On Wednesday, Denver officials announced the city would decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms. How will the new initiative actually play out? And more importantly, how’d we even get to this point?
First, a little background. Under I-301, the decriminalization initiative led by Decriminalize Denver and Kevin Matthews, the city will now treat small-time shroom users as “the lowest law enforcement priority.” That only applies to adults possessing shrooms for “personal use.” Anyone under 21 caught with a baggie of caps may still face the full legal penalties for possessing or trafficking a Schedule I substance.
And before you plan a ‘trip’ at the Mile High City, know that shrooms won’t be legally available in stores. I-301 only lets people off the hook if they’re caught with psilocybin. The bill didn’t create a system for commercially selling “boomers.”
The Bill’s Language: Cindy Sovine
“I was responsible for pushing the campaign onto a decriminalization pathway,” Cindy Sovine, a long-time weed lobbyist and entrepreneur, told MERRY JANE over the phone. “Then we modeled the language off of Denver’s sanctuary city policy.”
In 2017, Denver rebuked President Trump’s anti-immigration, mass-deportation policies. The city passed an initiative then that prevented Denver authorities from using their own funds to assist ICE. Sovine borrowed that crucial element — blocking access to local government funds — and applied it to I-301.
“We took that same language and said you will not use city resources to punish the possession, cultivation, and use of psilocybin.”
Sovine has been lung-deep in Denver’s cannabis scene for a while, so she understood how city officials could circumvent the will of voters. Last year, she tried to open a weed spa, but the city denied her license because her venue was too close to a school by a mere 19 feet.
Social weed consumption was supposed to take off in Denver after voters approved another bill, I-300, in 2016. That initiative created licenses so Denver could host an unlimited number of yoga studios, concert venues, and bars where folks could legally toke in public settings.
Instead, Denver’s weed consumption review board — a group of uptight prohibitionists — created so many unnecessary zoning regulations that the city only has two licensed social consumption spots: The Joint Coffee Shop and Dean Ween’s Honeypot Lounge. A third spot, Vape and Play, unexpectedly closed this year after being open for only one month.
Although blocking the city from prosecuting shroomers should stop Denver from harassing otherwise law-abiding citizens, Sovine said officials may try to pull the same ol’ bullshit with I-301 as they did with the social consumption bill in 2016.
“[Denver’s Mayor Michael Hancock] has demonstrated a continued and repeated pattern to be unwilling to listen to the will of the voters,” Sovine added.
The Inside Advisor: Kayvan Khalatbari
Kayvan Khalatbari, another cannabis industry leader and one of the brains behind Denver’s now-gimped weed consumption initiative, served as an advisor to the city’s shroom campaign.
When asked how he felt about the bill’s passage, he recalled when Denver decriminalized marijuana back in 2005. “It’s a very similar feeling right now,” he said. “It’s so cool.”
But Khalatbari shares Sovine’s concerns about how the city will truly enforce the new shroom initiative.
“After we decriminalized cannabis in 2005, arrests and citations for cannabis possession in Denver went up the following year,” he said. “At the time, we had a mayor [John Hickenlooper] who despised the cannabis industry and saw it as a threat to his monetary interests in the alcohol industry.”
He continued: “The city has such a terrible track record of respecting the will of the voters. I’m worried we’re going to see the same scare tactics used again.”
Scare tactics have already started. Evangelist party-pooper Jeff Hunt, who leads an anti-drug think-tank at Colorado Christian University, claimed during the shroom campaign that, “At a certain point, parents are going to look at the city of Denver and say, 'I don't want to take my kids to that city.’ And I don't think tourists are going to want to come to this state.”
Haters said the same thing about weed legalization seven years ago, and time proved them wrong.
The Media Blitz: Matt Kahl
One of Decriminalize Denver’s campaigners moved to Colorado a few years ago specifically for the legal weed. Matt Kahl, a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan, is known for utilizing psychedelics to treat his PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Earlier this year, he made waves after being featured in the documentary From Shock to Awe, a film that followed his journeys tripping on ayahuasca. He also hosts a web series, 16:20 — that’s military time for 4:20, for the civilians out there — which chronicles US veterans using cannabis to deal with PTSD.
Kahl initially hung back while the shroom campaign got started. But once it gained traction in the press, the campaign’s leader, Kevin Matthews, asked Kahl to put those mass media chops to good use. Kahl gladly obliged.
“I pushed as hard as I could on the public education campaign, both in print and on TV,” Kahl told MERRY JANE. And the push seemed to work. “It was the highest election turnout in an off-year for all of Denver history.”
Besides the media blitz, Kahl recruited several of his veteran buddies to help with canvassing, gathering signatures, and petitioning. Because veterans know, better than anyone else, that the prescribed PTSD-cocktail of tranquilizers, antidepressants, and painkillers does more far more harm than good.
“I’ve seen psilocybin absolutely revolutionize their entire lives,” Kahl said. “Before I met her, one of my vets heard that I was promoting it and used it to get better. Three months after she started taking mushrooms, she finally got a good night’s sleep. For 12 years, she cried herself to sleep, and since she started microdosing psilocybin, she hasn’t cried herself to sleep a single time.”
Outreach Operations: Del Jolly
While Kahl worked his magic in front of the news cameras, Del Jolly reached out to more amicable voters within the cannabis community.
Jolly works as the business development manager at Charlotte’s Web. The company is named after a low-THC, CBD-rich cannabis plant bred by the Stanley Brothers, which introduced a mainstream audience to CBD as a treatment for deadly epileptic seizure disorders.
Jolly strongly opposed all cannabis use until four years ago, when he got schooled by someone at the Stanley Brothers’ medical cannabis non-profit, Realm of Caring. He describes himself as a Never-Trump Republican, and he appealed to many of the industry’s insiders on that stance alone.
“This is a conservative issue,” he told MERRY JANE. “Stay out of my business, I have a safe substance here that I’d like to use, and the government shouldn’t be telling me that I can or cannot do it.”
Jolly’s not stopping with decriminalization in Denver, either. Now, he’s teaming up with Johns Hopkins University through his own non-profit, Unlimited Sciences, to study psilocybin’s medical uses.
“We say PTSD, drug addiction, cancer, and all these other public health issues are important to us, but then we’ll outlaw psychedelics based on cultural fears from decades ago,” he said. “It’s just insane. I’m hoping I-301 leads to more conversation and education on psilocybin.”
Where Denver Goes From Here
On Thursday, May 16, the mushroom initiative officially becomes law in Denver. It’s still too soon to know how decriminalization will ultimately play out in the Mile High City, but the I-301 campaign remains cautiously optimistic.
“In Colorado, we’re still putting people in jail and taking their children away from them for using cannabis,” said Cindy Sovine. “We didn’t start in that place. So in my opinion, that’s where we need to start from with psychedelics.”
Sovine said the city could “absolutely choose to ignore the mandate the voters put before them,” but the bill’s language will make that difficult. Although I-301 creates a policy review board just as the city’s weed consumption initiative did, I-301’s budget-ban should keep the board on a short and tight leash.
“The panel has no authority to stop the initiative,” she said. “They have no authority to review or revoke it. They can only coordinate, collaborate, discuss, and report,” with a full update on the city’s shroom situation sometime around the end of the year.
As for Denver’s Mayor Hancock, who didn’t lighten up on weed until this election cycle, Sovine reminded Denver’s voters he hasn’t secured his reelection bid just yet, which voters cast ballots for this week, as well.
According to city rules, a mayoral candidate must receive over 50 percent of the popular vote to win. Because the incumbent, Hancock, received the most votes last Tuesday but didn’t hit 50 percent, he will face-off against opponent Jamie Geilis during the run-off election on June 4.
“Although the Gielis campaign told us they were opposed to the [mushroom] measure, they did say they’d honor the will of the voters to work with the campaign and the community to ensure it’s done properly,” Sovine said.
Regardless of who wins the mayoral election, or how Denver PD actually approaches shroom decriminalization, the city’s residents just sent a mind-melting message to the rest of the world.
“This is the psychedelic renaissance,” said veteran Matt Kahl, “and we are the crest of the wave now.”
Follow Randy Robinson on Twitter