Denver Launches the Nation’s First Psychedelic Harm Reduction Training for First Responders
First responders in Denver, Colorado, will soon have another tool to support their community: psychedelic harm reduction. A new training now in development in the city and county, where the personal use and possession of psilocybin was decriminalized in May of 2019, will educate and support members of city and county departments, including the police and sheriff’s departments, the fire department, paramedics and hospital dispatchers, and mental health workers, as they help citizens experiencing challenges while using psilocybin.
With decriminalization efforts underway in many other cities and states, this new training, the first of its kind in the US, could set the stage for the design and deployment of programs like it across the country. But for now, the developers are focused on creating a training that emphasizes compassionate response, de-escalation, and the safety and well-being of individuals having a challenging time with a psychedelic experience.
Wide-scale community support and the cooperation and shared mission of several groups – the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the City and County of Denver, and Denver’s Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel (DPMPRP) – laid the foundation for the training, after Ordinance 301, also called the Psilocybin Mushroom Initiative, was approved by voters in 2019, making psilocybin the lowest law enforcement priority in Denver.
Another first of its kind in the country, the DPMPRP collects data and advises policymakers in Denver on the effects that loosening restrictions around the possession and use of psilocybin might have on the community. The ordinance mandated the creation and composition of the 10-member advisory group, which currently includes a harm reduction advocate, one member of City Council, two proponents of Ordinance 301, one certified addiction counselor, a representative each from the Denver Police Department and the Denver Sheriff’s Department, a criminal defense attorney, one representative from the Denver District Attorney’s Office, and one from the Denver City Attorney’s Office.
Sara Gael, DPMPRP’s Harm Reduction Advocate, also serves as the Harm Reduction Officer for MAPS. She came on board because of her investment in “the possibility of integrating psychedelic harm reduction training and education into city and county departments,” she says. “In the Denver training initiative, we intend to train City and County of Denver first responders across the following sectors: police officers and Sheriff deputies, Denver Health Paramedics, EMTs within the Fire Department, emergency response dispatch staff, mental health co-responders, and detention center staff.”
MAPS is spearheading the training and, through philanthropic donations, is funding the training development through completion of the initial pilot phase.
Gael explains, “DPMPRP’s mission is to assess, review, and report on the impact of psilocybin mushroom decriminalization as it pertains to the public safety, public administration, public health, and fiscal impacts in the City and County of Denver, and make recommendations to the Denver City Council. The panel’s efforts feature many first-ever considerations, and the panel has been busy examining many of the important details needed to promote public safety. Soon after its formation, members of the panel recognized the need for harm reduction training in Denver and identified MAPS, with 35 years as a foremost leader in psychedelic research and education, as the organization best-positioned for the work.”
From Festivals to First Response Teams
Denver Police Division Chief Joe Montoya, also a member of DPMPRP, notes that while psilocybin has not historically contributed much to complaints the police department receives, enforcement for standalone psilocybin use or possession has dropped since the ordinance’s passage, and decriminalization has created new educational opportunities for first responders that he wishes had been in place after cannabis was legalized in the state in 2012.
“We were one of the first communities to legalize marijuana, so our officers are already in the mindset of understanding that laws change and we adjust to them,” he says. “But it was a challenge with marijuana. The concentrated levels we were seeing on the street, and some of the psychotic crises people were getting themselves into, meant that we were seeing behaviors you don’t normally associate with marijuana. It would have been very beneficial for officers to be trained on what they might be seeing rolling up on these types of calls. That inspired the need for this training.”
Psychedelic harm reduction has been a staple of the festival scene for the last decade, and its entrée into public health and safety is taking a page from some of that earlier foundational work.
Gael explains that the training takes some elements from a separate MAPS initiative, The Zendo Project, which provides psychedelic harm reduction at festivals. “For the past nine years, the Zendo Project has supported people in transforming challenging psychedelic experiences into opportunities for learning and growth. It also provides harm reduction education and support for communities to safely plan for and address psychedelic use and difficult experiences. Now we’re looking at how we can take the expertise we’ve developed out into society at large to help integrate psychedelic harm reduction into existing health and safety infrastructure and into a public health framework.”
“The training initiative has been enthusiastically received by the City of Denver leadership,” says Gael. “They’ve been very receptive and wonderful to collaborate with, and there’s a clear recognition of the importance of psychedelic-specific crisis response training.”
Over 4,000 first responders serving both the city and the county will eventually have access to the full training. “Incidents involving psilocybin are few and far between,” says Montoya, “but we want to make sure our officers and other first responders have the toolset to deal with it if use becomes more regular due to the changes in our laws. There might be more incidents, even in public spaces. Just having departments that are equipped to deal with it benefits everyone – the departments, the community, and these individuals.”
The sentiment is shared by the public, and Gael anticipates support will grow as more people learn about the training. “The response has been positive,” she says, “and many people recognize that since the vast majority of people take psychedelics outside of supervised and clinical settings, it’s important for citizens and first responders to have information that will help them maximize public safety while minimizing risk.”
From Design to Implementation
Denver’s progressive approach to decriminalization means that the training will build on existing support. “Denver is a leader in progressive protocols, response, and training,” says Gael, “and we’re really looking to enhance those protocols. The city is a leader in crisis response and intervention training,” making it a natural fit for the program. New opportunities have arisen in the space opened by policy shifts, including decriminalization. In 2020, Denver created the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) Program, a unit made up of mental health professionals who ride with officers to respond to calls from people in “crises related to mental health issues, poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse.” Law enforcement officers with the Police Department also do 40 hours of crisis intervention training.
“Denver has been very progressive in alternative response,” Montoya says. “The MAPS team brings expertise to the table,” he adds, and is tailoring the program to what each department needs. He notes that the fire department, for example, has more extensive medical training than the police department.
Montoya sees this training as providing another key piece to the existing police academy curriculum. “I asked Sara [Gael] to come into the academy and take a deep dive into what we’re already doing. Ultimately, it will help officers develop recognition of underlying issues that don’t necessarily need an aggressive response,” he says.
“There are some fine points in dealing with someone who might be having a crisis due to the use of psilocybin mushrooms, and it’s important for trainees to quickly recognize what’s going on, especially if there’s no one to inform officers of what’s happening. This means officers will have a better understanding on the front end of how to manage these incidents and will know what triggers are. The goal is to manage these incidents until we can get medical professionals there to deal with things.”
Gael explains that the training’s development “encompasses research into different approaches and ideal responses” to psychedelic harm reduction. “MAPS researched and developed the entire curriculum,” she says, including surveying over 5,000 members of the public to better inform the trainings and interviewing Denver’s first responder departments to gather priorities. They “assembled a team of over 20 professionals to develop the curriculum using a ‘gold standard’ medical medical education model used to teach physicians,” she continues.
The initiative “expects to deliver a comprehensive public safety curriculum developed to support five specific goals,” says Gael: “to provide education; create understanding of psychological and physiological responses to, and potential adverse effects of, psilocybin; to demonstrate need and legal considerations for the proper education of first responders; to create standards and protocols for crisis response planning, training, and deployment; and to increase knowledge and preparedness of first responders to effectively respond to psilocybin-related crises.”
Rollout will begin with multiple rounds of pilot programs. Then, she explains, “extensive feedback will be gathered and incorporated into the training design, informing full-scale implementation.” After full-scale implementation and assessment, a plan will be put in place to support continued evaluation of the program over time.
The first pilot program for law enforcement is expected to be delivered to a group of 40 members of those departments this fall, followed by pilots for the Denver Mental Health and Emergency Services Department, explains Gael. “We carefully selected participants in those specific departments with different ranks, positions, and number of years in service.”
In the police department, the full, finalized training will likely be delivered via video. “With 1,600 officers, a video format is the easiest to deliver en masse and quickly,” Montoya says. Per the department’s request, it will be capped at two hours and include a test component.
Once the rollout is completed successfully, MAPS hopes it will be a model they can take to other cities and states. “After full-scale implementation in Denver, we plan to take what we’ve learned and developed and offer this training to first responders in other municipalities,” Gael says. “We’re really looking forward to being able to offer this training where leaders understand that psychedelic harm reduction improves public health and safety, and I think that some of those first adopters will be municipalities that are passing initiatives for decriminalization. We’re starting to have conversations with individuals and organizations in other states, talking about the potential for collaboration in the future once we’ve completed the pilot stage here in Denver.”
For Montoya, the training also reflects larger cultural shifts happening around both psychedelics and law enforcement. “There’s constant change in our world and country – and in our profession. We have to be able to adapt to it. But our goal, always, is the safety of the community. If this training helps us respond to and manage situations and keep people safe, that’s what we want. And that’s with anything. Any change we deal with out there that will change how we do our job, how laws are written and enforced. You have to understand that change is coming, and you have to adapt.”
Image: Nicki Adams