Denver voters have a lot to decide on in the upcoming citywide election on May 7, but only two of those things will be proposed changes to city rules. Here’s what you need to know about the Right to Survive measure and the push to decriminalize psilocybin in Denver.
Right to Survive
What you’ll see: Shall the voters of the City and County of Denver adopt a measure that secures and enforces basic rights for all people within the jurisdiction of the City and County of Denver, including the right to rest and shelter oneself from the elements in a non-obstructive manner in outdoor public spaces, to eat, share, accept, or give free food in public spaces where food is not prohibited, to occupy one’s own legally parked motor vehicle, or occupy a legally parked motor vehicle belonging to another, with the owner’s permission, and to have a right and expectation of privacy and safety of or in one’s person and property?
What it means: A law passed by Denver City Council in 2012 made illegal “camping” (eating, sleeping, or and/or storing personal possessions) in Denver public spaces like streets and parks. This initiative would reverse that, not only making it legal to sleep in public spaces, but also adding the express legality of sleeping in one’s legitimately parked vehicle (or someone else’s, with their permission), as well as distributing, exchanging, or consuming free food in public spaces, so long as food is not explicitly banned there.
Who’s for it: The Denver Right to Survive Committee (DRSC), the measure’s proponent organization, says Denver’s 2012 camping ban amounts to “criminalizing homelessness” and makes individuals experiencing homelessness less safe by forcing them “to move from safer, well-lit areas to unsafe places, and has resulted in the destruction of life-sustaining property and shelters” (like sleeping bags and tarps). DRSC was born of efforts by Denver Homeless Out Loud and the Western Regional Advocacy Project, organizations that have organized against the camping ban for several years. DRSC lists among its endorsers ACLU of Colorado, Black Lives Matter 5280, the Democratic Party of Denver, and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Policy.
Who’s against: A committee called Together Denver formed in opposition to the initiative, arguing it could limit use of public spaces and lead to adverse public health outcomes. In February, Denver Post columnist Vincent Carroll penned his opposition to the measure, citing a ruling by Boulder County District Court judge Lael Montgomery that upheld Boulder’s camping ban. “Turning public spaces in Boulder into campgrounds would present problems concerning sanitation, public health, safety, and environmental damage,” Montgomery wrote. (Carroll incorrectly attributed this quote to Ingrid Bakke.) Both the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Homeless Leadership Council have expressed concerns about the initiative, while not directly stating opposition. Visit Denver, the city’s tourism and convention office, contributed $50,000 to Together Denver on March 6, without releasing an official statement on its position.
Since this article was first published, more groups have expressed their opposition to the proposal, including the River Greenway Foundation, the Denver Rescue Mission, the Downtown Denver Partnership, and the Colorado Restaurant Association.
You should know: Denver’s “camping ban” has been a major controversy in Mayor Michael Hancock’s stewardship of the city. Activists have decried the mayor’s hardline approach to cleaning up Denver streets as inhumane, especially after videos surfaced showing Denver police taking possessions from homeless people. Activists filed a class action lawsuit against the city, which was settled in February.
What you’ll see: Shall the voters of the City and County of Denver adopt an ordinance to the Denver Revised Municipal Code that would make the personal use and personal possession of psilocybin mushrooms by persons twenty-one (21) years of age and older the city’s lowest law-enforcement priority, prohibit the city from spending resources to impose criminal penalties for the personal use and personal possession of psilocybin mushrooms by persons twenty-one (21) years of age and older, and establish the psilocybin mushroom policy review panel to assess and report on the effects of the ordinance?
What it means: Psilocybin is the chemical in “magic mushrooms” that causes hallucinations (and, researchers increasingly suspect, long-term psychological benefits). If passed, this measure wouldn’t legalize the substance in Denver (it is currently a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning it’s illegal at the federal level). Rather, it would require the city to de-prioritize the penalization of psilocybin use and possession by adults 21 years or older and would bar the city from expending any resources to impose such criminal penalties. The measure would also create a mayor-appointed review panel to assess and report on the effects of the rule change.
Who’s for it: The initiative is backed by an organization called Decriminalize Denver. They point to ongoing medical studies on psilocybin by Johns Hopkins University, New York University, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), and others that have found psilocybin to ease existential distress in terminally ill patients, to mitigate depression, to be associated with reduced opioid use and dependence, and to be psychologically safe. They also point out psilocybin is non-addictive. The measure is endorsed by the Denver Green Party and Libertarian Party of Colorado.
Who’s against: If there is much opposition to this initiative, they are keeping tight-lipped. Jeff Hunt, director of the Colorado Christian University’s think tank the Centennial Institute, said on the Denver Channel that he opposes the measure on the grounds that not enough is known about psilocybin’s long-term medical effects and that the measure could damage Denver’s image and tourist industry. “At a certain point, parents are going to say, ‘I don’t want to take my kids to that city,’ Hunt said.
You should know: If passed, the measure would be the first psilocybin law of its kind in the United States. A psilocybin decriminalization effort is also underway in Oregon, and a similar effort failed in California in 2018.
What You Will Not Be Voting on This May
Three of the five citizen-initiated measures 5280 last reported on have been pulled from the ballot. Backers of two—Let Denver Vote (the Olympics one) and the Denver Internet Initiative, which would ensure that all Denverites had access to the Internet—failed to collect enough signatures by the Denver Elections deadline. The third nixed measure, the Denver Minimum Wage Initiative, was pulled by proponents after Denver City Council voted on March 11 to raise the minimum wage for all city workers to $15 per hour by 2021, rendering their initiative redundant.
Let Denver Vote, which if passed would require the city to get voter approval before using public money to host the Olympics, will appear on the next city-wide election ballot. The initiative’s proponents submitted enough petition signatures to make the ballot, according to Denver Elections senior public information officer Alton Dillard, but not by the deadline for inclusion on the May ballot. That means the initiative will either appear in November or June, according to Dillard, depending on if a city-wide runoff is triggered (find more about those here).
Are you ready to vote in May? Register, update your mailing address, or find a polling place on the Denver Elections website.
Editor’s note, 4/22/19: This article has been updated to include more groups that have since released statements opposing Initiative 300.