Denver dabbles with magic mushrooms, but using them to treat mental health disorders remains underground

FILE - In this Aug. 3, 2007, file photo, psilocybin mushrooms are seen in a grow room at the Procare farm in Hazerswoude, central Netherlands. Oregon's attorney general has approved language for a ballot measure to make psychedelic mushrooms legal. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)
There are now movements to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms in over 100 cities. (Peter Dejong/AP)

Nearly two years after Denver made history as the nation’s first city to decriminalize hallucinogenic mushrooms for personal use, the nightmare of rampant abuse and public intoxication feared by opponents has failed to materialize.

“There has been no effect that has been apparent to law enforcement,” said Denver Police Division Chief Joseph Montoya, who oversees major crime investigations.

Mushroom proponents see the absence of backlash as a key selling point in their push to eventually legalize psilocybin — the active ingredient — as a mainstream treatment for various mental health disorders.

A growing body of medical research suggests that psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs could help treat anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. That promise has given rise to dozens of companies eventually hoping to cash in.

But the legal environment remains fraught. The federal government classifies psilocybin as a Schedule I substance, defined as a drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."

Denver's Initiated Ordinance 301 — passed by 50.6% of voters in May 2019 — did not legalize the drug but simply made it the lowest law enforcement priority.

Anybody 21 or older can grow or possess mushrooms for personal use in private with little fear of arrest. But sharing or selling them remains a felony.

Therapists risk losing their licenses if they use them for treatment.

Patients “call us with all this hope and optimism and say they want to try psychedelics,” said Robert Colbert, a psychotherapist and advocate for therapeutic use of psilocybin. “The hardest part of my job is to say, ‘Hey, this is still illegal, and we can’t do it.’ "

Some therapists work underground.

“It’s insanely busy,” said Debbie, a Denver therapist who uses psilocybin in her practice and spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld. “I can’t imagine how I ever worked without it.”

She recently guided a married couple on a mushroom-fueled journey to come to terms with their son's death. She used it with a woman traumatized by sexual assault. The process was agonizing — the woman screamed for hours — but Debbie said the result "brought tears to my eyes."

She gives the mushrooms to the client and charges for her time, so technically she isn’t selling them. But she’s still buying and sharing them — both illegal.

“It’s all word-of-mouth,” she said. “Working in secret is very difficult.”

A few months after the ordinance passed, agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration arrested a Denver man for selling psychedelic mushrooms. He potentially faced up to 20 years in prison, but in February a federal judge let him off with a $5,500 fine and three years of probation.

That sparked widespread fear among mushroom users, advocates and would-be psilocybin entrepreneurs here.

Many have called Sean McAllister, general counsel for the Decriminalize Denver campaign, for advice about starting businesses around mushrooms. He advises them to wait until the laws change.

Companies have popped up adjacent to psychedelic mushrooms — selling grow kits, teaching classes in mushroom cultivation — but few actually touch psilocybin.

Monster Mushroom Co. in Denver opened shortly after decriminalization. A disclaimer on its website says its grow kits do not contain psilocybin spores nor will the company "under any circumstance" discuss cultivation.

Owner David Muelken said business is booming, but stressed that he doesn’t grow or sell mushrooms.

“We only provide sterilized grow kits for people to grow whatever kind of mushrooms they want,” he said. “Having said that, since May 2019 we have seen a definite uptick of people purchasing our kits. I would imagine some people in Denver are intending to grow psychedelic mushrooms.”

Then there are "trip sitters" like 27-year-old Tobey Tobey — as he identified himself — who stay with those using psilocybin mushrooms to make sure they don’t hurt themselves.

“People are aware that the feds are watching," he said. "I don’t provide the substance. They have to get it themselves.

“It’s a lot of work right now," he said. "You can’t buy the mushrooms; you have to grow them from spores. Any kind of distribution is a felony.”

Spores are legal to buy in most states because they don’t contain psilocybin until they become mushrooms. They are illegal in Georgia, Idaho and — with the narrow exception of approved research — California.

A growing number of companies stands ready to jump into the psilocybin business as laws change across the country.

Ei.Ventures, which is based in Hawaii, has created a product called Psilly using a combination of eight kinds of mushrooms, including psilocybin fungi, and a dozen more plants.

“You would take it in a supervised therapeutic session. It would last an hour and would be non-hallucinogenic,” said David Nikzad, who heads the company. “There is a feeling of euphoria, of not having fear, of limitlessness.”

After Denver decriminalized psilocybin, so did Oakland, Santa Cruz, Washington, D.C., Ann Arbor, Mich., Somerville, Mass., and Cambridge, Mass. There are now movements to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms in over 100 cities.

State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) has introduced legislation to decriminalize psilocybin along with the psychedelics LSD, ketamine, MDMA, mescaline and ibogaine. Oregon legalized psilocybin in November for use in supervised therapy.

The growing tide of support has increasingly sidelined critics, who argue that the real goal is to commercialize psilocybin, following a similar path as cannabis.

“I think a lot of people have sympathy for those suffering from mental illness," said Paul Larkin, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington and an opponent of decriminalization. "I also think others are using these ordinances as a Trojan horse to make money."

Unlike the marijuana movement, which capitalized on the drug's known therapeutic benefits as a stepping stone to allowing recreational use, advocates of mushrooms say medicinal use is the main goal.

“Given the right mind-set, psilocybin is very therapeutic,” said Kevin Matthews, who co-founded the pro-psilocybin Society for Psychedelic Outreach, Reform and Education and helped lead the campaign for decriminalization in Denver. “But there are risks. I don’t see a scenario where you walk into a dispensary and buy mushrooms.”

Psilocybin was first isolated in 1958 by Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who also synthesized LSD. During "trips," perceptions of reality are often altered for hours.

Researchers now believe that taking psychedelics during talk therapy can help patients see their lives and the lives of others through a more compassionate lens.

“Our studies have shown really promising medical potential for using psilocybin in a controlled setting for an astonishing range of mental health disorders,” said Matthew Johnson, professor of psychiatry and associate director of the Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University. “But we need to keep following the data.”

Johnson found that psilocybin substantially reduced depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancers. Study participants reported an increased quality of life, renewed optimism and a diminished fear of dying.

He also found evidence that psilocybin helped people quit smoking. In one study, 80% of participants had not smoked six months after the trial.

But perhaps most significant was finding that psilocybin can change personality, meaning it could alter ingrained behaviors that many believe are stable.

“Before our work, there was no experimental manipulation that you could conduct in a lab on a particular day shown to change a validated personality construct,” Johnson said. “Psilocybin has been shown to make that change. People can become unstuck, get past self-defeating patterns and addictions.”

Still, he cautioned that psilocybin is far more powerful than drugs like marijuana and comes with risks. It can cause psychotic reactions in people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Then there is the "bad trip" which can happen to anyone. It may induce anxiety, fear, panic or confusion.

“The challenge is once you move from a stance of not arresting people to sanctioning the use of psilocybin for therapy, then the onus is on you to get it right,” Johnson said. “That’s the practice of medicine; you are using a drug. There is a responsibility there. Are they going to have all the safeguards that we and our colleagues use?”

As for the law, the Denver Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel, a group of advocates, officials and law enforcement, met recently and reached a consensus that changes are needed.

The group came up with preliminary recommendations for the City Council to consider in the coming weeks. One was to decriminalize sharing magic mushrooms with others.

“I personally don’t have a problem with it as long as there isn’t money being exchanged,” said Denver County Dist. Atty. Beth McCann, who is part of the group and had opposed the 2019 ordinance. “I don’t think that we are prosecuting people who give some to their friend or relative. I think selling it is clearly where our focus is.”

Montoya, the police division chief, also supported the recommendation.

The panel also recommended decriminalizing mushrooms in some group settings and to provide special training for first responders on how to deal with someone under the influence of psilocybin.

“This is a long game,” said Shannon Hughes, an associate professor of social work at Colorado State University and member of the Nowak Society, a Colorado network that advocates for expanded use of psilocybin and other psychedelics.

“Decriminalization needs to be the model across the board," she said. "It’s a very good first step.”

Kelly is a special correspondent.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.