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Denver voters might decriminalize 'magic mushrooms'

Veterans are the public face of Tuesday's push to lower the penalties for possession of psilocybin.

By Jean Lotus
Denver voters might decriminalize 'magic mushrooms'
Use of psilocybin mushrooms could become decriminalized if Denver voters approve on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Drug Enforcement Administration

DENVER, May 3 (UPI) -- Denver voters next week may experience the deja vu of thawing marijuana laws 10 years ago. An initiative to decriminalize "magic mushrooms" will appear on municipal ballots Tuesday.

The "Decriminalize Denver" campaign is following a similar path blazed by early marijuana legalization advocates to drop possession of the hallucinogen psilocybin in small quantities by adults over 21 to a "lowest law-enforcement priority."

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Selling the mushrooms still would be illegal under the law. The proposed initiated ordinance, I-301, also creates a "policy review panel," similar to the city's first marijuana review group, to assess the new law.

Organizers in Denver struggled three times to get the issue on the ballot. They were rejected twice in 2018 for unclear language. Finally, in January, they submitted more than 8,000 signatures -- enough to secure ballot space.

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Another measure that may open the path to legalization for magic mushrooms is being proposed for the 2020 statewide ballot in Oregon.

Shrooms 'saved my life'

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver District Attorney Beth McCann oppose the ballot measure. Other opponents fear it will add negatively to the "druggy" reputation of Denver already tarnished by legalized pot.

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But the group of veterans who are leading -- and financing -- the ballot measure credit the use of hallucinogens to their own path toward healing from treatment-resistant depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol abuse.

"The mushrooms saved my life," said Kevin Matthews, 33, a father who is leading the campaign.

Matthews, a Denver native, said severe depression made him give up his lifelong dream of becoming a U.S. Army officer, forcing him to drop out of the U.S. Military Academy with a medical discharge at age 23.

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"I didn't feel it would be a responsible choice to be an officer leading men and women into combat," he told UPI.

Having been prescribed anti-depression drugs and sleeping pills, he said his first experience consuming "shrooms" with a group of friends gave him a "spiritual" experience, elevating him out of his mental state.

"I could see very clearly, I had people who loved me, which enabled me to see to make a choice -- choose to be depressed or realize that there's so much more possibility here," Matthews said, adding that the positive effects of the four-hour "trip" lasted for several weeks.

Limited studies

Matthews' street-drug experience echoes the results of several small, controlled studies in the United States and the United Kingdom that have shown psilocybin use forms synapse pathways to create a "hyperconnected brain."

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A 2016 Johns Hopkins study of 51 terminal cancer patients showed that treatment with a low doses of psilocybin reduced depression and anxiety. A 2017 study of 20 patients with hard-to-treat depression at the Imperial College London described feeling "reset" after treatment with magic mushrooms, lead researcher Robin Carhart-Harris said.

Carhart-Harris told UPI one patient said he felt like his brain had been "defragged" like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt "rebooted."

Part of the reason studies are so small is that psilocybin, the active compound in more than 100 species of fungus, is considered a Schedule 1 drug by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration alongside drugs like heroin.

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration recategorized psilocybin to "Breakthrough Therapy" status, which supporters hope eventually will knock the drug off the Schedule 1 tier and make medical research easier.

The trip

A hallucinogenic experience with magic mushrooms has been described as a lighter version of an LSD trip. Users describe sometimes seeing patterns or different colors and distorted objects and having an intense emotional state that lasts about five hours.

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But the experience also can be frightening.

A "bad trip" study at Johns Hopkins showed that of almost 2,000 people surveyed about a negative experience, three had attempted suicide during their "worst trip."

This is the concern of Peter Droege, fellow of drug policy at Colorado's conservative Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University.

"The idea that you can legalize someone walking down the street who might be struggling with hallucinations and psychosis -- it shows the misguided thinking that's behind this initiative," Droege told UPI. Droege believes Denver is trying to shake the city's "420 destination" reputation after the legalization of marijuana.

Droege and other critics point out the proposed law is not the same as psychiatric treatment in a therapeutic setting, where drugs are measured and confirmed for purity.

"People say they took this drug and it rewired their brain. It may do that in a good way, but also in an incredibly harmful way," Droege said. Supporters are "getting so far ahead of the science and making wild claims."

With about 30 to 50 users arrested each year in Denver, (about 160 arrests since 2016) magic mushrooms already are a low law-enforcement priority. Possession of psilocybin can lead to sentences of up to a year in prison.

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It's also unclear the law could be enforced. In 2005 and 2007, Denver voters passed laws prohibiting low-level arrests for marijuana, but police still arrested people caught with pot.

Support from veterans

Droege points to the owners of CBD and medical marijuana companies who have bankrolled the magic mushrooms campaign as the real push behind the initiative.

"They want to create a black market. There will be mushroom millionaires made if this initiative passes," he said.

One donor, Devin Alvarez, owner of Simple Hemp, has given about $12,000 to the campaign. He denies that his company wants to create a recreational commodity model for magic mushrooms.

Alvarez, a U.S. Air Force veteran, said his experience with psilocybin in his 20s rebooted him from a period of heavy drinking after a DUI. Alvarez said his family has had more than its share of opioid addictions and fatal overdoses.

"If [psilocybin] were available or less demonized, perhaps these people would be still be alive today," he told UPI. Alvarez's father, also a veteran, hopes to participate in an expanded clinical trial for veterans to treat PTSD with MDMA, the main ingredient in illegal street drug Ecstasy.

He refers to consuming magic mushrooms as a victimless crime and an example of "cognitive liberty."

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With the veteran population beset by suicides and mental health struggles, Alvarez says members are interested in natural alternatives.

"Big Pharma, while effective in many cases, does not really solve our problems here. We need other methods," he said.

Former U.S. infantry soldier Matthew Kahl, 41, of Keller County, west of Pike's Peak, has supported the initiative through his non-profit Veterans for Natural Rights.

Kahl said he was injured in combat, suffering body and face wounds, as well as a traumatic brain injury. When he was released from the military on a medical discharge, "I was drooling on myself, on 20 medications, and I could not carry on a normal life," he told UPI.

Kahl said he used medical cannabis to "titrate down" the meds, but it was hallucinogens like magic mushrooms that finally gave him "a new connection with the experience of life."

Hallucinogenic drugs, in a controlled environment gave him the understanding that "PTSD is not a life sentence, and it's not a death sentence, either," he said.

Kahl pointed out that fungi with psilocybin were used in religious ceremonies in Latin and Central America for hundreds, and maybe thousands, of years before being outlawed in the United States by the federal government in the 1970s.

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The government has prohibited the use of naturally occurring plants and fungi "because they work and make you feel good," he said. "These things can help fix you and leave you fixed."

The vote in Denver has attracted interest from around the world, organizer Matthews said, and will certainly give magic mushrooms more visibility in Colorado.

Campaign funder Devin Alvarez agreed.

"Even if [the ballot issue] doesn't pass, it's a win because we're furthering that conversation publicly, to educate people on how [psilocybin] is helping folks," he said.

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