Denver’s decriminalization of psilocybin mushrooms prompts questions in Utah

Local News

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News/Associated Press) –  Voters narrowly made Denver the first U.S. city to decriminalize psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in “magic mushrooms” on Wednesday.

Decriminalization led by a slim 51 percent, according to preliminary figures on Tuesday’s election released by Denver’s Election Division.

As many as 1,300 votes still remain to be counted, but that figure was not enough to swing the vote the other way, according to division spokesman Alton Dillard. He said final election results will be released on May 16th.

“I think the outcome really demonstrates that the conversation is going to continue, and the world is ready for it,” said Cindy Sovine, chief political strategist for the campaign to decriminalize the drug.

Matthew Johnson, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said psilocybin does not have addictive qualities.

“It can be used dangerous, in other words, it can be abused, used in a way that harms the self or other people. But we know absolutely that it’s not a drug of addiction. It doesn’t cause that reliable euphoria that you typically get from other drugs,” said Johnson.

Organizers turned to the same strategy that marijuana activists used to decriminalize pot possession in Denver in 2005. That move was followed by statewide legalization in 2012. A number of other states have since broadly allowed marijuana sales and use by adults.

Organizers say their only goal in the mushroom measure is to keep people out of jail in Denver for using or possessing the drug to cope with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and other conditions.

“We’re not talking about legalization, we’re talking about not putting people in jail,” Sovine said.

The initiative effectively decriminalizes use or possession of psilocybin by people 21 and older, making it the lowest enforcement priority for police and prosecutors. It does not legalize psilocybin or permit its sale by cannabis businesses.

“Just because they’ve decided that giving people felonies as a way to address drug use is not a good strategy, that doesn’t mean that they are telling people that they should go use this,” said Johnson. “I don’t encourage anyone to use this outside of an approved, controlled setting like our clinical research. There are very real risks.”

He also said there’s no known lethal direct overdose and no known dosage that will cause organ failure from psilocybin.

“That being said, casualties are rare but they do happen through behavioral toxicity, which is a fancy way of saying ‘doing something stupid when you’re on the drug.’ said Johnson. “I
never envisioned this would be, ‘take 2 and call me in the morning’ should it be FDA-approved. It would involve going to treatment centers that look more like outpatient surgery, whether there’s preparation, monitoring, and a loved one taking you home.”

Psilocybin has been federally outlawed since the 1960s when it was widely known as a recreational drug. The ban stymied medical research, but small studies in recent years have found the substance had positive effects on anxiety and depression for cancer patients.

Users have described seeing vivid colors and geometric patterns and experiencing powerful spiritual connections and emotions.

Magic mushrooms have been used in religious practices for decades because of their powerful effect on perceptions and spiritual experiences. Those same effects have appealed to recreational users dating to the 1960s counterculture movement.

Olivia McKee, a Utah resident, said they have experienced therapeutic effects from psilocybin while suffering from migraines, depression, PTSD, and symptoms from autism.

“Sensory overload becomes a very debilitating symptom of my neurological condition and one of the physical alleviations that I was able to experience was almost a buffering effect of that sensory overload experience,” said McKee. “I could tolerate light with more frequency and longer duration, sound, and touch weren’t so abrasive to me physically.”

A California effort to decriminalize psilocybin failed to qualify for the statewide ballot in 2018. Organizers in Oregon are trying to gather enough support to put an initiative to a statewide vote next year.

Johnson said he doesn’t believe psilocybin will follow in the legal footsteps of marijuana.

“I think it’s less likely with mushrooms. For one reason, far fewer people use psilocybin mushrooms compared to cannabis and in part, that’s the nature of the drug. It’s a more intense drug experience,” he said. “It’s not a more reliable, euphoric drug-type effect. You don’t have daily users of psychedelics so there would be far fewer people pushing for ballot initiatives.”

But McKee hopes to see other cities like Salt Lake City follow in the footsteps of Denver.

“Considering the statistics of mental health sufferers in the state, considering children who have committed suicide, considering veterans that suffer with no relief because there’s just not any current medication that helps them, for me, it’s a matter of compassion,” said McKee. “If Denver can see the benefits and also reap the rewards in that they have a decrease in homelessness, decrease in addiction, why wouldn’t you do that for your city?”

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