“In second place for the most alkaloid content is…Albino Penis Envy!”
Applause erupted inside Mile High Station, an event venue located underneath the Colfax Avenue viaduct next to Meow Wolf Denver, as runner-up winner grower #9870 bounded to the stage. Albino Penis Envy (ABE), like many of the eccentric names attached to different varieties of cannabis, is a strain of the Psilocybe cubensis species of psychedelic mushrooms.
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Presenters placed a gold medal around grower #9870’s neck as he beamed with pride for his potent shrooms. But unlike the Oscars, there would be no acceptance speeches this evening, and the honorees’ real names were left unsaid to protect their privacy, because mushrooms are still an illegal substance in the eyes of the federal government.
Denver became the first U.S. city to decriminalize hallucinogenic mushrooms back in 2019, and the whole state later followed suit in November 2022 with the passing of Proposition 122 (which decriminalized some psychedelics and legalized others). Since then, Denver has increasingly embraced the emerging psychedelics industry. In June, the city hosted the world’s largest-ever psychedelics conference, and this sold-out competition at Mile High Station, held on November 2, marked another mainstreaming moment for the mushroom movement.
Hundreds of attendees gathered at the Psychedelic Cup to honor mushroom growers for various cultivation accomplishments, including categories for the most and least amount of psilocybin (the main psychoactive compound in psychedelic fungi) found in samples that the growers submitted to a lab for analysis. 5280 was on hand to witness the first-of-its-kind awards ceremony in Denver. Here’s what we learned about the budding industry.
The Future of Psychedelics is Scientific
Organized by the Psychedelic Club of Denver, a nonprofit that offers harm reduction services (such as drug testing) and informational meetups, the Psychedelic Cup featured a variety of speakers who primed the crowd before the awards ceremony began. But it wasn’t the professional comedian who captivated the audience’s attention the most—it was a chemist and microbiologist.
In a crowd packed with mushroom farmers, many wanted to know how their fungi were lab-tested and what they could learn from the data. “Cole,” the chemist, and “Chase,” the microbiologist—both employees of Englewood-based lab Altitude Consulting who only identified themselves by their first names—were happy to get into the scientific nitty gritty.
The lab received 511 individual samples of mushrooms from 200 different growers all over Colorado for the cup. “This is the largest public data set on mushrooms to be collected thus far,” Chase said. “And it perfectly matches existing data.”
The results of Altitude’s testing confirmed the cursory scientific data that was previously available about the relative potency of different kinds of psychedelic mushrooms, with names like Golden Teacher, Enigma, Hillbilly, and Tidalwave. After reviewing some of the chemical compounds that contribute to a mushroom’s psychedelic effects, the microbiologist even left growers with a helpful tip: If they want to increase the potency of their mushrooms, they might consider using water-absorbing packs to reduce the amount of moisture in their grow kits. Water can break down psilocybin, the scientists said, so removing it could help prevent the psychedelic compound from breaking down into less potent chemicals. “And if you’re seeing a lot of blue [in your mushrooms],” Chase added, “you’ve kinda lost it.”
Psychedelics are (Unintentionally) Following in the Footsteps of Cannabis
Tracey Tee, the founder of Moms on Mushrooms, took to the stage to talk about how mothers are gravitating toward psychedelics for insight and healing. But what resonated the most with the audience was something that’s become a common refrain at psychedelic gatherings in Colorado: “We don’t want to take a page from the cannabis industry and commodify this and make the magic go down the drain.”
Tee was touching upon a fear some psychedelic advocates have that, as the substances gain acceptance and move above-ground, an industry could emerge that looks like the state’s cannabis market: white-,male-, and profit-dominated. That industry would likely also neglect legacy practitioners—in psychedelics’ case, Indigenous medicine healers.
But an inherent irony of the Psychedelic Cup is that it follows the model of the much-older Cannabis Cup, which was founded in 1988 by a High Times editor and gives out annual awards to cannabis growers for exceptional weed. What began as a countercultural gathering in Amsterdam has turned increasingly mass market (this year’s cup had a performance by rapper Method Man) and scientific over the past decades. Today, the Cannabis Cup is a place for growers to trade data-proven cultivation tips and compete over their drugs’ potency—something the Psychedelic Cup is already doing. The Cannabis Cup is also increasingly dominated by commercial cannabis manufacturers, with wins becoming another marketing tool for their “award-winning” bud.
At the Psychedelic Cup, even for all the talk about the spirituality of psilocybin mushrooms—with an implied head nod to Indigenous wisdom keepers who have used these substances for thousands of years—there was no denying that most of the winning growers were white men. How the awards ceremony continues to walk the line between commodification and community will be something to watch over the coming years.
The Mushrooms Won the Beauty Contest
People’s outfits and accessories at the Psychedelic Cup were entertaining. (Think: tie-dyed frocks and hats fashioned like the red-and-white polka-dotted Amantia muscaria.) But since the more festive attendees were overshadowed by an army of flannel-wearing guys with wide-brimmed hats, the humans did not, overall, wear it best on Thursday night. That award would have to go to the mushrooms.
In an upstairs side room at Mile High Station, dozens of otherworldly looking psychedelic mushrooms adorned plates on black tabletops. This was the event’s “beauty contest” in which attendees could vote for their favorite mushrooms under the categories “Biggest,” “Most Enviable,” and “Best in Show.”
It was remarkable to see such a variety of psychedelic mushrooms—fungi ranging from the size of someone’s fist to dainty, gum-drop shaped varieties—sitting right out in the open. Any federal agent could have technically seized the pageant queens. But since Proposition 122 passed, many of the activities around the Psychedelic Cup—including enlisting the help of a lab to test mushrooms—are now allowed at the state level. Seeing all the mushrooms out in the open was a reminder that Colorado has entered a new psychedelic era.