A new front opens up: psychoactive mushroom decriminalization in Denver

I’m pleased to announce that two psychoactive mushroom decriminalization initiatives were filed on Monday (Rosh Hashanah, wouldn’t you know) with the Denver City Council. (See articles in Westword and The Rooster.)

Of course this development is a big deal. (Note that I’m biased, having worked with the initiative organizer, Kevin Matthews, on the text for several months.) It’s a new front in the crucial struggle to roll back the horror that is psychedelic prohibition. It is not intended to undercut the valiant work of the clinical researchers and the tireless work of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.  It is several things.

It is an educational opportunity – a challenge to anyone who opposes this very modest step to state the basis for their opposition with particularity. It provides the opportunity to force policymakers to engage with the history of psychedelic use stretching back into antiquity, the surge in psychedelic research in the 1950s and 1960s – in which psychedelics were considered potential miracle breakthroughs in mental health treatment, the cessation of research in a moral panic and political backlash against the will of the researchers and the resulting public health atrocity of slamming shut the door that was opening into the human mind and dead-bolting it against potentially life-saving pharmacotherapies, leaving the field open to crack, opioids, tobacco and the millenia-old scourge of alcohol  and restricting the market for psychiatric medications to interventions that contemplate nothing more than minimizing symptoms.

It is an opportunity to switch the burden of proof: in light of (a) the historical record showing that there was no valid policy basis for ending research and (b) the now-widely-recognized inaccuracies underlying cannabis prohibition, it is not psychedelic legalizers who must explain why psychedelic substances should be re-legalized. Instead, it is incumbent upon the opponents of increased access to psychedelics to explain why prohibition should continue since there was never a valid basis to prohibit them in the first place. This reversal of the burden of proof is especially true of naturally-occurring psychedelic biologicals (e.g psychoactive mushrooms, iboga, ayahuasca) with a history of use that predates or otherwise operates outside “modern medicine.” Ah, the arrogance of the conquerors.

There are now two fronts open. First, there is the laborious, time-intensive and money-intensive pathway to obtaining the federal government’s approval of psychedelic substances for marketing in interstate commerce (i.e. demonstrating to the satisfaction of the FDA that they are “safe” and “effective” for treating some particular medical condition.) MAPS and clinical researchers in numerous locations are fighting that good fight. Meanwhile, the Denver initiative opens the second front: it engages local government in a manner similar to the movement to legalize needle exchange in the 1980s, the current movement to legalize supervised injection facilities and the movement to make cannabis arrests the lowest law enforcement priority of local government ( which provides the model for the current initiative). These two efforts should be complementary: forcing open a public conversation at the local level should put into context the uphill battle MAPS has fought for more than 30 years and induce policymakers to facilitate research – if not prioritize and even fund it.

Federal prohibition creates a bottle-neck in which policy reform is out of reach of the ordinary citizen. The people of a progressive locality are throttled by the biases of legislators (perhaps voters – although the will of the people does not figure highly in the effort to maintain cannabis prohibition) in distant states or even within more conservative parts of their own state. A movement to change law at the local level  attempts to return to individual communities the ability to govern themselves.

The third front in psychedelic legalization is not open yet: movements to end prohibition at the state level, which is the story of cannabis legalization dating back to the U.S. v. Randall (1976) decision in Washington, D.C., followed by Proposition 215 in California in 1996 and the initiation of the Space Age with full legalization in Colorado and Washington in 2012.

The next stage for the Denver Psychoactive Mushroom Decriminalization Initiative (“DPMDI”) is a full-court press by the organizers to get the initiative on the ballot by gathering signatures. Kevin has assembled an awesome coalition in Denver and all indications to date from the extensive media coverage earlier efforts received is that there will be more extensive coverage of the DPMDI. I’m informed that there is a risk that the Denver Elections Division could reject the initiative. In the event that the initiative gets on the ballot and passes, there will be legal challenges, likely on the basis of the “preemption doctrine” (in which state law “preempts” – nullifies – contrary local law). However, the filing of the initiatives is already a victory and whatever media coverage that follows amplifies the victory further. In addition, there are “Psychedelic Societies” springing up in localities around the US and indeed in other countries as well. Supporters of decriminalization of psychoactive mushrooms – and perhaps psychedelic biologicals everywhere – have an example of action they can take in their own backyards.



One thought on “A new front opens up: psychoactive mushroom decriminalization in Denver

  1. Thanks so much for your work on this. Proposed legislation like this and its related educational opportunities are such an important step in this process, especially now that the current Supreme Court composition now makes less likely any successful substantive due process or first amendment challenge to prohibition at the federal level. Education, awareness and open and honest discussion with our friends and neighbors in our communities are the growing waves to comprise a rising tide of municipal and eventually state level reform for a sensable scheduling of substances that is based in and supported by science–if not also spirituality and history. Or better yet, the end of all prohibition entirely.


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