Denver Chooses Science Over Fear In Magic Mushroom Vote

Denver is about to become a safe city for these psychotropic mushrooms. D.C.Auty CC-BY-2.0

The city of Denver has chosen, by the slimmest of margins, to ease enforcement of prohibitions on possession and consumption of psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychotropic mushrooms. The vote is a victory for people listening to science, rather than scare campaigns, and may also assist further research on the topic.

On May 7 Denver City Council held its elections for mayor, councilor, and several other positions. Also on the ballot were two questions, one seeking more compassionate treatment of homeless people and the other a national first about policing psilocybin-containing mushrooms. 

A city council cannot overturn state or federal laws on drug prohibition. Instead, advocates sought to make the policing of the laws within the city of Denver “lowest priority” for people aged 21 and over, effectively telling the police to do absolutely anything else rather than charge people with taking the mushrooms. The initiative also includes the establishment of a policy review panel to track both harms and benefits.

Opponents told the Denver Post their city was “becoming the illicit drug capital of the world” because apparently, they have never visited, or even heard of, towns devastated by opioid addiction.

Psilocybin is far from completely safe. Bad trips can be traumatic, and there are many anecdotal accounts of them leaving long-term damage. Confusing psychotropic mushrooms with poisonous ones can be deadly.

Nevertheless, there are increasing reports of major benefits from psilocybin consumption. Besides the pleasure and spiritual benefits people have gained for thousands of years from psychedelic experiences, claims have been made for significant reductions in anxiety and depression, as well as increased creativity. It may also help people kick more harmful drug habits.

Unfortunately, obstacles to experimenting on illegal drugs make these claims hard to confirm. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently attempted to address this by designating a psilocybin drug a “breakthrough therapy”, but getting approval for controlled trials continues to stifle studies.

It's too early to tell whether the ordinance, assuming it is actually implemented by a potentially resistant police force, will directly make it easier for Denver-based scientists to research the topic. However, indirect effects, such as destigmatization and the availability of purer samples are likely.

Moreover, just as Colorado led the nation in rolling back restrictions on cannabis use, the passage of the ballot, even by such a small margin, is a positive sign for 2020 ballots in Oregon and possibly California. If passed, these would unleash numerous studies in those states.

The homeless initiative lost in a landslide, and for most of the count it seemed mushrooms would lose as well, albeit much more narrowly. However, the last batch of votes to be counted (possibly stereotype-confirmingly the last mailed) put the yes vote ahead 50.56 percent, a margin under 2,000 votes.

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