Denver Votes on Whether to Decriminalize ‘Magic Mushrooms’

Jack-o-lantern mushrooms in Celo, N.C., Aug. 14, 2015. Only about 80 species of fungi emit a constant light, possibly to attract spore-transporting insects, that dims and intensifies according to a circadian clock that still isn’t quite understood. (Mike Belleme/The New York Times)





Patricia Mazzei

c.2019 New York Times News Service


Voters in Denver, a city at the forefront of the widening national debate over legalizing marijuana, will decide Tuesday whether to be the first in the nation to effectively decriminalize another recreational drug: hallucinogenic mushrooms.


The local ballot measure would not quite legalize “magic” mushrooms, the ones that contain psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic compound. State and federal regulations would have to change to accomplish that.


But if it passes, the measure would make the possession, use or cultivation of the mushrooms by people 21 or older the lowest-priority crime for law enforcement in the city of Denver and Denver County. Arrests and prosecutions, already fairly rare, could all but disappear.


Adoption of the measure could signal fledgling public acceptance of a mind-altering drug, outlawed nationally for nearly 50 years, that recent research suggests could have beneficial medical uses. A similar effort failed to get on the ballot in California last year but could come up again in 2020. Oregon voters may also vote on a comparable measure next year.


Proponents of more lenient criminal enforcement of psilocybin cite studies indicating that the drug can be beneficial for treating depression and anxiety among cancer patients. Other studies have identified potential uses in therapy for alcoholics and people trying to quit smoking, and in treating depression in people who do not have cancer.


“Because psilocybin has such tremendous medical potential, there’s no reason individuals should be criminalized for using something that grows naturally,” said Kevin Matthews, director of the “Decriminalize Denver” campaign.


Matthew Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, was one of the authors of a study last year recommending that the Food and Drug Administration reclassify the drug to acknowledge its potential medical uses and relatively low potential for abuse.


“But someone can have a dose that’s psychologically challenging,” he warned. “They panic and they wander into traffic and they die. It’s an admittedly low scale, but if that’s your son or daughter who has gotten into a fatal accident, as rare as that it is, that’s very real.”


The ballot measure, Initiated Ordinance 301, would also establish a panel to review the law’s impact on public health and safety.