Cindy Sovine-Miller went to bed on election night thinking the initiative she and others worked on for 17 months, to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, had gone down in defeat.
It had garnered a decent-enough 9 percentage-point loss for a long-shot, first-in-the-nation measure, but it was still a defeat. Or so she thought.
But when the political consultant and lobbyist on Colorado marijuana laws awoke May 8, she found that overnight, Initiative 301 had rallied on a surge of mail ballots turned in at the last moment.
With each batch of updated results, the gap between a win and a loss narrowed.
“Oh my gosh!” she recalled with delight. “We had volunteers out there pushing because those (ballots) were the ones who voted yes. We were driving those millennials to show up, and here’s where you put the stamp, and don’t forget to sign.
“That was what it really came down to. And they did.”
News of the measure’s narrow, unofficial 1,979-vote win — subject to a count of overseas votes that ends this week — spread quickly around the world. Stories appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Rolling Stone. Sovine-Miller found herself being interviewed twice on BBC.
All this attention, and lingering questions about the initiative, have created concerns among opponents who fret that Denver — between mushrooms and the state’s booming legal marijuana business — will become a hub for tourists seeking to dabble in recreational drug use.
“I love Denver,” said Peter Droege, a fellow at the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University who specializes in drug addiction policy. “But like many people, I think the direction that we’re going in is really harmful to our future.”
Droege, who also opposed the legalization of recreational marijuana, said Denver has made great visionary strides over the past few decades — with Denver International Airport, light rail and the improved Colorado Convention Center. And with the state’s natural beauty, Denver can position itself as “the new city of the new millennium.”
“I think we have too much to offer to allow a city to be characterized as simply a place where people can go and use drugs,” Droege said. “It’s the wrong brand for the city.”
But Kevin Matthews, who helmed the campaign for 301, said such critics’ fears are misplaced.
“I understand the concern,” Matthews said. “However, my question is, where are these tourists going to get mushrooms?”
The initiative decriminalizes possession, cultivation and personal use of psilocybin by making it the lowest law enforcement priority. It does not legalize the sale or distribution of magic mushrooms, nor does it set up any medical framework to allow people to sell or buy the drug.
“It sends a very clear signal that Americans are ready for this conversation,” Matthews said. “I’d like to create a new perception around Denver.
“Let’s consider Denver as a Geneva or a sanctuary for people who choose to use naturally occurring compounds like psilocybin that have tremendous medical potential without these radical side effects.”
From vortex to ballot box
To understand the impact of 301 and its surprise victory, it helps to know more about how the referendum got on the ballot.
The story began 15 years ago in a high school debate class and led to meetings in coffee shops, a debate over how to word the measure and some clever borrowing of language from an unexpected source.
Tyler Williams was a 15-year-old student who by had smoked marijuana and questioned why it was illegal. He persuaded his high school classmates to debate the merits of legalization and thus launched what would become an abiding interest in drug policy reform.
As a math major at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2017, Williams started the Denver Psychedelic Club. He was the only person at the first meeting, but through Facebook he found enough people with similar interests to start a chapter.
At one of the group’s early meetings, the question raised was: What should we do? Williams said some suggested a book club, others a movie series and one participant — the author of several book on vortexes in Sedona, Ariz. — suggested they try to decriminalize magic mushrooms.
The group had barely gotten started, so the idea went on a back burner, he said.
In the months that followed, Williams said, he worked on other Denver initiatives, to establish cannabis social clubs and to encourage energy-efficient “green roofs” in the city.
Emboldened by some success with those measures, he returned to the idea of decriminalizing magic mushrooms.
He looked at similar efforts in California and Oregon. But the California group seemed too hands-off and had one supporter who claimed magic mushrooms were a way to communicate with space aliens, he said.
The Oregon approach, by contrast, seemed too regimented and dependent on a medical model.
So he tried crafting a Denver initiative and organized a meeting in January 2018 in the basement of an East Colfax coffee shop.
“It was the best-attended meeting … that the chapter had so far. Fifty or 60 people, from lawyers to medical professionals to mental health professionals. A lot of our people as well, and some people who were just interested in mushrooms.
“That was definitely the biggest momentum swing,” Williams said. “A lot of people could be serious about this.”
Debate over a medical model
Sovine-Miller was at that meeting. The former lobbyist for hospitals and pharmaceutical companies said she had become interested in marijuana legalization while seeing how the drug had helped her father cope with lymphatic cancer.
“I watched what years of chemo and surgery and radiation did to him, and then I watched what cannabis did to him,” she said.
She also began talking with people who were advocating for psilocybin to treat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I decided to use my skills and experience working on medical freedom,” she said.
Sovine-Miller said she was not pleased with how people were being prosecuted for growing and using marijuana outside of the commercial industry that sprang up after Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana.
So when she saw Williams’ proposed medical model to legalize mushrooms, she wanted nothing to do with it.
“He and I most definitely disagreed on that particular point. He was very much interested in pursuing a medical option, and I was like, well now, at least not with my help, you’re not.”
So Sovine-Miller stepped away.
Meanwhile, Matthews contacted Williams after finding him on Facebook.
Matthews was a cadet who left West Point after being diagnosed with depression. He says psilocybin helped him with that affliction.
The men met at a coffee shop. Williams remembers being so impressed that, by the end of that first meeting, he asked Matthews to be the campaign’s co-manager. Eventually, Matthews became the sole campaign manager.
By then, advocates had failed twice to get language for the measure on the ballot. Matthews approached Sovine-Miller for help.
“Kevin reached out to me, she recalled, “and said, ‘OK, what do we do to have you help us move this forward?’ And I said, ‘Do decriminalization.’”
He agreed, and she enlisted help from people she knew. They borrowed language for the measure from an unlikely source, Sovine-Miller said.
“They worked with me to draft the language, which they then modeled off of Denver’s ‘sanctuary city’ policy. It was brilliant because they put a bunch of the terms in the sanctuary city policy that said we will not use any city resources enforcing this mandate against these people, and we will not do that. We replicated the language almost entirely except where we retrofitted it to psilocybin.”
That became the language Denver voters approved by just over 50%.
“That’s more people than voted for Mayor Hancock,” she quipped.
The next step
Mayor Michael Hancock, who says he started in politics as a teenager on Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” anti-drug policy, opposed the initiative.
But after the vote, his office said, “Mayor Hancock respects the decision of the voters, and the Denver Police Department will enforce the law accordingly.”
Police spokesman John White said the department is waiting to see if — as expected — the vote outcome is certified this week by the Denver Elections Division.
“We’re working closely with the city attorney’s office, asking for assistance in interpretation,” White said. Once the department has that feedback, it will train its officers.
The initiative calls for Hancock to appoint a panel to oversee implementation of the measure by Dec. 31. Members would consist of one representative each from the Denver police and sheriff’s departments, two City Council members, and two citizens from the group that petitioned to put the measure on the ballot. Also, a criminal defense attorney, a certified addiction counselor, a harm reduction advocate and one representative each from the city attorney’s office and the district attorney’s office.
Critic Droege said the panel’s work to address unanswered questions about the initiative will be an important next step.
“Just because the initiative passed doesn’t mean that it’s like a new amusement park for people to come to experiment with psilocybin mushrooms,” he said. “And until they address those issues, then this initiative really cannot be enacted.”
Art Way, Colorado director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said the initiative won’t change much.
“It’s a great victory ... but it’s more symbolic when it comes to actual differences on the ground, when it comes to arrests and incarceration,” Way said. The panel could be significant though, he added.
“I think that review panel that’s set up is the biggest fundamental practical difference that was the result from 301,” Way said. “And hopefully those type of panels and that type of stakeholder development and discussion could be a part of a broader policy reform.”