The dichotomy of Aspen’s drug culture was ever present last week when one group of residents asked Aspen City Council to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms and another pleaded with elected officials to address the ongoing problem of substance abuse among teenagers here.
Both requests were made during public comment at council’s regular meeting on Tuesday.
Council members appeared more receptive to Aspenite Jackie Long’s request to establish a location for a drop-in facility where at-risk kids can find safety, support and counseling.
It’s part of Long’s project called “Secrets,” which is a kindness project for youth.
“I’m tired of the secrets in Aspen,” she told council, noting that Aspen’s reputation as a party resort has a detrimental effect on the community, particularly on individuals between 13 and 21 years old. “I don’t want to say I am proud of this wonderful cocaine resort we have, I want to say I’m proud of a city that has a wrap-around opportunity to help youth and I just don’t see it …”
Finding a local place for teens
Long has temporary locations at places like Crossroads Church and the Jewish Community Center that serve as drop-in centers for teenagers and young adults, and she has a half dozen host homes for youth who need a place to stay overnight.
She is asking for a permanent location, and with the current City Hall in the armory about to be empty as employees and council move to a new city office building this fall, there is an opportunity to create a space.
Council members said they would like to discuss the possibilities in the future, whether it is in a work session meeting or in front of the Pitkin County board of health.
“I’m actively looking for you,” said Mayor Torre, who sits on the board of health as the city’s representative and has informed his fellow board members of Long’s request. “There is a void in our community around the teenage population.
“We cater to the adults, and we’ve catered to the adults for a long time,” he added. “There is a problem we need to address.”
Ruth Harrison, a former teacher in the Aspen School District, told council during public comment that the community has lost between 100 and 200 kids to drugs, alcohol and suicide since she’s lived here and 22 of them in the past five years.
“My heart breaks for all these families, good caring families who are at a loss of what to do,” she said. “The sheriff and police department give lip services to the problem.”
Aspenite Annette Keller, who has daughters in high school, said there is a dearth of opportunities in the community for youth to find focus and a sense of belonging.
“There is not a list of kids who are in trouble or are sliding in that direction,” she told council, adding that through Long’s outreach and networking she identifies at-risk teenagers and gets them the support they need.
Do psilocybin belong here?
Prior to Keller’s comments were representatives of a working group that has been researching a community specific model to deliver psychedelic-assisted therapies as treatment for suicidality, depression, addiction, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and anxiety.
Ron Beller presented a draft ordinance that he requested council approve that would, among other things, prohibit the city from spending resources on imposing criminal penalties on adults for the personal use of plant medicines.
Beller’s group was born out of an effort by Councilmember Skippy Mesirow who brought the concept to his fellow board members this past spring.
The majority of council members at the time said they were not interested in having the municipal government join the movement to promote psychedelic-assisted therapies.
Councilwoman Rachel Richards reiterated her position Tuesday that psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient found in mushrooms, remains a schedule 1 drug by the federal government, and Aspen has no place in attempting to remove that classification.
“I just want to know how to quote decriminalize but tell people they can’t use it recreationally,” she said. “I am trying to understand the sequence of how you said things should happen, that we consider decriminalizing before there’s a federal approval, before there’s no real protocols of how to treat and follow up and determine if someone needs this sort of treatment, just kind of cowboy it?”
Beller said he would not characterize it as cowboying it and pointed out that dozens of municipalities and states have passed their own laws regarding marriage equality and cannabis outside of what the federal government allows.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein said he acknowledges that studies have shown that psychedelics can be useful for PTSD, depression and suicidal thoughts.
“I think across the board there are a lot of benefits to it but decriminalizing it I don’t think gets us anywhere in Aspen,” he said, adding there have been no arrests in recent years for psilocybin mushrooms.
Torre asked for Beller to provide additional information on what the process was like for Denver to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms and he will share that information with the board of public health.
Richards said it would be appropriate for the group to make their presentation to that board, as well as to talk to state legislators.
“This is where the rubber hits the road,” she said. “They’re getting ready for session, everyone is figuring out which five bills they are going to carry for the next year and you’ll start to get a little more real attention for what those treatment protocols are.”