How Psilocybin Advocates Grew Denver's Trippiest Ballot Initiative

How Psilocybin Advocates Grew Denver's Trippiest Ballot Initiative
Jay Vollmar

At a recent fundraiser for his ballot initiative, Kevin Matthews stood before a crowd of fifty-plus supporters, many of whom looked like Burning Man regulars. They were there to support Matthews’s cause — decriminalizing psilocybin mushrooms — but also to dig into the mushroom-themed meal that had been prepared for the event.

Not wanting to delay dinner too long, Matthews didn’t mince words.

“May 7, 2019, is the first time in American history that people can vote on psilocybin,” he announced.

Although the mayoral race and the Right to Survive ballot question have received the most media attention ahead of May’s municipal elections, it’s Initiative 301 that has the potential to be the most historic. If it passes, Denver would become the first city in America to decriminalize possession, consumption and cultivation of “magic” mushrooms.

Just as groundbreaking as the initiative itself are the legal and ethical questions that implementing it would pose. Psilocybin — a psychedelic compound found in certain fungi — is still illegal, which means that Denver would traverse uncharted territory should I-301 pass, much as it did in 2005 and 2007, when residents voted to decriminalize limited cannabis possession.

Fueling the battle for Matthews are the life-changing experiences the former West Point cadet has had with psilocybin, which he says pulled him out of severe depression. In particular, he champions the fact that psilocybin is a naturally occurring compound with potential health benefits.

If I-301 passes, Matthews says, “in many ways, we’ll have reclaimed a natural right for people.”
click to enlarge Kevin Matthews cultivated I-301. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Kevin Matthews cultivated I-301.
Anthony Camera
Kevin Matthews didn’t always want to be involved in politics. But from a young age, the now-33-year-old Denver native knew he wanted to serve his country.

“When I was nine, I knew I wanted to be in the Army,” he says. “And my dad said, ‘Well, if you want to be in the Army, you’re smart enough to be an officer. And if you want to be an officer, you should go to West Point.’”

For the next ten years, Matthews worked toward that goal.

After graduating from East High School in 2004 and spending a year at a military prep school in New Mexico, he became a West Point cadet — and a member of the U.S. Army — in summer 2005.

“I loved it. I thrived. For me, it was really cool. I achieved the goal that I set out to achieve,” he says.

Matthews did well his first year, both academically and by showing a toughness and resolve that made him stand out. During one training exercise, cadets were exposed to tear gas and made to speak through all the bodily fluids oozing from their pained faces. After the drill was over, Matthews and a friend volunteered to go through it again, adding push-ups — unprompted — to their tasks. “That was the type of cadet I was,” he says.

But things changed his second year. His grades began to drop, and he started to feel depressed, drinking heavily to cope. By the time he entered his junior year, he knew something was terribly off. He saw a psychiatrist, who prescribed an anti-depressant and sleep aid.

“It just didn’t work. It wasn’t working. It’s tough to be on anti-depressants in such a fast-paced and stressful environment,” Matthews says.

Two weeks before fall semester finals, he emailed his tactical officer and his instructors, telling them that he was suicidal and was quitting the Army.

“That’s a pretty big deal. They put me on suicide watch and removed me from classes,” he recalls.

He left West Point before finishing the first half of his junior year, brokering a deal with the school that granted him medical leave for the remainder of that year. He was also allowed to restart the grade at the end of his medical leave.

But he returned to Denver, and the drinking and depression continued. He was arrested for a DUI in March 2008. “That’s really when I was like,‘I’m done. Something’s gotta change,’” he says.

“It opened my eyes. The doom and gloom disappeared, the fog cleared.”

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Matthews was medically discharged from the Army and is officially retired. “It was more important to me to solve my mental health issues than to be an officer in the U.S. Army,” he says. “I couldn’t fathom putting the lives of my soldiers at risk because I’m mentally unstable.”

Following his discharge, Matthews felt like his life lacked purpose. “I floated for a couple years. The trajectory of my life that I had planned for crumbled beneath my feet; it was gone,” he explains. “I needed to discover who the hell I was.”

He became a voracious reader of self-help books, started practicing meditation, and worked at the front desk of a local health club. Around 2011, he started hanging out with a new group of friends and began experimenting with psilocybin.

“It was like, wow,” Matthews says of his mushroom experiences. “It opened my eyes. The doom and gloom disappeared, the fog cleared. It lasted for weeks and weeks afterward.”

Though used by ancient civilizations for ritualistic purposes for thousands of years, psychedelic mushrooms didn’t gain traction in Western society until the twentieth century. In 1957, Life magazine published an article with an accompanying photo essay titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” in which R. Gordon Wasson, a New York investment banker, narrated his experiences participating in psychedelic mushroom ceremonies in Mexico.
click to enlarge Mushrooms can be eaten right after they're picked...or dried and saved for a rainy day. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Mushrooms can be eaten right after they're picked...or dried and saved for a rainy day.
Anthony Camera
As the ’60s counterculture emerged, psilocybin and other psychedelics became staples of hippie life — and antidotes to the frightening realities of the Vietnam War. “Psychedelics were nourishing the counterculture, and the counterculture was sapping the willingness of America’s young to fight,” author Michael Pollan wrote in his popular 2018 book How to Change Your Mind.

That quickly caught the attention of President Richard Nixon, and the pro-war conservative signed the Controlled Substance Act in 1970, which classified psilocybin as a Schedule I drug, the worst kind in the eyes of the Feds. It remains a Schedule I drug to this day.

But as with marijuana, another Schedule I drug, attitudes around psilocybin are starting to change. Criminal-justice reformers are beginning to push legislation that would decriminalize it. And Denver’s initiative is the closest that any has come to passing.

Tyler Williams, a drug-policy reform activist for more than a decade, informally started the campaign to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms in Denver in December 2017. That month, he began working on the first draft of a psilocybin-related initiative that would eventually lead to the creation of the Denver for Psilocybin campaign. Helping him lead the campaign was Matthews, who had schooled himself on the potential therapeutic effects of psilocybin and had taken an interest in social media and website building, skills that would come in handy to push 301.

Like Matthews, Williams credits psilocybin with helping him get over severe depression. Fueled by his own experience and history of advocacy, Williams wrote the first initiative, which would have lowered the penalties for psilocybin offenses; instead of going to prison, a person caught with psilocybin would instead receive a citation. He and other advocates submitted the initiative to the Denver Elections Division in early March 2018, with the goal of getting it on the November 2018 ballot.

But on March 21, Williams received a letter from the office notifying him that his initiative had been denied.

“Our office believes that some voters may erroneously conclude from the bill title that the proposed measure will make legal and prevent prosecution of the use, possession, transportation, cultivation, and transfer of mushrooms when that is not what the measure actually accomplishes,” the Denver Elections Division wrote. “The voters may not understand that the measure does not eliminate entirely prosecutorial action. Thus, the bill title is likely to mislead and confuse voters.”

Williams wanted to fine-tune the initiative to appease the Elections Division, but other members of Denver for Psilocybin decided to push for full decriminalization, which would eliminate the possibility of citations and prison time. “Our difference was a difference in belief of what was possible: playing it safe or going all the way,” Matthews recalls. “I didn’t want to invest my time in it if we weren’t going to go all the way.” The decision caused Williams to abandon his leadership role (he has stayed on as an occasional consultant and signature-gatherer).

Matthews assumed full control of the campaign, which started to lose more members. “I think they felt like it was going to be too difficult to push this thing forward, and they were unsure of my ability to lead the team and lead people,” Matthews admits. “I was being too pushy with people. I realized quickly that that was not gonna work.”

But, he says, “the passion was there. I believe in this.”

Matthews explains that the campaign has focused on decriminalizing psilocybin — and not other psychedelics or narcotics in general — because it is naturally occurring, relatively easy to produce and has the backing of scientific research.

In 2006, about fifteen years after the federal government started reducing some of the barriers to researching psychedelics, Johns Hopkins University published a now-famous study titled “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.”

Here’s an excerpt from the discussion section of the study:

“The present double-blind study shows that psilocybin, when administered under comfortable, structured, interpersonally supported conditions to volunteers who reported regular participation in religious or spiritual activities, occasioned experiences which had marked similarities to classic mystical experiences and which were rated by volunteers as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance. Furthermore, the volunteers attributed to the experience sustained positive changes in attitudes and behavior that were consistent with changes rated by friends and family.”

And according to a fall 2018 paper published in Neuropharmacology, psilocybin studies “indicate low abuse and no physical dependence potential.” The report supports the reclassification of psilocybin to Schedule IV or lower.

Research has also shown that psilocybin may help in treating various mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression related to terminal illness and clinical depression. A Johns Hopkins study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2016 showed that terminally ill patients treated with psilocybin had “substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety,”and last year, life-sciences company COMPASS Pathways received a “breakthrough therapy” designation from the FDA for its work around treating depression using psilocybin in place of traditional anti-depressants.

After Matthews took the reins of the Denver for Psilocybin campaign, he tried one last time to get on the November 2018 ballot, using decriminalization language from a failed initiative in California. However, the Elections Division turned away his second attempt, again claiming that it did not clearly explain its intent.

Matthews needed to hit the reset button. “After we got rejected that second time, I knew that there was no way we were going to make November,” he says. “We decided to shoot for next May. That was a blessing.”

He decided to recruit experienced minds to his cause, cold-emailing Noah Potter, a New York lawyer specializing in drug law and policy. Potter called him soon after, and they spent an hour on the phone.

“The previous version attempted to decree that the criminal law of Colorado would not apply in Denver,” Potter says. The approach made sense for California, he explains, since it would have exempted all residents of California from certain state laws. But it didn’t make sense for Denver, as it would’ve exempted only Denver residents from state law. “You can’t really do that,” Potter says. “It’s a basic matter of different levels of hierarchy of government. The local government can’t tell the state what state law is.”

Potter and Matthews then began writing a new ballot initiative based on the Denver marijuana decriminalization effort of 2007. Like its predecessor, Initiative 301 makes enforcing laws against psilocybin a low priority for law enforcement. It also allows residents to grow psilocybin mushrooms at home, which was a priority for Matthews and Potter.

“Kevin was clear — and I would agree with him — that it’s important to extend the protections of this local law to cultivation for individual use,” says Potter, who worked on the ballot’s language pro bono. “Possession and consumption are basic. But the propagation — control over even the smallest atomic level of the supply side — is a very important thing.”

“My primary concern with the decriminalization initiative is that I don’t think they’re being honest.”

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In addition to recruiting Potter, Matthews called on Vicente Sederberg LLC, a Denver-based national marijuana law firm, for help with the language.

“We were proud to assist the initiative proponents in drafting a measure that can mitigate the harms being caused by current state laws that treat psilocybin possession as a felony offense,” says Joshua Kappel, one of the firm’s lawyers. “This forward-thinking measure has started a much-needed conversation about psilocybin, its therapeutic potential and how it should be treated in our city and in our society.”

I-301 would make possession, consumption and propagation of psilocybin a low priority for law enforcement and would prohibit the city from prosecuting such cases. Distribution was left out of the initiative because it would require licensing and regulation, and “that’s a step way too far,” according to Matthews. So a person caught dealing mushrooms would still be held criminally liable.

In September, Matthews switched the campaign’s name to Decriminalize Denver. And after the Denver Elections Division approved the initiative in early October, he and his team began collecting the requisite 5,000 or so signatures needed before the January 7 deadline to make it onto the May 2019 ballot.
click to enlarge Travis Tyler Fluck gathered 1,500 signatures for the I-301 campaign. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Travis Tyler Fluck gathered 1,500 signatures for the I-301 campaign.
Anthony Camera
The initial plan was to gather signatures outside concert venues. But that strategy didn’t work. “People weren’t writing super-legible, and some weren’t even from Denver County but would tell me they were,” says signature-gatherer Travis Tyler Fluck.

The canvassers refocused their efforts on places that had plenty of sober locals: grocery stores. That plan netted double the amount of viable signatures they had gathered at concert venues.

After submitting the requisite number of signatures, the campaign began fundraising. According to the most recent data available, it has raised close to $24,000 and spent just over $15,000. Its largest contributor, Devin Alvarez, is also a member of the campaign.

Although there is no formalized opposition to the campaign, it has its naysayers, including Jeff Hunt, director of the conservative Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University and a frequent critic of the marijuana industry.

“My primary concern with the decriminalization initiative is that I don’t think they’re being honest,” says Hunt. “I think the end goal here is commercialization. I think they’re following the playbook of marijuana. It’s all about the bottom line, making a buck.

“We’re gonna face a lot of consequences from this, whether it’s violence or car accidents,” he adds. “We’re deeply concerned about all of these things.”

Matthews argues that Decriminalize Denver’s intentions are pure. “I understand Jeff’s concerns, but I really disagree,” he says. “We’re not going to see psilocybin shops or psilocybin in dispensaries for a long time. I think Jeff, in many ways, might represent the old guard of obstructionists and prohibitionists.”

Should I-301 pass, its rollout could mirror the 2007 initiative that decriminalized cannabis — for better and for worse.

“That measure passed with 57 percent of the vote,” says Mason Tvert, a local and national marijuana-rights activist who worked on it. “But the city continued to enforce citations. In fact, we saw an increase in citations in that general time period.”

The Denver Police Department says that it does not have an official position on I-301, but “should the initiative pass, we will evaluate its effects and coordinate with other city departments to determine next steps,” the department wrote in an email. “DPD will follow laws as governed.”

District Attorney Beth McCann, whose office prosecutes all city cases involving psilocybin charges, mostly opposes the initiative. “We’re still in the early stages of marijuana legalization, and we are still learning its impact,” a spokesperson for the office says. While McCann is concerned that Denver may become a magnet for psilocybin users, she says she supports forming a committee to study psilocybin and the effects of decriminalization.

Matthews uses Denver’s relatively small number of psilocybin cases as evidence that the initiative is warranted. Of the 9,267 drug cases filed between 2016 and 2018, only eleven involved psilocybin, and only three led to charges for possession with intent to manufacture or distribute. Those numbers are minuscule compared to the 152 cases filed for LSD and 3,534 for cocaine over the same period. And between 2016 and 2018, the DPD arrested just over fifty people per year for psilocybin-related offenses.

“If the numbers are so small and there isn’t a risk to public health and safety, then let’s decriminalize it,” he says. “Despite it being a small number, one arrest is too many.”

He adds that if I-301 passes and is ignored by the police department or the mayor, he and his team will take legal action. “If that’s the case, then it’s going to end up in court,” Matthews says.

But the spokesperson from the DA’s office predicts that the impact of 301 “is going to be minimal, because we don’t file [many of] these cases in the first place,” pointing out that McCann prioritizes treatment over prosecution.
click to enlarge ANTHONY CAMERA
Anthony Camera
Mayor Michael Hancock opposes the initiative, though his office declines to elaborate. Mayoral candidates Penfield Tate and Jamie Giellis also don’t support it.

“I’m not supporting it at this time because I haven’t seen enough data and research about the issue,” Giellis says in a statement.

Although mayoral hopeful Lisa Calderón generally supports criminal-justice reform efforts and decriminalization, a spokesperson for her campaign says she isn’t officially endorsing the initiative “because she’s focusing on her own race.”

Chairman Seku and Kalyn Heffernan are the outliers: They support I-301. Writes Heffernan: “I most certainly support the initiative and decriminalizing drugs all together, most especially those with holistic properties!”

The Denver City Attorney’s Office says it will only analyze I-301 and offer guidance to the mayor’s office and law enforcement agencies if the initiative passes. “We would follow the law like we would any law,” the office says in a statement.

Denver City Council may amend or repeal a voter-approved initiative six months after it passes with a supermajority, or nine votes. But council president Jolon Clark says he doesn’t anticipate taking that route unless there is some “huge unintended consequence” associated with the initiative. That means it would potentially avoid the fate of the Green Roof measure, a recent initiative passed by Denver voters that critics argue was later watered down by a city task force. And given that I-301 is about decriminalization and not legalization and commercialization, it wouldn’t require licensing from Denver Excise and Licenses, a step that has delayed, at least in part, fully implementing a voter-approved marijuana social consumption initiative.

Matthews says he is committed to working with local authorities to ensure that the measure would be implemented smoothly. I-301 would create a mayor-appointed review panel to study the effects of decriminalization and would include city officials, two people from the campaign, two city council members, an addiction counselor, a harm-reduction advocate and a criminal defense attorney.

“This is such an opportunity for the Denver police and sheriff’s departments,” he continues. “We want to make sure that they’re educated on it. We would much rather reduce harm and give law enforcement the tools they need.”

If 301 proves successful, Matthews plans to help similar initiatives outside Denver, including in Oregon, where advocates are pushing a psilocybin measure for the 2020 statewide ballot.

“It’s not a one-and-done if this is successful,” he says. “We’ve got so much more work to do, especially in changing the public narrative. It’ll be a real opportunity to start to change the cultural conversation in a really profound way.”
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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.