Ten years ago, Denver voters decided they’d had enough of marijuana laws. Now they’re turning to “magic mushrooms”.
On Tuesday, an initiative to decriminalize the hallucinogenic will appear on municipal ballots.
It’s the culmination of efforts in the “Decriminalize Denver” campaign, which is following a similar path blazed by early marijuana legalization advocates to drop possession of the hallucinogen psilocybin in small quantities by adults over 21 to a “lowest law-enforcement priority.”
Selling them would still be illegal.
It’s a proposed ordinance called l-301, which creates a “policy review panel,” similar to the city’s first marijuana review group, to assess the new law.
Denver organizers have struggled three times to get the issue on the ballot, and were rejected twice in 2018 for “unclear language”.
This January, they secured ballot space by submitting more than 8,000 signatures.
Denver isn’t alone – there’s a 2020 statewide ballot in Oregon for the legalization of magic mushrooms.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver District Attorney Beth McCann are both opposed to the ballot.
So are other opponents, who say it will add negatively to the “druggy” reputation of Denver already tarnished by legalized pot.
So who is leading the charge? A group of veterans. They’re also financing the charge, and they credit the use of hallucinogens to their own path toward healing from treatment-resistant depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol abuse.
“The mushrooms saved my life,” said Kevin Matthews, 33, a father who is leading the campaign.
Matthews is a Denver native. He said he had to give up his lifelong dream of becoming a U.S. Army officer because of severe depression, and says it forced him to drop out of the U.S. Military Academy with a medical discharge at age 23.
“I didn’t feel it would be a responsible choice to be an officer leading men and women into combat,” he said.
He was first prescribed anti-depression drugs and sleeping pills. But he said his first experience consuming “shrooms” with a group of friends gave him a “spiritual” experience. That experience, he claims, brought him out of his mental state.
“I could see very clearly, I had people who loved me, which enabled me to see to make a choice — choose to be depressed or realize that there’s so much more possibility here,” Matthews said.
He says the positive effects of the four-hour “trip” lasted for several weeks.
In the United States and the United Kingdom, there have been small, controlled studies that have shown psilocybin use forms synapse pathways to create a “hyperconnected brain.”
One such study was done by Johns Hopkins in 2016. It took place on 51 terminal cancer patients, and showed that treatment with a low doses of psilocybin reduced depression and anxiety.
A second study was done in 2017 on 20 patients with hard-to-treat depression at the Imperial College London. They described feeling “reset” after treatment with magic mushrooms, according to lead researcher Robin Carhart-Harris.
That researcher says one patient said he felt like his brain had been “defragged” like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt “rebooted.”
The studies are few and far between though, largely because psilocybin, the active compound in more than 100 species of fungus, is considered a Schedule 1 drug by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. It’s right there alongside drugs like heroin.
A change by the Food and Drug Administration last year recategorized psilocybin to “Breakthrough Therapy” status. Supporters say it could eventually knock the drug off the Schedule 1 tier and make medical research easier.
What exactly do “magic mushrooms” do? Experts describe it as a lighter version of an LSD trip. They say it’s described by users as a trip where they see patterns or different colors and distorted objects, and have an intense emotional state that lasts about five hours.
That’s not necessarily a good thing. Johns Hopkins did a study on “bad trips” and found that of nearly 2,000 people surveyed about a negative experience, three had attempted suicide during their “worst trip.”
Peter Droege is a fellow of drug policy at Colorado’s conservative Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University, and says that’s part of the problem.
“The idea that you can legalize someone walking down the street who might be struggling with hallucinations and psychosis — it shows the misguided thinking that’s behind this initiative,” he said.
He points out the proposed law is not the same as psychiatric treatment in a therapeutic setting, where drugs are measured and confirmed for purity.
“People say they took this drug and it rewired their brain. It may do that in a good way, but also in an incredibly harmful way,” Droege said. Supporters are “getting so far ahead of the science and making wild claims.”
Magic mushrooms are low on the law-enforcement priority list. There have been about 160 arrests since 2016. Possession of the drug can lead to sentences of up to a year in prison.
But it’s also unclear the law could actually be enforced.
For example, in 2005 and 2007, Denver voters passed laws prohibiting low-level arrests for marijuana.
But police still arrested people caught with pot.
According to Droege, the real money behind the initiative is coming from the owners of CBD and medical marijuana companies.
“They want to create a black market. There will be mushroom millionaires made if this initiative passes,” he said.
Campaign funder Devin Alvarez said even if the initiative doesn’t pass, it’s still a win.
“Even if [the ballot issue] doesn’t pass, it’s a win because we’re furthering that conversation publicly, to educate people on how [psilocybin] is helping folks,” he said.