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As legal marijuana booms, Denver votes on decriminalizing hallucinogenic mushrooms

Mile High City is first in nation to vote on psilocybin mushrooms, which would still be illegal but ‘de-prioritized’

Denver voters will decide Tuesday whether to decriminalize possession and use of hallucinogenic mushrooms. (Peter Dejong/Associated Press)

If you thought legalized marijuana truly put the “high” in the Mile High City, wait until you hear what Denver is up to now. On Tuesday, residents will vote on whether to effectively decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, the hallucinogen used by some cultures for religious purposes for centuries, and outlawed by the federal government since 1970.

The movement to “Decriminalize Denver” is the nation’s first public referendum on “magic mushrooms,” after an effort in California failed to reach the ballot last year. Initiative 301 would apply only to Denver, not the entire state of Colorado. It would place into city code the directive that enforcing laws for personal use or possession of psilocybin mushrooms “shall be the lowest law enforcement priority in the City and County of Denver,” though having the mushrooms would still technically be illegal. The mushrooms would not be available in the city’s cannabis dispensaries, and sales would still be classified as a felony. They would remain classified a Schedule I drug under federal law, as is marijuana, with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

The image of hallucinogens as chemicals that launch users into a swirling mélange of colors and voices, presumably impairing one’s ability to drive or operate heavy machinery, can be tough to overcome. But supporters say the mushrooms’ powerful mind-altering qualities can have long-term positive effects on addiction, depression, chronic pain, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to the eight-hour journeys into the mystic.

Psilocybin is not addictive, does not lead to overdoses and is not thought to have long-term side effects, research has shown. It is a naturally occurring compound in some fungi. A number of studies have shown positive effects on people addicted to opioids, alcohol or tobacco, as well as diminished depression and anxiety. Researchers have found such benefits to mushrooms that the Food and Drug Administration has granted “breakthrough therapy” status to study psilocybin for treating depression. The FDA describes breakthrough therapy as designed to expedite development of a drug after preliminary evidence shows “the drug may demonstrate substantial improvement over available therapy.”

Kevin Matthews was a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who was forced to retire due to major depression. He returned to Denver and struggled for years until he tried mushrooms for the first time.

“It was one of the most profound experiences of my life,” he said. “It cleared the fog and lasted for weeks and weeks after. It enabled me to see outside the box of my own depression.”

Matthews is now the campaign manager for the Denver Psilocybin Initiative, which he said has raised about $45,000 and is advertising almost exclusively on social media and posters around Denver. There is no organized opposition and no polling. He sees the initiative as the start of a national conversation about the healing powers of psilocybin and stands ready to start working with government and police officials on Wednesday, if the initiative passes on Tuesday.

Even in weed-friendly Denver, the government and police may need more convincing. Mayor Michael Hancock is opposed to the initiative, though his office declined to elaborate on why. The Denver police declined to offer a position. Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said, “At this point, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“We’re still figuring out marijuana, and even though things are going well so far, we’re still measuring the impacts on the people of Denver,” McCann said.

She said there has not been a rise in violent crime around pot dispensaries, but there has been a rise in hospital visits by young people and children associated with marijuana intake. McCann said she wanted to see more research on the short- and long-term benefits and side effects of mushrooms. She noted that the referendum does not truly decriminalize mushrooms but only de-prioritizes it for police, who can still make arrests.

Statistics show Denver police arrested about 50 people in each of the past three years for sale or possession of mushrooms, and prosecutors pursued only 11 of those cases.

McCann said she feared Denver, already becoming a haven for marijuana tourists, would become a preferred destination for drug users of all stripes. She also was not enamored of the idea of psilocybin-infused drivers. “The idea that we’re driving around while hallucinating is not reassuring,” the prosecutor said.

Matthews acknowledged the possibility of abuse of hallucinogens if they become more widely available.

“There is a risk. I’m not belittling that,” Matthews said. “There’s a responsible way to use it. Just like with alcohol, it’s something to be used responsibly.”

For Matthews, that means in a safe environment, with friends, in the proper dosage. “The last thing most people would want to do is get behind the driver’s wheel when they’re under the influence,” he said.

Taken properly, the mushroom can have profound effects, many studies have shown. “Classic psychedelic use is associated with reduced psychological distress and suicidality in the United States adult population,” a 2015 paper from the University of Alabama found. Imperial College London has published a number of studies showing positive effects on depression. And in 2006, researchers at Johns Hopkins University studied 36 people who took high doses of psilocybin and then were monitored for the next eight hours as they relaxed a couch and listened to classical music.

“67 percent of the volunteers,” the Hopkins study found, “rated the experience with psilocybin to be either the single most meaningful experience of his or her life or among the top five most meaningful experiences of his or her life … to be similar, for example, to the birth of a first child or death of a parent.” The study was entitled, “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.”

But getting the American government to embrace similar enlightenment is a tedious process, so in the case of marijuana, activists simply took their case to the voters. That’s happening again in Denver, where activists gathered 5,000 signatures required to put the measure on the ballot. Attorney Noah Potter, who writes a blog about “psychedelic law” and deconstructs the problems with American drug law, helped Matthews write the language that is proposed to become law in Denver.

It started with activists getting medical marijuana passed in 1996 in California, Potter said, “because the regulatory system is nonresponsive to facts. It’s a non-evidence-based regulatory system.” The government’s disdain for the growing body of reports on psilocybin, Potter said, “is one of the reasons why it’s necessary to do these end runs around government.”

The initiative has largely flown under the radar, especially nationally. “I think it’ll pass,” said Jeff Hunt, director of the conservative Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University.

Hunt added, “Colorado’s a very libertarian state. We’re in the midst of a backlash against the ‘War on Drugs,’ to the current feeling that marijuana’s harmless.”

He said since Colorado legalized marijuana, there had been a 151 percent increase in marijuana-related traffic fatalities, and that a survey found 60 percent of pot users admitted to driving while high. Hunt said 10 percent thought it made them drive better.

Hunt has been critical of how marijuana was legalized in Colorado and feels there should be the level of education on pot that there is on tobacco. He also said no one has studied how mushrooms might interact with other medications. “We’ve got to rein in the idea that this is a miracle drug,” Hunt said.

Matthews said mushroom use can be challenging, and a “bad experience” can happen. The Hopkins study said “31 percent of the group … experienced significant fear.”

Matthews said the campaign “has a lot to do with educating the people of Denver, and the American people, about psilocybin and what it does. A recreational model wouldn’t work. But we’ve had 50 years of blatant government misinformation about mushrooms and their prohibition. It’s going to take some time to change the minds of people. We just don’t think that anybody should go to jail for possessing a mushroom.”