Not long after the polls closed in Denver on Tuesday night, news outlets were reporting that the nation’s first citywide initiative to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms had failed. Disappointment washed over the psychonaut community on social media — the initiative, reports were saying, had lost by 3%. Meanwhile, at least 25% of the votes were still untallied and Decriminalize Denver Field Coordinator Travis Tyler Fluck announced he was “viciously optimistic.” It wasn’t for nothing.
As the final ballots were tallied, the initiative narrowly won on Wednesday, by less than 2,000 votes. The passage of Initiative 301 makes the possession, use and cultivation of psilocybin mushrooms among people aged 21 and over the lowest priority crime for law enforcement in the city. It does not legalize mushrooms, but it does prohibit Denver from spending any resources to prosecute people with them.
It’s a historic victory, but Decriminalize Denver’s work, says Fluck, has only just begun. “Not much changes today other than the feeling of being one step closer to true freedom,” says Fluck. “We have to start doing education, outreach and harm reduction very quickly.”
Decriminalize Denver, which qualified the initiative for the ballot, plans to become a resource for people who are curious about psilocybin. They already have a list of allies in Denver where they can do outreach, says Fluck, including the International Church of Cannabis — a church which considers cannabis a sacrament — music venues and local businesses. He’s imagining literature that pulls together vetted information about psilocybin, from the latest research into its therapeutic potential to tips on how to process, or “integrate,” a trip once it’s over. Fluck, who recently took a seminar with famed fungi expert Paul Stamets, also intends to start giving mushroom-growing lessons in the city.
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Fluck says he’s confident that, with the passage of the initiative, there’s going to be more people interested in growing. It’s not that hard, he says. There are only four states that prohibit psilocybin mushroom spores — Colorado isn’t one of them — so they can be ordered online and a low tech set-up (a pressure cooker and some plastic bins) only costs around $100.
Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, wonders if Denver is poised to become a place where people start running seminars and experiences around psilocybin, like those in Amsterdam. He also said, though, that he doesn’t think the passage of the measure says as much about the sentiment towards psilocybin as it does about the sentiment towards decriminalization at-large.
“I think if it was [a bill to decriminalize all drugs] they would’ve gotten more support,” said Doblin. “People are generally disenchanted with mass incarceration and the criminal justice system.”
From a criminal justice perspective, drug policy experts agree that the initiative doesn’t go far enough. Art Way, Colorado state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says that he’s waiting to see whether the measure does anything to shift attitudes on “hard drugs.” Natalie Ginsberg, policy and advocacy director for the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, points out that MDMA more urgently needs to be decriminalized and regulated than psilocybin as it’s much more popular and runs a high risk of being impure.
There’s a consensus among these experts that the Denver initiative — as well as psilocybin initiatives, in general — will make a small difference in the grand scheme of the War on Drugs. Only 11 arrests went to trial last year in Denver for psilocybin. Additionally, says Way, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann could choose, if she wanted, to simply ignore the initiative and prosecute because psilocybin remains a Schedule I substance in the state of Colorado and federally. (Way says he has faith in McCann and doesn’t think she’ll do that, but that it could happen.)
Regardless, this question of what will happen to psilocybin arrests seems to be fairly irrelevant, at least among psychedelic users in the Denver area. “[The initiative] really doesn’t change anything ’cause I never felt like I was going to get in trouble if I got caught with mushrooms anyway,” one enthusiast, who asked to remain anonymous, said. He’s a part of a community of 15 to 20 friends, all in their twenties, who trip on mushrooms and acid regularly in Denver. He recently received his 10th shipment of half a pound of mushrooms from a friend in California, who gets them from a longtime grower in Oregon. They get sent via USPS priority mail in two vacuum-sealed container bags, so they don’t smell, and are packed with peanuts, so they don’t rattle in the box. He’s not worried he’ll get caught and none of his friends have ever had a problem either. He’s also not more likely to grow his own mushrooms, he said, now that the initiative has passed. It’s just too much of a hassle.
Whether or not the initiative changes the culture around mushrooms in Denver, it seems the symbolism of it is already fueling similar efforts in other cities and states. In the next couple months, Oakland’s City Council will be voting on whether to decriminalize all Schedule I “plant-based medicines” (ayahuasca, san pedro, peyote, ibogaine and psilocybin mushrooms). According to Carlos Plazola, co-founder of Decriminalize Nature Oakland, the measure already has six out of eight votes, enough to pass. The Denver news yesterday, he said, gave their campaign “positive momentum” and is making councilmembers “more excited about the topic” of decriminalization.
A separate initiative in California is seeking to decriminalize psilocybin statewide. The Oregon Psilocybin Society is also aiming to get the medical legalization of psilocybin in front of voters in 2020. And Fluck says, while preliminary, he’s heard “whispers of decrim efforts” in Vermont and Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, federally-approved clinical trials investigating psilocybin for conditions from addiction to end-of-life distress are moving ahead at prominent institutions. Psilocybin — which was put on the fast-track to being approved for treatment-resistant depression by the Food and Drug Administration last year — could be legal for therapy as soon as 202
The Denver measure is an indication of a shift in attitudes. It shows, Doblin says, “that people are having a more rational view about the actual risks” of psychedelics. It also proves, said Fluck, that there are “early adopters” of psilocybin decriminalization. And — Denver’s critical role in launching the legalization of cannabis has shown —“early adopters” are an essential component to any movement.
Shelby Hartman is Editor-in-Chief of DoubleBlind, a soon-to-launch magazine on psychedelics.