Spores of a psychedelic mushroom industry are sprouting in Denver after decriminalization – The Denver Post

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.

Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Mazatec psilocybin mushrooms taking form from their tiny pin state as they grow.

“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.

Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Mazatec psilocybin mushrooms dried and ready for consumption.

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.”

Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Mazatec psilocybin mushrooms ready for harvest in their growing tub.

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.”

  • Joe Amon, The Denver Post

    Harvested Mazatec psilocybin mushrooms from their growing tubs.

  • Joe Amon, The Denver Post

    A psilocybin mushroom grower points to Golden Teacher psilocybin mushroom mycelium that has germinated in a dish of agar, spawning after being transferred to a sealed jar of rye grain to colonize.

  • Joe Amon, The Denver Post

    A psilocybin mushroom grower rehydrating the substrate colonized with Mazatec psilocybin mushroom mycelium and a few small mushrooms after an earlier harvest.

  • Joe Amon, The Denver Post

    Creating an oxygen flow with a small fan after misting a growing tub with young Mazatec psilocybin mushrooms.

  • Joe Amon, The Denver Post

    A psilocybin mushroom grower holding a Hawaiian psilocybin mushroom he has harvested to collect spores.

  • Joe Amon, The Denver Post

    Mazatec psilocybin mushrooms ready for harvest in their growing tubs.

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.

“People have lost their licenses in Colorado because they were providing psychedelic sessions. And there are people who have also gotten hurt after psychedelic sessions,” said McQueen, who has therapist training but did not obtain a license.

Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Mazatec psilocybin mushrooms taking form from their tiny pin state as they grow.

What’s next?

There are no signs yet of broader public health effects from the shroom boom. Rocky Mountain Poison & Drug Safety’s hotline reports only two psilocybin cases since May, the same rate as before. And staffers at Denver Health have noticed no noticeable change in the emergency room and other areas. In fact, researchers consistently find psilocybin to be one of the least physically damaging and addictive drugs.

“They don’t ask for help for this,” said Dr. Dayan Colon Sanchez, medical director for the Office of Behavioral Health Services at Denver Health. “It’s usually something incidental; we’re treating them for some other substance use disorder.”

But reformers and law enforcement alike are cautious about psilocybin’s powerful psychedelic effects. The drug can result in lasting positive experiences, especially in regulated therapeutic settings created by academic researchers, but it has the same power to submerge people in horrifying, traumatic nightmares.

“We’re finding that people still don’t quite understand mushrooms, and especially how to use them responsibly,” said Matthews, the psilocybin campaigner. He recently transformed the pro-shrooms political campaign into a nonprofit with the acronym SPORE.

“We really want Denver to be the national leader and set the precedent for what psilocybin decriminalization looks like nationwide for other cities,” Matthews said.

He hopes to run public service announcements about the details of the law and about safe use. Eventually, SPORE could open an office where people can go for information and advice. Denver police also will train officers to better deal with people on psychedelic and other drugs.

Denver also could be joined by other cities and states. The council in Oakland, California, voted to loosen its mushroom laws soon after Denver, and advocates are pushing in California and Oregon. There’s also interest in Boulder and Fort Collins.

“I think the decriminalization effort was always a bare-minimum dialogue to say people shouldn’t be arrested for simple possession amounts,” McAllister said. “The harder dialogue is, well, should there be regulatory regime? Should there be access? What about production?”

Back in his apartment, the mushroom cultivator is a few steps ahead. He has perfected his technique over dozens of batches and strains. It’s a constant cycle of sterilization, inoculation, picking and drying, executed with an engineer’s precision.

“I had to learn slowly,” he said, snipping the ends from white stems and describing his elaborate process. He’s not concerned, he said, about the competition or about the cops. He sees mushrooms as medicine — he takes two micro-doses a week — and he hopes that some of his customers have had the same life-changing experiences as himself.

“If I can position myself to be a propagator, to be a cultivator who helps serve people with the mushroom, then I’m sure I’ll be financially rewarded and taken care of,” he said. “It’s like I’m getting green lights all over the place.”