Douglas rattles around a collection of glass jars in the storage closet of his Denver apartment. They’re filled with a small grain, like barley, and covered in a soft white fungus — a mushroom spawn. Soon, he’ll transplant it in large plastic bins filled nutrients like dried manure and coconut fiber.
Over the course of two weeks, mushrooms that naturally contain psilocybin, a psychoactive ingredient, will sprout.
“I mean it’s a relatively quiet thing to do. There’s just lots of waiting,” said 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 easy going, especially psilocybin,” he said. “They kind of just grow themselves.”
Denver is at the forefront of a national movement that seeks access these mushrooms, largely for medicinal use. On May 7, voters will have the chance to decriminalize them. And while that may sound ambitious, a campaign in Oregon is gathering signatures for a 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’s effort in California did not get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.
For Douglas, it’s a sign that change is on the horizon, one that could have implications for his business, which he said he runs for the supplemental income but also because he believes it’s beneficial.
“Cultivating psilocybin and offering medicine to people to change their lives, that will be my mission, or my way of serving others,” he said.
With his DIY setup of glass jars, large plastic bins and a pressure cooker for sterilization, Douglas can grow 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 them 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 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 has spent the last 15 years researching psychedelics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He said decriminalization of illegal drugs is generally a good thing, but he wouldn't support policy that encourages people to use psilocybin.
“(This therapy) needs to be done by appropriately trained and credentialed medical and psychological professionals,” he said.
Research strongly suggests that psilocybin is not addictive, causes few ER visits compared to other illegal drugs and could be used to treat a whole host of ailments, like 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 said. “(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.
Johnson said he thinks that, in as few as five years, research on psilocybin will lead to the first medication approved by the Federal Drug Administration. Once that happens, the government will have to remove it as a Schedule 1 drug, and regulate it like any other pharmaceutical.
Until then, Deanne Reuter with the DEA’s Denver office said the agency will continue prosecuting cases of psilocybin.
“Any controlled substance is a concern,” she said. “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 said.
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 said.
If the Denver ballot measure passes, it wouldn’t protect someone like him, who’s selling mushrooms for profit. Still, he said it’d be a step closer to a future where he can freely provide people with something he believes in.
Follow Esther on Twitter: @estherhonig