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Denver Voters Could Decriminalize Psychedelic Mushrooms

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Psychedelic mushrooms were federally banned back in the '70s, but a growing movement wants to access - wants access to them, mostly for medicinal use. In Denver, Esther Honig of Harvest Public Media reports that mushroom enthusiasts want the freedom to take them without fear of criminal prosecution.

ESTHER HONIG, BYLINE: Euphoria, hallucinations, seeing God are all side effects of psilocybin mushrooms, which people consume, sometimes in a tea, as a chocolate or in tiny doses also called microdosing. And these mushrooms grow all over the world.

DOUGLAS: These right here I picked, like, three days ago.

HONIG: They can even grow in this storage closet in a Denver apartment. Douglas, who didn't want to use his full name for fear of federal prosecution, holds a handful of mushrooms that he cultivates and sells illegally.

DOUGLAS: Mushrooms are really easygoing, especially psilocybin. You know, they kind of just grow themselves. And this is a relatively quiet thing to do.

HONIG: With his DIY setup of glass jars, large plastic bins and a pressure cooker, Douglas can grow up to a thousand dollars of mushrooms per month. He learned how on the Internet and bought his first mushroom spores from an online seller, which is legal in all but two U.S. states.

DOUGLAS: If you just want to start small, investment's super low. You could throw $80 at it and have, like, an ounce to yourself.

HONIG: But doing so could land you in prison, which is why a ballot measure in Denver's Tuesday election asks voters to decriminalize mushrooms. Adults 21 or older caught using or even growing the fungi for themselves would become a low priority for local police. It'd still be illegal to sell them, but Douglas says it'll be good for business.

DOUGLAS: With decriminalization and stuff, I can operate a little bit more freely and have to worry less.

HONIG: And it's not just Denver. A Republican lawmaker in Iowa recently proposed removing psilocybin from the state's list of controlled substances. And in Oregon, a campaign hopes to legalize it for medical use in approved clinics.

MATTHEW JOHNSON: This isn't the stuff that states have any infrastructure to deal with.

HONIG: Matthew Johnson has spent the last 15 years researching psychedelics at Johns Hopkins University. He says research shows this drug is not addictive and could be used to treat a whole host of ailments, like depression. But he doesn't support increasing access in the same way some states have loosened up laws around cannabis.

JOHNSON: There are substantial risks involved with this therapy, and it needs to be done by appropriately trained and credentialed medical and psychological professionals.

HONIG: Under the influence of psilocybin, people can panic and put themselves in danger. There have been fatalities. In as little as five years, Johnson believes research on psilocybin will lead to the first FDA-approved medication, at which point the federal government will have to stop treating it like a dangerous drug. But until then...

DEANNE REUTER: Any controlled substance is a concern. It's obviously on a Schedule I for a reason.

HONIG: Deanne Reuter is with the DEA office in Denver and says they'll continue prosecuting psilocybin cases even though they don't see that many.

REUTER: The trafficking of psilocybin seems to be like a small, niche kind of community.

HONIG: If the ballot measure passes, Reuter expects dealers like Douglas will exploit the decriminalization, and what is now a small market could grow. For NPR News, I'm Esther Honig.

(SOUNDBITE OF CIRCLES AROUND THE SUN'S "HALLUCINATE A SOLUTION (FEAT. NEAL CASAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.