Matthew Kahl is the founder and CEO of Veterans for Natural Rights, a social welfare and political action organization that promotes natural treatments for veterans with war trauma. Matthew has also been featured in two prominent documentaries about ayahuasca and PTSD, Soldiers of the Vine and From Shock to Awe. We spoke Matthew recently about his involvement in the Denver psilocybin campaign and his take on why criminalizing nature is an affront to our personal and religious freedoms.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Matt. You are heavily involved with the upcoming Denver initiative to decriminalize psilocybin. Can you give us an overview of this effort?
First off, Kevin Matthews is the head of Decriminalize Denver and he is the brainchild behind all of this. He’s really done an amazing job of putting forth all of these ideas and changing minds about this. I had very little involvement early on, but towards the end of the summer Kevin called me up and asked to meet with me, so we sat down and he said, “Hey, I’d really like your support on this” and I said, “Absolutely, this is exactly what I’m all about.”
Around last summer, the Decriminalize Denver movement really started taking a more concrete form. We started looking at language for the petition for the city and county of Denver to decriminalize psilocybin, not just for personal use or possession, but for cultivation too. Late last year the language took shape, and early this year is when the movement really started picking up steam. We got nearly double the amount of signatures on the petition that we needed for the measure. It got on the ballot and now we’ve been focusing on voter education.
Before we even started with any voter education initiatives, Decriminalize Denver took a poll. They polled landline users, who are usually 50 and above, so a lot of these people were older and more likely to be against it anyway. It turns out we have a 45% approval rating even for that demographic in that poll. So I think we have a respectable chance at this. The young folks are not going to be nearly as against this; I think that they are much more likely to vote for decriminalization of anything.
The number of drug cases in the city and county of Denver that have to do with psilocybin is something like a tiny fraction of 1%. It’s impossibly small—nobody gets busted with mushrooms. Most of the things that law enforcement really wants to nip in the bud are things like methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin. Mushrooms really aren’t high on the list anyway, but this measure would reduce it to the lowest law enforcement priority. It would actually defund the District Attorney’s office so that they would not have any funds to prosecute psilocybin crimes. This involves both cultivation and possession, but since the initiative does not cover commercial activity, selling of mushrooms would still be prohibited, and still be a crime.
I don’t know about anybody else, but I’ve sort of made a name for myself on the front range of Colorado by giving away free cannabis, because it’s constitutionally protected as part of Amendment 64. So I’ve just been giving out free cannabis to introduce people to the idea of plant medicine, taking care of yourself, taking control of your own healthcare. I think that this initiative would 100% protect that. If you wanted to give away psilocybin mushrooms that you’ve grown yourself, this initiative could make that possible.
So I have high hopes. I really believe we have a decent shot because of the prior poll that they did, especially in that older demographic where our resistance is, and if we can actually move the needle a little bit amongst that population then I think we’ve got a very good chance of actually decriminalizing mushrooms within Denver. And if that’s the case, then we would immediately become the crest of the wave in the psychedelic renaissance in North America. No other municipality has ever voted on the decriminalization of any substance other than cannabis. This would be the first time that a vote was even made regarding psilocybin. So we’ve already made history here, but I think we have the potential to make a lot more. I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll actually see that happen.
That’s amazing. Are you guys connected at all with the groups in California and Oregon who are trying to do similar things?
I know of the initiative in California. I don’t know how likely it is to occur, but I know the people behind the initiative in Oregon too— I went and met with them out there late last year. I was filming an episode of 16:20, which is a veteran’s cannabis docu-series…
[Laughs] I just got the reference.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s 4:20 in military time. So I was filming an episode out there in Oregon and I got to meet Tom and Sheri Eckert who are behind the psilocybin initiative. I’m cautiously optimistic out there too. I don’t know how much the state will be for it, because there are lots of rural areas that are ‘dyed in the wool’ conservative and completely against anything like this, but I do have high hopes.
Statewide measures are going to be a lot more difficult. Denver is a unique little microcosm here in the state of Colorado, and quite liberal when it comes to social issues. I think that the vast majority of people are going to be like, “Eh, why not?” Whereas in a whole state measure, here in Colorado it’s much like in Oregon where the rural areas are extremely red, and much more likely to be against something like this, even if it has very little effect on anything. So I think that Denver is a good test case. If we can get it passed in Denver, then we can start thinking about doing it on a state and hopefully on a national level.
I’ve been pushing really hard on this. I’ve done innumerable public outreach events and also pieces on the news, from local TV stations to High Times magazine. We’ve got a pretty good outreach going on. I really hope that we’ll eventually convince them that this should be decriminalized, at least here in Denver.
Aside from ketamine which is already legal as a prescription, the next psychedelics to be legalized for therapy are likely to be MDMA and psilocybin. Some people have raised reservations that these will only be legal in a prescription context, and thus are still going to be behind gatekeepers. They may be too costly, too hard to get a prescription for, not covered by insurance, and so on. So actually decriminalizing these substances empowers everyone to have access to them, and works in a larger sense to erode and eventually to end prohibition. All of the FDA approved therapies and research are fantastic and have helped to change the zeitgeist around this, but decriminalization and legalization are the ultimate goals.
There is no more natural of a right than putting a seed in the ground, watching it grow, and using the product to either feed or treat or clothe yourself, and the same goes for mushrooms. They are a product of the natural environment; this is something that everyone should have access to.
Using natural substances in order to treat yourself, feed yourself— there’s nothing more natural than this. We all need access to all the natural substances that can help, whether it’s ayahuasca, mushrooms, peyote, San Pedro, iboga, toad… they are all products of the natural world and there’s no reason for the government to try and get in the way of our relationship with the natural world.
Nature is not a crime, and nobody is free so long as nature is illegal. And that is basically where the mission of Veterans for Natural Rights and myself intersect— we are trying to legitimize and legalize nature again. The government has not only declared war on its own citizens and on the citizens of the rest of the world, but on nature itself. It’s amazing that we’ve allowed this to go on for so long. It needs to be brought to an end, top to bottom. The war on drugs is wrong.
If only those ‘dyed in the wool’ conservatives could see that this is a fundamentally libertarian initiative to reduce government reach. How would they feel about prohibition coming back and them not being able to drink beer or whiskey anymore? It’s exactly the same thing!
And truthfully, this is a religious issue too. Entheogens have this unique ability to heal your soul and bring you into a personal relationship with the source of all things, whatever you want to call it— God, the universe… we are all talking about the same thing; there is just one of it. It doesn’t matter what you call it; what we’re really debating here is the legitimacy of the natural world and our freedom to benefit from it. I believe wholeheartedly that there is no part of it that is illegitimate, and we need access to all of it.
This is the tip of the spear. I always talked about cannabis being the tip of the natural medicine spear, and we have yet to shove the whole thing home yet. Psychedelics are next on the list. If we can decriminalize nature, we’ve gone a long way to restoring the natural rights of Americans.