recreational legalization, raising to 21 the number of states that let adults consume cannabis without a medical justification. At the same time, voters in three red states that allow medical use—Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota—declined to go further.

Despite those setbacks, recognizing marijuana as a medicine generally has paved the way to broader liberalization. Starting with California in 1996, 37 states have allowed patients to use marijuana for symptom relief, and most of them eventually legalized recreational consumption as well.

The Proposition 122 campaign built on that model by describing five psychedelics found in fungi and plants as "natural medicine." But that designation is inherently ambiguous, and the initiative goes far beyond allowing the use of psychedelics in drug-assisted psychotherapy.

Proposition 122 defines "natural medicine" to include psilocybin, psilocyn (another psychoactive component of "magic mushrooms"), dimethyltryptamine (DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca), ibogaine (a psychedelic derived from the root bark of the iboga tree), and mescaline (the active ingredient in peyote). The initiative notes that "natural medicines have been used safely for millennia by cultures for healing." It adds that "an extensive and growing body of research" supports "the efficacy of natural medicines combined with psychotherapy as treatment for depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, end-of-life distress, and other conditions."

Those observations echo the arguments that persuaded Oregonians to approve a groundbreaking 2020 initiative that will allow adults to consume psilocybin at state-approved "service centers." But neither initiative requires that the customers of such businesses have any particular medical or psychiatric diagnosis. That's a crucial deviation from the usual regulatory approach, which charges the Food and Drug Administration with deciding what counts as medicine and appoints doctors as gatekeepers.

Proposition 122 goes further. It covers a wider range of psychedelics than Oregon's law does, and it does not limit their legal use to supervised settings. Colorado's initiative eliminates criminal and civil penalties for producing, possessing, transporting, and obtaining those substances "for personal use." It also allows noncommercial sharing.

"Healing" is a capacious category that can include all manner of self-exploration, psychological insight, and personal development, as well as formal therapy overseen by mental health professionals. "Personal use" is broader still, encompassing psychedelic consumption for any reason, including curiosity and entertainment.

The Denver Post's editorial board understood the implications of Proposition 122's decriminalization provisions and drew back in horror. The initiative "goes too far, too fast for Colorado," the Post warned a week before the election.

The editorial acknowledged evidence that psychedelics "can help treat debilitating post-traumatic stress disorders, treatment-resistant depression, severe anxiety, and other mental illness." But "while the intent of legalizing possession and cultivation is for medical treatment," it said, "we fear a robust market for recreational use would thrive. Increased legal tolerance will increase demand, which will increase the temptation for profiteering."

In the Post's view, increased tolerance is bad because people might use psychedelics for fun. Judging from the election returns, Coloradans decided that was a nightmare they could live with.

The Post sounded like Protect Colorado's Kids, the main group that opposed Proposition 122. "Colorado is high enough," it declared. "Leading scientific authorities like the American Psychiatric Association think this is not the time to experiment so openly with these drugs."

These critics take it for granted that the government should guard the doors of perception, lest people open them for frivolous reasons. That mission includes banning psychoactive fungi and plants that humans have consumed for thousands of years. It also includes arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating people who dare to grow, possess, or distribute those naturally occurring trip triggers. Proposition 122 points the way to a different approach by restoring some of the pharmacological freedom Americans have lost to mind-controlling politicians.