This is the first story in a series about psychedelic drugs in Denver.
DENVER – Kess Hirsheimer was in a deep and dangerous depression, “ready to do anything that would help the pain.” So when LSD was offered to her, she took it.
“It completely transformed my entire world view on things,” she told Fox News. “I was able to find beauty when I had been in pain for such a long time. I was able to find appreciation for the smaller things, and I was able to really see the love that I had for myself and people loving me.”
The journey wasn’t exactly fun and games, like you might see in movies. And it wasn’t like the cliché acid bad trip, either. For Hirsheimer, it was something deeper.
“Being in that change was incredibly painful,” she said. “Like for four hours it was a lot of crying.”
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Hirsheimer’s new outlook didn’t end with the acid trip.
“That experience was something that was so heavy and so mind-altering that I was able to carry it with me,” she said.
Several years later, Hirsheimer, 26, became president of the Psychedelic Club of Denver, an organization that aims to spread awareness about substance use, particularly, as the name implies, psychedelic drugs.
Hirsheimer, who’s spent her whole life in Colorado, said she’s seen a growing interest in psychedelics over the last few years. Perhaps the most telling evidence: Centennial State voters passed a referendum in 2022 to decriminalize certain hallucinogens by a wider margin than one to allow grocery stores to carry wine. Denver had done the same a few years prior.
For some, that opens the ability to achieve journeys similar to Hirsheimer’s (though LSD is not among the decriminalized drugs). For others, it could mean limited barriers to powerful psychedelic experiences they’re not prepared for, with little access to qualified help.
“Just because these substances can be grown in your backyard doesn’t mean they’re not intense psychotropic drugs,” said Luke Niforatos, the executive vice president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a vocal opponent of the referendum. “It’s very concerning that it’s being turned into a social club.”
“We’re basically doing a statewide experiment with mind-altering drugs on people,” he told Fox News.
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‘Mine are kicking in right now!’
Selling psychedelic drugs is still illegal, so it’s hard to tally exactly how much interest and use have actually grown in Denver, a city already famous for its marijuana tokers. It’s hard to avoid passing weed dispensaries in the Mile High City — nicknamed for its elevation rather than its substance use.
Still, Hirsheimer said that at a minimum, she’s seen psychedelic users become more open about the substances they take. She also said there’s been a shift in how non-drug users perceive people who take hallucinogens.
“I think the singular most thing that shows that there has been a growth is: most everyone knows at least what psychedelics are, and they know that it’s not inherently a bad thing from the get-go,” Hirsheimer said. “They know that there’s been research about them that’s proven to help with depression and anxiety.”
“A lot of the hesitancy that’s been preventing people from considering them as a legitimate medication has been lifted,” she said.
It’s easy to see, at least subjectively, how open Denver is to psychedelic interests.
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Meow Wolf, an arts and entertainment company, picked Denver to open its third and largest immersive psychedelic art installation in 2021. And since one wasn’t enough, another smaller interactive psychedelic exhibit lives in a different part of town, just down the street from “The Odditorium,” a shop that sells, well, oddities.
Denver’s quickly gentrifying RiNo neighborhood, meanwhile, is filled with psychedelic murals outside its many breweries. Some show mushrooms, some show fantastical creatures and still others are just flat-out trippy.
It’s a city where it’s not uncommon to overhear someone in a coffee shop talking about their various psychedelic drug trips or a gym rat asking where they can find magic mushrooms.
“You took yours too soon! Mine are kicking in right now!” one young woman shouted excitedly as she walked into a light show at the Botanic Gardens.
Denver’s also home to the International Church of Cannabis, which boasts a laser lightshow set to ‘70s progressive rock. There’s also a bar and music venue dedicated to the Grateful Dead. During a short visit, you’ll see an endless number of trippy bumper stickers for jam bands like Phish.
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Scroll through Eventbrite, and you’ll see a handful of mushroom-growing classes, sometimes specifically mentioning the kind that make you hallucinate. Later this month, Denver will host Psychedelic Science 2023, a five-day convention with 10,000 attendees expected daily.
In other words, the Mile High City wears its psychedelic interest on its sleeves — sometimes literally if we’re talking about the mushroom tattoos you’ll certainly see inked onto residents’ arms and legs.
Niforatos warned that this growing interest isn’t simply a harmless culture.
“A society where we’re tripping out on psychotropic drugs is not a society we want to live in,” he told Fox News.
In the 2022 election, Colorado passed Proposition 122, which decriminalized the consumption, cultivation and possession of a handful of psychedelic drugs, including magic mushrooms. The referendum also lets licensed wellness centers allow clients to consume those substances for therapeutic purposes.
“The benefits of decriminalization are people can grow their own medicines,” Hirsheimer said. “A lot of the things that people are trying to treat psychedelics with are expensive to treat in the medical model.”
But Niforatos said advocates underplay how intense psychedelics are, and that they’re not as simple as growing your own vegetables or taking vitamins.
Prop 122 passed with nearly 54% of the vote. By comparison, another referendum that allowed grocery stores to sell wine passed by just over 50%.
“The more we legalize these substances to use recreationally, the less safe our environment is going to be,” Niforatos said. “We’ll have a much harder time having a safe society.”
There could be increased dangers if people in high-risk positions, like bus drivers, ingest psychedelic drugs while on duty — or even the day prior.
“Do you want your surgeon tripping out the day before he does your surgery? I don’t think so,” Niforatos said.
Hirsheimer did acknowledge that the newly expanded access to psilocybin, the compound in shrooms that causes hallucinations, could lead to some turbulence in the short-term. She told Fox News there could be users who make dangerous decisions like driving while on psychedelics, though she said those risks also exist for legal substances like weed and alcohol.
Niforatos pointed out how, unlike alcohol, there’s no way to test whether someone is driving while on psychedelics. He also noted that there’s been an increase fatal accidents involving Colorado drivers high on marijuana.
“Impairment would be more intense if someone was tripping and got in the car,” he told Fox News. “We’ll see more of that.”
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Hirsheimer also warned that there could be an influx of inexperienced users who may not understand what they’re ingesting or consume too much.
“I think that there’s going to be a slight rush of people who are going to have too much, who didn’t understand what it was, thought it was going to be something and isn’t what they thought it would be might be overwhelming for them,” she said. “But the potential negatives of having too much psilocybin far outweighs the potential positives for people.”
Niforatos worried that the increased access to psychedelics would lead to more homelessness — already a top issue in Denver — since people living on the streets often suffer from addiction problems already. He also warned that the drugs could worsen underlying mental illnesses or lead to Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder, a rare scenario in which someone experiences hallucinations after any drugs have exited a person’s system.
But there’s not much research on potential long-lasting effects from taking psilocybin mushrooms or from particularly bad trips, according to Hirsheimer and Brendan Caldwell, a psychedelic-assisted therapist. Essentially, he uses psychedelic substances as part of his treatment regimen.
“There’s lots of reasons that a person could have too of an intense psychedelic experience for them to handle,” Caldwell said.
“A big part of psilocybin for a lot of people is that there’s a very somatic emotional component to it,” he told Fox News. In some cases, users may experience “a surge of energy” that could “feel like anxiety or panic or euphoria.”
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When someone faces difficult feelings, those could be the result subconscious thoughts.
“Psilocybin sort of draws those things out and allows people to see them more consciously and kind of face them,” Caldwell said.
In some instances, like Hirsheimer’s first acid trip, those can be eye-opening and transformative, even if difficult.
“It’s really neat to see how when you’re in that state, your mind will route answers that make sense to you that otherwise you wouldn’t always be able to make sense of when you’re sober,” she said.
“Once you’re sober, you have an opportunity to integrate that experience, which is bringing that into your life, bringing that new understanding and applying it to your day-to-day life and how you perceive things,” Hirsheimer continued.
In other instances, the experience could be challenging or even traumatic. Both Caldwell and Hirsheimer agreed it’s important to have peer support, even for recreational users.
That’s why Caldwell runs the Psychedelic Club’s “integration circle” where psychedelic drug users can discuss their past trips.
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“A lot of times, people are talking about psychedelic experiences that they’ve had that were confusing or disorienting or maybe a little bit traumatic,” he said. “Sometimes people are also just sharing really, really positive experiences that have happened, and they want to sit in like joy and appreciation with everybody else in the group.”
People having “psychedelic experiences and exploring their own consciousness can talk about those experiences and process them with other people,” Caldwell added. Ideally, they’ll be able to draw lessons from even challenging trips and incorporate them into their lives.
Another example of Denver’s above-ground psychedelic community: the integration circle is open to the public.
Niforatos said it’s dangerous, however, to treat street use of psychedelics the same as in professional settings. First, “they leave people very vulnerable,” he told Fox News.
Second, clinical trials, unlike street use for self-medication or recreation, have occurred under the supervision of “clinical professionals that have watched somebody tripping for eight hours in a room.”
‘It’s not for everyone. And that’s okay’
Hirsheimer joined the Psychedelic Club in 2019 after moving to the Mile High City specifically because she was looking for community.
“Psychedelics had been something that I’ve been passionate about for a long time and it was hard to find friends in that space,” she said.
Hirsheimer, who repeatedly called psilocybin “medicine,” is open about her substance use, saying she uses mushrooms about three or four times a year for spiritual purposes. She said she’s told her parents, who could see a difference with her depression.
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“They noticed a transformation in me,” Hirsheimer said. “I told them that it was because of the psychedelics.”
But she doesn’t dress or behave like a walking billboard for psychedelics, and she holds a day job unrelated to drugs. At a closer look, you may notice her industrial ear piercing or her hand tattoos, including a heart on her palm, but those aren’t exactly giveaways.
Similarly, and perhaps counterintuitive to Denver’s growing scene, most of the few dozen people who filled the room at one of the Psychedelic Club’s meetings at the Mercury Cafe didn’t fit the profile of the typical person ready to take a few grams of psilocybin mushrooms.
At this particular meeting, a speaker taught the crowd how to extract DMT, a naturally occurring and especially powerful but short-lasting hallucinogen that was also decriminalized as part of Prop 122. The attendees were about evenly split between male and female, and the ages spanned from early 20s to late 60s.
There were a few Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead shirts with some tie-dye sprinkled throughout the audience, but there were probably more people in business casual attire, wearing sweaters or khakis.
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Mercury Cafe also provides an interesting dichotomy.
Outside, tents line the sidewalks, and it’s a little scary to walk around once it’s dark. Near the entrance, a man was smoking some kind of substance that clearly wasn’t tobacco, marijuana or a psychedelic.
But inside, it feels like a trip down the rabbit hole. The room where the Psychedelic Club meets is darkly lit, with a massive jungle mural painted on the back wall. A dragon skeleton hangs in front of a window. In the adjacent room, a fake tiger jumps out of the wall.
Hirsheimer can’t guess how many members the club has since most meetings are open to the public, though she said the paid membership numbers over 100. A handful were welcoming and friendly and passionate to talk about psychedelics.
So was Hirsheimer.
“It’s not only for people who are looking to get high or looking for a fun experience at a rave or a show,” she said. “Many, many people are coming out of it with better state of mind, better outlook on life, better sense of community.”
And while she believes that there “would be more compassion, more empathy” on a global scale if people benefited from psilocybin the way she sees possible, Hirsheimer also knows it’s something that can’t be used universally.
“I don’t think that it’s fair to put a blanket statement on ‘everyone would be better off doing psychedelics,’” she said. “Psychedelics are good for some people and they’re not good for other people.”
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“It doesn’t help everyone and it’s not for everyone, and that’s okay,” Hirsheimer continued. “But there should be space for the people who it does help.”
Hirsheimer encourages skeptics to look up straight facts about psilocybin rather than whether psychedelics harm or help people.
“You’re going to have a lot of information on both sides. You really will,” she said. “But a lot of it will show how it helps a lot of people.”