Cindy Sovine-Miller went to bed on election night thinking that the initiative she and others has worked on for the last 17 months, to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, had gone down to defeat.

True, it had garnered a decent-enough 9 percentage-point loss for a long-shot, first-in-the-nation measure, but it was still a defeat.

But when the political consultant and lobbyist on Colorado marijuana laws woke up on May 8, she was surprised to find that overnight, Initiative 301 had rallied on a surge of mail ballots turned in at the last moment.

With each batch of updated results, the gap between a win and a loss narrowed.

“Oh my gosh!” she recalled with delight, but not entirely with surprise.

“We had volunteers out there pushing because those (ballots) were the ones who voted yes,” she said late last week. “We were driving those millennials to show up, and here’s where you put the stamp and don’t forget to sign.”

“That was what it really came down to,” she added. “And they did.”

A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Lost Angeles on Monday, May 6, 2019. Voters decide this week whether Denver will become the first U.S city to decriminalize the use of psilocybin, the psychedelic substance in the “magic mushrooms.” Photo Credit: AP/Richard Vogel

News of the measure’s narrow unofficial 1,979-vote win — subject to a count of overseas votes that ends this week — spread quickly across the nation and the world. Stories appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Rolling Stone. Sovine-Miller found herself being interviewed twice on the BBC.

All this attention, and lingering questions on what the initiative means, has created concerns among opponents of the measure who fret that Denver — between mushrooms and the state’s booming legal marijuana business — will soon become a tourism hub for travelers seeking to dabble in recreational drug use.

“I love Denver,” said Peter Droege, a fellow at the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University who specializes in drug addiction policy. “But like many people, I think the direction that we’re going in is really harmful to our future.”

Droege, who also opposed the legalization of marijuana, said Denver has made great visionary strides in the last few decades — through improvements like Denver International Airport, light rail and the improved convention center, plus the state’s natural beauty — to position itself as what he called “the new city of the new millennium.”

“I think we have too much to offer to allow a city to be characterized as simply a place where people can go and use drugs,” Droege said. “It’s the wrong brand for the city.”

But Kevin Matthews, who helmed the campaign to approve 301, said critics’ fears that Denver will become an open city for drug use are misplaced.

“I understand the concern,” Matthews said. “However, my question is, where are these tourists going to get mushrooms?”

He noted that the initiative seeks to decriminalize the possession, cultivation and personal use of psilocybin by making it the lowest law enforcement priority. It does not legalize the sale or distribution of magic mushrooms, nor does it set up any medical framework to allow people to sell or buy the drug.

“It sends a very clear signal that Americans are ready for this conversation,” Matthews said of the impact on Denver’s image. “I’d like to create a new perception around Denver.”

“Let’s consider Denver as a Geneva or a sanctuary for people who choose to use naturally occurring compounds like psilocybin that have tremendous medical potential without these radical side effects,” he said.

From vortex to ballot box

To understand the impact of Initiative 301 and its surprise victory, it helps to know more about the story behind how the referendum got on the ballot.

It’s a story that involves several meetings in coffee shops, an internal debate over how the measure should be worded and some clever borrowing of language from an unexpected source.

It’s also a story that begins 15 years ago in a high school debating class.

Tyler Williams was a 15-year-old student who by then had smoked marijuana and questioned why it was illegal. He convinced his high school classmates to debate the merits of legalization and thus launched what would become an abiding interest in drug policy reform.

Later, as a University of Colorado Boulder math major in 2017, Williams started the Denver Psychedelic Club. At the first meeting, he was the only attendee, but through Facebook he found enough people with similar interests to start a chapter.

At one of the group’s early organizational meetings, the question was raised, what should they do? Williams said some suggested a book club, others a movie series and one participant — the author of several book on vortexes in Sedona, Arizona — suggested they attempt to decriminalize magic mushrooms.

Members were interested, but the group had barely gotten started, so the idea went on a back burner, Williams said.

In the months that followed, Williams said he worked on some other Denver initiatives, such as one to establish cannabis social clubs and another to encourage energy efficient “green roofs” within the city.

Emboldened by some success with those measures, Williams said he returned to the idea of decriminalizing magic mushrooms.

He looked at similar efforts in California and Oregon. But he said the California group seemed too hands-off in its approach. And the group included one supporter who claimed that magic mushrooms were a way of communicating with space aliens, he added.

Williams said the Oregon approach at the time seemed like the opposite — too regimented and dependent upon a medical model.

So, he tried crafting his own language for a Denver initiative and organized a meeting in January 2018 in the basement of an East Colfax coffee shop.

“It was the best-attended meeting … that the chapter had so far. Fifty or 60 people, from lawyers to medical professionals to mental health professionals,” Williams said. “A lot of our people as well, and some people who were just interested in mushrooms.”

“That was definitely the biggest momentum swing,” he added. “A lot of people could be serious about this.”

Debate over a medical model

Sovine-Miller was among the people who attended that meeting.

A former lobbyist for hospitals and pharmaceutical companies, Sovine-Miller said she had become interested in marijuana legalization while seeing how marijuana had helped her father cope with lymphatic cancer.

“I watched what years of chemo and surgery and radiation did to him, and then I watched what cannabis did to him,” she recalled.

She also began talking with people who were advocating for psilocybin to treat their depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I decided to use my skills and experience working on medical freedom,” she said.

But Sovine-Miller said she was not pleased with how people were being prosecuted for growing and using marijuana outside of the commercial industry that sprang up after Colorado voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana.

So, when she saw Williams’ proposal for a medical model for legalizing mushrooms, she wanted nothing to do with it.

“He and I most definitely disagreed on that particular point,” she recalled. “He was very much interested in pursuing a medical option, and I was like, well now, at least not with my help you’re not.”

So, she stepped away.

Meanwhile, Matthews contacted Williams after finding him on Facebook.

Matthews was a former West Point cadet who had left the academy after being diagnosed with depression. He says that psilocybin helped him deal with that depression.

The two men met at a coffee shop. Williams remembers being so impressed that by the end of that first meeting, he asked Matthews to be the campaign’s co-manager. Eventually, Matthews would become the sole campaign manager.

By then, advocates had failed twice to get language for the measure on the ballot. Matthews approached Sovine-Miller for help.

“Kevin reached out to me and said, ‘OK, what do we do to have you help us move this forward?’” she recalled. “And I said, ‘Do decriminalization.’”

He agreed, and she enlisted help from people she had worked with in the past.

When they drafted the measure, she said they borrowed language from an unlikely source.

“They worked with me to draft the language, which they then modeled off of Denver’s ‘sanctuary city’ policy,” she said.

“It was brilliant because they put a bunch of the terms in the sanctuary city policy that said we will not use any city resources enforcing this mandate against these people, and we will not do that,” she added. “We replicated the language almost entirely except where we retrofitted it to psilocybin.”

That became the language that Denver voters tentatively approved by just over 50%.

“That’s more people than voted for Mayor Hancock,” she quipped.

The next step

Mayor Michael Hancock, who cites his work as a teenager on Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” anti-drug policy with getting him started in politics, had opposed the initiative.

His office said after the vote that “Mayor Hancock respects the decision of the voters, and the Denver Police Department will enforce the law accordingly.”

Denver Police spokesman John White said the department is waiting to see if — as expected — the outcome of the vote is certified this week by the Denver Elections Division.

“We’re working closely with the city attorney’s office, asking for assistance in interpretation,” White said. Once the department has that feedback, it will move forward with training for its officers, he said.

The initiative calls for Hancock to appoint a panel that will oversee implementation of the measure by Dec. 31.

The panel would include one representative each from the Denver police and sheriff’s departments, two City Council members, and two citizens from the group that petitioned to put the measure on the ballot.

It would also include a criminal defense attorney, a certified addiction counselor, a harm reduction advocate, and one representative each from the city attorney’s office and the district attorney’s office.

Critic Droege said the panel’s work on addressing unanswered questions about the initiative will be an important next step.

“Just because the initiative passed doesn’t mean that it’s like a new amusement park for people to come to experiment with psilocybin mushrooms,” he said.

“And until they address those issues, then this initiative really cannot be enacted,” he added.

Art Way, Colorado Director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said the initiative will not change much when it comes to law enforcement and psilocybin.

“It’s a great victory … but it’s more symbolic when it comes to actual differences on the ground, when it comes to arrests and incarceration,” Way said. However, the panel could be significant, he added.

“I think that review panel that’s set up is the biggest fundamental practical difference that was the result from 301,” Way said.

“And hopefully those type of panels and that type of stakeholder development and discussion could be a part of a broader policy reform,” he added.

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