A year and a half ago, just when you thought the world couldn’t get any weirder, magic mushrooms started coming on the scene.
Mushrooms have been illegal for 50 years. People thought eating them drove you instantly insane. So the feds made mushrooms so illegal you get thrown into a dungeon, basically, for touching one.
Yet, in May 2019, in a marijuana bar, super-stoked young people toasted each other — not with joints or beer, but with mushrooms — Costa Ricans, Golden Teachers. They celebrated the Yes vote on I-301, which made world history, the first vote of its kind, to decriminalize magic mushrooms.
To be clear, mushrooms aren’t legal. What I-301 did was make musthooms the “lowest law enforcement priority” in the city of Denver. (Note, this is Denver proper, not the suburbs, not the mountains.) Denver is not allowed to use any resources to bust people simply for growing and eating mushrooms if they’re over 21. Giving mushrooms away is not being prosecuted, the District Attorney told me. So people are handing them out like Skittles. And sitting for someone tripping is not a crime, a lawyer told me.
Selling mushrooms is still a city crime. Denver Police set up a sting of one dealer last November. He was given probation. And mushrooms are still illegal federally, and the DEA nabbed one dealer last September. He faces 20 years.
So, bottom line: you can trip your face off in Denver, as long as you don’t sell the mushrooms.
With mushrooms freed, Denverites started making moves to bring mushrooms to the masses.
Some leaders of the decrim campaign, including Hope Mellinger and Travis Tyler Fluck founded Denver Mushroom Cooperative, a loose group that connects growers to users, trip sitters to novices. Monthly meetings were bursting at the seams. A new mushroom grow store opened. Head shops started selling spores, the “seeds” of the mushrooms. A guy who runs underground mushroom circles — where you lie on your back on a mat and trip to awesome music — had never been more open about what he was doing, or more enthused. City councils in Oakland and Santa Cruz followed Denver and decriminalized all natural psychedelics, including mushrooms, ayahuasca and DMT. There was a giddy, almost surreal sense of possibility. This small group of people had changed the world.
Then coronavirus hit. Scourge of the planet. Wrecker of health and economies. Murderer of old ladies and good times. Movies stopped production, gyms closed, universities shuttered.
The coronavirus has infected, but not killed, the movement to bring magic mushrooms to the masses. It changed the trajectory. Not just in Denver, but around the world.
The guy who runs those underground mushroom circles had retreats booked for half a year when covid put an end to it. “This cost me a fortune,” says the man, who didn’t want his name used. “I put everything into this.”
“Covid slowed everything down and made it more expensive,” says Rick Doblin, head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which has studied psychedelics since the 1980s. “We’ve got a lot of rent we’re paying every month, and we’re still paying our staff, and we’re not enrolling people in our studies very quickly.”
The Denver Mushroom Cooperative has decentralized. Instead of having one monthly meeting with 50 or 60 people in a swank art gallery with fizzy drinks and chill music, they’re having a handful of 10-person meetings, outside, socially distanced, with masks on.
Covid halted street-level organizing. This spring, a petition in California sought to decriminalize mushrooms statewide, but covid meant the group failed to get signatures. “’Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains,’” the campaign leader emailed. “Today, it rained.”
In Washington, D.C., there was a happier ending. A group called Decriminalize Nature sought signatures for a vote to free all natural psychedelics. This summer, due to covid, it looked like the group would fall short. But they called in the cavalry. A clique of people from the Denver mushroom campaign flew to Washington, D.C., to collect signatures. The campaign squeaked by, gathering just enough signatures to make the ballot. “We made it happen!” says Kevin Matthews, who was head of the Denver campaign and is now leader of SPORE — the Society for Psychedelic Outreach, Reform and Education. Thanks to these Denverites’ work, Washington, D.C., will vote on psychedelics on November 3. It’s a delicious thought. The very politicians stoking prohibition will now read the word “entheogens” on their ballots, and stand face to face with one more hint the Drug War is ending, and the drugs are winning.
Oregonians, too, are winning battles. Covid mucked up signature gathering. But Oregonians raised a million dollars, got 160,000 signatures, and got a huge mushroom vote on the November ballot. I-109 would let therapists could give out psilocybin. There’s a decent chance it will pass. “Attitudes are shifting in the right direction,” says Tom Eckert, one of the movement’s leaders. “It seems like folks are ready to listen.”
Mushrooms are fun. In microdoses, they’re not any bigger deal than a strong cup of coffee. In medium doses, trees breathe, walls shimmy and Rick and Morty is extra hilarous. And, by some measures, mushrooms are the safest recreational drug, far safer than alcohol.
But mushrooms are not alcohol or even cannabis. If you eat a big handful, you understand why people are afraid of them. Waves of sensation rush. Geometric shapes pulse, like a 3D IMAX movie wired directly into your spinal cord. You’ll forget your own name. Serious trippers wear diapers. Most astoundingly, the mushrooms give an eerie sense of an intelligence interacting with you. Most interpret it as their own subconscious, their own brain. But others feel this intelligence is Mother Nature, the mushroom itself, God or even aliens.
This intense weirdness can be hard to handle. In a survey of people who’d had “bad trips,” 11 percent listed it as the single most difficult experience of their lives, and a small percentage had to get medical help.
These big trips change people, for better and worse. People stop being dogmatic Christians, they stop being atheists, they start talking about “energy” and “connectedness.” The hippie language and head-in-the-clouds talk can annoy the crap out of regular people, alienating people from their old friends and family.
Yet randomized clinical trials at Johns Hopkins showed psilocybin reduced anxiety in folks with life-threatening cancer, and Imperial College London researchers showed psilocybin boosted depressed people’s moods. Surveys show that men who use psychedelics like mushrooms are less likely to beat up their girlfriends. Ex-cons who trip are more likely to stay out of prison.
And that’s why many people want to make sure there are safe places to take mushrooms and qualified people to take them with. A Colorado group called the Nowak Society is working to regulate therapists, guides, shamans, and trip sitters. “We want to self-organize and propose some guidelines,” says Shannon Hughes of the Nowak Society. “So we don’t leave it to policy makers and regulators somewhere else to make the rules. So they’re made by the people who actually use these medicines.”
One thing seems certain in Denver: if you grow your own mushrooms in your own home, and eat them at home, there’s a near-zero chance you’ll be arrested.
So there’s been a big boost in home grows. “Who knew that people sitting around on their couch all day would want to try growing mushrooms at home?” jokes David Muelken, who founded Monster Mushrooms just after decriminalization passed. Monster Mushrooms sells all-in-one grow kits, and he says his online sales took off after covid hit.
The Denver Spore Company sells spores. Mushroom Cult taught classes on how to grow all kinds of mushrooms. A company called Fresh from the Farm Fungi films instructional YouTube videos. The Denver mushroom scene during covid is very DIY.
While on-the-ground organizing has slowed, well-funded startups are raking in dough. More than $200 million in investments have poured into psychedelics this year. “There aren’t many companies in the psychedelic space right now and there’s lots of investment dollars available,” says Ronan Levy, who has led a company called Field Trip into raising nearly $20 million to open psychedelic clinics. “There’s a lot of people who want to explore these medicines.” And one psilocybin company, Compass Pathways, just raised $80 million in investments, and aims to be the first IPO from a psilocybin company — where you can buy stock.
Denver’s decimalization created an environment where these businesses seem more plausible. Del Jolly runs a Denver nonprofit called Unlimited Sciences, which gathers data from mushrooms users to see what they’re effective for, in hopes of using them in clinics. “What we did in Denver is gonna change health care as a whole,” Jolly says.
THE FUNGAL FUTURE
So, yes, covid crimped mushrooms, and amped up the isolation, stress, depression and disconnection that was already killing people. “Covid has increased everybody’s sense of trauma and anxiety,” says Doblin, “and really made people aware more of these new treatments for mental health. And the need for what we’re doing is dramatically increased.”
Colorado might not be done changing the drug world. Matthews’s organization polled Coloradans and found 50 percent support for statewide mushroom decrim. Matthews and friends are mulling a statewide initiative in 2022, to decriminalize mushrooms for all Coloradans.
“There’s a lot happening, it’s just not visible,” says Travis Tyler Fluck, board member for the Denver Mushroom Cooperative. “It’s all happening underground.”
And here’s one last story that could only happen in 2020: As the pandemic raged, Fluck and his friend would set up Zoom calls and eat psychedelic mushrooms together, as much as eight grams of Penis Envy, the psychedelic equivalent of climbing K2. As the mushrooms came on, the Zoom buttons got wobbly and unreadable. So they just let Zoom run. But when they came back to consensus reality, they’d unmute themselves and talk about the journeys they’d just been on.
Impossible as it seems, the world can always get weirder.