UPDATE: A measure to decriminalize psilocybin in Denver appeared to have been defeated late Tuesday after polls had closed, with multiple local media outlets calling the vote. But overnight, the gap narrowed significantly and the measure’s chances seemed revived. As of Wednesday afternoon, Denver’s elections division posted an unofficial final vote tally that showed the initiative passing 51-49 percent. Click here for up-to-date coverage of the initiative’s historic and unexpected victory.
Original story follows.
A measure to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms in Denver was narrowly defeated on Tuesday, with voters declining to approve what would have been a historic ballot initiative.
NBC affiliate 9 News Denver called the race shortly after 10:00 PM local time.
City voters kill Denver's initiative that would decriminalize "magic" mushrooms. Denver would have been the first city in the nation to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms. #COpolitics #COleg #9NEWS pic.twitter.com/M52Zw9eQZ3
— 9NEWS Denver (@9NEWS) May 8, 2019
With 142,161 votes counted, the proposal was trailing behind by a margin of 48 percent to 52 percent as officials stopped counting ballots around 1:00 AM, with more set to be tallied on Wednesday.
If approved, the initiative would have barred the city government from using resources to impose criminal penalties on individuals 21 and older for using or possessing psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms. It would have also made low-level psilocybin offenses “the city’s lowest law-enforcement priority.”
Decriminalize Denver, the group behind the initiative, ran an education-focused campaign that emphasized the potential therapeutic benefits of psilocybin, which has shown promise in the treatment of mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction.
The campaign faced no organized opposition, though Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and District Attorney Beth McCann said they did not support the effort. The city’s official ballot guide didn’t include a “cons” section, either, giving the campaign a unique advantage.
In spite of that, most voters were not ready to embrace the reform proposal, even though Denver passed a marijuana decriminalization measure in 2005 that set the stage for Colorado to become the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana in 2012.
If approved, Initiative 301 would have also established a policy review panel to study the effects of the ordinance and present a report on its findings by early 2021.
Activists knew that passage wasn’t certain going into the campaign, with early polling showing a slim plurality supporting the policy and no city-level precedent in the U.S. to compare it to, but they held out hope that the grassroots campaign would rally enough support to get it across the finish line.
After launching, Decriminalize Denver quickly became a model for similar efforts around the country. Activists in Oakland, for example, said they drew inspiration from the campaign as they drafted a resolution to decriminalize psilocybin and other entheogenic plants, which they say will soon be sponsored by a member of the City Council.
The proposed policy change is also gaining momentum elsewhere. Oregon activists are in the process of collecting signatures for a 2020 ballot measure to legalize the substance for medical purposes and otherwise lower penalties for it.
More recently, a campaign called Decriminalize California sent a letter to a state government legislative office, requesting assistance in crafting a 2020 ballot measure to decriminalize the possession, use, cultivation, transportation and gifting of psilocybin for medical or religious purposes for adults 21 or older.
In a matter of only months, the conversation around psilocybin reform that was sparked by Decriminalize Denver has spread from city activists to 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who is running for the office, said he was open to the policy change in April.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), another presidential candidate who was initially opposed to cannabis legalization in his state, said in March that “criminalizing drug use has not worked” and argued that the federal government shouldn’t prevent states from pursuing broader drug decriminalization.
It’s too early to tell how the failure of Denver’s initiative will impact the reform measures it’s inspired elsewhere.
But despite the loss—simply by making the ballot and bringing in a respectable share of votes—the campaign has undoubtedly set the stage for an evolutionary shift in the drug policy reform movement, with advocates now emboldened to seriously pursue a conversation about drug decriminalization that is no longer limited to just marijuana.
This story has been updated to note the measure’s passage despite local media outlets initially projecting its failure.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mädi.