Parents Need to Know: Psychedelic Use Decriminalized in Colorado

The passage of Proposition 122, the Natural Medicines Health Act in November 2022 marked a momentous occasion in Colorado. Coloradoans voted, by a tally of 53 to 47%, to both decriminalize psilocybin, DMT, ibogaine, and mescaline and medicalize psilocybin, with the possibility of a medicalization pathway for the others in 2026. Decriminalizing psychedelic use is a landmark, a tipping point kind of social change, and one that triggers a huge number of hopes, concerns, and questions. 

While psychedelic therapy can be a powerful tool for treating mental health issues, it’s important for parents to understand the risks and benefits of these substances and to have an open and honest conversation with their teenagers about responsible use. So, as a parent, what do you need to know about psychedelics and how this law may impact your teenager?

A brief history of psychedelic use:

The use of psychedelics, a class of psychoactive drugs that can produce altered states of consciousness and changes in perception, mood, and cognition, has a long and complex history of use. The use of psychedelics can be traced back thousands of years, and they have been used by indigenous cultures for spiritual and medicinal purposes. In these communities, psychedelics are often used in traditional healing ceremonies, where they are believed to have the power to facilitate spiritual and personal growth and provide access to higher states of consciousness.

In the 1950s and 1960s, psychedelics, such as LSD and psilocybin, gained popularity in the Western world and were being explored for their potential to treat various mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. However, in the 1970s, the U.S. government classified psychedelics as Schedule I controlled substances, which meant they were considered to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, and research has shown that they may have therapeutic benefits when used under the supervision of trained professionals in a clinical setting. Some states, including Colorado, have passed laws allowing for the use of psychedelics in therapy for certain conditions.

Harm Reduction vs Sobriety frameworks when talking about psychedelic use

When deciding how to talk to your teen about using psychedelics, there are typically two different approaches parents take with their teens. A sobriety approach or a harm reduction approach. The entire addiction recovery field is generally conflicted about which approach is better when talking with teens, and research has yet to come to a conclusion either way. Ultimately, you must decide which approach aligns more with your values and what will work best for your teen. At Antelope Recovery, we use a mixed approach, depending on the family and the severity of the addiction. 

No matter the route you choose, we recommend being honest with your teen and focusing on keeping an open line of communication between the both of you. If you’d like more information on having conversations with your teen about substance use, here is some more information on how to set boundaries with your teen about substance use.

Sobriety approach with psychedelics

As is obvious from the name, sobriety is focused on, well, sobriety. Abstinence from substance use can effectively prevent substance-related harms, such as addiction, accidents, and health problems. 

The sobriety approach recognizes addiction as a chronic disease that cannot be cured but can be managed through lifelong abstinence and ongoing support. This approach is often associated with 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), which provide a structured framework for recovery based on spiritual principles and mutual support.

The sobriety approach also emphasizes the importance of addressing underlying psychological and emotional issues that may have contributed to the development of addiction. This can involve individual or group therapy, counseling, or other forms of support to help individuals develop coping strategies and address the root causes of their addiction.

Overall, the sobriety approach to addiction recovery emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility, honesty, and accountability, as well as ongoing support from a community of peers who share similar experiences and goals. It can be a challenging path, but for many people, it offers a path to lasting recovery and a renewed sense of purpose and fulfillment in life.

However, some argue that while sobriety may be ideal, doing everything possible to reduce the damage of use is also a worthwhile endeavor.

Harm Reduction approach with psychedelics

The harm reduction approach to addiction recovery is based on the idea that it is not always realistic or practical for individuals to completely abstain from all addictive substances or behaviors. Instead, harm reduction aims to minimize the negative consequences associated with substance use and other addictive behaviors while promoting healthier, more sustainable patterns of use.

Harm reduction strategies can include a wide range of interventions, such as needle exchange programs for individuals who use injection drugs, access to naloxone for overdose prevention, safer drug use education, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for individuals struggling with opioid addiction. Other harm reduction strategies may involve addressing the social, economic, and environmental factors contributing to addiction, such as poverty, trauma, or lack of access to healthcare.

The harm reduction approach recognizes that addiction is a complex, multifaceted issue that cannot be solved by simply telling individuals to “just say no” or by relying solely on punitive measures such as incarceration or mandatory treatment. Instead, it emphasizes the importance of meeting individuals where they are and working collaboratively to develop realistic, achievable goals for recovery.

Critics of the harm reduction approach argue that it may enable individuals to continue using addictive substances or engaging in other harmful behaviors, rather than promoting complete abstinence. However, supporters of harm reduction point out that reducing harm can be a critical first step towards helping individuals take control of their lives and move towards lasting recovery. Ultimately, the harm reduction approach recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to addiction and that recovery is a complex, ongoing process that requires ongoing support and understanding.

If you’re interested in learning more about and implementing harm-reduction techniques, check out Just Say Know. Just Say Know is a program focused on education, harm reduction, and transparency in safe drug use with teenagers.

Typically, therapists will use a combination of both approaches in addiction recovery. Ultimately, the approach that is best for your teenager will depend on a variety of factors, mostly dependent on their individual circumstances and needs. 

Teen Psychedelic Use

The use of psychedelics in therapy for teenagers is highly complex and neither widely accepted nor studied. Because the brain is still in development, the use of psychedelics may have different effects on teenagers’ brains than it does on adults. There is also a lack of research on the long-term effects of psychedelic use on the developing brain, and it’s not yet known whether the potential benefits of psychedelic therapy outweigh the potential risks for teenagers.

While some research has suggested that psychedelics may have therapeutic benefits for adults with certain mental health conditions, there is currently limited research on the safety and effectiveness of using psychedelics in therapy for teenagers. In addition, the use of psychedelics in therapy for teenagers is not currently legal in most states.

Could psychedelic therapy help teenagers? 

In many non-Western cultures, psychedelic use begins at a young age, with substances such as ayahuasca being utilized throughout pregnancy and childbirth, peyote and mushrooms used in religious ceremonies and cultural education, and cannabis and Datura used in coming-of-age rituals. These cultures view these substances as essential for raising responsible and aware adults, and they provide adolescents with a meaningful rite of passage that aids in their transition to adulthood.

A significant distinction between the Western and non-Western perspectives is that psychedelic use in non-Western cultures is typically deliberate and supervised. It is rare for teens to use psychedelics without the guidance of an experienced adult. These substances are approached with a deeper purpose, such as seeking spiritual guidance, connecting with the community and ancestors, or healing from mental trauma.

Although the differences in cultural and individual contexts for substance use between these cultures and ours are well understood, the effects of the lack of these contexts in our culture are not. We emphasize the fact that just because psychedelic use in other cultures can be healthy does not necessarily mean it is in ours or for everyone.

Potential harms of teen psychedelic use

Psychotic episodes, such as delusions and hallucinations, can occur with the use of psychedelics, and it’s important to seek immediate medical attention if this occurs. The use of psychedelics can also worsen underlying mental health issues or trigger latent mental health issues.

While it is generally considered rare for individuals to develop an addiction to psychedelics since these substances do not produce the same type of chemical dependency as substances like opioids or stimulants, it is possible for someone to develop a psychological dependence on psychedelics. This typically means they may feel like they need to use these substances to cope with daily life or to achieve a desired state of mind.

How to know if your teen is abusing psychedelics

If your teenager is using psychedelics in a problematic or harmful way, there are a few signs you can look out for:

  1. Changes in behavior: Look for changes in your teenager’s behavior, such as a sudden drop in grades, withdrawal from social activities, or a change in their group of friends.
  2. Mood changes: Pay attention to your teenager’s mood and watch for changes, such as increased irritability or mood swings.
  3. Difficulty functioning: If your teenager is having trouble functioning in their daily life, such as missing school or work or struggling with personal relationships, this could be a sign of problematic use.
  4. Using psychedelics as a coping mechanism: If your teenager is using psychedelics as a way to cope with negative emotions or difficult life events, this could be a sign of problematic use.

If you are concerned that your teenager may be using psychedelics in a problematic or harmful way, it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional.

Harm reduction tips for psychedelic use

The following are some harm reduction tips for mitigating potential harm from psychedelic use. Do note that psychedelics can catalyze complex experiences, there are many more helpful resources for managing psychedelic experiences out there. While we’re focusing on only three aspects of psychedelic use, experiences can widely vary between individuals.

Talk about “Set” and “Setting”

Set and setting refer to the internal and external contexts present for an individual when using a psychoactive substance, though the phrase is most often used when discussing psychedelics. The phrase is meant to emphasize the importance of both one’s mindset, as well as the environment that an individual is in when using a psychedelic. They are commonly regarded as the two foundational pieces to ensuring the greatest chance for a positive experience as is possible.

“Set” is short for mindset and refers to the individual’s expectations, intentions, current emotional state, etc. Essentially, the total sum of the individual’s current internal state, whether cognitive, emotional, somatic, physical or otherwise. The intention here is not to foster fear in case a psychedelic is used while in a sub-optimal “Set” but to foster more well-informed decision-making that accounts for one’s current state of mind. This may seem obvious, but the degree to which one’s mindset can impact a psychedelic experience is much greater than with traditionally accepted substances like alcohol, nicotine, and coffee.

“Setting” refers to the physical and social environment in which psychedelics are used and is just as important as one’s mindset. Psychedelics tend to amplify one’s awareness of themselves, their emotions, sensations, and how it is to be in any given physical environment or a certain social situation. An environment that may be ok, or even great, while sober may be uncomfortable at best, if not intolerable, on a psychedelic. Thus, it is extremely important that the Setting be thought about when using psychedelics, as it can be the difference between a positive, bad, or psychotic experience.

If you’d like to learn more about Set and Setting, here’s a good resource from FacilitatorU.

Setup the psychedelic experience for success

The psychedelic experience is intensely personal, but some common factors in positive experiences can be utilized to increase the chances of positive experiences.

  1. Set intentions: It can be helpful to set clear intentions for a psychedelic experience, such as exploring personal growth or addressing a specific mental health issue.
  2. Choose a trusted and sober guide: Having a trusted and sober guide, such as a trained therapist or trusted friend, can be useful during the experience.
  3. Stable state of mind: Psychedelics are unpredictable, and negative experiences can happen while in a great mindset, and vice versa. But, only using psychedelics while in a stable mindset (“Set) greatly increases the chances of positive experiences. 
  4. Safe and comfortable setting: A safe and comfortable setting where there is no chance of disruptions or harsh stimuli can help facilitate a positive experience.
  5. Start with a low dose: No one wants to be stuck in an experience they don’t want to be in and can’t get out of.
  6. Slow down: If you are having a challenging experience, it can be helpful to engage in activities that bring comfort and relaxation, such as deep breathing or listening to music.

Managing a Bad Trip or Psychotic Episode:

Understanding the difference between a bad trip and a psychotic episode can help you know when to seek medical attention and when to employ other types of support. 

A bad trip, also known as a difficult or challenging psychedelic experience, is a potentially unpleasant and distressing reaction to psychedelics. A bad trip can be caused by various factors, including mindset, environment, and the substance used.

If you are with someone experiencing a bad trip, here are a few things you can do:

  • Try to keep them as safe and comfortable as possible. This may involve finding a quieter, more calm, familiar place for them to be.
  • Gently remind them that the experience will subside, however uncomfortable it is right now.
  • Help them stay grounded in reality. This may involve reminding them of the time, date, and place and helping them focus on the present moment.
  • Encourage them to breathe deeply and slowly. This can help to calm the mind and body and reduce anxiety.

You can find more tips on helping to manage a difficult psychedelic experience here.

If your teenager is experiencing a psychotic episode, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention. Remove any potential dangers from the environment, such as sharp objects or medications, and try to keep your teenager as calm as possible. Strategies that may help include staying calm, using a soothing tone of voice, providing reassurance, creating a safe environment, using physical comfort, and using relaxation techniques. Avoid arguing or trying to convince your teenager that their delusions are not real. Often, distracting them with something positive can help. Try not to talk too much or overwhelm them with sensations such as sounds, light, or textures. Give them space, and trust they will work through it. 

If they are experiencing extreme distress or are in danger, seek medical help immediately. This may involve calling 911 or taking them to the nearest hospital.

How Antelope Recovery can help

The recent decriminalization of psychedelic use in Colorado raises important questions and concerns for parents. At Antelope Recovery, we understand the complexities surrounding substance use and its potential impact on teens. Our comprehensive programs are designed to address these challenges head-on, providing support, education, and counseling to both teenagers and their families. We can help you navigate this evolving landscape by offering resources, guidance, and evidence-based treatment options tailored to your family’s needs. Whether you’re seeking information, concerned about your teen’s substance use, or need assistance with addiction or mental health issues, Antelope Recovery is here to support you. Together, we can ensure a safer and healthier future for Colorado’s youth.