Denver, CO

Denver psilocybin mushroom panel recommends training responders

David Heitz

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The Denver Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel, created after voters decriminalized mushrooms in the city in 2019, has recommended special training for first responders.

About 4,000 Denver public safety personnel, including the STAR team, firefighters and police, would learn how to spot signs of psilocybin effects and diffuse situations where people may be in duress due to the drug.

The panel also recommends decriminalizing psilocybin laws that disallow sharing of the fungi. So-called “magic mushrooms” have been used therapeutically by many cultures since 9000 B.C., panel member Kevin Matthews told the council during a Finance and Governance Committee meeting this week.

“The emergent psilocybin ecosystem has inspired an entire generation to find healing,” Matthews said. He said several modern, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials have proven the mushrooms help with certain physical and mental health conditions.

He said the mushrooms can be used for relief from anxiety, depression, and substance abuse disorders.

Training protects city from liability

Public safety employees in Denver need specialized harm reduction training for people who use psilocybin inappropriately, Matthews said. The committee also recommends public service announcements be made about psilocybin safety. A data collection system for reporting adverse psilocybin effects or incidents also should be created, the committee recommends.

“The appropriate response differs from responses to other drugs like opioids and meth,” Sara Gael told the committee. Gael is a licensed professional counselor for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Substances, which was founded in 1986.

The training not only will help diffuse potentially harmful situations, but it will protect the city against liability. During the past five years, the average settlement for an inappropriate psilocybin response by first responders was $2.28 million, Gael said.

Denverites using mushrooms for wellness

“Observational data suggests psilocybin mostly is used intentionally for health and mental wellness reasons,” Matthews told the committee. The committee recommends Denver explore further how psilocybin can address mental health issues in Denver.

The state of Colorado recently ranked 47th in the nation for mental health care. According to the panel, the city has a unique opportunity to “create new policies that reduce harm, enable self-governance and create access to more effective healing options.”

Indigenous peoples share the mushrooms during healing ceremonies. The way the law stands, that’s illegal, although the district attorney’s office vowed not to enforce the law, Matthews said. Still, the committee wants to make sharing OK.

Mushroom panel needs more diversity

The panel also recommends that voting members of the panel be added to reflect Denver’s diversity. During a recent Facebook live chat, residents told council member Hinds indigenous people should be represented on the panel.

Although the panel’s bylaws call for two city council members, Hinds is the only one. City council member Robin Kniech said during the committee meeting she believes Matthews glossed over the negative effects of taking mushrooms.

“What about recreational use?” Kniech asked. “I do want us to have a sincere conversation about other things.” She said she has heard of people taking their lives under the influence of psilocybin.

Matthews said the training for city employees will educate them about negative psilocybin effects and how to deal with them. “Most data show what may be recreational use on the outside maybe be incredibly therapeutic," he added.

Kniech said the panel also should include some members of Denver’s Department of Public Health.

Where and how do people get mushrooms?

Councilwoman Debbie Ortega agreed with Kniech's points. She said the committee needs to have a conversation around personal use. “Where and how people get it are an important part of the conversation.”

According to Matthews’ presentation, psilocybin is the safest of all recreational drugs. He said Denver inspired a national movement with the 2019 decriminalization of psilocybin, but “without appropriate support or education psilocybin can result in psychological or behavioral crises.”

Since Denver decriminalized mushrooms, psilocybin arrests have plunged 50 percent. Almost all the arrests also involved other illicit substances.

Psilocybin account for less than 1 percent of drug felonies and misdemeanors in Denver, Matthews said.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

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