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Denver Abiding by Mushroom Decriminalization Rules, Still Going After Dealers

When Denver decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms, that didn't change federal law.
When Denver decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms, that didn't change federal law.
Anthony Camera

Last November, a Denver man in his mid-twenties was about to score a big sale.

We'll call him Lynshort, the pseudonym he requested as a condition of speaking with Westword. "I needed the money real bad," he says of the psychedelic-mushroom deal he'd set up for that day for Jen, a customer he'd been working with since January 2019, after a fellow mushroom dealer passed her along to him.

"She seemed like a business lady who wanted to be a weekend warrior," Lynshort recalls. "She bought an ounce the first time."

This time, Jen wanted to buy four ounces. Lynshort was anticipating collecting around $600 from the sale, almost all of it profit, since growing mushrooms has very little overhead.

The money made him ignore the fact that something seemed a little off. "I just had that bad feeling because of what happened to Kole," he says, referring to Kole Milner, a Denver resident in his late-twenties who'd been busted by the feds that September for allegedly growing and selling mushrooms out of his apartment. "I should’ve taken my own advice."

Lynshort met Jen in her car not far from his Denver apartment building. They exchanged the mushrooms for the money, and then Lynshort headed back to his apartment. Seconds later, sirens blared and cop cars swarmed the parking lot.

"It was straight out of a movie," Lynshort recalls. Jen, the presumed weekend warrior, turned out to be Jessica DelaRow, a detective with the Denver Police Department. DelaRow had gone undercover and was wearing a wire as she engaged in transactions with Lynshort, who was soon cuffed and booked into the downtown Denver jail.

Although Lynshort ended up taking a somewhat friendly plea agreement, his arrest and subsequent prosecution show that Denver law enforcement officials are still going after psychedelic mushroom dealing, even though personal use, possession and consumption of psilocybin have been decriminalized since Denver voters approved Initiative 301 in May 2019.

That initiative, which passed by the thinnest margin in a surprise, last-second upset, essentially dictated that Denver law enforcement should stop going after minor psychedelic-mushroom offenses. The referendum made history, since this was the first time that residents of an American city had ever voted to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms, which the federal government classifies as a Schedule I substance.

While the initiative did not affect the feds — which is why they were able to go after Milner — Denver law enforcement officials say that they've been following the initiative's stipulations.

"I will confirm that we respect the voter's decision and are abiding by the initiative in both the letter and the spirit," says Carolyn Tyler, a spokesperson for the office of Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, who adds that McCann has been doing her best to educate herself about psychedelic mushrooms since the initiative's passage.

That self-education includes reading How to Change Your Mind, a 2018 book by Michael Pollan about the history of psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, and the potential therapeutic benefits of responsible psychedelic-mushroom use. McCann has also spoken with psychedelic-mushroom advocates about research that shows a nexus between psilocybin use and the substance's "medical use for treating mental health issues," Tyler says.

"In addition, DA McCann is an active member of the Policy Review Panel, which has established reporting criteria regarding arrests and prosecutions for the Denver Police Department, Denver Sheriff’s Office and City Attorney’s Office. Moreover, the panel is on track to meet its deadline for submitting its first report to city council regarding any public safety, public health and fiscal impact since the initiative went into effect," Tyler notes.

The Denver Police Department is also in compliance with the new city ordinance: Officers are treating psychedelic mushrooms as a lowest law-enforcement priority per the stipulations of the initiative, according to Kelli Christensen, a spokesperson for the city's Department of Public Safety.

"If an officer finds a small amount [of psychedelic mushrooms] on a person after a search, they have the discretion to arrest them for it. Ultimately, the decision to file charges will lie with the District Attorney’s office. It depends on the situation," says Jay Casillas, a DPD spokesperson.

Since decriminalization took effect in May 2019, the vast majority of Denver police arrests somehow connected to psilocybin have involved other alleged offenses. In one case, police arrested someone for being a felon in possession of a firearm, and then found psychedelic mushrooms during the arrest. In another, an officer arrested someone on charges of selling meth and found mushrooms in their possession.

When McCann's office prosecutes a case involving psilocybin possession, consumption or growth, it usually involves a much more major, non-mushroom crime.

But that office and the DPD are drawing the line at ignoring dealing, as evidenced by the sting that caught Lynshort.

McCann's office charged Lynshort with four felonies: two for distribution of psychedelic mushrooms, one for manufacturing the mushrooms, and one for distribution of LSD. That last charge stems from the three LSD tabs in Lynshort's apartment when they raided it following his arrest, according to Lynshort.

Lynshort's lawyer and the DA's office were eventually able to strike a deal that allowed for three of the felony charges to be thrown out in exchange for Lynshort pleading guilty to the one felony charge related to LSD. By pleading guilty, Lynshort avoided any potential lock-up time and got a deferred judgment of eighteen months. As long as he abides by the requirements of probation, the felony charge will be wiped off his record at the end of the eighteen months.

"Overall, it’s not like I was treated poorly by the system, and what ended up happening, I guess, was a reasonable outcome," says Lynshort, who believes that all substances should be legalized and regulated. "They just wanted to punish me in some sort of way. I definitely think that they’re trying to make a statement that you’re not allowed to do this."

And that's true. "While Denver voters chose to make possession and use of low levels of psilocybin the lowest-level offense, distribution of psilocybin remains illegal," Tyler points out. "The plea agreement that we reached with [Lynshort] serves the public’s interest, and we feel justice was served."

Kevin Matthews, head of the decriminalization campaign in Denver who now runs a nonprofit focused on psychedelic drug education and reform, has generally been pleased with how law enforcement has followed the intent of the ordinance. "It's tremendous to know that Denver's law enforcement has been respecting the will of the voters," he says. "In those instances where arrests have been made, to my knowledge, they have been for distribution, which is clearly not allowed under Denver's psilocybin ordinance.

"Members of the Denver Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel have not only been open-minded about psilocybin mushrooms, but also curious about how they can potentially address some of the mental and behavioral health issues we face as a city," he adds. "Denver is no exception to the global mental health and addiction crisis, and it would be exciting to discover how we can better integrate psilocybin services into our city's health infrastructure. Education and creating public messaging about safety and responsible use continues to be our top priority. While we don't encourage folks to use psilocybin mushrooms, we do encourage people to use them safely, with a sitter or guide if appropriate."

Even Lynshort admits that he didn't suffer terrible repercussions from being targeted by law enforcement in Denver. Probation is more of an inconvenience than anything else, he says, since he has no substance-abuse problems. Aside from having to cover lawyer's fees and court costs, the biggest downside to his arrest was losing his job in the cannabis industry, since a felony conviction automatically disqualifies Lynshort from maintaining a license with the state's Marijuana Enforcement Division. But he made a soft landing, in a job selling supplies to hobby growers.

"In a way, it worked out," Lynshort says. "I know a lot of people aren’t employed right now." And when he successfully completes probation, he'll be able to reapply for licensing to work in the state's marijuana business, since his felony conviction will have been wiped off his record.

While Matthews appreciates the fact that Denver law enforcement authorities clearly state that they're abiding by the decriminalization initiative, there's still a sticking point over how to quantify "personal use, consumption and growth." Matthews and other psilocybin advocates argue that personal use can look totally different depending on the individual, and believe that quantifying consumption violates the intent of the initiative.

That sticking point could become stickier in early 2021, when the Policy Review Panel submits its report to Denver City Council. But until then, let the seller beware.

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