Magic Mushrooms Denver Vote

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

Did that really happen, that mushroom thing in Denver? Colorado’s capital became the first city in the nation to take the law and order out of magic mushrooms, the kind that make you see vivid colors and stuff that’s not really there.

That’s kind of the feeling I had when I took a clear look at what Denver has become: Weirdville, USA.

The majority of voters here, at least the ones who turn out, think getting high should be legal.

Denver likes dope. That’s not an opinion. That’s an electoral fact. In 2005, voters in the Mile High City were the first to abolish all crimes related to possessing a small amount of pot. Seven years later, voters legalized recreational marijuana statewide. 

Such decisions can leave a city a reputation that’s going to stick around the country, now that voters passed Initiative 301 to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in Denver.

It wasn’t a landslide, by any means, but think about this: The sprout that put too much fun in fungi collected way more votes than the city’s two-term mayor, Michael Hancock.

Before the election, Hancock opposed Initiative 301. Facing a runoff in his own race, now the mayor sounds more open-minded, respecting the will of the voters, he said.

I wasn’t the only one confounded by the outcome on shrooms. So was the governor, it seemed.

For days I tried to get Jared Polis’ take on the election. He had nothing to say -- no "will of the voters," no "bad message to send to kids," no "hope Denver proceeds cautiously." By the end of the week, his press office wasn’t even acknowledging that I was again asking the question.

Clearly it’s a tough issue for Polis. He went into office saying he would essentially stay out of the marijuana industry’s way while supporting its legalization in other states as a congressman. But not even the mighty marijuana industry has found its footing on mushrooms.

When the weed industry makes up its collective mind on how it might eventually cash in, so might our governor. I’ll keep you posted.

This reputation for drugs that Denver’s bound to inherit should concern the mayor and governor, especially as they court industries that look at these things.

The Washington Post reported on the ballot question under a headline of “True Crime.” “If you thought legalized marijuana truly put the “high” in the Mile High City, wait until you hear what Denver is up to now,” wrote Tom Jackson on May 6.

That perception is not entirely fair. Denver decriminalized the hallucinogen, but it didn’t legalize mushrooms. That’s a big difference. Shrooms are still a Schedule 1 narcotic under federal law and it’s still illegal to sell them, heck, even to possess them. But what Denver voters did was say it’s not illegal to grow and consume your own.

They’re still illegal to sell or buy or carry in your pocket at a concert. But the takeaway from voters to Denver cops was to tell them to look the other way.

This course feels awfully familiar. Marijuana went down this same road. They decriminalized it, sold it to the public as medicine and when the sky didn’t collapse, voters and policymakers softened up. Just this spring, state lawmakers authorized pot social clubs and home delivery.

Mushrooms are said to treat depression and other psychological problems, including smoking. And, just as was said of pot, mushrooms are not addictive.

“Things usually start on the local level when it comes to drug policy, then they go to the state level,” Art Way, the Colorado state director for the pro-decriminalization Drug Policy Alliance, told the news website CityLab. “This definitely follows the path that marijuana legalization took here in Colorado.”

What vice is next is the question asked by this aging curmudgeon and long-retired party guy of the 1980s. The answer might come in November, when voters statewide could legalize sports betting, so gambling seems to be what’s next.

I find myself agreeing with state Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, on the day the Senate debated letting Colorado voters decide whether to loosen its girdle on gambling this November.

“People get into gambling to make money, to make a profit,” Crowder said of casinos, the beneficiaries of the sports betting bill that passed easily. “Why would you want to make people that much poorer?”

Likewise, why do we want to make it that much easier for people to take another drug?

“I think we ought to look at the direction we’re going in as a state,” Crowder continued on the other vice. “What’s next? We’ve got marijuana and other drugs, now gambling. Where do we want to go?”

You can make a good case that Colorado is a libertarian-leaning state, live and let live, let the voters and the markets decide. But there also is a social compact, a common good that says your problems won’t spill over into my yard. I’ve seen friends on mushrooms. They spill. Oh, boy, do they spill.

By the same argument we should be able to legalize pet tigers in the city.

Sooner or later, a big cat is going to get loose and cause problems, just like those tripping on psychedelic drugs.

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