As It Happens

Denver decriminalizing magic mushrooms a win for 'psychedelic subculture,' says lawyer

As Denver voters pass a grassroots ballot initiative to decriminalize magic mushrooms, one lawyer who helped with the campaign says it puts the "psychedelic subculture" on the map.

Denver just voted to decriminalize psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms

Denver is the first city in the United States to decriminalize psilocybin. (Peter Dejong/Associated Press)

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The mile high city is blazing a trail once again.

Denver voted to decriminalize magic mushrooms this week — or rather, psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.

A grassroots campaign pushed to add the proposal to the local election ballot.

Noah Potter, a lawyer who helped draft that ballot initiative, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the decision and whether it will encourage more people to experiment with psilocybin.

Here is part of their conversation.

Mr. Potter, how high are you feeling right now after this victory?

I'm feeling good. People in the psychedelic scene are very happy. This is the kind of thing for which I've been working for about 30 years or so.

And when you say the psychedelic scene, what are you referring to?

What we see now is a constituency of voters that are supportive of safe and legal access to psychedelics.

Frequently, and I would venture to say, although not empirically based, a good portion of those people are people who had personal experience with psychedelics. 

So there's a psychedelic subculture that hasn't really made it onto the map of public consciousness, of sociological awareness, and so on.

Earlier this week, voters made Denver the first United States city to decriminalize the use of psilocybin — the psychoactive substance in magic mushrooms. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

Do you think this decision in Denver puts it on the map?

I do. The initiative itself puts it on the map. You see something that was totally off the radar that I suspect most people didn't expect because people are largely unaware of psychedelics.

They aren't familiar with psychedelics generally and there's certainly a psychedelic subculture.

What does this actually mean in terms of magic mushrooms in Denver?

On the books it means that the employees of the city of Denver are disempowered from acting against people for possession, use, and cultivation of small amounts of psychoactive mushrooms.

So we anticipate that the police will be disempowered from investigating and arresting, and contemplate that the district attorney will be disempowered from prosecuting.

Unless you're in that subculture you described, I don't think people have thought much about this a lot. So what does it do? What kind of a high do you get from magic mushrooms?

Yeesh. Well, it really depends on the dosage, which is actually a very, very critical consideration.

Let's say that you're talking about what is called a heroic dose. That experience lasts, could be about six to eight hours long. There's a gradual buildup and a peak then a sort of a slow and gradual return to normal waking consciousness, or normative consciousness, I should say.

One gram of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, is seen on a scale. Potter says the effects of mushrooms vary depending on the dosage. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

[The] initial feeling is something a little bit different. Sounds are a little bit different. Visual perception is a little bit different. It can be a sense that things are moving. Still objects are oscillating. Lights can radiate. 

A normal white light in your living room will look more like a prism. You have a halo of, sort of rainbow colours, or something like a prism.

Objects can look as if they're melting, but it's sort of like an ongoing melting. If you look at something melting but it doesn't really melt. The liquid kind of recycles back into solid form.

And I mean it can certainly go farther. There's a change in perception of time. Time can feel as if it's contracting or expanding and each moment can feel like an eternity.

And then you get the sense that time is contracting. Things are happening very fast and you don't remember how long ago it was that you began the trip.

It's quite an experience. So how much demand was there in Denver for this to be decriminalized?

I can't speak to the demand.

Although my understanding is that there was sufficient, really excited, positive response to the volunteers getting signatures that there seems to be a pretty robust population of people in Denver who have experienced mushrooms and are aficionados.

And do you think, now that it's been decriminalized, more people in Denver will start using magic mushrooms?

Well that's really, really a key consideration and a key policy question. I personally suspect that there will be an increase, if only because of the greater media attention to this. I mean this has made national and international news.

People are curious and you see in the mass media that the news outlets are trying to explain what psilocybin is for the first time.

Potter says the next step will be to make sure there is appropriate policy in place to ensure harm reduction and education around using magic mushrooms. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

People have heard of heroin. People have heard of cocaine. People have heard of cannabis. They've heard of LSD — so that's sort of the representative hallucinogen.

But psilocybin mushrooms? Psychedelic mushrooms? Like, what is that? 

So I would be willing to hazard that there is a strong possibility of an increase.

I should say, psilocybin mushrooms are rather nauseating depending on your how strong your stomach is. They're not pleasant to eat. They're foul tasting. It's not like candy. 

But people will be curious and want to experiment. And that then goes into the question of how this change in policy is implemented, which is really a key consideration at this point — how to do harm reduction and education and planning so that people are familiar with these very powerful substances.

Written by Sarah-Joyce Battersby and John McGill. Interview produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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