While many Coloradans are familiar with the recreational use of psychedelic mushrooms (we won’t ask how), a growing contingent of Denverites are advocating for the medicinal efficacy of psilocybin, the primary compound in the hallucinogenic fungi. 

A group called Denver for Psilocybin met with city officials on Monday to begin the process of getting their proposal—the Denver Psilocybin Decriminalization Initiative—on the ballot this November. The initiative essentially calls for the decriminalization of psychedelic mushrooms, eliminating felony charges for people caught with the substance and making it the lowest priority for law enforcement officials. Pending approval from the Denver Elections Division (at press time, approval had not yet been granted), the group can begin collecting signatures. If they get at least 4,726 valid signatures, the measure will appear on the 2018 ballot.

“We recognize that this is radical,” says Kevin Matthews, co-campaign manager for Denver for Psilocybin. “We want to normalize using compounds—specifically psilocybin—that have a clinical efficacy to treat various symptoms and diseases that we face as a culture.” 

The ballot measure, written by Matthews’ campaign partner Tyler Williams, does not provide a legal framework for the sale and purchase of psilocybin, nor does it suggest legalizing the substance. Specifically, the measure suggests that individuals be allowed to carry up to two ounces of dried psilocybin mushrooms without facing legal ramification, Matthews says. Beyond two ounces, people would face a citation that would increase based on repeated offenses.

Matthews points to studies from Johns Hopkins University, New York University, and the Imperial College of London that have found psilocybin to be an effective way to combat addiction, anxiety, and depression. Matthews, who was diagnosed with major depression when he was a teenager, thinks psilocybin saved his life. “It gave me a perspective outside of the box that my mind created because of my depression,” he says. 

While the initiative is radical, it is not completely unprecedented. According to Colorado Public Radio, New Mexico effectively legalized the cultivation of psilocybin via a 2005 appeals court decision. Furthermore, Oregon and California both recently reduced possession charges for a variety of banned substances, including mushrooms, from a felony to a misdemeanor, and California may also vote to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in its own November 2018 elections.

Colorado has a progressive reputation when it comes to drug policy. In 1975, it became one of the first states to decriminalize marijuana possession, and in 2012 it became one of the first states legalize the drug for recreational use and sale. Today, marijuana constitutes a growing, complicated industry that provides welcome—but limited—revenue to the state. Decriminalization of psilocybin, on the other hand, wouldn’t have the same economic effect.

So far, the proposal has been met with both enthusiasm and resistance. On the Denver for Psilocybin Facebook page, dozens of people left comments in response to a Denver 7 story explaining the initiative. While many people expressed support, others were concerned. “Hmm, so pot is a gateway drug after all,” one commenter wrote. “Sad, sad world. So much easier to become stoned and run away than take responsibility and grow up,” wrote another.

The exchange prompted the Denver for Psilocybin group to join the conversation: “This initiative is not about ‘recreational’ use. This ballot [measure] is only saying that law enforcement will not arrest anyone for having mushrooms,” the group responded from its official account. “This means it won’t be on their record and wont ruin their entire life. We do not support using mushrooms recklessly or dangerously…People who use mushrooms to heal from PTSD and depression should not have to worry about losing their freedom to do so.”

Matthews is optimistic that—if approval is granted—the group will be able to secure the necessary number of signatures. In fact, he thinks they’ll be able to double that number and get nearly 10,000. However, asked hypothetically if he thought the ballot measure could pass come November, he admitted that he’s unsure.

“I don’t know, and that’s why it’s so exciting,” he says. “Denver is a nexus for exactly this type of thing. A lot of people who come here want to explore what’s possible in terms of healing themselves and having an experience. We’re creating a community and a movement behind this.” 

Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.