COVER STORY: Magic mushrooms

A woman harvests magic mushrooms in a grow room at a farm in Hazerswoude, Netherlands, in 2007.

Today Denver, tomorrow all of Colorado.

After their surprise ballot victory in Denver’s election last month that decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms, advocates of the hallucinogenic fungi can be excused for thinking big and imagining they can take their crusade statewide.

Much of the success of Initiative 301 in Denver, which passed by about 2,000 votes, was likely due to a packed ballot full of mayoral and City Council candidates and a controversial initiative that would have allowed anyone who was homeless to camp on public property across Denver, said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver.

A statewide initiative probably would receive much greater scrutiny.

“It was mostly portrayed as something of comedic value. I don’t think people thought it had very much of a shot at winning,” Masket said of the mushroom measure. “My guess is this is pretty much a one-off, but then again Colorado has surprised me before.”

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Advocates believe psilocybin mushrooms can relieve depression and post traumatic stress disorder, among other benefits, and those who supported Initiative 301 — which decriminalized “magic mushrooms” by making them the lowest law enforcement priority — aren’t easily discouraged.

Already, members of the Psychedelic Club of Colorado Springs are considering their options, which would likely include partnering with other psychedelic clubs across the state to petition on to the November 2020 ballot.

The group has about 35 active members, about a third of its online following, said Max Schroeder, the club’s president. Many of those members were pleasantly surprised at Initiative 301’s victory and further encouraged that a statewide attempt might be possible, he said.

Petitioning on to the ballot likely wouldn’t be a problem, Masket said. But a statewide initiative would almost certainly draw much heavier opposition than Initiative 301.

“This will get on people’s radar, people will notice it, and you’ll probably see a more organized resistance to it,” Masket said.

The professor drew comparisons with Colorado Amendment 64, which made it legal to possess and grow marijuana for recreational use, which voters approved in 2012.

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“When it came down to it with marijuana legalization, there was an argument to be made for legalization or decriminalization in that this is a fairly widely-used drug and that there are potential positive health benefits from it and a lot of people are serving disproportionate jail sentences,” Masket said. “Whereas, I feel like mushrooms just aren’t at that level, either in terms of use or in terms of people who have been prosecuted for it. We’re not talking about a huge number of people.”

Methamphetamine, cocaine and opioids, including heroin, are usually a higher law enforcement priority in part because they are much more common than mushrooms among illicit drug users, said 4th Judicial District Attorney Dan May, whose jurisdiction covers El Paso and Teller counties.

“We’ve always had psilocybin mushrooms, but it’s at a very small rate compared to almost any other drug,” May said.

May opposed the legalization of marijuana and does not support decriminalizing hallucinogens because of the potentially disorienting effect the drug can have.

“Whether it’s people driving, whether it’s people reacting to things,” he said.

Psilocybin is listed as a Schedule 1 drug by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, May noted, meaning that it’s classified as a dangerous substance with no medical benefits.

If that classification changes in the future, then perhaps May said his and others’ opinions of the drug will change, but until then he’ll maintain his opposition.

That’s a difficult perception to overcome, especially with what appears to be fewer advocates, less funding and organization than the Amendment 64 campaign, Masket said.

“That was a pretty well-funded and well-coordinated effort with a fair amount of money backing it,” Masket said. “I don’t get the impression that mushroom (decriminalization) is anywhere near that level.”

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, a former state attorney general, doesn’t mince words in stating where he stands on decriminalizing another drug.

“I continue to think it’s a bad idea to encourage people, especially children, to get high for fun,” Suthers said through a city spokeswoman. “Further, that the lack of legal restriction on such substances creates the illusion of safety, and gives credence to the idea that use is not harmful.

“In addition, our state leaders must think very carefully about the impact on employers, to include the military, and how such legalization makes Colorado a less desirable place to do business.”

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser supports Denver’s “right to conduct its experiment to shift law enforcement priorities away from psilocybin,” Lawrence Pacheco, director of communications for Weiser’s office said in an email. But, the statement noted, buying, selling or possessing the mushrooms remain illegal under state and federal laws.

“As such, there are risks that remain in place for those who act in violation of state and federal law,” Pacheco said.

Before trying to petition onto the ballot for a statewide referendum, supporters would need to educate the public and dispel myths about the mushrooms and how they can be consumed, said Teresa Egbert, president of the Psychedelic Club in Fort Collins, which is sanctioned by Colorado State University.

“With microdosing, you don’t even have to get high from it,” Egbert said. “People think you’re going to be in outer space or something. ”

Egert said her club is willing to partner with other like-minded organizations across the state for that educational effort and subsequent campaign.

To place an initiative on the November 2020 general election ballot, a group must submit a petition for approval by the state’s title board, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Once the board approves a group’s ballot language, it has six months to collect 124,632 valid signatures and submit them no later than three months before the election.

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