In Denver, The Spores Of A Psychedelic Mushroom Boom Have Landed

By Andrew Kenney The Denver Post

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Some see mushrooms as the next frontier after cannabis. As Andrew Kenney reports, "In Denver, the initial change has been subtle -- there will be no legal mushroom shops. But there already are therapists to deal with traumatic trips, guides to light the way through the psychic depths, lawyers, lobbyists and, of course, fungal cultivators."

Denver

The young man with a tent full of psychedelic mushrooms in his closet isn't worried about the cops.

"Basically, everything in my apartment's legal -- so I feel safe in that aspect," he said. "It's just mycelium and the mushroom."

But the police might not agree, so he asked that The Denver Post not use his name.

Three months ago, Denver voters approved some of the nation's first legal protections for psychedelic mushroom users.

Also known as psilocybin, drug reformers see the substance as the next frontier after cannabis. It's the subject of a popular new book and promising therapeutic research studies at Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere, but the first steps of decriminalization also have prompted worries about regulation and substance-use culture.

In Denver, the initial change has been subtle -- there will be no legal mushroom shops. But there already are therapists to deal with traumatic trips, guides to light the way through the psychic depths, lawyers, lobbyists and, of course, fungal cultivators.

Amid the confusion and intrigue of a unique new law, the spores of a new micro-economy have landed.

"We get messages, and I know (cannabis) dispensaries are getting phone calls. People are curious, 'Where could I find these now that they're legal?'" said Kevin Matthews, one of the chief psilocybin campaigners.

"And you know, it's not legal yet. We have a lot of work to do there."

The cultivator that The Post met with showed off an impressively elaborate system for batch production: pounds upon pounds of grains for propagating mushroom genetics, jars of liquid culture, a zip-up tent with plastic tubs where ghostly white mushrooms grow. And he's only ramping up with decriminalization in effect.

Instead of plastic baggies, he packages his stuff in the same canisters and bags as the cannabis industry -- complete with his custom logo. He sells the shrooms, sometimes in pill capsules or chocolates, to a network of about 20 people. The entire setup cost him $550, and he's on track for $2,000 a month in sales, including to two people who are dealing with PTSD.

"I was kind of just tired of being broke. To live in Denver, you've got to have a second or a third income," he said. He knows that selling the drug remains a prosecutable felony that could carry years in prison, and the city's new laws offer no protections for the sale of the drug -- but he has the leeway he needs to feel safe, he said.

Opportunities "fraught with danger" Initiative 301 discourages police and prosecutors from targeting users of psychedelic mushrooms. It makes mushroom possession the cops' "lowest priority" and forbids the use of city resources in prosecutions. So far, it has worked. The city has reported no psilocybin charges since its passage in May. Suspected psilocybin was found in six cases, but they were charged instead with other offenses.

One person was forced to give up a bag of suspected mushrooms at Denver International Airport, but there was no arrest, and the district attorney refused the case.

In early discussions, city officials are embracing the new law -- unlike their hostile reaction to early cannabis decriminalization measures in the 2000s, according to Sean McAllister, general counsel for the Decriminalize Denver campaign and a longtime drug policy reformer.

"The general attitude has been that they intend to respect the will of the voter, and they do not intend to prosecute anybody (for possession)," he said.

But the drug is not truly legal, even if its users are far less likely to be prosecuted in Denver now. Even simple possession remains a felony punishable by 6 to 12 months in prison -- if the city attempted to prosecute, as it did in the early cannabis days. With so many unresolved shades of gray, psilocybin entrepreneurs and advocates are proceeding with caution.

"There's some opportunities here but they are fraught with danger," McAllister explained. "It might turn you into a test case." The most lucrative, and most illegal, business may be growing and selling the drug. The new law offers no protections for dealers, and reformers like McAllister say they don't want to encourage sales. If caught selling, a cultivator could face 2 to 32 years in prison, according to the Colorado Legal Defense Group.

But there's plenty of motivation, especially as renewed public interest drives demand for a relatively rare drug. "There's a high demand, but not really a high supply," said the Denver cultivator, who charges $30 for an eighth of an ounce, which is a fairly typical dose.

One challenge for police is that cultivation can be stealthy and simple. The cultivator bought some of his spores, which are essentially mushroom seeds, legally on the internet. And shrooms don't need the same high-powered lights as cannabis.

"It's not like marijuana, where we have neighbors complaining of odors, where you've got these 50-pound bags of marijuana going places," said Denver Police Department Cmdr. James Henning. "It's unlikely we would get called on complaints of cultivation of mushrooms, the same way we would on marijuana."

It also could be difficult for police to prove whether someone is selling the drug. The measure doesn't set weight limits for possession on personal use. Instead, officers will work with city and district attorneys on a "case-by-case basis," according to Ryan Luby, a spokesperson for the city attorney's office.

"I don't know why they would be (looking for me), honestly," the cultivator said. "It's not like you caught me on a middle school playground. I distribute to consenting adults."

Shroom boom? Businesses already are emerging on the grayer side of the legal spectrum. McAllister estimates there may be dozens of people working in psilocybin-adjacent businesses around Denver, and he has heard from a "handful" of would-be entrepreneurs so far. So far, the easiest to find are the therapists and counselors.

Denver psychotherapist Danielle Wise, PhD, offers after-the-trip integration services. It began several years ago when she helped a client deal with the negative aftereffects of a years-prior trip on ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic plant.

"How do you land back in the world you live? How do you take what you learned from it and reorganize (mental) structures?" she said. She became an advocate for the Decriminalize Denver campaign, and she's working now to teach other professionals about psychedelics.

"There's a lot of interest. I'm getting a lot of calls. But there's also colleagues that I've talked to that have no idea that it even exists," she said.

After-the-trip services are on the strongest legal ground, said McAllister, the attorney. Wise and others distance themselves from psilocybin use, saying that it's illegal to encourage or prescribe the use of psychedelics in therapy.

He also has heard from yoga teachers and practitioners of alternative therapy who want to serve tripping customers or host ceremonies. His advice: Be careful.

"If you let someone sit in a room while you bang a gong, the idea that you're going to be prosecuted for anything around psilocybin is very slim," he said. But psilocybin-focused businesses are taking on liabilities and legal risks, just as cannabis tour buses and dining experiences have been targeted in Denver.

Stickier still are the psychedelic "guides" who promise to accompany people through their trips.

Daniel McQueen, who offers cannabis-based counseling in Boulder, has heard "a lot" of interest in psilocybin therapies since the new law passed in Denver. A recent book by Michael Pollan also is driving interest, but McQueen thinks it's too risky.

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