Denver is famous for its drug culture. Whether it be the marijuana dispensaries lining almost every street or the microbreweries littering the city’s burgeoning “hip” (gentrified) neighborhoods, it’s certain that the Mile High City knows how to have a good time. This became obvious to me the summer before last after my mom and I moved there from Nebraska.

On our way to see a band named BoomBox, my mom, my friend Nadezhda and I stood together outside of the Ogden Theatre, a famous concert venue off of the infamous Colfax Avenue. The sun had just set, bringing this particularly raunchy section of Colfax to life. Various shady characters stumbled up and down the street, past groups of raucous, bar-hopping tourists staying at the Ramada down the street. Two political canvassers surfed the sea of buzzed, soon-to-be concert-goers.

One person signed their petition, followed by another and then another. What political issue was so urgent to inspire this gaggle of inebriated adults?

One of the canvassers yelled out the answer.

 “Legalize mushrooms!”

“Yeah, right,” my friend and I snickered before walking into the concert hall and forgetting about the comedic situation. That was my first experience with Denver’s burgeoning “mushroom movement.” Until this May, that is, when Denver citizens narrowly passed a measure decriminalizing the use of hallucinogenic “magic” mushrooms. This significantly deprioritized the police’s enforcement of laws prohibiting their use. This shouldn’t have surprised me, given the almost constant smell of weed that hovers over the state of Colorado, where a thriving Deadhead culture has promoted the use of psychedelic drugs for over half a century — but it did.  

Being the child of a drug-addict father and an ex-hippie mom, my experiences with drugs varied greatly depending on which parent was doing them. One of my earliest memories is my parents fighting in the driveway after my father decided to pawn our VHS player (along with almost everything else not nailed down) to sustain his lifelong drug addiction. The sour memories of ruined Christmases, crashed cars and a frequently disappearing dad didn’t sour my view towards drug use, though, with my mother and her band of hippie musician friends teaching me the importance of moderation and safe experimentation.

During my childhood, it wasn’t uncommon to see my mom and her friends crowd into our small kitchen for midnight “jam-out” sessions, no doubt with a few joints floating about the room, as the other kids and I played hide-and-go-seek in the basement. As I grew up, I heard many of these friends describe their spiritual experiences with mushrooms and heard funny stories involving various other “hippie” drugs. 

My parents met in Leadville, Colo., — literally the highest incorporated city in the continental U.S. — during the peak of its hippie/grunge phase. My first piece of clothing was a tie-dye onesie, so I was born into the hippie life. But decriminalizing shrooms?! It just felt odd to me, letting people trip out on hallucinogenic fungi with the government’s tacit approval. What got me out of this very un-Coloradan attitude were the same people I had scoffed at with my friend outside the Ogden. 

Kevin Matthews, the man who organized the Decriminalize Denver campaign, said of their victory, “A lot of people who signed our petition said they are tired to see (sic) people going to jail over what they choose to put in their body.” I couldn’t argue with his rationale. It’s the same argument used by pro-choice and assisted-suicide advocates: The government shouldn’t have a say in what one does with their own body. It’s a radical idea in the U.S. that an organization corrupted by centuries of greed and ignorance shouldn’t be able to imprison someone for eating a mushroom. In Portugal and Uruguay, however, this is the reality. 

These countries, for reasons ranging from cultural preservation to trying to stifle the deadly and failing drug wars that ravaged their countries, have decriminalized all drugs for personal use. Not only has it made these nations much cooler Spring Break spots, but it has also made most of them significantly safer, more economical and more humane. With our nation’s current prison occupancy at 103.9 percent due to the epic failure of the war on drugs, it’s foolish to not entertain the idea of decriminalization. After all, it saved Portugal from a similarly unwinnable, American-style war on drugs that overloaded prisons, stigmatized seeking treatment and exacerbated the problem.  

In 2001, after decades of failure, the Portuguese government desperately pulled a 180-degree turn and decriminalized all drugs for personal use, halting the costly and draconian policy of criminalizing drug users, and instead invested money toward taking care of the addicted. Eighteen years later, all of the nation’s drug-related issues have been greatly alleviated

This isn’t a guarantee the same would work here — nations are as unpredictable as the people that live in them — but other countries like Bolivia have followed suit, effectively fighting their nations’ drug problems through the humanity of decriminalization rather than the violence of criminalization. Mexico’s president even released a plan this May to follow Portugal’s lead and says he hopes the U.S. will eventually do the same.

Michigan and other states have already embraced this idea, albeit on a smaller scale, with the legalization of marijuana. With the federal government seemingly hell-bent on maintaining its failing strategy, the process of drug decriminalization would most likely follow weed’s lead, becoming a state issue before a federal one. 

While I am almost certain that Denver’s decriminalization of mushrooms was more about tripping out than avenging the people caught using them, they seem to have discovered the coveted and elusive solution to a problem that has ravaged our nation, and my family, for generations.

Decriminalization is by no means an endorsement of drugs. Rather, it’s an endorsement of allowing our government to treat its citizens, especially those who cannot stop using illegal substances without suffering through the terrible symptoms of withdrawal, with compassion rather than austerity.  

Riley Dehr can be reached at

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