Denver Panel Recommends Further Decriminalizing Mushrooms

Denver decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms in May 2019.

Anthony Camera

Two and a half years after Denver made history by becoming the first American city to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms, Denver City Council could consider a new proposal that would further decriminalize the fungi.

“Making psilocybin the lowest law enforcement priority in Denver hasn’t resulted in any significant public health or safety issues, and the available data indicates most folks use psilocybin responsibly. We should expand civil liberties and discover how Denver can embrace psilocybin as a therapy option for folks who are the most at risk,” says Kevin Matthews, chair of the Denver Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel and head of the successful campaign to decriminalize mushrooms in Denver. Psilocybin is the naturally occurring compound in certain mushrooms that makes them psychedelic.

The panel, which includes District Attorney Beth McCann, Denver Police Department Division Chief Joe Montoya and Councilman Chris Hinds, among others, recently wrapped up a report looking at the effects of decriminalization and suggesting the next steps for the city. Matthews will present the panel’s findings to a council committee in early November. The panel will recommend that council decriminalize the practice of gifting psychedelic mushrooms to other people and also decriminalize communal use of psilocybin.

Thanks to the May 2019 passage of Initiative 301 by a slight majority of Denver voters, the personal possession, use and growth of psilocybin are decriminalized in Denver. Dealing is still criminalized locally, though, and the initiative has had no effect on federal law enforcement.

For decades, the feds have classified psilocybin as a Schedule I substance, which the Drug Enforcement Administration defines as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” But public opinion on psychedelic mushrooms is changing.

Advocates in Colorado are pondering whether to aim for a statewide mushroom decriminalization ballot initiative. Meanwhile, cities across the country are taking action. In the wake of Denver’s vote, Oakland, Ann Arbor and Washington, D.C., all decriminalized entheogens, which are naturally occurring psychedelics. In November 2020, Oregon voters decriminalized simple possession of all drugs and set up a framework for psilocybin-assisted therapy.

The Denver panel will also recommend that council adopt a trio of other proposals, including one that would set up a public service campaign about responsible psilocybin use, another that would train first responders regarding psilocybin, and a third that would encourage the city to explore “how psilocybin therapy can be applied to address mental health issues in Denver.”

“I’m willing to be the sponsor,” Hinds says. “What’s clear is that we have decriminalized psilocybin. Denver has taken the lead in the U.S. and, frankly, far beyond to decriminalize psilocybin. And since it has decriminalized, the sky hasn’t fallen.”

The panel held six meetings over the past two years, and decriminalization advocates worked well with law enforcement during those sessions.

“I guess I figured there might be more pushback from the enforcement side and prosecution side,” Hinds recalls, “but there really wasn’t, and part of that’s because there really haven’t been a lot of arrests. There really doesn’t seem to be much of a concern from the enforcement side about psilocybin in Denver.”

DA McCann appreciated her time on the panel, too. “As a progressive city, Denver is already reimagining local drug enforcement policies and supporting treatment and mental health services over jail for drug offenders. We want to explore how psilocybin can make a positive impact in our communities and in the lives of people who can potentially benefit from responsible use,” says Carolyn Tyler, McCann’s spokesperson.

Matthews himself has transitioned from grassroots canvasser to someone who’s become comfortable in the nation’s halls of power. “It’s been a joy to work with city officials, including law enforcement,” he says. “They’ve been nothing but open-minded and professional.”

Both the Denver Police Department and McCann’s office have said they are abiding by the stipulations of decriminalization.

“Arrests related to psilocybin decreased by more than half since the passage of I-301,” the panel’s report notes. The vast majority of arrests in which psilocybin was seized also involved other drugs and/or other offenses. Since decriminalization, there have been only five arrests in Denver for psilocybin alone, three of which were for amounts greater than personal use, a classification that has not been quantified.

Of the two arrests that involved personal amounts of psilocybin alone, Matthews notes, “There is some concern, and we need to better understand the context under which those arrests were made, better educate law enforcement, and establish/enforce reporting standards for law enforcement regarding psilocybin.”

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