Denver Makes History With First Meeting of Psychedelic Mushroom Panel

Psilocybin advocates gathered with city officials to talk decriminalization.
Psilocybin advocates gathered with city officials to talk decriminalization. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Kevin Matthews was feeling nervous as he walked around the Denver City and County Building.

Over the past year, Matthews had become something of an international figure in the drug reform world. After leading the psychedelic mushroom decriminalization movement in Denver, which resulted in the passage of Ordinance 301, the Psilocybin Mushroom Initiative, in May 2019, Matthews had been invited to speak about his achievements across the country and around the world.

But this meeting on Tuesday, February 11, which Matthews was chairing, was particularly important: It was the first official gathering of Denver's Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel.

With his nerves still on edge, Matthews took a deep breath and invited members of the panel to join him.

The lineup was unusual. Denver's district attorney and a deputy sheriff wearing his full uniform sat at a table with advocates ready to talk about the healing power of psychedelic mushrooms, in front of an audience of people wearing tie-dye shirts who'd come to watch Denver chart a path into the completely unexplored world of psychedelic mushroom decriminalization.

"It’s an honor to be sitting here today and working with the only municipal body of this kind in the world that has a mission to collect data and report on the effects of decriminalization in a metropolitan area," Matthews said to start the meeting of the panel, which also included lawyers, mental health practitioners, law enforcement stakeholders and other city officials.

Although Denver DA Beth McCann had opposed decriminalization, she'd said she liked the ordinance's language that called for a panel to study the effects of decriminalization if it did pass. And since Denver voters approved 301, some of her worries have dissipated.

"There was a concern that Denver would become a hub for people selling and using psilocybin," McCann told the panel. "But I haven’t been made aware of that from law enforcement."

The panel is charged with presenting a report to Denver City Council a year from now on the effects of decriminalization. But its first task is to establish reporting criteria for local law enforcement agencies regarding psychedelic mushrooms by March 31.

Panel members said they are interested in knowing about any arrests and prosecutions, as well as how those prosecutions end. They are also curious about the age and race of those who are contacted by law enforcement regarding psilocybin, whether those encounters involve other drugs or crimes, and the behavior of anyone arrested.

"If we know the type of behavioral situations that are happening, then we can educate on de-escalating," said Sara Gael Giron, a harm-reduction advocate from Boulder who's serving on the panel.

While this first meeting remained cordial, one moment suggested what could become a point of contention between city officials and psilocybin advocates: the amount that qualifies as personal possession.

"We should probably come up with an amount that below this is personal possession and above that is intent to distribute," said Zach Fleck, who was representing the city's Department of Safety.

In response, Matthews pointed out that he had previously discussed the issue of quantifying an amount of psilocybin for personal use with city officials, and he now reiterated what he had told them. "The city [does not], nor do we as a panel, have a right to say what an acceptable limit for personal use is. That should be up to an individual and a medical provider," Matthews said. "What we did agree on is that law enforcement can absolutely use their discretion. I think it might be more prudent to discuss what evidence for distribution looks like."

The Denver Police Department has made 53 arrests since the passage of 301, during which officers found psychedelic mushrooms — but most, if not all, of those cases included other drugs or crimes.

The ordinance did not decriminalize dealing psychedelic mushrooms in Denver, nor did it prevent federal law enforcement efforts regarding psilocybin offenses in the Mile High City.

Kole Milner learned that lesson the hard way in September 2019, when Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided his home and took away mushrooms and grow equipment. The DEA had tracked down Milner after learning about him through multiple news articles that talked about a Denver mushroom dealer. Federal prosecutors have not yet filed charges against him.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.