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.
“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.
‘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.
This life-size psychedelic figure was part of an immersive and interactive Spectra Art Space installation. (Ethan Barton/Fox News)
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.
Denver is home to the International Church of Cannabis, which puts on a laser light show that’s open to the public. (Ethan Barton/Fox News Digital)
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.
“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%.
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.”
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.
“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.
The Psychedelic Club of Denver aims to raise awareness and share objective information about psychedelic substances, according to Hirsheimer. (Ethan Barton/Fox News Digital)
“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.