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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Effort underway to decriminalize ‘magic mushrooms’ in Spokane

A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a pop-up cannabis market in Los Angeles on Monday, May 6, 2019.   (Associated Press)

Spokane could soon join the growing number of cities and states that have decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms.

A new initiative would effectively end local enforcement of federal laws in the city of Spokane against the possession of psilocybin, a psychedelic drug naturally produced by what are commonly referred to as “magic mushrooms.”

The initiative was filed with the Spokane city clerk by attorney Pat Donahue and Mason Lord of Decriminalize Spokane in February.

City voters could decide on the proposal as early as the November election if organizers collect enough signatures in the coming months to qualify for the ballot. Supporters expect to begin collecting signatures to place the initiative on the ballot in the coming weeks.

If successful, the initiative would not legalize mushroom possession. Instead, it would prohibit local law enforcement officials from devoting any resources to enforcing the laws banning the possession and not-for-profit sale of psilocybin by adults.

“This is mostly about safety, and this is acknowledging certain legal substances that are accessible – like alcohol, for one – are far more dangerous,” Lord told The Spokesman-Review, adding he opposes “the criminalization of a substance that has so much research showing that it’s so much safer than legal substance adults (can access).”

If enacted, a new city law would state that possession of up to 6 ounces of dried mushroom – or its not-for-profit sale – by adults 21 or older is “the city’s lowest possible law enforcement priority.”

City law would also be amended to ban the use of psilocybin in public.

“It’s going to be the same rules as public use of cannabis,” Lord said. “You’re not going to be allowed to be out at Riverfront Park with a bag of mushrooms sitting on your blanket.”

Though psilocybin remains federally prohibited as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, cities like Denver and Oakland have passed similar measures limiting enforcement of psilocybin possession laws.

Those efforts helped spark Decriminalize Spokane, which Lord described as “grassroots” and “community-based,” in 2019.

“That was amazing to see what took place there, and there were some folks who wanted to bring the movement to Spokane and do something similar here,” Lord said.

Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes when a majority of voters approved Measure 109 last November. Measure 110, which was also backed by Oregon voters, decriminalized small amounts of drugs, including psilocybin.

Though scientific research into the drug remains relatively nascent, advocates for decriminalization have touted psilocybin mushrooms’ purported medical benefits, particularly in aiding people struggling with depression. The Federal Drug Administration has twice designated the drug a “breakthrough therapy,” most recently in 2019, as a potential treatment for treating major depressive disorder. The designation is a signal that the FDA believes the drug shows promise as a treatment and it can undergo an accelerated testing and review process.

Psychedelics like psilocybin have been the subject of increasing research in recent years, particularly at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.

But even prominent supporters of decriminalizing the drug have questioned the recent wave of legislative and ballot initiatives across the country.

“I’m concerned that politicizing psilocybin at this particular historical juncture could jeopardize that process, which is widely expected to lead to federal approval and rescheduling of psilocybin in a few years’ time,” Michael Pollan, author of “How to Change Your Mind,” wrote in 2019.

The consequences of widespread recreational use of the drug remain unclear, some have warned. Some experts have noted that psilocybin isn’t safe for all people and that its psychological effects can depend on a multitude of factors.

Paul Hutson, professor of pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin who has conducted psilocybin research, told the Sacramento Bee in 2018 that mushrooms are “very, very potent medicines that are affecting your mind. In the proper setting, they’re safe, but in an uncontrolled fashion, I have grave concerns.”

Lord acknowledged the drug is not for everyone under every circumstance, and he vowed to bring a “harm reduction” mindset to the issue.

“We want there to be accessibility, because when there’s accessibility we can educate people and show them how this can be a very safe thing to do,” Lord said.

In 2016, Johns Hopkins University researchers conducted an online survey of nearly 2,000 people about their worst-ever trip on psilocybin. It found that 2.7% sought medical help, 2.6% acted aggressively or violently and 10.7% put themselves or others at risk of physical harm.

The survey only assessed the users’ experience during their worst trip and was not intended to encapsulate their entire experience with the drug, researchers noted. Still, they implored caution regarding psilocybin use.

“Cultures that have long used psilocybin mushrooms for healing or religious purposes have recognized their potential dangers and have developed corresponding safeguards. They don’t give the mushrooms to just anyone, anytime, without a contained setting and supportive, skillful monitoring,” said Dr. Roland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a statement accompanying the research.

Currently, psilocybin possession is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000, while selling up to 70.5 ounces of psilocybin to another adult can net a sentence of up to 10 years and a fine of $25,000.

As currently written, the initiative would ask “shall the Spokane Municipal Code be amended to make adult possession and transfer of limited quantities of psilocybin mushrooms the lowest possible law enforcement priority?”

It’s unclear how many people are arrested in Spokane for mushroom possession every year. An arrest would be recorded in crime statistics simply as “possession of a controlled substance,” according to Spokane Police Department spokesman John O’Brien.

If the city decriminalizes possession of psilocybin, “when we come across drugs on a person we will seize them and put them on the property facility for destruction because those controlled substances are still illegal under federal law,” O’Brien wrote in an email to The Spokesman-Review.

The Spokane City Council, when presented with an initiative, has the option to endorse it and adopt it into law, reject it and propose a different law on the same subject, or accept the petition and pass it along to voters for a decision.

It chose none of the above on Monday, which means the initiative heads to the city hearing examiner, who will determine its legality.

If approved, the organizers can begin to collect voter signatures.

They must gather the required signatures within a year for the hearing examiner’s decision to appear on the ballot. The number of signatures must be greater than 5% of the number of votes cast in the most recent general municipal election. Based on the 2019 election, that would put the threshold at 3,477 signatures.