Panel Seeks Updates to Denver Psilocybin Law

Panel Seeks Updates to Denver Psilocybin Law

When Denver made possession of magic mushrooms, or psilocybin, the lowest crime priority for police in 2019, the vote was close, and no one expected what happened next. Almost three years later, cities and counties and municipalities across the nation have enacted or are considering similar changes, and psychedelic medicine is all the rage.

And now Denver’s first-of-its-kind law is up for a reexamination. One part of the ordinance designated a panel to be formed to examine how the law is working, and that panel is ready to make recommendations to the city council on possible changes. 

We need town halls and a very public effort. Our job is to present the report and get to educating city council members.

Kevin Matthews, who led the drive to decriminalize psilocybin in 2019, admitted he was shocked when asked about what happened after Denver’s law passed by just more than 2,000 votes. “Really, like it’s become a national thing now, gosh, for most of the last two years,” he tells The News Station. “And I certainly didn’t expect that. The best way to put it is that it was an incredible underdog victory. But it doesn’t surprise me anymore. There is a constituency for this.”

Some cities — for example, Ann Arbor, Mich. — have gone further and decriminalized any plant material people put into their bodies. Denver’s law is still unique, however. “Among all cities that have decriminalized to some extent, Denver is the only city where it’s under Article 10 in our human rights code,” Matthews says. “We’re firmly rooted in a person’s ability to use psilocybin.”

The task force met many times, Chris Hinds, a Denver City Council member who was on the panel, says. “The task force met for over a year and came up with some really strong recommendations,” he explained in a voicemail. “That task force included our district attorney, the police department, sheriff’s department and a whole bunch of stakeholders.”

Denver district attorney Beth McCann was also on the panel. She was startled the morning after the election, too. “I think it was a surprise that it passed and that we are the first city to do something like this. I know people refer to it as decriminalizing, but it just made enforcement of possession the lowest law-enforcement priority,” she tells The News Station.

There is research that is showing that it can really help people, particularly with post-traumatic stress disorder or some other mental health issues.

Beth McCann on psilocybin

McCann says the city has charged people for possession of magic mushrooms since the ordinance went into effect, mostly related to sales or if it was found during a search for another crime. “If they’re doing a search warrant for something and then they find psilocybin, we will charge it as part of the other criminal case. The officers aren’t out looking for people with psilocybin, but we do definitely charge distribution.” She says the city has dealt with some psilocybin cases since the initiative passed. “It’s not broken down by how many were for sale or for possession, but the vast majority were for sale.

The panel’s job was to look at how the law has worked in the city so far and make recommendations to improve it. As the head city attorney, McCann says her concerns mainly had to do with the impacts on people who use psilocybin and those around them.

“I think I’m always concerned with the impact that a foreign substance might have, even though it was natural, on people and their activities,” she says. “Psilocybin has never been a huge issue in our office or in Denver, but, you know, there’s always the concern that a drug that has that much capability of impacting someone’s perception and reality, you always worry about what they might do.”

Among the panel’s recommendations are to make non-commercial gifting, or giving psilocybin to another adult, legal, and finding a way to allow adults to gather and use it in a group. “The reason is that in Colorado it could be considered a felony for someone to gift psilocybin to another person,” Matthews explains. “And people have been using mushrooms in group settings for thousands of years. We are also asking the city to consider what therapy will look like in the future. We don’t know that yet. How can we make the city of Denver a base for mental health?”

Though it’s not a citizens’ initiative that would require lots of money and getting people to vote, Matthews is keen on getting the public involved in the process. “We need town halls and a very public effort,” he says. “Our job is to present the report and get to educating city council members.”

Matthews, who says “the mushrooms picked me” to lead the effort, is eager to get the report’s findings out to people who know nothing about psilocybin. “I’m looking forward to it because it’s what I do. I’m excited to get the public behind this and demonstrate this is a community-led effort,” he says. “Even though the people I work with have had some meetings behind closed doors, I want to be as transparent as possible to make people informed but be a part of the process.”

McCann says her office hasn’t found any significant public health or safety issues since the ordinance was passed. “The thing that is important to me is that psilocybin should be used in a guided fashion, so that there’s someone with the person,” she says. “One of the reasons I have been more amenable to finding out more about the use of psilocybin is in the context of the guided use of it. There is research that is showing that it can really help people, particularly with post-traumatic stress disorder or some other mental health issues.”

She wants to see even more studies into the intersection of psychedelics and mental health. She opposed the ordinance at first “because I feel like we didn’t really have enough research and we really need to learn more about, you know, the impact of psychedelics. It’s not addictive, which is a benefit. But I think the more data we can collect the better.”

Matthews says he has been in touch with the city council, and he hopes to find a place for the recommendations on its docket soon.

“The movement is massive. Psychedelic reform is going to impact every facet of our experience in a lifetime,” Matthews says. “It isn’t about psychedelics. It’s about healing and unleashing the potential of the human spirit. We deserve to slow down a little bit.”

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