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Criminal Justice

Denver Could Be First U.S. City to Decriminalize Mushrooms



  • Denver will vote on a ballot initiative in May that will decide whether or not their city will be the first in the U.S. to decriminalize psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in “magic mushrooms.”
  • The ballot initiative would prohibit law enforcement from spending taxpayer money on pursuing criminal penalties for use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms among people over 21.
  • Those in favor of the law argue that psilocybin is safe and has therapeutic benefits, while opponents claim that the psychoactive has too many risks.

Initiative 301

A ballot initiative in Denver, Colorado will give voters the opportunity to decide if their city should become the first in the US to decriminalize mushrooms that contain the psychoactive hallucinogen psilocybin, also known as “magic mushrooms.”

Initiative 301, which will be voted on May 7, would make “the personal use and personal possession of psilocybin mushrooms” for people who are 21 and older Denver’s “lowest law-enforcement priority.” It would also prohibit the city from spending resources on seeking criminal punishments for the use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms by anyone 21 and older.

Additionally, the initiative would establish a policy review panel to “assess and report on the effects of the ordinance.”

Initiative 301 would not legalize magic mushrooms. Psilocybin is illegal under both Colorado and federal law and will remain illegal if the initiative is passed. It also does not decriminalize the production and sale of magic mushrooms.

This means that while police cannot pursue people who use and possess psilocybin mushrooms, they can go after people who grow, distribute, and sell them.

Arguments in Favor

Those who are in favor of decriminalizing magic mushrooms say that the initiative would save taxpayer money by shifting law enforcement resources away from nonviolent offenses.

While psychedelic-related arrests related are largely uncommon, the penalties are much more extreme than the typical marijuana charges in the US. Possession alone is considered a felony offense, and it is punishable by up to a year in prison and heavy fines.

Proponents of the initiative also argue that psilocybin mushrooms are safe, nonaddictive, and have therapeutic benefits for treating mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and addiction.

“It is simply unprecedented in psychiatry that a single dose of medicine produces these kinds of dramatic and enduring results,” Said Dr. Stephen Ross, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry New York University.

The website for Decriminalize Denver, the organization that is leading the initiative, provides studies and research that show the benefits of psilocybin. The website also argues that decriminalizing psilocybin mushrooms allows for more research and more effective regulation.

“Psilocybin is safer than cannabis. Cannabis is safer than alcohol. There’s no reason for us to be criminalizing individuals and spending taxpayer money,” said Kevin Matthews, the campaign manager of Decriminalize Denver.

Argument’s Against

Opponents of the initiative are concerned that decriminalization would lead to more drug use.

Critics also argue that psilocybin does have some risks, specifically the possibility of accidents or traumatic experiences that could be psychologically harmful to those who take psilocybin, especially for people who are predisposed to mental illness.

“There’s a small but real percentage of the population, 1 or 2 percent, that have active psychotic disorders, or they have a good predisposition to develop psychotic disorders,” said Dr. Matthew Johnson, a leading expert at the Johns Hopkins Psychedelic Research Unit. “It’s very clear those people should not be exposed to psychedelics like psilocybin.”

Others critical of the initiative have said decriminalization is just a step towards full legalization and sale of psilocybin.

“It kind of feels like we’re the last ones in Colorado who are opposed to drug legalization, or decriminalization,” said Jeff Hunt, the director of the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University. “We’re setting up the argument for commercialization.”

What Next?

As Denver prepares to vote May 7, the momentum in favor of Initiative 301 seems to indicate decriminalization of psilocybin mushrooms could in fact happen.

Earlier polling indicated that psilocybin decriminalization was more popular than criminalization in Denver. Also of note is the fact that Denver’s official voter guide does not include a “con” section for the initiative, and there is not an organized opposition campaign.

According to Denver’s interactive sample ballot website, “No arguments against this initiative were submitted.”

“We have huge momentum right now,” said Matthews. That momentum is not limited to Denver. In December, Oregon’s Secretary of State approved the language for a ballot initiative that would make it legal for licensed therapists to produce and administer psilocybin mushrooms.

Activists in Oakland, California have also organized to decriminalize psilocybin, and Washington state Governor Jay Inslee, who is a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, has also said he is open to decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms.

While other countries like Portugal have decriminalized psilocybin, along with other substances, the effects of psilocybin decriminalization in the US has yet to be tested. If Denver votes “yes” on Initiative 301, they will institute a historic decriminalization effort that could usher in a new wave of drug policy reforms.

See what others are saying: (Vox) (The Denver Post) (Denver Voter Information Guide)