Magic Mushrooms Denver Vote

Chris Olson holds a sign near a busy intersection in downtown Denver on Monday, May 6, 2019, as he urges voters to decriminalize the use of psilocybin, the psychedelic substance in "magic mushrooms."

A measure to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in Denver has eked out a narrow lead in the final unofficial results from Tuesday’s municipal election, officials reported Wednesday.

The Denver Elections Division’s count – which is not yet certified and does not include all the overseas and military ballots – showed Initiative 301 leading with 50.56% of the vote, a margin of about 1,979.

"We hammer that numbers remain unofficial because the deadline for military and overseas and ballot cures isn’t until May 15,” said Alton Dillard, spokesman for the Denver Elections Division.

The unofficial vote total is a stunning turnaround. By early Tuesday night, the referendum was trailing by 9 points. Then by Wednesday morning, it was behind by 3 points.

If the current lead stands when the official vote is certified on May 16, Denver would become the first city in the nation to decriminalize psilocybin or so-called magic mushrooms.

The measure does not make them legal, but requires that law enforcement and prosecutors make possession of psilocybin their lowest priority.

Kevin Matthews, campaign chairman for Decriminalize Denver, which worked to put the referendum on the ballot, said he went to bed Tuesday thinking the measure had gone down in defeat.

But a friend with a sense of humor and a bit of foresight emailed Matthews a photograph of President Harry Truman holding up a newspaper with the big banner headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” in November 1948.

Like Truman, Matthews woke up Wednesday to learn that reports of the initiative’s demise may have been premature.

“The last 22 hours have been the example of the absurd comedy of the great metaphor of life,” Matthews said, borrowing a quote from his wife. “It’s been a real roller coaster today.”

Matthews, a stay-at-home dad who said psilocybin helped him deal with his own depression, said he always expected the measure would win.

But he also tempered that expectation by saying it was a victory simply to get the measure placed on the ballot – the first time in the nation that such a referendum had gone to the voters.

“When we got the initial results at 7 p.m., it damn near broke my heart,” he said.

But in the morning, the referendum began to gain traction as Elections Division workers counted the late surge of ballots that had been cast on Tuesday.

Matthews said he visited the Elections Division Wednesday morning to thank the employees for their work. Then he returned home until a phone call from another campaign worker told him the measure had moved ahead.

He refreshed his computer screen and when he saw the final unofficial results, he let out a scream.

“The neighbors must have been wondering what I was on,” he quipped.

During the campaign, the psilocybin ballot question was largely overshadowed by the debate over Initiative 300, which sought to repeal Denver’s urban camping ban and assert the right of homeless people to dwell on public property.

That measure went down to a crushing defeat after Together Denver raised $2.2 million from downtown business interests and other groups to oppose the measure.

The psilocybin initiative had its critics but it did not draw any organized opposition.

Mayor Michael Hancock and District Attorney Beth McCann both opposed the measure. McCann said she worried that passage of the initiative could turn Denver into a mecca for people wanting to use magic mushrooms without local legal consequences.

Peter Droege, who specializes in addiction policy for the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University, called the referendum a dangerous “Pandora’s box” of potential harm to individuals and to public safety.

Advocates pointed to research studies that found doses of psilocybin helped treat depression among cancer patients.

But researchers also pointed out that the drug can be harmful to individuals with psychotic disorders or those who are prone to them. They also noted that the research has not been replicated.

Meanwhile psilocybin remains on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of illegal controlled substances.

Carolyn Tyler, a spokeswoman for McCann’s office, said prosecutors will need time to review the measure if its passage is certified by the Elections Division.

“The language of Initiative 301 is very open ended and we’re going to have to take some time to determine the next step,” Tyler said.

Matthews said if the initiative is certified, the next step is well-defined. It calls upon the mayor to appoint a panel by Dec. 31 to study the impact of the referendum.

The panel would include one representative each from the Denver Police and Sheriff’s departments, two city council members and two citizens from the people who petitioned to put the measure on the ballot.

The panel also would include a criminal defense attorney, a certified addiction counselor, a harm reduction advocate and one representative each from the city attorney’s office and the district attorney’s office.

Matthews said he plans to call on Hancock and his mayor runoff challenger Jamie Giellis within the next few weeks to discuss the referendum.

“We look forward to working with the city on this,” he said. “Right now, we are ready to make sure city officials have the information they need.”

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