During an Oct. 13, 2020 City Council meeting, Zac Short, a former combat medic, entered into the public record his story about a little girl in Afghanistan, covered in third-degree burns, who he was unable to save. That incident haunted Short, who spent years trying in-and out-patient therapy and a variety of different pharmaceuticals to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder. Short finally found relief from his PTSD symptoms with psilocybin mushrooms, a substance that has been decriminalized in Denver and five other cities across the country, and in the state of Oregon. Short and the organization Decriminalize Nature hope to pass a similar measure here in Colorado Springs.
Decriminalize Nature is a national organization with branches across the country. Members work to introduce local resolutions to decriminalize entheogenic plants, which a resolution presented to the Berkeley, California City Council defined as “plants and natural sources such as mushrooms, cacti, iboga containing plants and/or extracted combinations of plants similar to ayahuasca; and limited to those containing the following types of compounds: indoleamines, tryptamines, phenethylamines.” Similar measures have passed in Oakland and Santa Cruz, California, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Denver decriminalized just psilocybin after a ballot measure passed with 50.5 percent of the vote in May 2019, and voters in Oregon passed a sweeping drug decriminalization measure in November 2020. While such measures have obvious appeal for recreational drug users and Phish enthusiasts, Decriminalize Nature Colorado Springs, and a growing body of psychiatric research, say that substances like psilocybin can effectively treat a variety of mental illnesses such as PTSD, depression and anxiety.
“In October 2020 there was an article in The Gazette that highlighted veteran suicide in El Paso County as being the highest in the nation,” says Anthony Caballero, a veteran and the founder of Decriminalize Nature Colorado Springs.
“That statistic really showed that something has to be done. Psilocybin has [been] shown to be four times as effective as any antidepressant. I think the important thing that people have to realize is that people who have suicidal ideations have tried other methods, but there is treatment-resistant PTSD, which I also had before I found psychedelics. My primary goal is to lower that statistic, or at least find a solution so we can attack that problem.”
The Gazette used data from the Department of Veterans Affairs 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report and reported, “Statewide, the latest [2019’s] statistics show 217 veteran suicide deaths marked an all-time high and a 25% increase over 2018. Of those in 2019, 56 were from El Paso County, also the highest ever locally, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the state’s violent-crime statistics.”
In addition to an increased suicide rate, veterans also struggle more than the civilian population with addiction, both from substances like alcohol or illicit drugs, and prescribed opioid medication used to manage pain after debilitating injuries. PTSD symptoms and addiction have contributed to a number of high-profile crimes involving veterans in the Pikes Peak region. In 2009, Rolling Stone reported, “All told, the military acknowledged this summer, 14 soldiers from [Fort Carson] have been charged or convicted in at least 11 slayings since 2005 — the largest killing spree involving soldiers at a single U.S. military installation in modern history.” The struggles of veterans in El Paso County (see tinyurl.com/IndyFallenSoldier) have been documented in the PBS Frontline documentary, The Wounded Platoon, as well as former Gazette reporter David Philipps’ book, Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home.
According to Caballero, substances like psilocybin and N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the active ingredient in ayahuasca, help the brain heal from the trauma of PTSD and alleviate symptoms. “When you’re depressed, your default mode network is operating at a higher level, so that means you have more rumination of negative thoughts, self-doubt, all that stuff,” he says. “Psilocybin and DMT have been shown to lower your default mode network. It’s essentially what looks like a reset — or if you’re familiar with computers, a defragmenting — of your default mode network, which brings it down to regular levels for up to six months. The physical mechanism, a lot of it is still being researched, but researchers published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ‘Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin’ have shown the default mode network is lowered by these substances to get people out of that rut, get them out of those ruminations and suicidal ideations. These substances aren’t just for PTSD. They can help with addiction, alcoholism, things like that.”
Eric Kawczynski, another speaker during the Oct. 13 City Council meeting, claimed that psilocybin helped him overcome addiction to alcohol and tobacco. Even City Council President Richard Skorman shared a family member’s experiences with psilocybin during that meeting, “My sister-in-law had a terrible case of cancer, and was predicted to not live and went through a lot of trauma,” Skorman told Caballero, Short, and Kawczynski. “She was able to survive and she became part of a study at Columbia University on psilocybin mushrooms and that was something that was nationally recognized and was something that helped her tremendously. It has affected my family as well. I appreciate everybody coming forward.”
It’s not just the local members of Decriminalize Nature who are looking at the efficacy of psychedelics for therapeutic applications. Jill McCormick is a Colorado Springs-based therapist who works with clients who use substances like psilocybin. She doesn’t provide any substances and she doesn’t help clients with sourcing. McCormick approaches her work with clients using psychedelics from a harm reduction perspective.
“Legally, I’m allowed to practice what’s called ‘harm reduction strategies,’” says McCormick. “People use substances, right? Both legal and illegal substances, and that’s been going on for time immemorial. As a therapist my approach is helping people move towards less harm, so if someone’s planning to use a psychedelic, I can provide support and education so they do it in the most safe way possible and that they understand the undertaking. Integration is the work that people do after a psychedelic experience to try to make sense of it and then kind of integrate whatever they learn into their daily life, or help them manage anything distressing that might have come up.”
McCormick says her work with users of psychedelics grew out of her interactions with trauma survivors. “I’m a trauma therapist, and I’m trained in a variety of modalities and I started down this path because I read Michael Pollan’s book a couple years ago, How to Change Your Mind,” she says. “I started looking into it and what I discovered was the approach they’re taking in psychedelic medicine and clinical practice is very much aligned with the way that trauma therapy proceeds.”
For many PTSD sufferers, one of the most commonly used therapies is “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing” (EMDR), which is a psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories, such as the kind experienced by combat veterans or sexual assault survivors. “When you work with someone with trauma,” says McCormick, “you’re working to develop their capacity to tolerate a wide range of emotions and to look at different parts of themselves or memories that are challenging, and psychedelics seem to be able to help people do that in a way that’s much quicker and direct than the kind of tools I have at my disposal in my regular practice.”
Due to the nature of traumatic memories, and the physical response they can elicit, EMDR therapy can be a long process, and it isn’t effective for all kinds of trauma. “EMDR can be too much for people who have complex trauma, so I have many clients who it takes us months and months and months to do preparation before we can even begin EMDR because the trauma response is so heightened,” says McCormick. “Psychedelics seem to quiet that fear center of the brain. It turns down that narrative you have in your mind, that chatter, and it allows you to have more access to kind of the mindful part of yourself that can watch those things — those memories, those emotions — without it becoming overwhelming. It creates a little distance between you and the experience. When you do EMDR it’s almost like watching a movie in your mind, so it’s the observing self that watches the movie and reprocesses the memory from the present moment, rather than feeling like you’re stuck in the past, so I think psychedelics can really help with that.”
McCormick does note that psychedelics aren’t a magical panacea, and that users should properly prepare before embarking on a psychedelic trip. “You can get to the same place without psychedelics,” she says, “and I am a little concerned that there’s sort of an oversell about the miraculousness of them, but I do think they can move things along very quickly when used appropriately and safely.
“It’s important to know that one thing we’ve learned is that set and setting are extremely important for the type of experience that people have,” says McCormick. “What that means is: Set is your mindset and how prepared you are, and setting is who you’re with, how safe you feel, what is your intention for use? A lot of times when people have a challenging experience it’s because they’re at a concert, or they’re with people they don’t feel safe with, or they just had a difficult experience that their mind is still working on. You really have to pay attention to set and setting and how safe and supported you are.”
Despite promising early data on the benefits of psychedelic medicine from researchers at Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and a number of international research institutions, and the decriminalization efforts of local municipalities, entheogenic plants remain illegal under federal law. Decriminalize Nature isn’t advocating for the legalization of substances, like what Colorado has done with marijuana, but rather decriminalization, which is an important distinction.
“Our resolution is only to decriminalize, not legalize,” says Caballero. “Legalization is the process of removing all legal prohibitions against it. Decriminalization means it would remain illegal, but the legal system would not prosecute someone for possession.”
That distinction has already caused some problems for one psilocybin farmer in Denver. In September 2019, four months after Denver voters decriminalized psilocybin, Drug Enforcement Agency officers raided the apartment of Kole Milner, who was growing psychedelic fungi in his apartment. Milner was sentenced to three years of probation and a $5,500 fine, according to reporting from Westword.
“That’s a big debate right now,” says McCormick. “People like the idea of decrim because you don’t have the regulations. You don’t have to get it prescribed. If someone wanted to take it and see a psychotherapist they could. From an ethical standpoint, it seems, isn’t it better if I have a client that I know really well and they want to take psilocybin, ethically doesn’t it seem better that they’re able to take it with me supporting them than I say, ‘OK, that’s great, go use it, tell me how it goes?’ I’m not allowed to be sitting with someone who does it. I know my clients do it, but I’d rather be in a world where they had the option to have my support if they wanted it. I think how we go forward with substances like this in terms of people’s access to it and whether they can make their own decisions or whether the government has to step in or if someone like me has to get a doctor to be a gatekeeper for something that’s really a mental health use, I think these are all interesting questions and I don’t know exactly what the right answer is. I think we should be thoughtful about how we go forward because it will have consequences.”