Update: According to election night headlines, Denver voters rejected Initiative 301, which would have essentially legalized psilocybin (the psychoactive substance in "magic mushrooms") in the city, by a 54 to 46 percent margin. The initiative continued to trail in the vote tallies Wednesday morning, but the final unofficial tally is shaping up to make this the drug war equivalent of Dewey Defeats Truman. The Denver Elections Division will continue to accept the small number of military and overseas ballots still coming in, so nothing is official until the final tally is certified on May 16, but Initiative 301 appears to have pulled an upset and passed with 50.56 percent of the vote. City data shows that decriminalization received 89,320 votes in favor and 87,341 against, meaning it passed by less than 2,000 votes. Denver is set to become the first U.S. city to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms, making it the "lowest law-enforcement priority" for the city.
Ironically (and predictably), this dude had already celebrated its defeat.
As the sun begins to set on the era of mass cannabis prohibition, a new sector of decriminalization has breached the surface of our legal landscape: the fight for psilocybin mushrooms.
Psilocybin is a Schedule I drug like cannabis, and a variety of recent studies on psychedelic therapy demonstrate its medicinal potential—namely for those with mental illnesses, including mood and affective disorders and OCD.
Alternative, psychedelic-based therapies have been around for more than half a century but have recently started to gain steam with some of the 40+ million Americans dealing with a mental illness in a given year, proving particularly promising for those whose mental illnesses demonstrate resistance to traditional treatment. Because of the anecdotal and scientific successes of these kinds of treatments, and a growing worldwide interest in ending the criminalization of drug possession, movements to decriminalize stateside have also been increasing in number and momentum.
Last year, a state-wide effort to decriminalize shrooms in California almost made it onto the ballot (the number of signatures fell short), and this year two apparently competing initiatives in Oregon are duking it out to see which can land a fall 2020 vote.
But the most successful attempt at decriminalizing psilocybin mushrooms thus far comes from Denver, which votes today on “an ordinance to the Denver Revised Municipal Code that would make the personal use and personal possession of psilocybin mushrooms by persons twenty-one years of age and older the city’s lowest law-enforcement priority.”
Denver leaves the legality of psilocybin mushrooms up to a vote
The “Denver Psilocybin Mushroom Decriminalization Initiative”—which was put together by the group Decriminalize Denver—will also “prohibit the city from spending resources to impose criminal penalties” on adult shroom use and possession “and [will] establish the Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel to assess and report on the effects of the ordinance.” If the legislation passes, Denver will become the first city to have voted to decriminalize psilocybin in the U.S.
Kevin Matthews is the Campaign Director for Decriminalize Denver and happens to know the power of psychedelic therapy firsthand. “I’d struggled with depression for a long time,” explained Matthews on the phone when asked about how he got involved with the initiative. “I attribute [two psilocybin experiences] to helping me really overcome my depression. The effects lasted after these high-dose sessions. We were all responsible and in a safe place, a safe environment, with the right people around us and it ended up being a life-changing experience for me.”
Like for many others, the positive effects persisted for a while after Matthews’ trip: “The after-effect lasted for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks… that cleared the fog and helped me create a new perspective for my life [that was] kind of outside of this box of depression that I’d created for such a long time.”
“Colorado’s healthcare system needs some work, just like most states," he continues. "The unfortunate part is that a lot of individuals can’t get access to the services they need like, for instance, in-patient rehabilitation for their drug problems. And then those individuals end up getting filtered through the criminal justice system. A third of Colorado inmates have mental health issues and they’re not getting treatment. I think we should prioritize treatment over incarceration.”
Matthews adds, psilocybin has been shown to “actually address issues” like addictions to tobacco, alcohol and even opioids. Privileging treatment over incarceration is “a tricky question, [but] if we’re successful here in Denver, then we can contribute to that conversation. There’s a lot of news reports out there right now that [show] that access to psilocybin may be creating a new paradigm in mental health and addiction treatment.”
Matthews underscores the need for more research into psilocybin, similar to how scientific inquiry into medical cannabis has ramped up and become more inquisitive (and less geared towards finding fault with the plant) in the last few years. The Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel, he explains, “would be the first reporting authority of its kind in the country to explore psilocybin decriminalization in a large metro area.”
Though the ordinance will make moves to fully decriminalize psilocybin mushroom possession, it will not allow display of the drug in public or any sales/distribution. “This is strictly for personal use only,” Matthews says.
Looking to the past to build legislation for the decriminalized future
Denver has a particular pedigree when it comes to drug reform, with Colorado passing cannabis decriminalization laws in 1975 following a national push by NORML and congressional hearings on the matter. “We did reference some prior [cannabis] ballot initiatives in Denver early on to get some direction,” says Matthews, “and then there’s also the Rohrbacher Amendment” that protects the medical cannabis industry from prosecution.
It took Matthews and the Decriminalize Denver team three tries to get the language right. After rejections of early versions of the ordinance in March and May of 2018, “I kind of got really serious and realized, ‘Aw, man, I need some help. I need attorneys, I need some political consultants, you know? I need the whole package to push this thing through.’ That was the main challenge, creating a language that would not only be accepted by the city government but also palatable to the people of Denver.
“We only had three months to gather our signatures, and it really came together at the last minute on the due date. We walked in there with just over 9,500 signatures—and [in] winter time, it’s a lot harder to canvass. Especially in Denver,” jokes Matthews, who said his favorite moment of the whole push was being “out collecting signatures [on] New Year’s Eve. It was four degrees outside [and] I was hitting up one of the local music venues. It was a bit rushed, but we made it.”
Like many drug decriminalization measures, this one finds support from various sides of the political spectrum. “We’ve been endorsed by the Denver Green Party,” Matthews tells me, “the Libertarian Party of Colorado, DanceSafe, the ACLU of Colorado and Chacruna,” an educational initiative promoting psychedelic plant medicine.
What, I ask, is the plan for if the ordinance passes? Did the organization intend to push for mass decriminalization like Portugal did?
Matthews explains the plan: “The first thing is to get this review panel squared away, making sure that we’re making the right suggestions to the mayor’s office, [appointing] individuals who actually want to explore this. Then also, you know, looking at therapeutic options as well.”
Matthews continues, “We’re very focused on psilocybin but, for instance, right now there’s a bill floating around the Colorado state legislature that’s looking to de-felonize all drugs. I think that the American people are ready for a new conversation around our nation’s laws and policies regarding drug use and drug abuse. It makes sense to me that we need to de-felonize, at the very least, possession of all drugs and then really start to explore and look at other successful models to help individuals who may have drug abuse problems, you know?
“It’s pretty clear that the ‘War on Drugs’ hasn’t improved the situation. Decriminalizing creates equity in a way. It evens the playing field for all individuals, so anybody who wants to utilize [psilocybin] can grow it at home. And then we can start exploring [the question:] how do we apply this on a broader scale towards some of the issues that we face as a society?”
If today’s vote goes the way Decriminalize Denver and Matthews hope it will, perhaps we will all soon find out.