Photo - Denver mushroom decriminalization effort gathers signatures on 16th Street Mall

[Bryan Utesch gathers signatures for mushroom decriminalization on the 16th Street Mall, accompanied by music from Billy Daniel on guitar and Jake Rundy on percussion.]

As part of the informal band Gas and Snacks, Bryan Utesch normally plays accordion. When they busk, pedestrians toss ones and fives into his empty instrument case. But the other night on the 16th Street Mall in Denver, Utesch left his accordion in the box, and asked passersby for something else.

"Would you be interested in signing a petition to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in Denver?" he asked people, holding out a packet of papers.

During the half hour we watched, everybody who was a registered Denver voter said "yes." Except when one or two said "Oh hell yes!"

"Oh yes! Oh yes! Yeah bro!" said the first person Utesch asked, a dude in a brightly-colored yellow, pink and blue sweater. "Are you on mushrooms now?" the colorful dude asked. Utesch said he was not. "I was growing 'em for like eight years," the colorful dude went on. "Do you really think this is gonna happen?!"

Utesch said he thought it might.

Utesch is a volunteer for the Decriminalize Denver campaign, formerly known as Denver for Psilocybin, the country's most organized effort to liberate mushrooms, a psychedelic drug similar to LSD, and the drug widely seen as the next logical drug to legalize after cannabis. If Decriminalize Denver gathers 5,000 valid signatures, the initiative would be on the Denver city ballot in May 2019. If it passes, the city would be prohibited from using any resources to prosecute growing, possessing or using mushrooms. The campaign says it's polling well.

Mushrooms aren't that popular. There were only 40 citations for mushrooms last year in Denver. But a couple million people have done them, and those who like shrooms absolutely love them. Groups in Oregon, California and Florida are talking about votes in 2020.

You could feel the enthusiasm Sunday in a space called the Circus Collective in downtown Denver, where a girl did high-wire acrobatics on silks draped from the ceiling, in the same big open room where 35 volunteers learned how to collect signatures. "I have goosebumps," said Kevin Matthews, head of the campaign.

Photo - Denver for Psilocybin volunteer meeting Circus Collective

[Volunteers learned the finer points of signature gathering at the Circus Collective Sunday.]

The law seems poised to survive court challenges, the group's lawyers said, since it's modeled after Denver laws that have worked before, including one that decriminalized marijuana back in 2007; and another that instructed the city not to enforce some federal immigration laws — so-called Sanctuary City laws.

If anything, the organizers were tamping enthusiasm, not stoking it, by telling volunteers not to debate prohibitionists.

"You're only getting signatures to get it on the ballot," Joey Gallagher, vice president of the Denver Psychedelic Club, reminded the volunteers, "you're not there to convince anyone of the stoned ape theory or that mushrooms are going to save the planet."

Many volunteers, when asked why they supported mushrooms, talked grandly about taking power back over medicines, disrupting Big Pharma, or expunging past drug convictions. A student named David Berger said he was motivated by libertarian principles; psychedelics are correlated with anti-authoritarianism. And student Grant Hobbes by the evidence that psilocybin is correlated with lower domestic violence. They loved the fact that if mushrooms can only get to the ballot, then the mayor and the media and maybe your parents will have to say the words "psilocybin mushrooms," which they'd count as a win in itself.

Volunteers said they planned to go to farmers markets or patrol the local universities, Bryan Utesch was so stoked he exited the meeting and bolted straight toward 16th Street, Denver's premier pedestrian mall, with his musical buddies from Gas and Snacks. Even though Utesch is registered in Fort Collins — any citizen can collect signatures, no matter where they live, but only residents of Denver city proper can sign it  — Utesch was considering moving to Denver just to vote "yes." In fact, he was so dedicated he travelled down to Denver the weekend before for the meeting — before realizing he had the wrong date.

Utesch gathered signatures into the night.

"I get such a feeling of hope from this," Utesch said.

"Are you registered to vote in Denver?" Utesch asked another dude. That dude said "Woo!" to mushrooms, over a soundtrack from Gas and Snacks — minus their accordion player.  

[Cover photo: Bryan Utesch, volunteer for Decriminalize Denver, asks for signatures for a vote to decriminalize mushrooms from, left to right, Idalis Saucedo, 20, Alexa Saucedo, 19 and Xochitl Avila, 20.]