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Mushrooms Decriminalized: Denver Leads Nation In Changing Drug Policy

DENVER (CBS4/CNN) - The grassroots effort to decriminalize hallucinogenic mushrooms in Denver was successful, and now an ordinance to "deprioritize, to the greatest extent possible" criminal penalties imposed by the City of Denver "for the personal use and personal possession of psilocybin mushrooms" is set to become a reality. Although it doesn't legalize the mushrooms, the ordinance would "prohibit the city from spending resources to impose criminal penalties" on those who have them. Denver will be the first city in the country to take such an action.

psilocybin mushrooms (2)
(credit: CBS)

The city will now set out to establish a "policy review panel to assess and report on the effects of the ordinance" per Initiative 301's requirements.

A range of mushroom species naturally contain the compound psilocybin, which has hallucinogenic properties. The U.S. Department of Justice lists psilocybin as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning official federal policy states the fungi have no medicinal properties.

The drugs have long been popular for recreational use. But a growing body of medical research shows that psilocybin can treat conditions like anxiety and depression in cases where drugs currently on the market cannot.

For instance, a 2017 study published in the journal Nature showed that 47% of patients experiencing treatment-resistant depression showed positive responses at five weeks after receiving a psilocybin treatments.

And in 2018, researchers from Johns Hopkins University called for removing psilocybin from the list of Schedule I substances.

Kevin Matthews, the campaign director of Decriminalize Denver, organized the grassroots effort.

Denver Votes On Nation's First Referendum To Decriminalize Hallucinogenic Mushrooms
Campaign manager for the Denver Psilocybin Initiative Kevin Matthews wears a mushroom necklace at an election watch party for the first bill in the nation that would decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms on May 7, 2019 in Denver. (credit: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Matthews told CNN that he credited mushrooms with "really saving my life."

He had been a cadet at the United States Military Academy when he developed major depression and received a medical discharge.

"My life had crumbled beneath my feet," he said.

After years of suffering and not finding a solution, Matthews said friends introduced him to psilocybin mushrooms.

"The positive effects lasted weeks and weeks and weeks," he said. "I had been feeling pretty isolated and alone and until then, couldn't see the love all around me."

Denver Votes On Nation's First Referendum To Decriminalize Hallucinogenic Mushrooms
Supporters of Ordinance 301 gather at an election night watch party in Denver. (credit: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

On its website, Decriminalize Denver says, "Humans have used these mushrooms for thousands of years for healing, rites of passage, spiritual insight, strengthening community, and raising consciousness,"

The group also argues that "One arrest is too many for something with such low and manageable risks for most people, relative to its potential benefits."

The initiative received endorsements from the Denver Green Party and the Libertarian Party of Colorado.

In January, Decriminalize Denver announced that it collected nearly 9,500 signatures, and turned in paperwork with the Denver Elections Division to get the initiative placed on the ballot.

At the time, Jeff Hunt, vice president of public policy for Colorado Christian University, told CBS4 that he opposed the decriminalizing of magic mushrooms in the city. He said the ordinance might discourage tourists from coming to the city.

"Denver is quickly becoming the illicit drug capital of the world," Hunt said. "The psychedelic mushroom folks are following the same playbook that marijuana did. They're starting with decriminalization and then they're going to move on to commercialization."

The ballot initiative will build on previous efforts regarding drug ordinances. In 2005, the city became the first major city in the United States to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. CNN contributed to this report.)

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