Douglas rattles around a collection of glass jars in the storage closet of his Denver apartment. They're filled with sterilized rye grains, covered in a soft white fungus — a mushroom spawn. Soon, he'll transplant it in large plastic bins filled with nutrients such as dried manure and coconut fiber.
Over the course of two weeks, a crop of mushrooms that naturally contain psilocybin, a psychoactive ingredient, will sprout. The species he grows include psilocybe cubensis.
"I mean, it's a relatively quiet thing to do. There's just lots of waiting," says Douglas, which is his middle name. He didn't want to be identified because this is an illegal grow-and-sell operation; psychedelic mushrooms were federally banned in 1970, along with several other hallucinogens.
"Mushrooms are really easygoing, especially psilocybin," he says. "They kind of just grow themselves."
Denver is at the forefront of a national movement that seeks to access these mushrooms, largely for medicinal use. On Tuesday, voters are weighing in on a ballot measure to decriminalize them. And while that may sound ambitious, a campaign in Oregon is gathering signatures for a ballot measure in the 2020 election and seeks to legalize mushrooms with a medical prescription for use in approved clinics.
In Iowa, Republican lawmaker Jeff Shipley recently proposed two bills: one removing psilocybin from the state's list of controlled substances, and the other legalizing it for medical use. And last year, a campaign in California did not get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. The group that led the campaign hopes to try again in 2020, according to their Facebook page.
For Douglas, it's a sign that change is on the horizon, one that could have implications for his business, which he says he runs for the supplemental income, but also because he believes mushrooms are beneficial.
"Cultivating psilocybin and offering medicine to people to change their lives, that will be my mission, or my way of serving others," he says.
With his DIY setup of glass jars, large plastic bins and a pressure cooker for sterilization, Douglas can produce up to $1,000 of mushrooms a month. He learned how to do this thanks to Internet videos. He purchased his first mushroom spores online and received them in the mail; companies legally are allowed to sell spores since they don't contain psilocybin.
If the Denver ballot measure passes, adults 21 and older who are caught with psilocybin mushrooms, or even growing them for personal use, would become the "lowest law enforcement priority" for local police. Plus, the city and county of Denver would be barred from spending any money to prosecute psilocybin cases.
The notion that state laws around mushrooms could be loosened up, much like they have been for cannabis, is not without controversy. Matthew Johnson, who has spent the past 15 years researching psychedelics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says decriminalization of illegal drugs is generally a good thing, but he wouldn't support policy that encourages people to use psilocybin without professional supervision.
"(This therapy) needs to be done by appropriately trained and credentialed medical and psychological professionals," he says.
Research suggests that psilocybin is not addictive, causes few ER visits compared to other illegal drugs and could be used to treat a number of ailments. Johnson believes the most promising research is on treating anxiety and depression in cancer patients. In a study he conducted with other researchers at Johns Hopkins, he says they found even a single dose can positively affect an individual for several months.
"It's really unprecedented in medical history to see effects for depression that are caused by a single medication," he says.
Preliminary research has been conducted for other potential uses, including curbing nicotine addiction and for treatment-resistant depression. And while Johnson believes psilocybin could one day become a groundbreaking treatment, he's emphatic about the potential risks involved.
"The most common side effect is the so-called 'bad trip,' " he says. "(It) can be well-managed in a medical research setting, but that sometimes leads to dangerous behavior when out in the wild."
Under the influence of psilocybin, people can panic and put themselves in unsafe situations; there have been fatalities, he says.
Johnson says he thinks that, in as little as five years, research on psilocybin will lead to the first medication approved by the Federal Drug Administration. Once that happens, he thinks the government will have to remove it as a Schedule 1 drug — a substance like heroin that the DEA considers to have "no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."
Until then, Deanne Reuter, the assistant special agent in charge at the DEA's Denver office, says the agency will continue prosecuting cases of psilocybin possession and trafficking.
"Any controlled substance is a concern," she says. "It's obviously on a Schedule 1 for a reason."
Reuter admits they don't see many cases of psilocybin trafficking. Typically, they'll bust a drug dealer carrying several types of narcotics, including mushrooms.
"The trafficking of psilocybin seems to be like a small, niche kind of community," she says.
Douglas would agree. He has little competition and knows most of the people he sells his product to. Still, he knows the work he does it risky.
"With decriminalization and stuff I can operate a little bit more freely, have to worry less," he says.
If the Denver ballot measure passes, it wouldn't protect someone like him, who's selling mushrooms for profit. Still, he says it'd be a step closer to a future where he can freely provide people with something he believes in.
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