Denver, Colorado, became the first city in the United States to decriminalize psilocybin mushroom use. The drug is not legal, but advocates for medical psilocybin use see this decriminalization as a first step to legalization.
Colorado is well-known for its legislation legalizing recreational marijuana and the subsequent success of its recreational marijuana industry. The state was also among the first to legalize medical marijuana, a trend that has spread to over half the states in the country.
The psychedelic compound psilocybin is found in about 200 species of mushroom, which have historically been part of spiritual traditions among indigenous tribes in Central and South America, Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States.
Since the counterculture movements of the 1950s and 1960s, more people have been abusing mushrooms for recreational reasons. Users enjoy the visual and auditory hallucinations, changes to the perception of time and space, and other effects of the drug.
Psilocybin was placed in Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970.
Alongside the rise in popularity of marijuana for medical purposes, other substances are being used to manage mental and physical health, even though they are illegal for those purposes. LSD, ketamine, and ecstasy are all being applied in very small doses to ease depression or manage grief at the end of life. Shrooms are being applied for similar purposes.
Denver, Colorado, may become the first city in the United States to legalize medical use of shrooms. Based on a ballot measure, the city decriminalized shrooms and psilocybin in May 2019.
This will occur with Initiated Ordinance 301, the Psilocybin Mushroom Initiative. The initiative passed with 50.64 percent voting “yes,” and 49.36 percent voting “no,” on a public ballot.
Only 11 people in the large metropolitan area have been arrested on criminal charges for possessing these drugs. Advocacy groups pushing for decriminalization are instead focusing on eventually getting medical use of psilocybin legalized, with the first step being to remove harsh criminal penalties for possession or abuse.
Decriminalizing does not mean that it is now legal to possess shrooms in Denver, to have paraphernalia to use them, to manufacture them, or to sell them. Decriminalization means:
If someone younger than 21 years old possesses mushrooms, they may still suffer serious legal consequences. No one can grow, process, possess with intent to sell, or traffic psilocybin mushrooms without facing serious legal consequences.
This is the first step in what appears to be the next wave of drug legalization. Both California and Oregon may put medical psilocybin use on their ballots for 2020, and both Canada and Australia are considering movements to make psilocybin legal at the federal level.
Small medical studies and anecdotal reports suggest that psilocybin could be useful for treating these conditions:
There are other conditions that mushrooms may benefit, but there are not enough medical studies yet to determine that they could be an important component of their treatment. Arguments in support of shrooms argue that they will be greatly beneficial in treating mental health and reducing substance abuse from other drugs, like heroin or oxycodone.
Arguments against the initiative expressed concern for Colorado’s larger role in making dangerous drugs look safe by legalizing or decriminalizing them. This concern is compounded by the lack of scientific understanding of the potentially addictive properties of mushrooms or what long-term effects from regular use might look like.
Another concern, which was reduced during marijuana legalization by giving the state control over dispensaries, is the dosing of shrooms. A typical dose is about 3.5 grams, or one-eighth of an ounce, which is enough to fill the bottom of a small sandwich bag.
First-time users are recommended to start with a smaller dose because you build up tolerance over time. Since psilocybin comes from a natural source (mushrooms), it may be hard to measure a specific dose, which means it could be easy to take too much and suffer a bad trip, worsening mental health. This may even trigger a cycle of abuse that leads to ongoing problems.
Denver may be the first city in the country to decriminalize shrooms, but Colorado as a whole has a right-to-try law. This law allows terminally ill patients to try experimental drugs, including LSD or psilocybin, without getting permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to do so. As a result, a small number of people all around Colorado can legally use psilocybin as part of their palliative care.
More cities are following Denver’s example. Oakland, California, decriminalized shroom use and possession too.
Whether Colorado or any other state decides to legalize psilocybin for medical or recreational purposes, the first step in Denver can allow some insight into how the general public will use shrooms when they are not so illicit. Psilocybin abuse is not a widespread drug problem — compared to abuse of alcohol, marijuana, opioids, or cocaine — but thousands of people still use this substance for nonmedical reasons, which may be dangerous.
While few hallucinogens are considered addictive, shrooms are one of the few that people abuse repeatedly, so there may be an addictive component to these drugs.
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Psilocybin/Psilocin. (October 2013). Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR).
Denver, Colorado, Initiated Ordinance 301, Psilocybin Mushroom Initiative. (May 2019). Ballotpedia.
Magic Mushrooms Guide: Where Shrooms Are Legal and How to Take Psilocybin. (July 2019). Newsweek.
The Fight to Make Shroom Therapy Legal in Oregon. (August 2019). Vice.