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Denver residents will vote today 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 melange 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 because of 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 today.

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.

McCann said she feared Denver, already becoming a haven for marijuana tourists, would become a preferred destination for drug users of all stripes.

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."

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."

A Section on 05/07/2019

Print Headline: Denver votes on mushroom drug


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  • 23cal
    May 7, 2019 at 6:52 a.m.

    I'm glad the Food and Drug Administration has granted "breakthrough therapy" status to study psilocybin for treating depression.I am a acquainted with a few people who say it works, and would like to see policy based on knowledge instead of 1930s style Reefer Madness type paranoia and misinformation.

  • MaxCady
    May 7, 2019 at 4:53 p.m.

    Shrooms are ok as long as you don't do too many at once (heard that from a friend). It needs to be in a therapeutic setting.