It was a nail-biter finish three months ago, when Denver residents narrowly voted to decriminalize psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms. But Kevin Matthews isn't finished yet.
The former campaign manager for the Denver Psilocybin Initiative (DPI) is now in the process of building out a new nonprofit called the Society for Psychedelic Outreach, Reform, and Education—or, yes, SPORE. The way he described it, the project is dedicated to advocating for psychedelics in general—not just psilocybin—and though it's in the earliest of stages, the activist has both local and national aspirations. First, he and his allies want to teach Denver residents and officials about magic mushrooms and transform public opinion about the still relatively unfamiliar drug in the process.
More boldly, they want to offer strategic guidance (alongside similar groups like Decriminalize Nature, which won its own shroom victory in Oakland, California) to others hungry for psychedelic decriminalization—and perhaps even later pursue recreational legalization—across the country.
As Matthews put it, echoing a common sentiment among advocates and activists in the psychedelic space, "The cat's out of the bag." And now his crowd has some old-school lobbying muscle—and an inviting precedent in how weed legalization went national—to help make it happen.
At the moment, the biggest obstacle is that the Drug Enforcement Administration still classifies psilocybin as a Schedule I drug, which creates significant barriers for researchers to study its potential benefits. There's been a steady stream of movement in the halls of power, however. Last year, a team at Johns Hopkins that has been at the forefront of studying the mental-health applications of psilocybin called for it to lose this status, and the Food and Drug Administration also designated it as a "breakthrough therapy" for "treatment-resistant depression." In June, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got in on the action, pushing an amendment designed to limit these research hurdles, although it was readily shot down on the House floor. (Matthews refers to her and others, like Representatives Lou Correa, Ro Khanna, and Matt Gaetz, the latter a Republican, as part of a "psychedelic caucus.")
The people behind groups like SPORE want to bolster what is a mostly nonexistent lobbying arm on the psilocybin and hallucinogenic front. According to Matthews, his shop will be applying for 501(c)(3) status to make it easier to fundraise as a charity. (In this way, it won't be too dissimilar to MAPS, or the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit largely focused on research.) But if successful, Matthews will later apply for 501(c)(4) status afterward. The biggest difference is that the latter allows for something resembling lobbying under the mantle of "social welfare" advocacy, if not explicit political activity, as well as unlimited donations. 501(c)(4) status also allows donations to be anonymous. This is traditionally criticized by campaign finance reformers skeptical of "dark money," but could come in handy with a still-taboo substance like shrooms.
"I think in many ways, if you're familiar with NORML [the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws], they're both a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4), and they lobby at the state and federal level, for cannabis laws, and they are also involved in education, research, and services," Matthews said.
Unlike cannabis, it should be noted, decriminalizing psilocybin and other psychedelics doesn't necessarily have to do with righting egregious criminal-justice wrongs or accumulating gobs of tax revenue to fund social projects. It's more of a moral gesture, an assertion that people shouldn't be getting arrested for altering their minds. Should a legal recreational framework ever be set up, most advocates don't expect it to resemble the statewide market structure of pot. But they do think they can borrow tactics from that movement for their fight.
They still have a lot of work to do. As the Atlantic's James Hamblin reported in May, "Currently, the 'mushroom lobby' amounts to a microscopic spore in the fungal ecosystem that is lobbying." It's small, and it only really represents legal growers of more traditional mushrooms. (At least one prominent billionaire has been known to fund research related to magic mushrooms and other psychedelics.) According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the American Mushroom Institute's most recent tax returns reported $945,090 in revenue, and $811,680 in spending, and the American Mushroom Cooperative reported raising and spending around $1.3 million.
Reformers have been pushing ahead anyway. A group called the Oregon Psilocybin Society has already been approved by the IRS as a 501(c)(3). According to its own website, in March, the group raised nearly $80,000 at a benefit gala at the Portland Art Museum, and its signature medical legalization measure—not mere decriminalization—may be on the ballot in Oregon next year. Meanwhile, a Republican state legislator in Iowa has pushed a form of shroom decriminalization, though its prospects were less than clear.
In other words, the playing field is getting more crowded, and the process hasn't proved too complicated for advocates to make noise.
"There has long been a lobby for marijuana that has operated robustly on the Hill while the drug was, and is, illegal," said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a political reform group in Washington, D.C., adding that "the marijuana fights over the last decade, starting in Colorado, have diminished the stigma surrounding talking about these issues."
As the lobbying efforts take off, businesses dedicated to magic mushrooms and other psychedelics seem to be cropping up, too, particularly in Colorado.
Magic, a marketing firm based in Boulder, connected with the Denver shroom group through Matthew Duffy, an employee at the firm who also volunteered for the decriminalization campaign. He said he did much of their advertising, and, with his company, spearheaded public-relations outreach. Magic had plans to continue to collaborate with SPORE and other groups like it blossoming around the U.S.
"There are probably 20,000 marketing agencies in the world," said Marcus McNeill, the CEO of Magic. "We want to be the agency known for psychedelics. We bet early on this horse race."
This past Monday, Denver-based coffee company Sträva announced that it had "begun exploring the benefits and risks of combining micro-doses of psilocybin with their specialty coffee and tea products." Though the CEO, Andrew Aamot, admitted that his idea so far only existed on paper, he was confident he'd be able to sell his product on the market in the near future, much like he has with CBD-infused beverages.
"Just as our coffee today makes cannabis more approachable, it's also a great platform to introduce some of these more controversial botanicals to a new audience," he said. "Here in Denver, they've broken down the prohibition of [psilocybin] through decriminalization, and I see that as the same as it was for cannabis—the first steps toward a greater understanding and appreciation and more widespread acceptance."
"We're seeing the lid crack," Aamot continued. "And we do think mushrooms will follow a similar trajectory."
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