On May 7, the city of Denver, Colorado voted on a ballot initiative to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms. By that evening, unofficial results indicated that the initiative had fallen short, with almost 55 percent of voters rejecting it. Filter, like many national outlets, reported this.
However, in a surprising twist that has delighted advocates, the final count, released on the evening of May 8, showed that the initiative passed after all—by the narrow margin of 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent.
“It’s win or learn tonight,” Kevin Matthews, the activist leading efforts to pass the initiative, had said. “Even if we lose we have educated people. It just means we have more work to do. Either way, the conversation will go on.”
But now, while the conversation will certainly continue at local and national levels, ballot measure I-301 will implement real change in Denver.
I-301 decriminalizes personal use and possession for people aged 21 or older, making this Denver’s “lowest law-enforcement priority.” It prohibits the City and County of Denver from spending resources to impose criminal penalties for use or possession. It also establishes a Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel, which will comprise 11 members representing the city council, police, courts, public health experts and citizen stakeholders and must be in place by December.
Psilocybin or “magic” mushrooms are naturally-occurring psychedelic fungi, of which there are hundreds of species within dozens of genera. They are popular with many people for their hallucinogenic effects, which last a few hours, and are not associated with addiction or significant health problems. Research has indicated benefits of psilocybin in managing a range of mental health conditions, and many other studies are in progress.
Even holding this decriminalization vote was a victory of a kind. The Beckley Foundation, a drug research organization, had noted the ballot’s huge significance:
Today in Denver, Colorado will be the first time in modern history on which the citizens of a political jurisdiction in the U.S. can vote directly to change public policy on a #psychedelic substance. @Chacruna_net #psilocbyin https://t.co/as1M7UldyV
— Beckley Foundation (@BeckleyResearch) May 7, 2019
How the Victorious Campaign Unfolded
The decriminalization campaign kicked off in January 2018, when the Decriminalize Denver campaign—”Vote Yes on I-301”—established a steering committee of local psychedelic activists.
“It took us a couple tries to get the right ballot language,” Matthews said. “We submitted two early versions of the language in March and May 2018. We were hoping to be on the November 2018 ballot, but those versions were rejected by the elections board for ‘technicalities’—they thought the language as written would be too confusing for voters. That was when I stepped in as campaign manager and brought together the team and the organization as it exists now.”
The initiative’s final proposed language was approved by the Denver Elections Division in October 2018. The campaign was then tasked with collecting at least 4,726 citizen signatures in support by January 2019 in order to get the measure on the ballot. It greatly exceeded this target, gathering 9,500 signatures, and the initiative was certified by city officials in February 2019 to appear on the municipal ballot in May.
The most immediate effect of I-301 is that no one need fear criminal penalties for psilocybin use any more. “We’re working to ensure no individual in Denver faces severe criminal penalties like heavy fines, incarceration, and loss of livelihood or their families,” Matthews said. His campaign states that psilocybin has represented about 0.8 percent of drug seizures by law enforcement in the Denver metropolitan area, according to 2016 federal data.
Decriminalize Denver made an explicit public-health argument for its campaign, citing medical research and surveys showing that psilocybin has positive social effects including decreased risks of opioid dependence, criminal behavior and suicide.
“Most of the inspiration for this came from the incredible research all over the world showing that psilocybin can treat the most important illnesses we’re facing as a country,” Matthews said, “including depression, PTSD, anxiety, addiction and chronic pain.”
Visible opposition was very limited, making the apparent defeat an unpleasant surprise—and the final result all the sweeter.
I-301 enjoyed strong and politically diverse local support—including from mayoral candidates and the City Council, the Libertarian and Green Parties, DanceSafe, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the psychedelic journal Chacruna.net.
Decriminalize Denver tried to “talk to as many different people as possible from all backgrounds and belief systems,” Matthews said. “Eight of out ten people we talk to support this—and usually if they don’t support it, it’s just out of ignorance on psilocybin. As soon as we start talking to them about this, and they get educated, we start to change minds.”
Visible opposition to I-301 was very limited, which made the apparent initial failure of the measure an unpleasant surprise—and the final result all the sweeter.
Notably, there was no “con” statement submitted for the ballot. That was “incredibly rare, and really exciting!” Matthews noted.
However, the office of Mayor Michael Hancock said it would “not be supporting” the measure and District Attorney Beth McCann opposed it, as did local members of the Centennial Institute, a conservative think tank at Colorado Christian University.
Why Matthews’ Mission Is Personal
Matthews had his own journey with psilocybin healing. A Colorado native, he enrolled in the US Military Academy at West Point in New York, where he lived for three years. He was diagnosed at that time with major depression, and was medically discharged from the armed forces.
Matthews was devastated that he couldn’t complete his military service. “I floated for a couple of years, thinking, ‘Holy shit what happened to my life?’” he said. “The vision and trajectory I had for my life just crumbled beneath my feet and I didn’t know who I was anymore.”
Matthews returned to Colorado, and was introduced to psilocybin 10 years ago by a group of supportive friends. “There were two experiences about a decade ago that really helped me clear the fog of my depression and create a new perspective for my life,” he said. “I’d still be stuck if it hadn’t been for psilocybin—it saved my life.”
The more Matthews learned about the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, the more he wanted to educate others about it and unravel stigma. “I have buddies who are veterans or still serving, suffering from PTSD and depression,” he said. “This could be a tool for those individuals to use.”
“There’s a lot more work to do around psilocybin education and harm reduction that we’re spearheading here in the city.”
Matthews hopes that by raising the profile of mushrooms and decriminalization, Denver’s successful initiative will encourage more people to experiment with psilocybin as a treatment for different mental illnesses. He notes that I-301 doesn’t provide a medical model, or legalize distribution or sales. But the Psilocybin Policy Review Panel will have had the task of examining how Denver residents use mushrooms, and of charting the course for future reforms.
“The panel will be the first of its kind in the nation to assess and review the impact of decriminalization in Denver,” Matthews told Filter. “The police department and sheriff’s department will be required to establish reporting criteria on arrests for psilocybin to track this better and gather more data.”
Beyond passing I-301, the campaign had another important mission: citizen education. “There’s a lot more work to do around psilocybin education and harm reduction that we’re spearheading here in the city,” Matthews said. “We want people to learn about safety and the proper precautions if they do choose psilocybin. We have 50 years of government misinformation about psilocybin to rectify.”
Denver’s dramatic decriminalization could kickstart a broader discussion about decriminalizing all drugs, said Ifetayo Harvey, marketing coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “Psilocybin is not a drug we usually think about when considering the War on Drugs, drug arrests and convictions,” she said. “Folks using psilocybin are not as heavily targeted by corrupt and racist policing.”
However, decriminalizing one drug at a time has limitations, Harvey explained, because drug law enforcement is highly racialized. Black and brown people are targeted by police for possession of drugs like marijuana, cocaine and heroin, while the comparatively smaller, whiter population of Americans who use psilocybin can more easily fly under the radar.
Decriminalization also needs to be clearly defined to succeed, Harvey said. She highlighted the example of her current home city of New York, where city officials have taken progressive steps over the years to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession. “But what we see is that racist policing in New York still targets black and brown youth for marijuana and criminalizes them for having weed ‘in public view’,” she said. “We need to make sure we iron out any kinks in these policies.”
“This isn’t really about Denver, Denver’s just the first domino.”
Harvey also urged cities to implement criminal record expungement and sealing measures, as well as decriminalization. These would ensure that people who were arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for drug offenses—losing their livelihoods, education opportunities, and even families in the process—can get a fair chance after reform.
Matthews is counting on Denver’s successful decriminalization effort being replicated and expanded on around the country.
“This isn’t really about Denver, Denver’s just the first domino,” he said. “This is much more of a human movement, about individuals knowing they have other options when it comes to their mental health and addiction issues.”