Lindsay Fendt is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Denver. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, U.S. News and World Report, Al Jazeera, and elsewhere.
Voters narrowly approved Initiative 301 to decriminalize psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms.
Denver residents voted Tuesday to decriminalize psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms. With 50.5 percent of votes cast in favor of Initiative 301, a narrow victory is once again putting Colorado’s capital at the center of a national debate on drug policy.
The ballot measure doesn’t legalize psilocybin—state and federal laws still say it’s illegal to possess, produce, or sell. Instead, the measure calls for the city to make enforcement of those laws its lowest priority. The vote marks the first time in United States history that the legal status of psilocybin has been challenged.
The local campaign to decriminalize psilocybin has followed the cannabis legalization playbook closely. In 2005, Denver residents voted to become the first major U.S. city to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Two years later, they voted to decriminalize cannabis entirely. Initiative 301 is worded almost exactly like the 2007 marijuana law. In addition to changing the priority level of law enforcement, the measure calls for a mayor-appointed panel charged with analyzing the effects of loosening psilocybin restrictions.
Because state laws remain unchanged, state prosecutors can continue to bring psilocybin cases to court in Denver. While this type of decriminalization law may reduce drug arrests, drug policy experts consider it more of a symbolic gesture that could precede full legalization, much as cannabis laws did in the mid-2000s.
That fact hasn’t been lost in Denver’s debate over the issue. Opponents say decriminalization of psilocybin could eventually lead to full legalization, putting Denver—a city already known for its embrace of recreational marijuana—down the path toward becoming a drug haven.
Kevin Matthews is the campaign manager of Decriminalize Denver, and a stay-at-home dad who credits psilocybin with helping him manage severe depression.
“It helped me put my life back together,” he said. “It felt like a part of me had been awakened from the depths of the challenging mental state that I had been in.”
His group gathered more than 5,000 validated signatures from city residents to get the law on the ballot. He says Decriminalize Denver isn’t focused on full legalization, nor does it want to increase the public’s access to mushrooms. Instead, the group hopes that the mayor’s psilocybin panel would make findings inform the conversation about the drug, while keeping those who already use psilocybin out of jail.
The initiative spurred little local commotion in either direction during the campaign. It has support from the local Green Party and Libertarian Party. Michael Hancock, the current mayor up for reelection, has publicly opposed Initiative 301, as has Denver District Attorney Beth McCann. While other candidates have weighed in when asked, none have made it part of their platform.
Matthews isn’t the only one to credit hallucinogens with aiding mental health. Researchers at John Hopkins University, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and other research groups and universities have found evidence that psilocybin may help treat psychological disorders and addiction. He and other supporters of the ballot initiative say decriminalization is the first step toward allowing these potential treatments to move forward.
Art Way, the Colorado state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports wider drug decriminalization reforms, said he sees the city-level ballot as an important step toward legalization at higher levels. “Things usually start on the local level when it comes to drug policy, then they go to the state level,” he said. “This definitely follows the path that marijuana legalization took here in Colorado.”
As the first state to legalize marijuana, Colorado has become a proving ground for drug reform policies. Five years after recreational weed first went on sale, the state has seen a boost in its tax revenues and fewer arrests for possession, but there have also been negative effects. And while there have been very few vocal opponents to the psilocybin initiative, the fact that the drug appears to be on a similar path has raised alarm among those who believe recreational cannabis has harmed the state.
Since marijuana was legalized, Colorado has seen a rise in adult cannabis use as well as an increase in drugged driving incidents. The black market for pot has also grown as criminal outfits have begun exporting Colorado weed to states where it remains illegal.
“There is an assumption that these drugs are harmless and that they don’t affect cultures, but there is no science that says that these drugs are harmless,” said Jeff Hunt, the director of the Centennial Institute, a conservative think tank run out of Colorado Christian University. “We are losing our reputation as being a world-class city and quickly becoming known as the drug capital of the world.”
Equally troubling for Hunt is the potential for drug marketers to make bogus or unproven health claims, a phenomenon that has become frequent in Colorado with recreational marijuana and other cannabis products.
“It’s like a snake oil salesmen going from town to town saying that it can cure everything without any research,” he said. “There is a reason we have things like the FDA.”
Hunt and other marijuana opponents see the potential for similar problems with psilocybin. Though mushrooms are consistently ranked among the least harmful drugs by medical researchers—as is marijuana—psilocybin use can still have side effects ranging from mild anxiety to psychotic episodes. And while there is promising research on the use of psychedelics in psychology, the science is still fairly new. Even some proponents of drug policy reform, including Art Way, aren’t totally sold on the ballot initiative’s potential for keeping people out of jail. While possession of psilocybin can carry steep penalties—up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $100,000 in Colorado—arrests are relatively rare and most defendants avoid jail time.
“We don’t really have people in prison for psilocybin,” Way said. “We like to see this kind of grassroots democracy, but we are concerned that drug exceptionalism is taking away from a wider drug decriminalization law.”
But despite some of the pitfalls revealed by recreational marijuana, support for pot legalization in the U.S. grew from 36 percent in 2005, when Denver first decriminalized the drug, to 66 percent in 2018. This growing support for marijuana has emboldened drug legalization and decriminalization advocates, and many believe that opens the door for legalizing psilocybin.
Still, most psilocybin activists believe that mushrooms would need a different framework than cannabis. The drug’s public supporters tend to focus on its therapeutic potential more than its recreational uses. Even if the drug were fully legalized in Colorado, Matthews doesn’t see psilocybin storefronts in the state’s future.
“I think that’s irresponsible,” he said.
Instead of a recreational model, Matthews says he sees the state implementing a services model where psilocybin could be prescribed and used under the guidance of a licensed therapist. A law creating a services model will appear on the Oregon ballot in 2020.
“I can understand why some people would say that [Denver has a drug reputation] because of the successes and the failures of the cannabis industry,” he said. “But I like to say that instead of a drug mecca, I think Denver can become a healing mecca.”