SPORE Wants Community to Have a Growing Voice in Natural Psychedelics Legalization – Westword

Just like magic, the number of psychedelic policy initiatives in Colorado has mushroomed in recent weeks. Coloradans now face a possibility of voting on two statewide measures in November, and Democratic lawmakers also introduced a bill in late January to study plant-based medicines and their effects on mental health.

The drama of multiple proposals vying for support, as well as questions about regulating psychedelics, is already drawing outsized attention. But behind all of the noise, one organization has been quietly shaping conversations from the beginning — and making sure community voices aren’t left out.

SPORE, the Society for Psychedelic Outreach, Reform, and Education, formed as an outgrowth of Denver’s successful psilocybin initiative in 2019. In early 2021 the organization changed leadership when one of its co-founders, Kevin Matthews, left to form a lobbying group. More recently, SPORE has played a key role in determining how the entire state moves forward with psychedelic policy reform. The organization has brought together diverse voices to discuss the ethical stewardship of plant medicines, as well as influenced the various policies currently being proposed in Colorado.

To learn more, Westword recently sat down with three SPORE representatives: Matthew Duffy, co-founder and co-ecosystem director, and boardmembers Courtney Mathis (of Cannabis Doing Good and the Cannabis Impact Fund) and Jeff Campbell (founder of Emancipation Theater Company and one of Westword‘s 100 “Colorado Creatives”). The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with SPORE’s community organizing around psychedelics and how it has shaped this current moment in Colorado. Our understanding is that when an outside organization called New Approach PAC, the political action committee behind the psilocybin therapy initiative that passed in Oregon, started looking at Colorado as another state in which to pass an initiative, SPORE began hosting a series of public town-hall meetings around Denver. What was the purpose of those meetings?

Matthew Duffy: SPORE’s intention from the beginning has been to support community organizing in a holistic way. Like, what does social change with psychedelics look like when we come together intersectionally, when we’ve emphasized building trust and relationships? The entrance of New Approach and this conversation around psychedelic policy reform in Colorado really was the impetus for us to say: Hey, we have to organize now, or community is going to be left out [of conversations], especially the most marginalized….And so the first town halls were really just kind of ringing the alarm. And to hold space together to learn: What is it that’s needed? What is the right path forward?

Courtney Mathis: I think one of the things that happens when policy is in process is that we get so caught up in the politics that we forget the people…. And it’s, in my opinion, what cannabis got really wrong. We got so caught up in the commerce and the politics around Amendment 64 [which legalized recreational cannabis], that people were left out of the process and then very negatively impacted….So [these town halls] were catalyzed by the entry of initiatives into our state, and further catalyzed by how, when we were invited into the room, there were only white men. So you’re immediately going, ‘This can’t be happening all over again.’ So I think that SPORE’s primary objective here was to organize community voice, provide a platform at policy tables for groups that were not represented, and to acknowledge and hold boundaries around what feels like equitable progress.

So how did the community meetings go, and what did you learn?

Duffy: It’s been messy. That’s a big lesson. Process is messy….The town halls mostly have served as a place to process, and for us to hear from each other and learn from each other. But it’s not the primary place where the work actually gets done. In those town halls, we’ve learned who in the community actually wants to be more involved, more engaged, and that’s how we got to fill these different working groups we call the “MYCOalition.” And the primary council that’s been holding the MYCOalition’s role with policy reform has been the Responsible Reform Council, where a goal was creating community policy guidelines.

Mathis: And to say we’ve come up with community policy guidelines…that took months upon months of work. It took Jeff [Campbell] having one-on-one phone calls. Duffy having one-on-one phone calls. Me having one-on-one phone calls. All the councils integrating and disintegrating all over again. It was really messy. And getting survey data. Presenting that survey data to the MYCOalition. And having those conversations be very messy. This has been a very indirect process. And I think seeing the intense amount of tension was really important for most people to behold because — and I know this going to sound cliche — because the psychedelic community is not a monolith. It’s not even close. And so having conversations with Indigenous medicine keepers and legacy market practitioners and white folks who go to Burning Man and all the diversity of people that come into the psychedelic community…having those conversations and coming up with community-based values that inform policy may sound really sexy. But the truth is that it was wildly fucking hard.

Those hard conversations seemed to have influenced the policies we’re seeing, including New Approach’s proposed initiative. Can you explain that impact so far?

Duffy: The way we’ve been able to show up to really create an intersectional, diverse effort has really shifted power, and has definitely influenced the current drafts in a major way. I say with 100 percent confidence that the new drafts, which are the new drafts that New Approach will likely run with, would not have had full decriminalization, would not have had all these equity measures, if it wasn’t for the work of the MYCOalition…And when we’re talking about full decriminalization, I mean: Every piece of the relationship — grow, gather, gift — is fully decriminalized. There are no limits. You don’t give police discretion on how to enforce. And that full decriminalization is essential because it creates the foundation for community regulation….And because that wasn’t all reflected in New Approach’s first drafts of its initiative, to me naturally the [Decriminalize Nature] initiative subsequently emerged.

Mathis: Yeah and those two initiatives vastly differ. Decrim Nature’s is decrim only. And [New Approach’s] Natural Medicine Health Act is decrim with a regulatory model.

So I think a major question raised by this situation, now that there are two different initiatives is: How do you play a role in the middle of all of that? Is SPORE neutral?

Duffy: I don’t believe in neutrality. As Malcolm X said, “A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.” So we do have a stand, it’s just that we’re not attached to these policy initiatives. Our charge is representing community, amplifying community voices, amplifying community power….That’s how we can be a trustworthy bridge. We bring that to the folks that make the policy.

Mathis: Yeah, from where we sit, SPORE’s position is not to endorse any one initiative. And actually, there’s a bill and two initiatives. Today we are not endorsing any of them, because somewhat transparently, it doesn’t benefit us to do that. Because if the bill goes through or one of the initiative approaches succeeds, to maintain our ability to influence those at the implementation part of the process, we still need to be in relationship with all the policymakers and initiative movers so we can place community voices at their tables, on their committees, on their working groups, and can still leverage community power in those spaces. We’re in conversations with the bill [sponsors] and both initiatives, specifically to say: “We’ve influenced [your] language. Now what’s next?”

One thing that’s next, according to your website, is a storytelling campaign aimed at the public called The Right to Heal. Can you explain what that is?

Mathis: So in cannabis — and I’m using this as an example – [there was] a series of “Cannabis Doing Good” stories, and that was largely to help change the hearts and minds of the public around cannabis. The Right to Heal campaign, in my opinion, is not actually positioned in that same way. The goal of the Right to Heal campaign is actually to platform and provide light and education towards the legacy market and Indigenous keepers and people who have been holding this medicine. The reason we even have access to this medicine…and the reason there’s an abundance of this medicine in many lives, is because of their stories — and that’s whether you’re Indigenous, whether you’re Black or brown, maybe you’re a veteran, maybe you’re a mom next door….And I think the nuance is capturing the history of where we come from and where this medicine has come from, so if you are part of the general public and you’ve never had access to psychedelics before, maybe the first time you touch it you remember Jeff Campbell’s story. Maybe you remember Renee’s story. Maybe you have in your arsenal, in your heart and your mind and your practice, the stories of where this medicine has come from so you can act with it in a way that is sacred.

Jeff, as an accomplished playwright and storyteller yourself, what got you interested in supporting a storytelling campaign around psychedelics?

Campbell: Being somebody who lived in this community a long time before Amendment 64, and now long after it’s become Denver culture, I have a particular insight firsthand with that missed opportunity. As well as with the hypocrisy of this new promise of being “the number one city in the country” bullshit. But for me, as someone who’s always on the ground level, I see a whole lot of promise in the psychedelic movement. And so I’m optimistic that this Right to Heal campaign is intrinsically tied to health equity, which is drug policy, which is criminal justice, which is education justice. I am hopeful. And I’m really here in the space to connect the dots and amplify this movement and show folks that we have not just strategic alliances, but natural, authentic alliances in this movement.

How will SPORE go about collecting stories for the Right to Heal campaign?

Duffy: We first collected quotes from our own team, because that was easy. But then at the Colorado Psychedelic Convergence [on January 29], that was our first Right to Heal pop-up booth, a testimony station where we were bringing people back to record their Right to Heal testimony. So, a big way that we intend to do this is on the ground at community events where we get to show up. That’s a way of us moving in between different communities to gather stories that are diverse and reflective of many different perspectives of what healing is. And I think what Jeff [Campbell] is most optimistic about is what has called us all here: the innate intersectionality of this work. You can’t talk about healing with psychedelics if you’re not talking about ecological justice, if you’re not talking about abolition.…And when we talk about equity, then equity must mean shared stewardship and community sovereignty.

How are you going to share these stories that you’ve been collecting?

Duffy: Social media, as well as our own website. We’re going to have a series of narrative campaign videos that will be compilations of different testimonies. But on social media, we’ll share little clips and sound bites. Sometimes it’ll just be a quote or two. Sometimes we’ll find people that have such a captivating story that we’ll want to share three to five minutes….And when people can see someone they can relate to, speaking to their healing and how much they’ve been able to transform and overcome so much illness working with medicine, it’ll take the data and research that’s out there and amplify it by orders of magnitude. Because that’s what story is. Story is data with soul.

So while conducting the Right to Heal campaign, is SPORE also going to continue informing the community and collecting feedback about statewide policy? Will you continue hosting public town-hall meetings?

Campbell: Yes. With as much engagement around accountability that is accessible to the community, like being part of the oversight and evaluation of things once they are adopted into law….So not only will community be convened on a regular basis to stay informed and engaged, but we hope to create the capacity for the community to a part of oversight.

Thanks. Any other closing thoughts?

Duffy: I knew it would be difficult to not get wrapped up in politics. But the first thing I said in the first town hall was that this is about restoring relationships. Policy stuff and all that — that should come second. Unfortunately, we’re in a situation that’s cart before horse right now. So what do we do? Now we have this chance to shift the culture. We have to embody this beloved community so we can take our stands and not destruct because of internal conflict. We have to center transformative healing and restorative justice….Regardless of what happens with policy, that’s the generational work. That’s how we’ll build community that can sustain and make this movement truly revolutionary, and not just about an industry…

We can’t stop the regulation from coming. But what we can do is shape the reform. We can transform it. We can find power with it. And that’s the mycelial way: to make it work towards community. And it’s going to take all of us.