The feds have long considered psilocybin, the active compound in “magic mushrooms,” an illegal drug without any accepted medical uses. But marijuana-friendly hubs like Denver and Oregon could finally have a shot to change that narrative, at least at the state and local level. Advocates with the Oregon Psilocybin Society received formal approval last week to move ahead with their language for a 2020 state ballot initiative that would reduce criminal penalties on psilocybin and allow for its use during “guided sessions” at state-licensed facilities. Decriminalization efforts have moved a little further in Denver, where advocates have already started gathering signatures to put an initiative of their own on the municipal ballot in May 2019 that would decriminalize personal use, possession, and growth at the local level.
Both efforts still have a long way to go, though. A similar ballot initiative to decriminalize psilocybin already failed in California early this year, and advocates aren’t sure if they’ll try again.
“We spent all of our own money on the last campaign, and it was a lot of money. It really strapped us,” said Kitty Merchant, whose organization nabbed about 90,000 of the necessary 365,880 signatures for the ballot initiative. “If you don’t have a minimum of a million dollars or more to pay signature-gatherers, you’re not going to win.”
Currently, the U.S. classifies psilocybin a Schedule I substance, like heroin and LSD. That makes carrying the hallucinogen a nationwide felony and research difficult for professionals in the field.
But the Denver and Oregon groups trying to decriminalize psilocybin point to research from New York University’s Langone Medical Center and Johns Hopkins University, for example, that shows the drug can help cancer patients dealing with depression and anxiety. Researchers at Johns Hopkins also recently found that the hallucinogen has a low potential for abuse. And in October, a London-based company received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for expedited development and government review over its psilocybin-based therapy for depression not easily treated with other drugs.
Plus, magic mushrooms are only a minor worry for law enforcement. Police recorded just 4,107 seizures of psilocybin in 2017, a tiny fraction of the nearly 350,000 cases of meth, for example, according to federal data.
Here’s where advocates’ plans stand in the two locations:
To put an initiative on the 2020 ballot in Oregon, advocates need about 117,578 signatures or about one-sixth of the total population of Portland. The organizers — Portland-based psychotherapists Tom and Sheri Eckert, who run the Oregon Psilocybin Society — told VICE News they’ll start the process of gathering those next week, since they just received approval to do so.
Oregon’s advocates want to take a public health-oriented approach and create “safe environments, outside the public eye, where voyagers can comfortably explore the psychedelic experience using psilocybin,” according to the website for the initiative, the language of which the state recently approved. As part of the plan, the Oregon Health Authority would establish a program to regulate and track psilocybin use at licensed facilities, coupled with decriminalization for possession, manufacture and delivery.
Oregonians could then explore therapeutic uses for the substance in a state-approved, safe setting. Potential users would have to get the approval of their doctor and would have to undergo a preparatory therapy session.
Organizers with Decriminalize Denver need about 700 more signatures before Jan. 7 for their initiative to appear on the ballot in 2019, Kevin Matthews, the organization’s campaign director, told VICE News. In total, they’ve already gathered well over 4,000.
If the initiative then passes, Denver could become the first city to decriminalize the hallucinogen. Voters in the liberal-leaning city already passed legislation to legalize small amounts of marijuana in 2005, which made Denver one of the earliest major cities to adopt acceptance for recreational weed. For adults over 21, Denver’s initiative would ensure mushrooms become the “lowest law-enforcement priority in the city," Matthews said. Advocates also want to work closely with the local city council to study and track the local effects of the ordinance, which could provide more data on psilocybin use.
“For the most part, it seems like people are using this not for recreational use but because it provides them relief,” Matthews said. “It lets people lead more of a more normal life.”
Cover image: Magic mushrooms are being weighed and packaged at the Procare farm in Hazerswoude, central Netherlands on this Aug. 3, 2007 file photo. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)