Psychedelics

UPDATED: What Does the Failure [or Success!] of Denver's Psilocybin Initiative Mean for the Future of Pharmacological Freedom?

Majority support for legalizing marijuana does not mean most Americans believe people have a right to control what they put into their bodies.

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Yesterday Denver voters narrowly rejected a ballot initiative that would have made arrests for possession of psilocybin mushrooms by adults 21 or older the city's
"lowest law enforcement priority" and prohibited the use of "city funds or resources" for that purpose. While 48 percent of voters thought that was a good idea, 52 percent disagreed. [Update: It now looks like the measure passed by about 2,000 votes.]

The practical consequences of passing Initiated Ordinance 301 would have been pretty modest. According to Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, who opposed the initiative, just 11 psilocybin cases (out of about 50 arrests) were referred to her office for possible prosecution during the last three years, and charges were filed in just three cases. All of those cases involved manufacture or distribution, which would not have been covered by the initiative. By comparison, Denver police arrested more than 2,000 people for simple marijuana possession in 2007, the year that voters approved a similar ballot initiative for cannabis.

But in a state where voters legalized marijuana for recreational use seven years ago, the psilocybin initiative was a test of whether that victory reflected widespread acceptance of a moral principle that could be extended to other drugs. It would have been the first time any U.S. jurisdiction had decided that using psilocybin mushrooms should not be treated as a crime. Activists are working on state initiatives that would decriminalize psilocybin for medical or religious use in California and legalize medical use in Oregon.

Backers of the Denver Psilocybin Mushroom Decriminalization Initiative collected more than 9,000 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot, and about 62,000 [update: more like 89,000] people ended up voting for it. "At the very least, we've demonstrated that we can get psilocybin legislation on the ballot," said campaign director Kevin Matthews. "My mindset is that it's not a loss; it's a lesson."

One lesson might be that it's harder to generate support for decriminalizing a drug that is not nearly as popular as marijuana. According to federal survey data, 24 million Americans have ever tried psilocybin, compared to 123 million who have tried marijuana. In 2017 just 5 million had used any "hallucinogen" (including LSD, MDMA, PCP, and a bunch of other psychedelics as well as psilocybin) in the previous year, compared to more than 40 million cannabis consumers.

Years before most Americans supported marijuana legalization (which first happened in 2013, according to Gallup), large majorities said people should not go to jail for using marijuana. In a 2002 CNN poll, for instance, 72 percent of respondents thought cannabis consumers should "just pay a fine." The 2007 Denver initiative making marijuana possession arrests the city's lowest law enforcement priority was supported by 57 percent of voters. That was seven years after Colorado voters approved medical marijuana and five years before they decided to make recreational use legal.

If allowing medical use of a drug is a prelude to broader toleration, as it proved to be with marijuana, the Food and Drug Administration's approval of psilocybin as a treatment for depression, which seems increasingly likely now that the agency has deemed it a "breakthrough therapy," may help shift public opinion. The fact that neither addiction nor fatal overdose are salient concerns in connection with psilocybin also should help, notwithstanding the drug's relatively limited appeal. There is also the precedent of allowing religious use of psychedelics, which suggests the sky would not fall if broader "spiritual" use were tolerated. And perhaps at some point Americans will question the wisdom of criminalizing the possession of fungi that pop up spontaneously in cow patties, simply because some people like their psychoactive effects.

Mason Tvert, now vice president of communications at VS Strategies, spearheaded the campaign for Denver's successful 2007 marijuana initiative. He thinks the campaign for the psilocybin initiative "inspired valuable public dialogue about psilocybin and other psychedelics, their therapeutic benefits, and how they are treated in our society." He hopes it encouraged people to "question current laws, which carry extremely harsh penalties just for simple possession."

Under current Colorado law, possession of psilocybin mushrooms is a Level 4 felony, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. Distributing up to 14 grams of psilocybin mushrooms is a Level 3 felony, punishable by up to four years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Distributing more than that is a Level 2 felony, punishable by up to eight years in prison and a $750,000 fine. A bill that was approved by the Colorado legislature last week, now awaiting Gov. Jared Polis' signature, changes simple possession of psilocybin and other Schedule I or II drugs to a Level 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and up to two years of probation.

Tvert notes that the legal treatment of psychedelics "is occasionally injected into the mainstream when new and promising research emerges, but the presence of such a measure on the ballot of a major U.S. city forced a much broader and sustained conversation." He hopes "it forced a lot of people to learn and think about this issue, as a more enlightened populace is a critical first step to enlightened policies."

So far that conversation does not seem to have had much of an impact on McCann, Denver's D.A. "We're still figuring out marijuana," she told The Washington Post, "and even though things are going well so far, we're still measuring the impacts on the people of Denver." She said she worried that if the psilocybin intiative passed, "Denver would attract more drug users and mushroom-influenced drivers would create havoc," as the Post paraphrased her concerns.

Since the initiative would have applied only to possession of psilocybin for personal use, which McCann says led to zero prosecutions in Denver from 2016 through 2018, that scenario seems pretty far-fetched. But McCann's objections show that the case for letting adults decide what they put into their own bodies has to be relitigated for every substance. Neither Denver voters nor Americans generally are close to accepting a general principle that the government has no business meddling in such decisions.

Update: The latest election results show the psilocybin initiative passing by a razor-thin margin of about one percentage point. More from C.J. Ciaramella.

NEXT: Bernie Sanders Thinks Medicare for All Would Solve America's Health Care Problems. It Would Make Them Worse.

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  1. Just wait until Bernie Sanders gets elected, hallucinogenics will not only be permitted, they’ll be recommended.

    1. …they’ll be mandatory.

      FTFY

  2. Just for record, people should mostly avoid this shit–even though it shouldn’t be criminal.

    1. Magic mushrooms? You have got to be joking. Have you been replaced with the love-child of Michael Medved and Brent Bozell?

      Are you okay with caffeine, or is that immoral, too?

      1. Psilocybin is the safest drug on the planet, so I’m not sure what Ken’s motivations for saying that are. He might just not think it’s a good idea to be high on psychoactives. But he did specifically say it shouldn’t be illegal, so I’d hardly think that would make him Michael Medved.

        1. But he did specifically say it shouldn’t be illegal, so I’d hardly think that would make him Michael Medved.

          Maybe that’s not a completely fair comparison, but Ken’s been on a pretty serious finger-wagging tear lately. He didn’t used to be such a constantly niggling moralizer, and he deserves to be poked for it.

          1. There’s a name for people who think that our behavior should guided by morality instead of laws and the threat of criminal prosecution. It’s called “libertarianism”. Not that I said anything about the morality of magic mushrooms, but why shouldn’t libertarians be concerned about morality?

            There a term for “libertarians” who don’t care about morality. They’re called “assholes”. They just want the government to go away so they can shit all over everyone else around them. If the government were raptured tomorrow, my neighbors would have nothing more to fear from me than they did the day before–because I’ve got this thing called “morality”.

            1. Thank you for showing me The Light.

        2. “He did specifically say it shouldn’t be illegal, so I’d hardly think that would make him Michael Medved.”

          This is the typical response around here. It’s not enough to criticize the Vietnam War on libertarian grounds, you have to go Jane Fonda and insist that the Vietnamese didn’t torture our POWs.

          Generally speaking, most people should probably stay away from weed, too. I’ve never worked for, worked with, or had anyone under me who was more competitive because he or she indulged.

          Incidentally, there isn’t anything more phony than a libertarian who thinks you have like everything that should be decriminalized. Prostitution is a shitty profession. Most people should probably steer clear of it–even if it should be perfectly legal.

          1. Prostitution is a shitty profession. Most people should probably steer clear of it–even if it should be perfectly legal.

            *scratches off list*

          2. Incidentally, there isn’t anything more phony than a libertarian who thinks you have like everything that should be decriminalized.

            Self-righteous moralists, on the other hand. . .

            1. “Self-righteous moralists, on the other hand. . .”

              Your morality may have been in question due to your inability to differentiate between the morality and the law, but really the open question is about your intelligence.

              How stupid do you have to be to read this site for years and still need someone to explain the difference between morality and the law. Do you consider yourself a libertarian? What kind of libertarian thinks morality shouldn’t guide our actions? The most obvious explanation is that you’re an oblivious idiot, and you don’t understand half of what you read.

              “Are you okay with caffeine, or is that immoral, too?”

              What a fucking retard!

              Diane Reynolds (Paul.) had to point out the difference between morality and the law to you, too, and I bet you still don’t get it. That’s what being a fucking retard is all about.

      2. I think he’s saying the experience is untoward. I just made me hot and sweaty; I might’ve experienced one visual effect — rapid variations in brightness of my visual field — but I’m not sure.

    2. Glad you put that on the record.

    3. send it my way…

  3. I’m not allowed to put a plastic straw in my mouth, and we think we’re on the Express Train to Freedom.

  4. “Majority support for legalizing marijuana does not mean most Americans believe people have a right to control what they put into their bodies.”

    It appears a lot of Americans are still controlling after all these years.
    Whatever happened to freedom to choose what you ingest, privacy and being left alone?

    1. That’s never really existed.

      No, people in the USA and anywhere else you’d ask them, like to make the rules on a case-by-case basis — which means that in a sense they’re not really rules at all. But you ask people, anywhere, and they’ll say this is all just common sense.

      And it’s not even mostly about their own preferences and esthetics. Many smokers have said smoking should be illegal, or that tobacco products should be illegal if they’re proven dangerous, which they weren’t convinced was the case. Or they’ll be against bans on a variety of things they don’t do themselves, not on general principle, but for various other reasons they favor legality.

      Consideration of individual liberty does weigh into people’s calculations, but the amount of weight they put on that consideration varies a lot from individual to individual. Even the most authoritarian are at slightly libertarian.

  5. The vote was very close, which I doubt it would’ve been 20 years ago. I do think legal marihuana’s had some influence in that, by some people’s thinking it unfair that ‘shroomers be left out.

    What I’d like to know is what influence legal pot has on attitudes toward tobacco smoking’s legality. Are there places yet where it’s legal to smoke pot but not tobacco? I think that’s true in some spaces in California. Will the issues tend to ride together from here on, or in counterpoise?

    1. From what I can tell recreational MJ legalization was an eye-opener for many Denver residents. It’s one thing to support people’s rights to smoke or eat what they want. It’s another to become a magnet-city for MJ users from around the world. Perhaps there was some fear that the same could happen with psilocybin?

  6. It means we’ll have to wait another 10 years for a bunch more boomers to die off. That’s really all it means.

  7. I’ve been expressing disappointment about the motives of marijuana legalization since it started. It was always coming from the fact that marijuana is nearly harmless, and far less harmful than alcohol; never from a recognition that prohibition is a failed policy that takes dangerous substances and magnifies their harm and collateral damage to third parties and society, much less from a philosophy that the government has no right to invade your bodily autonomy.
    People are still hopelessly clinging to the idea that just because drugs can be dangerous, we can reduce that danger with outright bans. We saw that play out with opiates at the same time marijuana legalization was expanding; more crackdowns, longer sentences, no recognition restricting medical access is largely to blame for the OD epidemic. Another classic panic addressed by trying the same policies that have been failing for a century.

  8. Why is Reason still publicizing THIS article. The update is that they got it wrong. The decriminalization vote actually PASSED!

  9. […] Reason‘s Jacob Sullum wrote yesterday (when the measure appeared to have failed), the change’s real-world impact would be […]

  10. […] Reason‘s Jacob Sullum wrote yesterday (when the measure appeared to have failed), the change’s real-world impact would be […]

  11. […] Jacob Sullem points out that this decriminalization will have only a modest real-world impact, as Denver has only prosecuted a handful of psilocybin cases over the past few […]

  12. […] Reason‘s Jacob Sullum wrote yesterday (when the measure appeared to have failed), the change’s real-world impact would be […]

  13. […] Reason‘s Jacob Sullum wrote yesterday (when the measure appeared to have failed), the change’s real-world impact would be […]

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  15. […] Reason‘s Jacob Sullum wrote yesterday (when the measure appeared to have failed), the change’s real-world impact would be […]

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