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After a life-altering injury, psychedelics helped Jim Harris heal

Jim Harris, pictured here in Fruita, is vocal about his positive experience with psychedelics after a paralyzing accident in 2014. He’ll speak at the Aspen Psychedelic Symposium on Friday, May 31, 2024.
Jim Harris
Courtesy photo
Jim Harris, pictured here in Fruita, is vocal about his positive experience with psychedelics after a paralyzing accident in 2014. He’ll speak at the Aspen Psychedelic Symposium on Friday, May 31, 2024.

The Aspen Psychedelic Symposium will bring together dozens of doctors, researchers and mental health advocates at the Wheeler Opera House this weekend to discuss the cultural and medicinal use of psychedelics for wellbeing.

Now in its second year, the symposium was developed in response to Colorado Proposition 122, which voters narrowly approved in 2022.

The measure classified certain psychedelic plants and fungi as “natural medicine,” decriminalized the use and possession of drugs like “magic mushrooms,” and created regulations for natural medicine businesses.

The symposium features some clinical talks on topics like neuropharmacology and addiction recovery, as well as sessions that focus on policy, and implementation. Other presentations will focus instead on the culture of psychedelics and the Indigenous roots of natural medicine.

This year’s lineup also includes a talk by the Carbondale-based artist, photographer and adventurer Jim Harris. He says psilocybin mushrooms helped him recover from a life-altering injury in 2014; in the decade since, he’s noticed a growing, “mainstream” interest in the connection between psychedelics and neurological health.

In his own experience, Harris has found benefits for both physical and mental wellbeing.

“I think the injury really sent me on a journey of inquiry into self identity,” Harris said.

“Prior to this accident, that self identity felt very emergent from the (activities) that I was doing, and after that injury, it felt a lot harder to know how to reconstruct that sense of purpose and meaning, and identity that maybe flows out of that,” he added.

“And I do think that psychedelics have been really helpful in gaining some of that perspective and insight, and having a more tangible sense of spirituality … in the sense of, how do I as a human relate to this larger whole?”

Harris still feels some effects from that accident a decade ago, but his recovery has allowed him to return to sports like skiing and mountain biking; he now works as an artist and printmakerbased at the Studio for Arts and Works (SAW) in Carbondale. He has continued to use psychedelics, and believes Colorado has the potential to become a leader in awareness and education about psychedelic use, so people can stay informed as they decide whether to partake.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

It seemed like maybe there was a correlation between this altered state I'd experienced and this reconnection of some muscle groups.
Jim Harris, on the use of psychedelics in his recovery from a paralyzing injury

Jim Harris: I have never been somebody who's had, like, an identity built around drug culture or psychedelics. I had some familiarity with psilocybin mushrooms, maybe starting from early 20s. But it was something that maybe friends and I would go do in the desert, like, once a year: Go camp out, go hike around, watch the sunset and kind of have this very pleasant and communal experience, but not something that was intended to have an outcome of any kind of psychological or physical therapy.

In 2014, in Chilean springtime, two friends and I were about to start a ski trip along the length of the ice fields that are in Patagonia. And a gust of wind picked me up while I was harnessed to the snowkite. And I was knocked down very hard — hard enough to break nine different vertebrae in my spine.

And I couldn't move anything from about (my) sternum down. I couldn't sit up and couldn't feel my legs and they didn't respond in the way they had responded every day of my life until then.

The first kind of order of treatment was decompressing my spine and then fusing it through a series of metal rods.

But over the following weeks, I slowly began to regain teeny bits of movement, like if I thought about it really hard, I could get a toe to wiggle, and then after a few weeks began to be able to contract a couple leg muscles on one side. Over the months following that, I was involved in daily physical therapy. I was based at Craig Hospital in Denver.

I moved out to northern California to do physical therapy with an organization called the High Fives Foundation. While I was there, my physical therapist that I worked with at Craig came out for this music festival.

At that point, my life had been really just contained to like hospitals and therapy settings for, like, eight months at that point. So going to a music festival was a huge change in scenery.

I had, like, half of a homemade mushroom chocolate. And in that state, all of a sudden, muscles that hadn't worked up until that time began to fire again. I began to have voluntary control of some muscle groups that I had worked extremely hard, in many hours of therapy, to try and regain some use there and just hadn't made any progress.

Then the next morning, those muscles still worked. It seemed like maybe there was a correlation between this altered state I'd experienced and this reconnection of some muscle groups.

It turns out that it's not a universal experience. But there's quite a few other anecdotes of people regaining some sort of sensation or motor function that they hadn't had previously.

I think it's a really positive change that these substances have been decriminalized in some places, including here, and (are) in the process of being medicinalized.

I think there's reasons to be hesitant — that maybe psychedelics are not for everyone. There's reasons that people shouldn't do them, whether that's medications they're taking, or mental health histories for themselves or their family members.

But I also think there's potential utility for humanity, that we are facing an unprecedented set of problems. And those structures that we've built our society upon, those value systems we've built our society upon, seem like they're running towards dead ends, and it will take some really different thinking to create something else in its place. It does seem that the sort of perspective shifts that psychedelics can offer might be useful for figuring out some of those new ways.

The Aspen Psychedelic Symposium is co-produced by the Aspen Psychedelic Resource Center and Aspen Public Radio. Core programming takes place Friday and Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House, with additional events planned Thursday and Saturday. Tickets are available through the Wheeler box office and aspenshowtix.com.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.