Inside the Fight to Decriminalize Magic Mushrooms in Denver

Could hallucinogenic mushrooms be decriminalized next?

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DENVER — A ballot initiative that would make Denver the first city to decriminalize hallucinogenic mushrooms looks headed for failure. The vote happened Tuesday, and by early Wednesday, returns from the city's board of elections showed support for the initiative lagging, 48.33% to 51.7%.

The relatively close margins could provide some encouragement for activists, who had hoped to use the ballot initiative to set magic mushrooms on the eventual path to legalization. It's the same playbook used by marijuana advocates, who started the campaign for legalization with a similar ballot initiative in 2005 — also in Denver.


Psilocybin advocates claimed that the drug — which has an intensely ardent, if less widespread, fan base — could have significant therapeutic benefits, particularly for mental health conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress.

"What we've found is for the most part people who tend to be opposed initially, once they hear the research — once they hear that Johns Hopkins University and NYU have been conducting studies on psilocybin for almost 20 years now — they come around," Kevin Matthews, the campaign director for the Decriminalize Denver movement, told VICE News before the vote.

"The point of what we're doing here is to keep individuals out of jail, and to make sure that the culture of use that already exists here, these people don't have to worry about being criminalized or put in jail. It's a shame that it's a felony. It's a shame we're locking people up for this," he added.

The mushroom initiative flew largely under the radar on Tuesday, during a competitive race for mayor and a more controversial initiative that would have made it legal for people to camp out on city streets. Advocates of the so-called "right to survive" initiative argued that it was a necessary tool to help care for the city's homeless; critics said that sidewalks full of tents would be a potentially devastating blow to the city's economy and livability. The initiative failed by a margin of 82.82% to 17.18%.

That sentiment, and the heavy turnout against the proposal may have worked against mushroom advocates. Several Denver residents told VICE News over the weekend that, with the passage of legal marijuana legislation, the city felt like it was approaching a saturation point for drug use and cutting edge policy.

"I think we have the experience from the marijuana ballot issue that shows the sky's not going to fall if this passes," said Doug Friednash, who was Denver's city attorney in the early 2010s, when the state fully legalized recreational marijuana. "At the same time, I think what hasn't been vetted here is whether there's a reputational risk to the city of Denver by passing this. Are we seen as like, this illicit drug capital of the United States? Are we the Amsterdam of the West?"

This segment originally aired May 7, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.