Psychedelics on a trip to Western ballots

Decriminalization campaigns follow a Denver ballot initiative to regulate shrooms that passed last year.


In 2011, Matthew Kahl of the 101st Airborne came home from his second tour in Afghanistan with a damaged spine, brain injuries, a facial fracture and chronic pain. A small piece of his jaw was missing. His psychological scars ran deep: He had seen horrors and learned how to kill, and the memories crushed him. Over the course of a few years, he took more than 90 drugs and medications for post-traumatic stress disorder. Opiates and mood stabilizers, benzodiazepines and SSRIs — pill bottles several rows deep filled an entire double-door medicine cabinet in his home in Divide, Colorado. Videos taken by his wife show him slumped on a couch, falling asleep in the middle of a sentence and unable to track the conversation from seconds before. Kahl became suicidal. Eventually, he turned to cannabis. That helped end his dependence on opiates, but, on the inside, he still felt broken.

Matthew Kahl shares an embrace with two friends after Kahl took ayahuasca, an experience that he says helped him face his trauma.

In 2016, Kahl and a few other veterans who struggled with PTSD decided to try psychedelic medicine, traveling to Florida to take ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic, traditionally associated with the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon Basin. Growing evidence suggests that psychedelic drugs can help treat depression, anxiety and addiction. Kahl says the experience helped him face his trauma; he came away renewed, free from the profound sense of loss and emptiness.

Kahl wanted to help others the way he had been helped. So he joined a Denver effort last spring to decriminalize psilocybin, the psychoactive chemical in mushrooms. He became one of the campaign’s most public figures, adding the authority of a veteran’s voice to a movement often associated with Colorado’s vibrant drug culture. Denver voters narrowly passed the measure in May. A month later, the city council in Oakland, California, went a step further and decriminalized all plant and fungal psychedelics, including ayahuasca, peyote and DMT. Other psychedelic advocates took notice. Across the West, several decriminalization efforts are organizing 2020 campaigns, often using Denver’s direct democracy model of ballot initiatives, the strategy that worked so well in legalizing cannabis.

BRYAN KIM, AN ORGANIZER with Decriminalize Nature Portland, hopes to emulate Denver’s voter-driven approach. “The ballot initiative process presents a direct path to power for everyday people,” he said. Kim’s group plans to put an amendment before Portland voters that would decriminalize psychedelic plants and fungi, including psilocybin, ibogaine, ayahuasca and mescaline. Two other public questions could go on Oregon’s statewide ballot: one to create the nation’s first legal psilocybin-assisted therapy program, and the other decriminalizing all illegal drugs in the state. In California, meanwhile, yet another group is collecting signatures to get a psilocybin decriminalization measure on the November ballot.

“The ballot initiative process presents a direct path to power for everyday people.”

For Kahl, these grassroots initiatives represent one of the few ways American citizens can exercise their power as such. Kahl speaks about the U.S. Constitution with genuine reverence. He believes that the document’s stated principles of individual liberty and equality are real, vital — and under attack. “The war on drugs,” he said, “is a war on the people of America and is eroding their freedom.” As Kahl sees it, the same desire for control that’s responsible for draconian drug policies sent him to Afghanistan, to a pointless war that ruined his life and continues to this day. What he saw overseas informs his decriminalization work at home. Citizens, he believes, must stand up and reclaim their freedoms from government overreach. If they do not, the federal government will continue to expand its gaze over every aspect of our lives.

Kahl takes pride in the fact that both psilocybin decriminalization — and the cannabis legalization that preceded it — started in Colorado, the birthplace of the Libertarian Party. A self-described outsider from both main parties, he notes a “particular libertarian streak that runs through (Denver) and much of Colorado,” a blend of hippie drug culture and suspicion of government overreach that infuses many of Kahl’s own political principles. Since the Denver vote, Kahl is working to help like-minded citizens around the country. Now a leading figure in the psychedelic-access push, he has advised local decriminalization groups from Missouri to Arizona. His nonprofit, Veterans for Natural Rights, helps other veterans struggling with PTSD. Veterans are his focus, but Kahl believes this movement can help, well, everyone. He sees psychedelics as a potential source of healing for countless Americans. “The vast majority of people have some sort of trauma in their lives that they can benefit from facing,” he said. “This is where psychedelics fit into America.”

Kahl stands before his medicine cabinet, which holds the 90 drugs and medications he took for post-traumatic stress disorder before turning to psychedelic drugs for treatment.

THE POLITICAL AND SOCIAL MOMENTUM of the psychedelic-access movement is growing, even as the research, which is slim thanks to U.S. drug policy, struggles to catch up. Since 1970, psychedelics have been federally listed alongside drugs like heroin as a Schedule 1 substance, which carries the harshest penalties. But in recent years, as cities and states broke down legal barriers to the medical use of cannabis, the federal government has slowly allowed clinical trials of certain psychedelics. Several randomized, placebo-controlled psychedelic treatment trials are underway, and advocates expect the Federal Drug Administration to allow some medical treatment using MDMA and psilocybin in the next few years.  

Broadly speaking, the available clinical research shows associations between various psychedelics and treatment for depression, addiction, and terminal illness-related anxiety, among other conditions. Brain-imaging scans suggest drugs like psilocybin allow parts of the brain that normally do not interact to do so. This is why Kahl and others so often report fresh perspectives, long-absent positive feelings and new understanding of their pain. Even so, the evidence does not meet the scientific standard for causation, according to Natalie Gukasyan, a psychiatrist and researcher who studies psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy at Johns Hopkins University. There is not enough evidence yet to declare psilocybin an effective treatment for depression or PTSD.

Still, Gukasyan wholeheartedly agrees with Kahl about the need for improved trauma treatment: “It’s absolutely true that the treatments available for PTSD are not effective for everyone, and it can be a very debilitating condition,” she said. “That’s why we’re doing the research.”

“The vast majority of people have some sort of trauma in their lives that they can benefit from facing. This is where psychedelics fit into America.”

The speed of decriminalization also sidesteps the fact that Indigenous communities have long used psychedelics like peyote and ayahuasca in cultural practice. Though such use is legal today, the federal government criminalized religious ceremonies involving these substances for decades. Now, Indigenous advocates fear that decriminalization will race ahead without properly consulting or including Native peoples. In a recent article, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) argued that advocates “must also consider the historical context in which the ‘psychedelic renaissance’ is happening, and work to ensure the intellectual property rights of indigenous cultures are protected from theft and misuse by the pharmaceutical industry.”

WHILE PSYCHEDELIC ACCESS still has a long road ahead, the personal changes Kahl experienced seem to have lingered.  Even in conversation, the difference is clear. A recently released documentary called From Shock to Awe followed Kahl and others as they took ayahuasca. In the opening scenes, Kahl appears scattered; he speaks in short bursts and struggles to interact with his children. In conversation today, he is sharp and passionate in speaking about the dark days of his past. Roughly once a year, he undergoes some sort of psychedelic treatment. He has not returned to cannabis or opiates.

Since the documentary came out, Kahl has been on the road wrapping up a nationwide screening tour for the film. Recently, he visited the Texas chapter of Veterans for Natural Rights, as well as Washington, D.C., where he participated in a congressional briefing on psychedelics and veterans with PTSD. In short, Matthew Kahl is a busy man. But the most important use of his time — and newfound mental well-being — is spent with his family.

Kahl has begun homeschooling his oldest son, whose adolescence coincided with the tough years of his father’s recovery. “I was either deployed, and when I was back home, I was either angry or at work or on medications, or in convalescence,” Kahl told me in January. “Even though I was there, I wasn’t there.” When his son started showing behavioral problems in school, Kahl saw it as a cry for the attention he had failed to provide. “This was my chance, my one chance,” Kahl said of the homeschooling, choking up, “to try and fix what I had done so wrong over all the years and give him the attention he needs.”

Nick Bowlin is a contributing editor at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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