While the legalization of medical and recreational cannabis is becoming more prevalent across the United States, activist organizations in Denver and Oregon are now pushing for the decriminalization of magic mushrooms. Groups in both areas are looking to decriminalize the use of psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found naturally in certain strains of mushrooms, and start a national conversation around the use of psychedelics to treat numerous mental health disorders.
Recent research has shown psilocybin to help cancer patients with depression and anxiety, relieve symptoms for people who experience cluster headaches, treat addiction, and could be an alternative to typical depression treatments in the general population.
Kevin Matthews, campaign director for advocacy group Denver for Psilocybin, says psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA could become more prevalent in psychiatric treatment as researchers continue to study their effects. “We’re in the middle of the psychedelic renaissance. I think it’s becoming more common because the results—at least the initial results from these studies—are so powerful and they kind of came out of left field,” Matthews says.
Matthews, a veteran who became interested in the medical benefits of psychedelics after researching MDMA’s effect on PTSD patients, says his organization’s goal is to include the question about decriminalizing the possession, use, and cultivation of the drug on the city’s ballot for their upcoming election in May 2019. They are currently finalizing the language they intend to use for the ballot measure to submit to city council before collecting signatures to gain a spot in the election.
Denver has a history of being a progressive city in regards to drug policy reform. In 2005, before medical and recreational cannabis policies became more commonplace across the US, Denver residents voted to legalize possession of up to an ounce of cannabis for individuals over the age of 21 within the city limits. The state of Colorado, along with Washington, was also the first to introduce legalized recreational cannabis use back in 2012. Matthews says he’s hopeful that residents will be as receptive towards decriminalizing psilocybin as they were towards cannabis.
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“There is a very strong underground culture of psychedelic use in Denver and the surrounding communities,” Matthews says. “Whether or not people will be receptive, I’m not really sure. That’s part of the exciting thing about this. At the very least, we get to spark a nationwide conversation around the use of psilocybin and other psychedelics.”
The state of Oregon shares a similarly progressive stance when it comes to drug policy reform. In 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis possession and in 2015 they joined the list of states to legalize recreational use of cannabis. More recently, the state reclassified possession of several drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine from a felony to a misdemeanor in an effort to curb drug abuse.
Angela Bacca, a representative for the Oregon Psilocybin Society (a community that raises awareness about the safety, benefits, and risks of the drug), believes residents will be ready for decriminalization of the drug in time for them to be included in the state’s 2020 ballot. “Oregon is not afraid to embrace novel ideas and solutions, especially when backed by science. People here are energized by this proposal.”
Oregon Psilocybin Society is aiming to further a breakthrough therapeutic model and decriminalize the medical use of psilocybin in licensed facilities under the supervision of a registered therapist. In contrast to the ongoing initiative in Denver, they are not looking to allow personal possession or cultivation of psychedelic mushrooms. Bacca explains that their core goal is to find new ways to treat mental health issues in their community.
“We think that this novel approach could help alleviate the mental health crisis here in Oregon by addressing costly epidemics like suicide, treatment-resistant depression and anxiety, PTSD, and addiction to drugs, alcohol, and nicotine,” Bacca says. Ideally, the measure would also open doors for new research, create access to services for those interested in personal development, and reduce penalties for common possession of psilocybin.
Prior to the Denver and Oregon initiatives to decriminalize psilocybin, Marina, California mayoral candidate Kevin Saunders filed a ballot measure to decriminalize the possession, sale, transportation and cultivation of psychedelic mushrooms. Ultimately, the measure failed but both organizations are hoping to see success in their respective areas by looking at the medical aspects instead of the recreational side of the argument.
Matthews says the largest factor contributing to the failed California decriminalization model was the unrealistic expectation proposed by Saunders to allow the sale of psychedelic mushrooms. He explains that psilocybin is a much more complex drug than cannabis and it shouldn’t be treated the same way.
“In the future, we can start talking about some kind of regulatory framework and I think that would look like perhaps psychedelic treatment centers, but nothing like where you can walk into a dispensary and walk out with a bag of mushrooms,” Matthews says. “They’re very powerful and individuals should at the very least know what they’re getting into.”
Although psilocybin has been proven to have a number of documented medical benefits, they aren’t safe for every person to use. According to the 2017 Global Drug Survey, mushrooms are the safest recreational drug to use and those who take them are the most sensible and prepared out of all drug users, but using them can result in bad trips for some people, particularly those with psychosis.
Magic mushrooms can take people on a very challenging trip mentally and can cause anxiety, nausea, paranoia, and depersonalization. A 2016 study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology showed that bad trips are actually beneficial for many users after the experience with 76 percent of respondents saying their bad trip resulted in an improved sense of well-being and outlook on life.
Despite bad trips having positive results for some users, a fraction of respondents reported violent behavior and even suicidal thoughts, reinforcing the need for psilocybin to be used carefully and in a clinical setting if possible. The factors that contributed the most to bad trips were taking the drug in an uncomfortable setting and not having support from a trustworthy person, both of which would not be present in a licensed facility.
Whether residents of Denver and Oregon will be open to the idea of decriminalizing psilocybin is still up in the air, but as research on the medical benefits of the drug continues to grow it will become increasingly difficult to argue against. Both Denver For Psilocybin and the Oregon Psilocybin Society plan to begin collecting signatures for their ballot measures this summer.
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