Editors note: Denver voters approved a referendum on May 7, 2019, to make it legal to possess psychedelic mushrooms for personal use. The vote was 51% to 49%.
April 4, 2019 -- Psychedelic mushrooms could be decriminalized for the first time in more than 50 years in a U.S. city if Denver activists have their way.
The group Decriminalize Denver collected 8,000 signatures to put a measure on the May 7 city election ballot that would make personal possession and use of mushrooms legal for people 21 and older. (Read the full ballot measure here [PDF].)
Psychedelic mushrooms are a type of naturally occurring fungus that can cause a mind-altered state similar to LSD in users. Decriminalize Denver director Kevin Matthews says he was diagnosed with depression and given a medical discharge from the Army. From there, he says, he "floated for a number of years" before a friend gave him a dose of mushrooms 20 years ago.
He says a single use helped him to see past his depression.
"It enabled me to start to jump back into my life and be more involved with my community and family and friends and start to get a handle on my depression," he says. He sees it as a powerful tool to help others dealing with mental disorders to find a new perspective on life.
Other people should be allowed to use them as well, he says.
Shrooms, Hallucinations, and Euphoria
Psychedelic mushrooms are also known as "magic mushrooms" or "shrooms." Their psychoactive ingredient, psilocybin, disturbs the way nerve cells and serotonin work together. It produces euphoria, hallucinations, and an altered sense of space and time, lasting from 3 to 6 hours.
Psilocybin mushrooms have been used for centuries for spiritual and medical purposes. They were made federally illegal in 1968 because of their heavy use in the counterculture, and they remain on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Schedule 1 list. That means the government considers them to have no accepted medical value and a high potential for abuse. Short-term negative side effects of hallucinogens may include increased heart rate, paranoia, nausea, uncoordinated movements, excessive sweating, dry mouth, and panic. Researchers don’t have much data on long-term effects.
Recent research has suggested psilocybin mushrooms might help people deal with depression, give up smoking, and stop alcohol abuse. One recent study showed that psilocybin mushrooms eased depression and anxiety in cancer patients and improved their quality of life -- effects that lasted for 6 months. Some participants also had side effects such as high blood pressure, physical discomfort, and anxiety. In another recent study, several doctors from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine suggested that that psilocybin's potential benefits and low potential for abuse should move the drug to Schedule 4, on par with drugs similar to some prescription sleep and anxiety medications.
The FDA in 2018 approved a study testing psilocybin to treat depression.
"What they did for me was really help me see outside of the box that depression had created in my life, and I was really able to look at the world with new eyes and start to pull myself up from the depths,” says Matthews.
No Stores or Legal Sales
He says mushroom decriminalization would not look like marijuana legalization, where stores legally sell marijuana for recreational use. He says there would be no stores or dispensaries, and it would still be illegal to sell mushrooms, though growing them for personal use would be allowed.
But not everyone is convinced decriminalization is a good thing for Denver. Mayor Michael Hancock has said he is against the measure. A spokeswoman declined to elaborate on why he is opposed.
Peter Droege, with Colorado Christian University's Centennial Institute, a conservative think tank, points to the potential negative side effects of using psilocybin.
"Anyone that is experiencing these LSD-like hallucinations that might be behind their wheel ... it's not hard to imagine someone walking out in the street or in front of a light rail when they're experiencing hallucinations," he says.
And he says Colorado's reputation has already become tied to another drug, marijuana, after voters in 2012 approved legalization and hundreds of marijuana stores opened around the state.
"Colorado is a beautiful state. We have some of the most spectacular scenery. We've got this great quality of life and amazing weather," Droege says. "We have so many beautiful parts of our state, amazing outdoor recreation, and instead we're known as the weed state. I am concerned, and I think we're better than that."
Matthews says the measure won’t increase access to a broader population. “There are a lot of people who are already using psilocybin, and they're not out tripping and causing a ruckus," he says. "People aren't going to be moving here to visit a psilocybin dispensary. That's not what we're creating."