You most likely have heard about the vote — unprecedented anywhere in the United States — that decriminalized possession of psilocybin mushrooms in Denver. These are also called “magic mushrooms.” Psychedelic!

So, what‘s this all about? Are Denver residents nuts? Is Denver adding drivers who are tripping on psilocybin, in addition to the cannabis-impaired drivers already there?

What Denver Passed

First, the vote did not legalize psilocybin. Initiative 301 decriminalized the possession of ‘shrooms, passing with barely 50% of the vote. While possession of psilocybin mushrooms is still illegal, the initiative directed police to make arresting people for possession of magic mushrooms their lowest law enforcement priority. As supporters of the Initiative said, no one should have a criminal record for having a mushroom.

Why Would People Want to Do This? Some History of Psychedelics

Humans have used psychoactive mushrooms for thousands of years, generally as part of religious ceremonies or practices. Contemporary scientists have investigated psychedelics as potential medications. A Swiss chemist first synthesized LSD in 1937. Researchers saw significant potential for various psychedelics, including psilocybin.  Doctors tested treatments for depression, anxiety, the fears that terminal illness brings—the list of symptoms is long.

Long before Timothy Leary started urging young people in the 1960s to take LSD so they could “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out,” there was a Golden Age of psychedelic research. In the 1940s and 1950s, more than 1,000 published studies investigated the effects of various psychoactive substances. Active research programs investigating psilocybin as a potential therapeutic agent are currently underway at NYU, Johns Hopkins, and UCLA. Research at Johns Hopkins exploring whether the state of consciousness produced by psilocybin will treat addiction.

What is the “Stoned Ape” Theory?

As great as it would be to find a new Prozac, proponents of the use of psychedelics often point to a broader context for psilocybin–the Stoned Ape Theory.  The evolution of human intelligence and consciousness remains a mystery. Consciousness requires both intelligence and a self-awareness as apart from the rest of the world. Terrance McKenna developed the Stoned Ape hypothesis.  He suggested that early primates ingested psilocybin mushrooms that were then responsible for large increases in brain growth and social evolution. While it is certainly possible that these mushrooms played a role, testing this hypothesis is, of course, very difficult.

I find particularly fascinating the argument of proponents of psychedelics about the mystical, oneness-with-the-Universe experiences that can occur after consuming psilocybin. These proponents claim psilocybin produces the same state as the religious experiences reported by followers of a range of different religious practices.  Again, something difficult to verify. However, consider the reports from a number of the Boston University Divinity School participants who were given psilocybin in what is known as the Good Friday experiment. Many of these individuals report their participation in this study to be one of the most profound experiences of their lives.

The Future

The full legalization of magic mushrooms will likely be slow to happen. If you want to read more about psilocybin from Michael Pollan, the guy who wrote the book on it, How to Change Your Mind, read his new article. Pollan reviews the scientific testing of psychedelics, the political history of psychedelics including the backlash after the antics of Timothy Leary, increasing penalties for drug use and possession and halting research on psilocybin. Pollan also discusses the fascinating natural history of mushrooms. According to Pollan, we need much more research on psilocybin before we legalize anything so powerful. But, it absolutely should not have a DEA Schedule 1 drug—there are clearly significant potential medical uses for psilocybin.