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Crime and Courts

Denver authorities might be instructed to look the other way on magic mushrooms, but they remain illegal

The mushroom remains a federal Schedule 1 controlled substance, prohibited under state and federal law

A Denver Police Department vehicle at a crime scene. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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The Denver vote directing police to de-prioritize arresting people for psilocybin mushrooms forges new legal ground because getting caught with even a small amount of psychedelic mushrooms can lead to felony charges.

Possession of marijuana was a petty offense — the lowest of all crimes — when Mile High voters decriminalized weed in 2005. And where Denver police had a long history of arrests for marijuana prior to the decriminalization vote, police see very few cases involving psilocybin.  

“This is probably because psilocybin use is still relatively rare, but the differences are interesting,” said Sam Kamin, a long-time University of Denver professor who specializes in marijuana law and policy at the Sturm College of Law.

MORE: With Denver’s vote on magic mushrooms, will Colorado anchor a psychedelic medicine revolution?

Denver police and the Denver District Attorney’s Office spent the past week making sure that everyone — including a deluge of media fascinated with Denver’s perceived embrace of a psychedelic — knows that the approval of Initiative 301 did not decriminalize psilocybin, it only instructed police to make enforcement a low priority.

The mushroom remains a federal Schedule 1 controlled substance — alongside heroin, meth, cocaine, marijuana and MDMA, or ecstasy, all of which the federal government says have no medical use — that can result in felony charges for possession, cultivation or distribution. That rarely happens in Denver.

Of the 9,267 drug cases filed by the Denver DA between 2016 and 2019, 11 involved psilocybin, and of those only three were for possession or intent to manufacture and distribute the psychoactive mushrooms.

“We do not anticipate any immediate effect on our office as we handle very few cases involving psilocybin in the first place,” said Carolyn Tyler with the Denver DA’s office.

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Federal prosecutors in Colorado say they too do not anticipate any changes around enforcement involving the mushroom.

“Our position is unchanged,” U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn said in a written statement. “They were illegal under federal law before the vote and are illegal under federal law after the vote.”