For two years, Veronica Lightning Horse Perez led the community-outreach efforts for the Natural Medicine Health Act in Colorado, also known as Prop 122. She traveled the state, talking to residents about plant medicines, engaging with local reporters and politicians, and gathering signatures for the ballot initiative. In November, voters passed the measure by 53.6%, and last week Gov. Jared Polis appointed a 15-person advisory board to set rules for the rollout of legalized adult-use psilocybin and other psychedelics.
Perez recently shared some of her experiences working on the campaign, and what she hopes the new advisory board will accomplish in the months ahead. She also opened up about her own experiences using plant medicine and other therapies to heal from substantial abuse she suffered earlier in her life. Beyond her work with NMHA, Perez is planning to open a psilocybin church in Colorado, which will be explored in Part Two of this interview.
I read in your bio that you had a near-death experience that put you on a very different life path. Can you describe what happened?
I need to update that bio because I don’t call it a near-death experience anymore. I was gone. I crossed over. It was a death experience. This was in my early 20s. I had kids already, and I had this opportunity to visit the other side. I was shown what would happen if I chose not to come home. But I chose to come back. And I came back very angry — angry because of the abuse I had experienced in my life, childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, racism. It was a very, very rough life. I tried suicide three times as a teenager, but each time failed miserably. God wouldn’t even let me die, I didn’t even have that choice. So when I actually did die, from internal blood loss, this time it was actually my choice to come back. And slowly I was able to stop being angry because I recognized that a lot of bad shit happened to me and I had complex PTSD and anxiety disorder. When I look back on it, my life has been full of rerouting to get me on the right path to get things done — and to use my experiences to help others.
How did you address the PTSD and anxiety after that?
I started down my healing road. I discovered NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) and hypnotherapy and Time Line Therapy. I sat in ceremony with peyote, which is where I received my name. Peyote feels like years’ worth of work in a single ceremony. Versus the years’ worth of work in cognitive behavioral therapy, or the months of NLP. But all of this helped me to finally stop rejecting the fact that I was gifted. You know, in this domain we call some people gifted, or mediums or psychics. I was finally able to recognize that the things I saw, heard, and felt were real and not crazy hallucinations. I had no doubts anymore. This is in your blood, this is who you are, you’re not crazy. Use it. And that’s when I was really able to start developing a different type of healing modality to use with other people. I was able to step into compassion with people. I could say, look I get it because I’ve been there. I’ve had a sick child, I’ve had the cancer diagnosis, I’ve been abused by my parents, I’ve been in an abusive relationship. And they can see a survivor of all of that, who hasn’t just survived but is happy and is grateful. It gives them strength to move through their own traumas to find the peace on the other side.
NLP, hypnotherapy, peyote. You pursued several different therapies. Do you credit one more than the others for helping you?
Actually I have to credit myself, in all honesty. It was a surrender, I surrendered. It was me saying, “I will look and accept what comes.” Then, when doors opened and opportunities came, I would take those opportunities and each was another piece that allowed me to continue becoming more of who I am. Now it’s been more than a decade since I’ve been able to do my healing work with others. It’s where I was guided to be.
How did you get involved with the campaign work around the Natural Medicine Health Act, aka Prop 122?
I’ve been incorporating plant medicine into my work for a long time. Especially psilocybin. I was using it in a legal, ceremonial way. I wasn’t looking to get involved in politics at all. Then one day, I’m sitting in ceremony and I meet this guy Matthew Duffy from SPORE (Society for Psychedelic Outreach, Reform and Education). And I remember very clearly laughing at him because somebody introduced him, saying, “This is Matthew Duffy, he’s trying to end the drug war.” And I’m like, “Yeah good luck with that, man.” And the next thing I know I’m on stage talking with half the freaking population of Colorado. I’m sitting on the board of SPORE and helping move Prop 122 along and create community models. I could have stayed in my own little world and done my healing work and stayed out of it. But I figured, if I help with this initiative, I can open up plant medicine to thousands.
A lot of people were not happy that I got involved, especially when the campaign came in conflict with some parts of the grassroots community in Colorado. But I was called to do the Prop 122 work because I knew this was going to happen one way or another. And I knew federal regulations and a pure medical model were going to be a disaster, in my opinion. This gave me an opportunity to help minimize that damage. And with five kids, you learn that if you can minimize damage even in a small way that is a hell of a success because the ripples of what happens over time are massive. What you think is small change now can become a massive change later. We need to make those small changes and not pull the “not good enough” card.
When you say disaster, do you mean the medical model might lead to poorer access, expensive treatments, or just that it would be too controlled by the pharmaceutical industry?
Yeah, all of that. The medicine would just be disrespected. I mean it kills my heart because these plant medicines are literally a gift from the planet. You have this massive mycelium network that connects everything to everybody. And this little fruiting body pops up out of the forest floor that we get to eat from all over the world. Our human species gets to eat it and plug into its healing. Nobody should be gatekeeping that. Nobody should say who gets to make money from it. Nobody should be able to decide, “This is how you’re allowed to use it, and this how you’re not allowed to use it.” I can’t abide that.
What was your main role as co-chief of the Natural Medicine Health Act campaign?
It was all the things. It was ridiculous. Initially we had meetings to decide if we were going to continue having meetings. But I helped manage the community organization side of it. While Kevin Matthews, my fellow co-chief, managed the policy side. He’s the mind, I’m the heart. So my group was the public face of it, meeting with community leaders, local politicians, reporters. We gathered the signatures. I mean, that’s my biggest memory of it: Freezing our butts off gathering signatures in front of grocery stores.
Your work paid off. The measure passed in November with 53.6% of the vote. Last week, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis appointed 15 people to the advisory board, which will now work to create the rules of the measure. What would you think is the biggest challenges that this new advisory board faces?
Well, I feel there are two things they absolutely have to get right. And I’m going to fight tooth and nail and claw for both of them. The first is indigenous reciprocity. We would not be here having this discussion today had it not been for an indigenous woman in Mexico handing over the psilocybin medicine to a white traveler from New York in the 1950s. This needs to be recognized. And the fact that most of our indigenous populations are living in Third World countries right here in their own country. A portion of any money made on these medicines should go toward some healing for The People.
The second issue is about the healing centers. We need to encourage many different types, not just cold-and-clinical or hippie dippy. And they have to allow different forms of the medicine, whether it’s the natural dried mushroom, or capsules, or edibles, or extracts.
Several other states are now working on ballot initiatives similar to Prop 122. Are you getting calls for help or advice on how to get move things forward?
Yes, some people have been reaching out. We want to help guide people in other states and warn them of the potential pitfalls. We tell them about the things we would have loved to have done differently. As they say, any time you do something the first time, you better be OK with being a fool. Oregon went first, and that means they got to make the first foolish mistakes. But they did a lot of good. Then there’s us, and now we’re making foolish mistakes. But still doing a lot of good. We’re humans. We refine it and refine it and refine it until we get it right. And we truly do learn better from failures than successes. My main piece of advice for other states is: You need to have vetted community liaisons in each community you approach. You need them in the room discussing the issues that are important to that community. If you don’t, they’re not going to back it, no matter how much you campaign.
Our main message was: These plant medicines are good. They’re good for individuals, they’re good for communities, they’re good for Colorado. We were able to spread that message, and I hope other states can do it, as well.