Is Denver’s Psilocybin Decriminalization Having an Impact?

    In May 2019, by popular vote, Denver became the first US city to decriminalize psilocybin. A naturally occurring psychedelic found in certain mushrooms, psilocybin is currently a Schedule I narcotic under federal law.

    Voters approved Initiative 301 (I-301), better-known as “Decriminalize Denver,” which stated that personal possession, use and cultivation of psilocybin (no specified amount) would be the “lowest law enforcement priority.” The sale and purchase of psilocybin is still illegal, but the bill prohibits police and prosecutors from using any public funding to prosecute those charges. The initiative took effect immediately.

    It also required the city to create a psilocybin policy review board comprising local officials, law enforcement, scientific experts and advocates.

    “In the past two years since this passed, the sky has not fallen,” Decriminalize Denver Campaign Director and psilocybin review board member Kevin Matthews told Filter. “The data is showing that decriminalization has not presented any significant public health or safety risk, [and] most folks are using psilocybin responsibly.”

    This month, the board will share the findings of its first comprehensive report on how Denver’s decriminalization is playing out. Filter obtained a redacted copy, which shows that psilocybin cases—though there were only ever a small number to begin with—have decreased by about half since decriminalization took effect.

     

    Decrim on the Ground

    In the 25-month period the board analyzed (May 2019-June 2021), there were 47 criminal psilocybin cases, compared to 44 cases in 2018 alone. Psilocybin represents less than 1 percent of total drug arrests in Denver—about where it was before the reform.

    Of the 47 cases since decriminalization, only three resulted in conviction. About half are still open, and about one-third have been dismissed. Eleven percent have an arrest warrant issued.

    The vast majority of psilocybin cases (89 percent) also involved other drugs. Just five arrests were for psilocybin only.

    Three of those were classified as “possession greater than personal use.” Their amounts ranged from 27.9 to 166.7 grams. The city doesn’t quantify “personal possession” —a position Matthews endorses. 

    “It is still left to officer discretion,” Matthews said. “Neither I, the panel nor any city agency has a right to determine what an acceptable amount is for personal use.” (Matthews said that he’d personally consider 27 grams a personal-use amount.)

    Yet giving police the power to subjectively make such determinations could leave psilocybin users more vulnerable.

    Psilocybin carries no risk of fatal overdose or acute physical harms. The most prevalent risks are psychological duress, often related to a pre-existing mental health condition or a stressful environment. Since decriminalization took effect, Denver has had zero reported hospital admissions for psilocybin-related emergencies. However, this is difficult to track because hospital staff don’t always collect reliable data on drug-related admissions.

    “One of our recommendations is to have the city co-sponsor public service announcements regarding the safety and responsible use of psilocybin,” Matthews said. “Every time I talk to someone, they already get the sense that there needs to be structure … Folks understand that working with psilocybin needs to be done with intention.”

     

    Kevin Matthews and Denver psilocybin advocates, outside of Denver City Hall.

    Among people already at least a little familiar with psilocybin, conversations are moving forward with or without the city’s involvement. At the Psychedelic Club of Denver, members meet regularly to ask questions and share knowledge with each other about psilocybin.

    “Prior to the Initiative … we had a lot of people who were using it for spiritual and personal exploration or recreational use,” Psychedelic Club of Denver co-founder Kess Hirsheimer told Filter. “But following the initiative there’s a lot more clinical questioning about psilocybin. People are asking, ‘How can this help with my depression or anxiety or physical pain?’”

    She described the club’s approach as providing “objective awareness.” No two trips are ever the same, so people benefit from listening and learning from each other. But since decriminalization, the focus of conversations at the meetings is changing.

    In addition to seeing a higher demand for psychedelic research, Hirscheimer has met people who have moved to Denver specifically because of psilocybin decriminalization. But there’s no indication yet that it’s shifted the narrative around more stigmatized drugs. Even the psilocybin review board is omitting broad drug decriminalization in its recommendations.

    “There’s quite a lot of buzz around drug decriminalization in Colorado, and it’s such a controversial topic,” Hirscheimer said. “It does sometimes become ‘psychedelic exceptionalism,’ where people say it’s okay to use mushrooms or LSD, but it’s not okay to use heroin or meth.” 

     

    A community event hosted by the Psychedelic Club of Denver.

     

    Psilocybin and Opioids

    The Decriminalize Denver ballot initiative text states that “psilocybin is associated with decreased risk of opioid abuse and dependence.”

    Psychedelics, and psilocybin in particular, have been shown to have promising applications for people who problematically use substances including alcohol, tobacco and opioids. Does decriminalization mean easier access for people to self-treat?

    “As cities and eventually states decriminalize it, it becomes safer for people to experiment with these things,” Tatiana Quintana, an organizer for Decrim Nature Seattle, told Filter. “You can cultivate them, and they can be easily shared in community.”

    Around the time voters approved Decriminalize Denver, Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D) signed a bill to remove felony penalties for drug possession. Sale and distribution may still be charged as felonies.

    In 2020, driven in part by the pandemic, annual fatal overdose rates in Denver spiked by about 64 percent. A majority of the city’s overdose deaths—61 percent—involved combinations of three or more drugs.

    “I haven’t seen a significant shift in policing.”

    Psilocybin reform should, in theory, strengthen the movement to decriminalize and destigmatize broader drug use. But for some people whose work involves preventing overdose deaths, the feeling is Decriminalize Denver has not changed much.

    “I haven’t seen a significant shift in policing due to psilocybin,” Kat Humphries, programs director at Harm Reduction Action Center (HRAC), told Filter. “People are not being charged for felonies and are spending less time incarcerated. But our people are still being constantly arrested for possession of meth, heroin and fentanyl.”

    HRAC operates a drop-in syringe service program in downtown Denver. During a meeting for members, Humphries asked how they feel about psychedelic decriminalization. It’s a popular topic.

    “A few folks said they would rather see full decriminalization,” she said. “Some people said, ‘We don’t use those drugs, so I don’t care if they’re decriminalized.’ Others said this should be decriminalized, but it won’t have any impact for people living on the streets.

    Overdose was the leading cause of death for unhoused people in Denver in 2020. Humphries believes the psychedelic decriminalization movement does have the potential to help. But for that to happen, the movement’s architects “need to have buy-in from the more marginalized members of our community who use substances,” she said. “I encourage them to reach out and [include] people with lived experience of homelessness and police targeting.”

    Many HRAC members who use drugs like heroin and methamphetamine do, in fact, also use psychedelics. Humphries knows most of them are aware of the therapeutic potential. But psilocybin decriminalization doesn’t translate to material change for marginalized users unless it also helps address their basic needs.

    “If the psychedelic movement wants to advocate effectively for all drug users, then they need to support housing, more harm reduction and treatment,” she said. “People won’t ever get into therapy if they don’t have health insurance or an ID.”

     

    The Psychedelic Dominoes 

    The greatest impact of Decriminalize Denver has almost certainly taken place outside the city itself. Since 2019, similar reforms have passed in Oakland and Santa Cruz, California; Washington, DC; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Somerville, Cambridge and Northampton in Massachusetts. The state of Oregon voted in favor of legalizing psilocybin therapy. Efforts are underway in many other jurisdictions.

    Two state-level efforts to decriminalize or legalize many psychedelics are on the horizon in California. One bill, SB519, passed the Senate before being tabled in August. It would decriminalize possession of many psychedelics, including LSD and MDMA. Ultimately, lukewarm support in the House—and conflict from within the psychedelic community over should constitute “personal possession”—forced it out for this session.

    A separate, grassroots ballot initiative called Decriminalize California would legalize psilocybin by popular vote—just like how marijuana was legalized. That initiative is organizing for the state’s fall 2022 elections after a 2020 effort was held up by pandemic restrictions.

    “Denver showed us what was possible.”

    Lawmakers have introduced psychedelic decriminalization or legalization measures in Vermont, Hawaii, Florida and Iowa. Denver’s initial success has undoubtedly helped open the floodgates.

    “Denver showed us what was possible,” said Quintana. “The brave people offering therapy in underground communities, researchers willing to stand up to the DEA and jump through so many hoops to get approval for clinical trials, and now advocates, many of whom have lived experience, have all contributed to this ‘renaissance’ of psychedelic culture, and this has strengthened the broader movement that we now see sweeping the nation.”

    On August 26, Matthews launched a fundraiser to support a psilocybin lobbying campaign. He plans to earn the support of the Denver City Council for expanding on the decriminalization reform by decriminalizing psilocybin gifting and group use.

    There are no known cases of Denver police arresting people for psilocybin use in group settings. But codifying its legal protection is still necessary to prevent users from being charged with felony distribution under Colorado state law.

    This expanded reform would give people the right to gather in groups, in private settings, to use psilocybin as they see fit, as long as they’re not exchanging money. 

    “It would also allow people the liberty to work with psilocybin on their own terms in safe and familiar group settings, which honors the traditional and historical use of psilocybin mushrooms,” Matthews said.

    So has Decriminalize Denver had a major impact? The small decrease in psilocybin arrests is of course significant to the people impacted, but the reform doesn’t seem to have bolstered other anti-drug war efforts in the city.

    What it has done is opened the door for psilocybin decriminalization elsewhere. Its basic template is being passed into law in jurisdictions from coast to coast, with many more hoping to follow.

     


     

    Top photograph via Department of Justice/Drug Enforcement Administration. Middle photograph courtesy of Kevin Matthews. Bottom photograph courtesy of Psychedelics Club of Denver.

    • Alexander is a staff writer for Filter. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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